ASMAT LIFE AND CULTURE

ASMAT SOCIETY

Asmat settlements and societies have traditionally been organized around yews (social-kin units centered around a men’s houses) and been based on patrilineal descent although matrilineal descent is traced and recognized. The terms cemen (“penis”) and cern (“vagina”) are used to distinguish between male and female kin relations. [Source: Peter and Kathleen Van Arsdale, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991)]

Clan loyalty is strong. Each yew is divided into named units called aypium and their rank is determined by the positioning of fireplaces within the men’s house. When young men enter the men’s house their association with the clan and other men is strengthened and their ties to their mothers and birth families are minimized. Since regular contact with outsiders in the 1950s, the role of the men’s house has been diminished somewhat. In some places they have been replaced by community houses which are open to all. ~

Asmat society is relatively egalitarian. There are no real hierarchies other than those within and between yew groups and their status is fluid and has traditionally been based on rituals and warfare. Leaders have traditionally been chosen on their basis of their skill, charisma and generosity. Social control is often exerted through gossip, public scolding and yew and peer sanctions. ~

Asmat Groups, Life and Customs

The indigenous people in the Asmat region are divided into two main groups; those living along the coasts, and those in the interior. They differ in dialect, way of life, social structure, and ceremonies. The coastal river areas are further divided into two groups, the Bisman, living between the Sinesty and the Nin River, and the Simai. [Source: Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Indonesia]

The Asmat are semi-nomads, their life depending on conditions on the river which is their sole means of transport and their source of food. The Asmat live on sago, their staple diet, as well as on mussels, snails, and fat insect larvae collected from decaying stumps of sago palms. These are eaten to the accompaniment of throbbing drums and ritual dances. Larvae feasts can last up to two weeks. The Asmat also gather forest products such as rattan, and catch fish and shrimp in large hoop nets. [Ibid]

Some Asmat men greet each other by grabbing each other with their left arms and squeezing each other’ testicles with their right hands. The Asmat have traditionally practiced in infanticide, ritual wife exchange, and adoption of children and widows. One Asmat man killed a missionary for trying to pressure him to send his children to school. Another Asmat said he threw one of his children into a fire because it cried too much.

Skulls of relatives have Buddhist been kept in the house of their family. "The Asmat have a terrible fear of ghosts," one missionary told Kirk. "But if you keep a man's skull nearby it will protect you from his spirit!" The Asmat sometimes use skulls for pillows. The skulls of relatives can be immediately distinguished from those of enemies because the former are elaborately decorated with colored seeds and shells. [Source: Malcolm Kirk, National Geographic, March 1972 ?]

Asmat Marriage

An Asmat usually involves the payment of a bride price in installments over time to the bride’s family and this was traditionally in the form of stones, axes, bird of paradise feathers and triton shells but now also includes tobacco and Western consumer goods. Polygamy is sometimes practiced among high-status men that can afford it although there has been pressure from the Christian church to end the practice. The only real marriage taboos involve incest within the nuclear family. After marriage a woman becomes more closely associated with her husband’s yew and yew unit. [Source: Peter and Kathleen Van Arsdale, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991)]

Marriages are usually arranged by the parents, with wealth, yew contexts and prestige having precedence over love. If a girl refuses to marry the boy selected for her, her parents sometimes beat her until she changes her mind. Only on rare occasions do couples elope. During the wedding ceremony itself the bride's mother wails over losing her daughter and the bridegroom makes a symbolic dash for freedom only to be captured and brought back. When the teen-age couple is joined they feign dejection and whisper each other's name to an uncle, whose wish for mutual happiness sanctifies the marriage, completing the marriage ritual. [Source: Malcolm Kirk, National Geographic, March 1972 ?]

Not only are couples married sometimes entire Asmat communities go through a ceremony similar to a wedding. Anthropologists say these rituals propagate multiple births as a response to the high death rate which inflicts some communities. It is not an orgy but a solemn affair in which adultery is punished with banishment from the clan.

There is no ritual for divorce: a woman simply returns to her yew. Some women site abuse by their husband as the reason for divorce. Some men site their wife’s cooking skills. Wife exchanging is common and implicitly condoned.

