"You think you will move all of these baskets upstream faster by land? Sit down, and my rowers will show you the strength of Sayau!"
- Headsman Olu of Handas Islet, to several southern salt traders.
Identifiers are important in many aspects of our societies. Indicators of who we are, what we are, which group we belong to, and how we would like to be recognized. These identifiers can take many forms. The way we carry ourselves when we walk. The affectation we impart our speech with. I know that styles of dress and decoration are among the most highly visible, as someone who once had to (and on occasion still do) trot around in the beige and grey robes of the Ivory Tower University.
But they can be deeper than that. Skin-deep, in a literal sense. Tattoos, piercings, and other superficial modifications to the body can achieve much the same effect, sometimes in an even more impactful manner.
And then there are those which go deeper.
The results of those sometimes lengthy and involved processes can disturb some of us, or inspire a sort of patronizing fascination in others. I will attempt to avoid both while dealing with this group.
I write of the raft-people of the River Khesh, more appropriately known as the Sayaula or Sayauans, but more commonly known by the ethnic epithet "drop-heads". I will limit my use of the term to the statement of its existence here so that I do not sully the rest of this article with it.
The Sayauans hail from the mid-to-southern Khesh River, being the primary occupants of the river and its tributaries and offshoots in between Riven-Bridge and the Deltas. They have been present in the area since the beginning of recorded history in the late Ersuunian era, but it is not known if they are an aboriginal population. For much of their history, the Sayauans have earned their livelihood by fishing or sailing along the river upon long rafts or more rarely wide, flat-bottomed boats. They typically live one nuclear family to a raft, with the entire extended family cooperating as a loose sort of clan. Clan lineage is traced patrilineally, with most families claiming descent from the folk-hero Sayau, from whom the ethnic group takes its name.
Sayauans also practice artificial skull deformation of a type which is unique to this part of the world and time period.
Ersuunian head-binding was once a common practice among the noble lineages of the old herders, in which the skull was bound at a very young age so that it was very high and "steepled", with a flattened forehead. The practice sharply declined after the ascension of Haraal, and is believed to have ceased completely by the second or third generation of his sons. However, we are left with rich accounts of the practice today, as well as more than a few mausoleums or burial mounds filled with such skulls. Sayauan head-binding, meanwhile, still flourishes among the Sayaula, with upwards of nine out of every ten adults having received some degree of binding in their infancy.
What distinguishes the two styles visually is that where Ersuunian binding raises the top, Sayauan binding pulls the skull back. The top of the head as well as both sides are squeezed into a tapered point at the back of the skull by tightly coiling rope around a cone-shaped structure made of reeds or steamed wooden boards. The desired shape results in a low forehead and a side profile which resembles somewhat the shape of a teardrop. This visual similarity is what has contributed to the obnoxious term referenced above.
The logic behind this practice is informed by the mythology of the Sayaula, who believe that Sayau was born with a head shaped perfectly like such a water droplet. Its contours, alongside his supernatural strength and agility, allowed him to swim up and down the river with no water resistance to speak of. It is not obvious whether the practice has a measurable effect on one's ability to swim or not, but the tradition is a central element of their culture regardless.
This ethnic identifier has also made it very easy for outsiders to pick Sayauans out, however, and the unusual appearance of the practice has probably contributed to past persecution of them. More than once, the heirs of Haraal based in the city now known as Riven-Bridge attempted to subjugate the Sayauans in a bid to consolidate control of the River Khesh, but Sayauan knowledge of the waterways generally ensured that they could escape most of their would-be aggressors, and wage a guerrilla war against those who followed anyway. Material support plus the occasional offer of safe harbor from the northernmost Delta dwellers displeased with the idea of Haraalians coming down from the north was also an invaluable, if clandestine asset.
Today, the sporadic warfare of the past has given way to a tense, cooperative peace in which Sayauan barges and merchant groups have flourished, relatively speaking. They primarily deal in the north-south trade which is still supported by the Independent half of Riven-Bridge, while their relationship with the Loyalists is more tepid at best. Contact with the hill-folk further inland is only occasional, but generally peaceable. Interest in the Sayauans from the central cities has increased in recent decades for other reasons, however.
While they are distinct, the two traditions of skull-shaping referenced above, in addition to the extensive history of the Sayauala in the region, has led some researchers from Deneroth and elsewhere to speculate that there is a link between them and the ancient Ersuunians. One theory is that they were once a lower caste of an Ersuunian tribe, or perhaps an entire tribe of non-Ersuunian bond-servants brought with them on their westward migration. What began as a branding or indicator of subservient status then developed into an element of culture owned and used by the Sayaula themselves, after the events which led to their independence. These theories are of course still in their extreme infancy, and it is unlikely that they will see much development until such a time comes that the rare few researchers who do brave the long journey east manage to conduct their research in a more tactful manner.¹
¹ Somewhat understandably, Sayauans are reluctant to offer comment when overdressed foreigners inquire into whether or not their ancestors once owned them.