The Khmu - Nature Bag Makers

The Khmu (pronounced /kəˈmuː/; also spelled Khamu or Kemu; Khammu or Khơ Mú in Vietnam; Lao: ຂະມຸ [kʰámū]; Thai: กำหมุ or กำมุ) is one of the largest ethnic groups based in northern Laos. They can also be found in Burma, southwest China (in the Sipsong Panna in Yunnan province), Thailand, and Vietnam, where they are an officially recognized ethnic group. In the People's Republic of China, however, they are not given official recognition as a separate ethnic group, and are instead placed under the broad category undistinguished ethnic groups.

Geographic distribution

The Khmu (also referred to as Khamu, Kammu or Kemu) were the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos. There are more than 500,000 Khmu around the world, with populations of 450,000 in Laos, 43,000 in Vietnam, 10,000 in Thailand, 10,000 in China, and 8,000 in the United States. The Khmu of Laos reside mainly within the Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang Provinces. The Khmu of Thailand are clustered near the Thailand-Laos border. Most Khmu villages are isolated, and only slowly receiving electricity. In many areas the Khmu live alongside the Hmong and other regional minority ethnic groups. A large number of Khmu live in Richmond, California, having come as refugees from the Vietnam War. California is home to both the Khmu National Federation, Inc., and the Kmhmu Catholic National Center. Most Khmu in Thailand arrived recently from Laos and Vietnam as refugees, also around the outset of the Vietnam War. The Khmu, however, are closely related to the Mlabri, the indigenous yellow leaf people of Thailand.


The Khmuic peoples are believed to have migrated by land from China to Laos, where they have resided for at least 4,000 years. Some 10,000 years ago, they were probably part of a largely homogenous ethnicity, now referred to as the Austro-Asiatic peoples, with a homeland somewhere within the borders of the modern-day People's Republic of China. The prevalence of Y-DNA Haplogroup O among Austro-Asiatic peoples suggests a common ancestry with the Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, and Hmong-Mien peoples some 35,000 years ago in China. Haplogroup O is a subclade of Y-DNA Haplogroup K, which is believed to have originated approximately 40,000 years ago somewhere between Iran and Central China. In addition to the ethnicities previously mentioned, the progenitor of Haplogroup K was the patrilineal ancestor of nearly all modern Melanesians and Native Americans. Haplogroup K, in turn, is a subclade of Y-DNA Haplogroup F, which is believed to have originated in Northern Africa some 45,000 years ago. In addition to the ethnicities previously mentioned, the progenitor of Haplogroup F was probably the ancestor of all Indo-Europeans.


Their language, in the Khmuic language family, is also called Khmu and belongs to the Austro-Asiatic group of languages.


The Khmu are an agricultural society, although gathering, hunting, trapping and fishing are parts of the Khmu lifestyle. Khmu crops include rice, corn, bananas, sugar cane and a variety of vegetables. Most of the agricultural work in Khmu villages is done communally, so as to combine the strength and finish the work quickly. Harvesting of wild rice is generally performed by the village women. Rice is stored outside the village in elevated structures to protect from mice and rats. Khmu elders are traditionally the most important people of the village, and are responsible for resolving all village disputes. Village leaders included the shaman (knowledgeable in spiritual medicine), the medicine man (knowledgeable in herbal medicine), the priest (based on family lineage of priesthood), and the village headman (in modern times chosen by the Laotian government). Laotian Khmu communities generally have localized justice systems administered by the village elders.


Khmu culture is traditionally passed down by the recital of stories around evening fires. The story-telling sessions involve the sharing of silver pipes (originally opium, but now predominantly tobacco). Some Khmu are heavily tattooed for both decorative and religious reasons. In Laos, Khmu are reputed for practicing magic, and some families still engage in the casting of spells and telling of fortunes. According to the animistic practices of the Khmu, reverence is offered to the house spirit Rroi gang. Villagers believe that a Khmu house, village, and its surroundings are integrated with the spirits of the land, and so houses and villages are considered holy or ritualized spaces. Typically, entire Khmu villages are enclosed in fences with three or four gates which separate the Khmu from their granaries and barns. Altars are placed outside the perimeter to ward off fires and storms. In the past, each Khmu family was believed to be under the protection of a totem such as a boar or an eagle who had originally helped an ancestor and would continue to protect the family. Traditional Khmu homes had two rooms, one for unmarried girls and one for the rest of the family. Roofs of houses covered with wooden tiles or thatch. Khmu cemeteries are traditionally divided into four sections; one for natural deaths, one for accidental deaths, one for children, and one for those who died away from home. The Khmu do not generally believe in rebirth. Traditional Khmu animism puts emphasis on the concept of taboo, as villagers believe that violations of taboo result in vengeance of spirits. Forbidden activities include touching the altars or the amulets representing the house's spirit, birth ceremonies for children born feet-first, and entering a house without permission.

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