Asmat Men, Women and Children

Asmat women raise the children, do the cooking, fish with nets, transport firewood and gather most of the food. Sometimes children help them. Men have traditionally hunted, felled trees and fished with weirs, Women have traditionally done most of the horticulture chores while men guarded the women while they performed these chores. Both sexes assist on sago production. [Source: Peter and Kathleen Van Arsdale, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991)]

What do the men do now there is peace and guarding is no longer necessary: mostly nothing. And what happens if a woman complains. One missionary told Kirk a man who was being scolded by one of his wives picked up an oar with a pointed handle and spear her dead. During certain feasts women traditionally attack their husbands with bone daggers, fish harpoons and sticks, often drawing blood as they chase them about it. The men do not retaliate in any way because they believe women can perform evil magic on them. [Source: Malcolm Kirk, National Geographic, March 1972 ?]

The extended family is the basic household unit. Households were typically set up near the men’s house. The informal adoption of children, even from nearby families, is relatively common and perceived as way of maintaining yew balance.

The Asmat believe every birth is the result of impregnation by a same-sex ancestor. Asmat babies are light skinned at birth. Asmat girls are traditionally raised by women and boys after the age of six are raised by men. Boys go through a formal initiation and go to live at th men’s house after that. Children rearing has traditionally been done by the mother and female members of the extended family. Some children attend government-sponsored and missionary-run schools. Outside these school social life is done informally through the extended family and the yew.

Asmat Villages Homes

The Asmat live in villages with populations that vary in size from 35 to 2,000 inhabitants. Houses in coastal areas still are generally built on pilings two or more meters high, to protect residents from daily flooding by the surging tides of the brackish rivers. In the foothills of the Jayawijaya Mountains, Asmat live in tree houses that are five to 25 meters off the ground. In some areas, they also build arboreal watchtowers as much as 30 meters above the ground. [Source: Library of Congress]

Asmat villages usually have about 300 to 2,000 people living in them. The villages consist of large huts grouped together side by side. Villages in a proper sense were only created after the contact era. Before that settlements were organized around yew (social-kin units centered around men’s houses) and often built on the perimeters of sweeping river bends or off tributaries near where they merged with larger rivers because they offered strategic and resource advantages.

Formerly, entire tribal families lived together in houses of up to 28 meters long called yeus. Yeus are still in use today, but are only occupied by men for rituals where unmarried men sleep. Upriver, the Asmat still live in longhouses.

The 10- to 20-meter foot long houses used today have as many as 16 family units, each with its own fireplace. The houses were built in this fashion for protection and because it was an efficient way to utilize manpower resources. The Asmat have traditionally spent such a large part of their day collecting food they have had little time left over to build houses. [Source: Malcolm Kirk, National Geographic, March 1972 ?]

Asmat Food

The Asmat are primarily hunters and foragers who subsist by gathering and processing the starchy pulp of the sago palm, finding grubs, and hunting down the occasional wild pig, cassowary, or crocodile. Although the Asmat population has steadily increased since coming into contact with missionaries and government health workers, the forest continues to yield an adequate supply and variety of food. According to anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum, “Some Asmat have learned to grow small patches of vegetables, such as string beans, and a few raise the descendants of recently imported chickens. The introduction of a limited cash economy through the sale of logs to timber companies and carvings to outsiders has led many Asmat to consider as necessities such foods as rice and tinned fish; most have also become accustomed to wearing Western-style clothing and using metal tools.” [Source: Library of Congress]

The sago palm is the staple of the Asmat diet. Described as the "staff of life," it is a "chalky” starch extracted from a palm tree, and is neither nutritional nor tasty. The palm tree is felled by men with a ax who then cut the trunk into sections. The pith is pounded to a dry pulp and mixed with water and drained to separate the fiber from the starch. The lumpy flour-like residue is roasted and the crust on the outside. The lump is roasted and eaten again and again until it is gone. [Source: Malcolm Kirk, National Geographic, March 1972 ?]

The Asmat's favorite food is the sago grub, the soft white larva of the immense Capricorn beetle. The thumb size larva are raised like domestic animals in a sago palm log honeycombed with holes and seeded with pregnant Capricorn beetles. To do this, a saga palm tree is cut down and holes are cut into it. The beetles enter the holes and lay their eggs. After about six weeks the grubs are harvested and roasted over an open fire on a bamboo sliver. ?

