rightFor the Hmong patrilineal descent defines kin groups which in turn form the basis of village and community organization. Most villages are made up of members of local lineages that can trace their origin back to a common ancestor. Status and rank are determined by age and lineage. Major lineage differences are distinguished by variations in household rituals and funeral ceremonies. The ritual head of the lineage is the oldest living member of that lineage. In China. many Hmong have been forced to take Chinese names and the patrilineage system works under those names.

Hmong identify fifteen or sixteen patrilineal exogamous clans, each tracing their descent back to a common mythical ancestor. There are several subdivisions in Hmong society, usually named according to features of traditional dress. The White Hmong, Striped Hmong, and Green Hmong (sometimes called Blue Hmong) are the most numerous. Their languages are somewhat different but mutually comprehensible, and all recognize the same clans. Each village usually has at least two clans represented, although one may be more numerous. Wives almost always live with their husband's family. [Source: Library of Congress]

Villages are relatively self sufficient. Villagers grow their own food. Their political and social units are the family, clan and the village. Hmong villages are relatively egalitarian. The rigid Confucianism of the Han Chinese is generally not practiced by the Hmong on a society level or family level. Inheritance is not a big thing because there is little privately owned land and thus little land to inherit. Property is generally divvied out at marriage and when houses are built and children are born rather than at death.

Good Websites and Sources: Hmong Home Page ; Hmong Studies Internet Resource Center ; Hmong photos ; Hmong performance video YouTube Wikipedia article Wikipedia article ; Photos ; Hmong in Lusheng China ; Hmong Clothes China Vista ; Hmong Language ; Hmong Funeral ;

Sources on Individual Ethnic Minorities in China: (click the ethnic group you want) Ethnic China (very good site with good academic articles) ; Cultural China (site with nice photos) ; China Travel ; Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide ; (government source) ; OMF international (a Christian group) ; People’s Daily (government source) ; Ethnic Publishing House (government source) ; Paul Noll site: ; China Highlights (on some groups) China Highlights

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Sources on Ethnic Minorities in China: Book on Chinese Minorities ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities ; Minority Rights ; Minority Travel: China Trekking (click under Minority Towns) China Trekking ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Interactive Map ; Ethnic Groups in China (Chinese government site)


Hmong Leaders and Social Control

rightProblems and disputes are arbitrated on the village level by an assembly of male lineage elders. At assemblies women can play an informal role. The ritual head of the lineage and the village shaman have the highest status. In some places village headmen are appointed to deal with specific issues such as extramarital affairs.

Social control is exerted more through traditional customs and taboos that laws of the nation, where the Hmong live. Gossip, accusations f witchcraft and the power of men over women and fathers over sons are also used to exert social control.

The Hmong language and culture is nuanced and subtle. Hmong that have come to the United States find Americans uncomfortably blunt and direct.

Most disputes are between local lineages over marriages, bride-price payments, children born out wedlock and extramarital affairs. There are also been disputed over Christian proselytizing and land claims. In rare cases lineages declare war on one another.

Hmong Villages

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Upper class house
The Hmong have traditionally lived in villages located at 3,000 to 6,000 feet, an altitude perfect for growing opium poppies, their major cash crop. Most Hmong have settled in the mountains because the lowlands have always had dense populations and they didn't want to encroach and stir up trouble. In addition the mountain tops are easier to defend and the Hmong seem to prefer a cool climate. Hmong villages are often interspersed with villages of other groups, particularly the Yao, Akha, Ding, Zhuang and Yi.

The Hmong used to say that the world reached only as far as a man could walk. Hmong villages typically have seven to 50 households and are often organized in a horseshoe pattern just below the ridge of a mountain, sheltered by forests and near a water source. The buildings are oriented in accordance with the principals of feng shui. Water is often piped in a series of troughs made from split bamboo or collected from a well or tap system.

Usually bamboo, peach and banana trees are grow around the village to provide food and shade. Many villages have a grove of trees where religious ceremonies are held. Nearby slopes are used to raise herbs and vegetables. Rice and other grains are stored granaries raised off the ground for protection against animals. Chicken coops and stables are also built. Pigs are generally allowed to run free. Some villages have shops run by Chinese traders.

