Sample preparation, including separation of plasma from whole blood or isolation of parasites, is an unmet challenge in many point of care (POC) diagnostics and requires centrifugation as the first key step. From the context of global health applications, commercial centrifuges are expensive, bulky and electricity-powered, leading to a critical bottle-neck in the development of decentralized, electricity-free POC diagnostic devices. By uncovering the fundamental mechanics of an ancient whirligig toy (3300 B.C.E), we design an ultra-low cost (20 cents), light-weight (2 g), human-powered centrifuge that is made out of paper ("paperfuge"). To push the operating limits of this unconventional centrifuge, we present an experimentally-validated theoretical model that describes the paperfuge as a non-linear, non-conservative oscillator system. We use this model to inform our design process, achieving speeds of 125,000 rpm and equivalent centrifugal forces of 30,000 g, with theoretical limits predicting one million rpm. We harness these speeds to separate pure plasma in less than 1.5 minutes and isolate malaria parasites in 15 minutes from whole human blood. By expanding the materials used, we implement centrifugal microfluidics using PDMS, plastic and 3D-printed devices, ultimately opening up new opportunities for electricity-free POC diagnostics, especially in resource-poor settings.