Lawrence Blair described eating roasted grubs as "an explosion of hot rich fatty protein [that] was followed by the sensation of a jolt of energy rushing through my system, as if I had swallowed a potion of some sort. Then my teeth crunches on its little black head, and I was instantly converted into a sago-grub addict." One Asmat man used sign language to tell Blair that sago-grubs were the next best thing to human brains.[Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York ?]

The Asmat also eat monitor lizards, small lizards, wild boar, tree kangaroos, leaf-steamed plankton and shellfish which are gathered from the mud during low tide. Traditionally no cooking utensil were used; food was roasted, toasted or steamed directly over embers in leaves.

Asmat Clothes and Body Ornaments

Asmat have generally abandoned traditional clothing in return for shorts. Men still wear headdresses during feasts and special occasions. Women sometimes wear only bras and grass skirts. Some women have beauty scars placed on their chests and arms.

Some Asmat braid their hair into deadlocks and decorate them with shredded sago palm leaves. Black paint drawn around the eyes used to show that a man had participated in a killing party. Light bulbs that floated ashore from passing freighters used to be worn as pendants. Daggers are made from shin bone of cassowaries.

For important ceremonies- and war-making parties the Asmat decorate their bodies with lime and sago flour and put cockatoo and bird of paradise feathers in their hair and shells, feathers or pig tusks through their nose. Marsupial skin headdresses and carved ceremonial shields are also displayed. These are pained with black paint made from ash and red dye squeezed from berries. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York ?]

Some Asmat still wear long curly-cue nose rings. Cassowary quills are used to piece the nose. The most prestigious nose ornament is one fashioned from a human bone. Nosepieces are intended to give the wearer an appearance of a wild boar. Carved one-piece nosepieces sometimes are worn so they come sideways out of both nostrils. Asmat sometimes pierce their noses in several places. [Source: Malcolm Kirk, National Geographic, March 1972 ?]

Asmat Culture

Asmats arts, literature and music are closely associated with rituals and ceremonies. Many ritual feasts feature the chanted reading of epic poems that sometimes last for several days. They are often about legendary, mythical or real life heros.

During the Asmat mask feast a man dressed in a weird costume with a rattan cone head and palms streamers bursts out of the woods at dawn to chase children. Later children get up enough courage to fling toy arrows at the beast who later still goes trick or treating from house to house. [Source: Malcolm Kirk, National Geographic, March 1972 ?]

Music and singing are regarded as vehicles of social bonding, recreation and spirit possession. Asmat drums and headhunting horns are regarded as sacred. The drum have traditionally been made from lizard skin fastened to a hollow log with glue made from human blood. The drum maker often volunteered to supply the blood from an incision made in his leg. The blood is collected in clam shells and mixed with baked seashell to produce the glue. ?

Asmat Art and Woodcarving

Asmat are skilled woodcarvers and their carvings are sought by collectors around the world. Their art includes canoe prows, bis poles, tall battle shields covered with praying mantises and other headhunting symbols. Modern pieces show families collecting sago or fishing. To the Asmat, woodcarving is inextricably linked with the spirit world, and therefore, is not necessarily considered an aesthetic craft. Much of the highly original art of the Asmat is symbolic of warfare, headhunting, and warrior-ancestor veneration. For centuries the Asmat, preoccupied with the necessity of appeasing ancestral spirits, produced a wealth of superbly designed shields, canoes, sculptured figures, and drums. Many of these masterpieces are today on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The majority of the museums collection was collected in 1961 by Michael C. Rockefeller. [Source: Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Indonesia]

Emily Caglayan of the University of New York wrote: “ Wood carving is a flourishing tradition among the Asmat, and wood carvers are held in high esteem. The culture hero Fumeripits is considered to be the very first wood carver, and all subsequent wood carvers (known as wowipits) have an obligation to continue his work. The Asmat also believe that there is a close relationship between humans and trees, and recognize wood as the source of life. [Source: Emily Caglayan, Ph.D., Department of Art History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art ***]

“According to the Asmat origin myth, Fumeripits was the first being to exist on earth, and he also created the first men's ceremonial house, or jeu (a club house for men where community issues are discussed, artwork is made, and ceremonies are held). Fumeripits would spend his days dancing along the beach, but after awhile grew tired of being alone. So, he chopped down a number of trees, carved them into human figures, and placed them inside the jeu. However, since the sculptures were inanimate, Fumeripits was still unhappy. He then decided to create a drum, and chopped down another tree, hollowed out the center, and stretched a piece of lizard skin over the top. As he began to play the drum, the human figures miraculously came to life, their elbows came unstuck from their knees, and they began to dance. ***