Hmong Homes

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Unlike lowlanders, who build their homes on stilts, Hmong houses are built firmly on the ground. Extended families live in the same houses, with each belonging to clan, which is headed by a clan leader. Almost every house has a simple altar mounted on one wall for offerings and ceremonies associated with ancestral spirits. [Source: Library of Congress]

Hmong houses are constructed with walls of vertical wooden planks and a gabled roof of thatch or split bamboo. In size they range from about five by seven meters up to ten by fifteen meters for a large extended household. The interior is divided into a kitchen/cooking alcove at one end and several sleeping alcoves at the other, with beds or sleeping benches raised thirty to forty centimeters above the dirt floor. Rice and unhusked corn are usually stored in large woven bamboo baskets inside the house, although a particularly prosperous household may build a separate granary. Furnishings are minimal: several low stools of wood or bamboo, a low table for eating, and kitchen equipment, which includes a large clay stove over which a large wok is placed for cooking ground corn, food scraps, and forest greens for the pigs.

The traditional Hmong house is built on the ground rather than on piles and has a roof thatched with teak leaves or cognon grass, a dirt floor and no windows. The frame is made of lengths of timber notched together or bound with hemp rope, without the use of nails. In some parts of China Hmong houses are made from mud bricks or stone. In Thailand and Laos they are often built in the Thai style. Families that can afford it have zinc or polyurethane roofs. The poorest of the poor build their houses entirely from split bamboo and matting.

Hmong: sleep on straw sleeping pallets, bamboo beds or wooden platforms and food is cooked over an open fire pit or primitive stove. Every house is built so that the owner can see a distant mountain from the front door. When a site for a house is chosen one grain of rice is laid down for each member of the family and left over night. If the spirits move them a new site must be chosen. [Source: W.E. Garret, National Geographic, January 1974]

Hmong Food, Drink and Drugs

Rice, the staple of the Hmong diet, is supplemented with bread made from corn. The Hmong like to eat pumpkin vines stir fried with fish sauce, lemon grass and chilies. Pumpkin fruit is given to pigs to eat.

Corn is also distilled in a powerful moonshine. Less potent rice wine, known as room, is consumed from a communal crock with four-foot-long straws. According to journalist Howard Sochurek room tastes like white wine that has turned to vinegar.

See Hmong and Opium.

Women often smokes pipes packed with marijuana when they do their work.

Hmong drink bitter green tea out of fine china cups and eat stir fried dishes prepared in a wok.

Hmong Clothes

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Hmong are famous for their traditional costumes and wonderful embroidery. Women wear black tunics and pleated skirts, or calf-length black trousers with a short black skirts, or maroon or colored jacket or shirt with a colorful vest along with silver ornaments, and a turban-like headdresses strung with dangling coins. They sometimes sport silver rings around their necks. They also wear distinctive colorfully-embroidered aprons which Hmong women believe can be dipped in water and used as a wash cloth to cure their husbands of any illness. Many wear gaiter that reach from the knees to the ankles.

In China, the Hmong are known for wearing the most elaborate and largest variety of costume of all of China’s ethnic groups. Men and women generally wear a short sarong. Many Hmong women wear pleated sarongs. The ones worn in southeastern Guizhou are only 30 centimeters long. In Laos women dress in an ornately embroidered skirt, black blouse and tightly wound black turban. Around their waist they wear a silver chain strung with dozens of antique French coins that ring and jangle when they walk.

Hmong men have traditionally worn black short-sleeve tunics, with beautiful embroidered panels on the chest, and black baggy trousers with a crotch so deep it almost touches the ground. Draped around their shoulders and waist are sashes and bandolier-like belt hung with silver coins. On their head they wear turbans, satin skullcaps with pink pompons, or caps that look like crosses between a fez and a yamuka. [Source: Spencer Sherman, National Geographic, October 1988]

"Black" Hmong men wear dark skull caps, indigo homespun tunics, with embroidered colors, over long shirts and wide pants, held together by a wide, embroidered belts. Sometimes they have silver loops around their neck, bronze bracelets and a dagger in their belt.

The Hmong produce wonderful embroidered cloth. A Japanese craftswoman. Mayuko Takano, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “the items are produced with a delicate care that is seldom seen in Japan.” The Li, Hmong and Yao peoples produce many kinds of textiles such as Bolup cloth, Mao (hawksbill) cloth, Zhu cloth (light blue or white cotton cloth), Yaoban cloth (blue batik with white speckles), ramie cloth and kapok cloth. Wax printing is a unique technique developed by some Chinese ethnic groups for printing and dying hand-made cloth. The blue and white pattens reveal natural cracks made when wax cools.

Weaving, See Men and Women

Hmong Beauty and Jewelry

Hmong often wear complex necklaces, bracelets, earnings and headdresses Women wear their hair in topnot surrounded by a towel. In the old days both men and women had gapping holes in their ear lobes. Men used to put ivory stoppers in their holes and women put in wooden disks in theirs. The Hmong don’t have a lot of body hair. Hmong children are amazed by the hair growing on white people's arms. Sometimes they'll try to yank some off as a souvenir.

The Hmong used to consider a full set of teeth to be ugly. In the old days each village had a "dentist" who charged one chicken for every four teeth he treated. During the treatment the teeth were chipped and filled into sharp points and then covered with shiny black lacquer made from tree sap.

Umbrellas were once considered prized possessions among Hmong women, who used them primarily for protection from the sun. The Hmong equate fair skin with status. The dark-skinned Lao Theung sub-tribe are looked down upon by other Hmong.

Some Hmong, have really long hair. According to the Guinness Book of Record, Hu Sengla, a Hmong man who lived in northern Thailand, had the world’s longest hair. It reached a length of 5.79 meters. He washed his hair only once a year, mainly to earn money from tourists. His brother, Yi Sengla, had the world’s second longest hair. His was 5 meters long. A younger brother cuts his hair.

Leonard Yiu, a collector of tribal costumes and jewelry, told the The Star (Malaysia), “The silver neck rings were worn mostly by the Miao people (in China). They would wear layer upon layer of them. Sometimes, there would be almost 25kg of rings on their neck. “These items are all handmade and the workmanship is beautiful,” points out You. According to him, the neck rings and the designs also often denoted social status. For example, the dragon symbol was reserved for the blue-blooded and the toad symbolised fertility. [Source: Brigitte Rozario, The Star (Malaysia), September 17, 2006]

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Hmong Literature

The Hmong have a rich oral literature of myths, history and folk tales. According to the Hmong creation myth, many, many years ago men lived underground with the animals and the world was nothing but black rock. One day a man and his wife followed a monkey and a dog through a series of long tunnels that lead to the surface of the earth. Upon seeing the nothingness that covered their planet the man and women returned to their subterranean world to collect some seeds and worms which they brought back to the surface. From the seeds sprouted plants, which in turn multiplied bringing life to the earth.

In another well-known Hmong story, men and monkeys used to live in harmony, but man was jealous that the monkey's fields produced more rice than his so he tricked the monkey into exchanging fields with him. Even then man wasn't satisfied. When the monkey — hungry because his fields were so unproductive — asked man what he should do, man told the monkey to kill his children, which would leave him with more food. The monkey took the advise and murdered all of his children. That night man sneaked into the monkey's house and gathered up the bodies. The next day the monkey found the man eating something and asked him what its was. "Only bird's intestines," the man replied. Not long afterwards the monkey realized the truth, and in a rage decided to live in the forest. Now he only comes in out of the forest to steal man's crops because man had deceived him and stolen the souls of his children.

The Hmong traditionally recorded their lives and stories on stitched story cloths. Se Below

Hmong Art and Music

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The most sacred and revered form is Hmong art is the pa ndau ("flower quilt"), a stitched story cloth that measure around 8-by-10 feet and depicts myths and histories. After the Hmong written language was lost, the Hmong say, pa ndau were critical in transferring knowledge from one generation to the next.

The Hmong deliberately do no make art with supernatural being to differentiate themselves from the Han Chinese. The geometric patterns found on pa ndau are also placed on their shirts, dresses, and burial shrouds using indigo batik and applique.

The Hmong also enjoy music. Antiphonal songs are sung by courting couples. The playing of lusheng, a reed pipe, is said to be an expression of Hmong history and customs. The lusheng is played at festivals and major celebrations. The ability to improvise, especially when singing, is highly valued.

The Hmong in China are famous for the reed-pipe dance. In western Hunan province the Hmong do a drum dance. The Banjiawu dance of the Hmong and pestle dance of the Gaoshans are depictions of farm labor.

Hmong Health

The Hmong believe that the length of one's life is predetermined, and life prolonging or life saving care is futile. Hmong believe minor illness is organic but serious illness is supernaturally caused. Though immigrants may wish to use a shaman or spiritual healer, they can be expensive. Also, they are not easy to find in the U.S., and since many specialize in different types of disorders, one may not be able to find the right healer for their malady. [Source: Pamela LaBorde, MD, Ethnomed ]

For example, the Mien and Hmong believe that there are supernatural factors, more so than biological factors, which contribute to sickness. Consequently, they seek treatment from priests who they believe can communicate with higher beings. Women from these groups often refuse anesthesia when giving birth.

The average Hmong life span in some places in the 1970s was 35; the infant mortality rate was fifty percent. The Hmong have been in the mountains for so long they easily get tropical diseases when they head into the lowlands. Eighty percent of all Hmong get malaria in the lowlands if they don't take medication.

The Hmong, like most hill tribes, believe that physical deformities such as withered arms and club feet are punishments for misdeeds performed by ancestors. The Hmong also believe that surgery maims the body and makes it difficult for a person to be reincarnated. "If a child is born blind," a Hmong man in America told the New York Times, "We don't face it. If we try to change it, someone else in the family will die and get sick."

To ease the pain of a headache, a water buffalo horn is heated by a fire and then suctioned into place at the site of the headache. Massage and magic therapy is also used. Modern medicine is valued where it is available.

Hmong Healing Ceremonies


Sickness, many hill tribes believe, results when evil spirits lure the soul from the body. The Hmong believe that the soul can only be taken through the front door and potential evil-spirit carriers such as pregnant women are supposed to enter through the backdoor. Wrist-tying is a custom performed by almost all the hill tribes do to keep an individual's 32 to 64 souls (depending on the tribe) within its body.

The Hmong rely on shaman and female herbalist to treat sickness. During a ceremony that offers thanks to the gods for healing a sick baby, a Hmong shaman known as tu-ua-neng mix rice and corn mix rice and corn liquor with herbs and folk medicine and offer it to chanting participants. The shaman then goes into frenzied trances to make deals with evil spirits in the clouds, at the bottom of a pond, in China to exorcize evil spirits from a house. Deals with the spirits are usually sealed with a pig or cow sacrifice from a rich customer and chicken sacrifice from poor one. [Source: "The Hmong of Laos" by W.E. Garret, January 1974]

In another kind of healing ceremony a spider is dropped on the sick person's head. The Hmong believe that a spider spirit is the most important spirit to have near one's head. Each night the spider spirit leaves the head when a person sleeps, the Hmong say, and it returns when he or she wakes up. Sickness occurs if the spider's spirit leaves the body when a person is awake. To become healthy again the spider's soul is encouraged to return to the body.

Hmong Economics


Most Hmong have traditionally been and continue to be farmers. The Hmong do not produce their own pottery. Their villages generally do not have any full time craftsmen. As with all Laotian ethnic groups, there is virtually no occupational specialization in Hmong villages. Everyone is first and foremost a subsistence farmer, although some people may have additional specialized skills or social roles. The only jobs are that of blacksmiths, wedding go-betweens, funeral specialists and shaman.

The trading of opium for rice or cash has traditionally been the most important economic activity. Individual households sold opium to traders and representatives of organized paramilitary groups that visited at the time of the harvest. In Laos the Hmong traditionally grew more opium than any other group.

Hmong communities have traditionally not had regional markets and engaged in a batter economy in which iron was the media of exchange. They have traditionally relied on trade with other groups and occasionally visited lowland markets and towns to get supplies and sometimes sell silver jewelry, forest products or vegetables. Some sell silver jewelry and traditional cotton clothes to tourist shops.

The Hmong are famous for their silverwork. Villages have traditionally had a silversmith and a blacksmith. The former are sometimes quite skilled. The latter was in charge of making iron farming tools and weapons. They also employed Chinese silversmiths.

The Hmong are skilled blacksmiths. Iron has traditionally been values to make machetes for land clearing and flintlocks for rifles for hunting. Describing Hmong blacksmiths at work, Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “The path is filled with the sounds of hammers and saws and the smell of sweet smoke from small forges. The men sit together filing, grinding, and hammering, talking quietly with one anther. It was a picture of contentment and fellowship.”

Weaving: See Men and Women

Hmong Wealth

Silver has traditionally been the Hmong symbol of wealth. Both Hmong men and women wear silver necklaces, which are often bought with money sent by relatives living abroad or earned from selling opium, silver jewelry and traditional cotton clothes. Every Hmong infant receives a silver necklace at birth to warn the spirits that the baby is not a slave and belongs to a family and that the spirits could face some serious shit if the child is harmed in any way. Small bars of silver worth about $100 are the traditional way of holding wealth in places the Hmong reside.

Silver also serves as the Hmong's banking system. Families store their wealth in women's jewelry. The rich sometimes keep their wealth in silver bars, which are buried safe keeping. Silver bars used in opium transactions are sometimes referred to as "Meo money." Attractive girls who earn large sums of money for their families as bride prices are sometimes referred to as three or four bar women.

In some places the Hmong still prefer to use silver coins as currency. Many Hmong are indebteded to Chinese traders.

Hmong Agriculture

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The Hmong swidden farming system is based on white (nonglutinous) rice, supplemented with corn, several kinds of tubers, and a wide variety of vegetables and squash. Rice is the preferred food, but historical evidence indicates that corn was also a major food crop in many locations and continues to be important for Hmong in Thailand in the early 1990s. Most foods are eaten boiled, and meat is only rarely part of the diet. Hmong plant many varieties of crops in different fields as a means of household risk diversification; should one crop fail, another can be counted on to take its place. Hmong also raise pigs and chickens in as large numbers as possible, and buffalo and cattle graze in the surrounding forest and abandoned fields with little care or supervision. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In response to increasing population pressure in the uplands, as well as to government discouragement of swidden farming, some Hmong households or villages are in the process of developing small rice paddies in narrow upland valleys or relocating to lower elevations where, after two centuries as swidden farmers, they are learning paddy technology, how to train draft buffalo, and how to identify seed varieties. This same process is also occurring with other Lao Sung groups to varying degrees in the early 1990s as it had under the RLG. *

The Hmong have traditionally raised rice for food, maize for animal feed and opium as a cash crop. They also grow oranges and papayas on the lower slopes of mountains and peaches, apples, oats, potatoes, hemp, millet and buckwheat on the upper slopes. In some places the Hmong grow dry rice on mountain slopes that have been slashed and burned. In other placed they raise wet rice in irrigated terraces. The Hmong plant corn in swirls rather than rows, a practice that probably was conceived as a way of accommodating the irregular shaped mountain fields. To make corn flour, the kernels are crushed with a contraption that looks like a see saw.

Hmong farmers who practiced slash-and-burn agriculture have generally not had title to their land. Many don’t even have citizenship rights in the countries where they live. Traditionally, the farmer who first cleared the land had the right to cultivate it. In some places where Hmong practice permanent wet rice agriculture they have land-use rights. In China, the land is owned by the state and the Hmong have to pay a tax or turn over a portion of their harvest to use it.

Pigs and chickens are the primary sources of protein. Cattle, goats and water buffalo are also bred. Fodder for these animals is concocted from corn husks, banana stalks and squash. Goats and pigs are feed cooked food prepared in a wok. Some have finer cooking areas for their animals than they do for themselves.

Hmong Agriculture Techniques

Hmong farming is not mechanized but depends on household labor and simple tools. The number of workers in a household thus determines how much land can be cleared and farmed each year; the time required for weeding is the main labor constraint on farm size. Corn must be weeded at least twice, and rice usually requires three weedings during the growing season. Peppers, squash, cucumbers, and beans are often interplanted with rice or corn, and separate smaller gardens for taro, arrowroot, cabbage, and so on may be found adjacent to the swiddens or in the village. In long- established villages, fruit trees such as pears and peaches are planted around the houses. *

Rice is usually planted at the beginning of the wet season. For dry rice the forest is slashed and burned, and the rice is planted in fields fertilized by the nitrogenous ashes. In many cases the land is tilled with simple wooden hand plows or hoes. While rice fields have be left fallow after two or three years. Maize can be replanted for eight years.

Before planting Hmong farmers taste the soil. If it is sweet (meaning its has a high lime content) then the soil is ideal for growing opium. During planting men march along poking holes in the soils with a dibble stick while women and children follow behind sowing seeds.

Corn and rice is largely ground by hand. In some Hmong villages you can find a water-powered threshers that pounds rice with a sledgehammer-like devise. The mixture is then placed in water, the chaff rises to the top.

Hmong Hunting and Fishing

Hmong men have traditionally hunted wild game in the forests with flintlock muskets and crossbows and poisoned arrows.

During the Vietnam War, tribesman often used grenades for fishing. The exploding grenades, which were tossed underwater, usually didn't kill the fish but stunned them long enough so that they could be gathered up by hand. Entire villages would sometimes assembled around a river to collect the fish before they were swept away by the current. While they collected fish some tribesmen held fish in their mouth to free their hands to catch more fish.

Hmong and Opium


Hmong have traditionally grown opium in small quantities for medicinal and ritual purposes. From the beginning of their colonial presence, the need for revenue prompted the French to encourage expanded opium production for sale to the colonial monopoly and for payment as head taxes. Production, therefore, increased considerably under French rule, and by the 1930s, opium had become an important cash crop for the Hmong and some other Lao Sung groups. Hmong participate in the cash market economy somewhat more than other upland groups. They need to purchase rice or corn to supplement inadequate harvests, to buy cloth, clothing, and household goods, to save for such emergencies as illness or funerals, and to pay bride-price.

In the isolated upland settlements favored by the Lao Sung, opium poppies, a cold-season crop, are typically planted in cornfields after the main harvest. Opium, a sap extracted from the poppy plant, is almost the only product that combines high value with low bulk and is nonperishable, making it easy to transport. It is thus an ideal crop, providing important insurance for the household against harvest or health crises. The government has officially outlawed opium production, but, mindful of the critical role it plays in the subsistence upland economy, has concentrated efforts on education and developing alternatives to poppy farming, rather than on stringent enforcement of the ban. It also established a special police counternarcotics unit in August 1992. *

Chinese traders introduced opium to ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia. The French as well as the English grew it as a cash crop. One forth of the money the French earned in Southeast Asia was generated from opium. The French gave poppy seeds to the Hmong in Laos, and gave them advise on how to increase their opium yields. At one point about 90 percent of the Laos's total opium output was produced by the Hmong.

The Hmong have long used opium for ritual and medicinal purposes. In the 1970s many Hmong smoked opium on occasion, but not to the point of addiction. It was regarded as acceptable for elderly people to smoke opium and pass away the end of their life in peaceful euphoria but was considered disgraceful for young people to become addicted. National Geographic recounted a story about a Hmong man who ordered his son to stop smoking. The young man tried and failed. The father then told him to kill himself. He did.

Opium and corn are often grown together. Opium is planted in September or October and harvested after the New Year. Corn is planted in May or June and harvested in August or September before opium is planted. Some have argued that the degradation of the soil by slash and burn agriculture and Hmong indebtedness to Chinese traders forces many Hmong to grow opium, which grows well in poor soils and provides the biggest profits.

Opium toleration policies in Thailand have ended. There the Hmong and other groups have been encouraged to grow alternative cash crops.

Image Sources: Nolls China website; San Francisco Museum, Wiki Commons

Text Sources: Primary Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Other Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Spencer Sherman, National Geographic, October 1988; W.E. Garret, National Geographic, January 1974

Last updated April 2014

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