“Like Fumeripits, present-day Asmat have a strong tradition of carving figural sculpture out of wood. These figures, which are representations of ancestors, are traditionally displayed inside the men's ceremonial house. Although these sculptures commemorate specific individuals who have died, they are not direct portraits, and have generalized features and similar body types. A common pose for these ancestral figures is the elbows-to-knees position (or wenet pose), believed to be the same pose that all humans assume at birth and again at death. ***

“Ancestral imagery also appears on other forms of Asmat art, including wooden war shields. Shields were created as functional items for warfare, and were meant to protect the user from the spears and arrows of his enemy. At the same time, the imagery that is carved and painted on the surface of the shield endows the piece with the power of the ancestors, which is also intended to protect the user. The designs can be either figural or abstract, depending on the region from which the shield came. ***

“Bis poles are perhaps the most impressive works of art by the Asmat, reaching heights of up to twenty feet. These poles are carved to commemorate the lives of important individuals (usually warriors), and serve as a promise that their deaths will be avenged. These works also assist in the transport of the souls of the dead to the realm of the ancestors. The mangrove tree, from which the sculptures are created, is actually turned upside down and a single planklike root is preserved (which will ultimately project from the top of the artwork). The imagery on the pole itself varies, but usually includes a series of stacked ancestral figures. In interior Asmat villages, wuramon, or spirit canoes (1979.206.1558), serve a similar function. ***

“Asmat body masks are full-length costumes made of plaited cordage composed of rattan, bark, and sago leaf fiber. The body masks are usually painted with red and white pigment, decorated with carved facial features, and given skirts made of sago leaves. The end result depicts an otherworldly being, which appears only for special funerary ceremonies, known as jipae.” ***

Bisj Poles

Bis poles are carved totem-pole-like wooden statues traditionally erected in front of ceremonial houses. Each one is carved from a tree trunk to represent two villager killed during a headhunting raid. Stone and shell tools were originally used to carve them but these have been replaced by steel tools. Bis poles often have phallic extensions at top and are regard by many Westerners as magnificent works of art with “exuberance for form, shape and color.”

Bis poles are regarded as totemic and can reach a height of 20 feet. To celebrate the carving of new bisj (ancestor poles), the Asmat hold feasts in which people stuff themselves with beetle larvae. Traditionally a bis pole was raised for each enemy that has been killed, beheaded and eaten. The bis poles were anointed with the blood of the victim which allowed his spirit to be released.

Bisj poles are made by the Asmat to remind themselves of ancestors whose deaths that needed to be avenged. To drive off evil spirits after a bis-pole carving session, Asmat women sometimes greeted their men with spears and arrows and clubbed their husbands as they stepped ashore. Fumerptis, the god credited with creating the Asmat people, did so by bringing to life carved wooden figures.

Today there aren't many bis poles left. Because of their association with headhunting the government has outlawed them. In the old days villages used to have large numbers of them set up outside the ceremonial houses which indicated the numbers of victims taken in headhunting raids. Collectors pay around $400 a piece for them in 1970s. [Source: Malcolm Kirk, National Geographic, March 1972 ?]

Asmat Transportation, Education and Health

Asmat traditionally got around on long dugout canoes filled with 15 or so standing and furiously paddling men. The boats seem so unstable to Westerners they fear the boat will capsize just by standing in it. Carved-out long boats sometimes have stylized humans effigies on their bows, symbols of vanquished enemies and made with fire hardened sticks and blades made from sea shells. Today the Asmat hold dugout canoe races. [Source: Malcolm Kirk, National Geographic, March 1972 ?]

Only in the last few decades, thanks primarily to the work of missionaries and the Indonesian government, have the Asmat learned how to read and received proper medical attention, During the contact era there were problems with diseases such as cholera, influenza and yaws.

Traditional cures by shaman and sorcerers includes herbal remedies (including tobacco), sorcery, magic and spirit possession and communication. Western medicine has been introduced more aggressively by missionaries than by the Indonesian government.

Asmat Economics

Valued items have traditionally included triton shells, bird of paradise feathers, cassowary quills, stone axes and shell nosepieces. Wealth is often defined by possession of these things, which are are passed down through inheritance. Songs and song cycles can also be inherited. [Source: Peter and Kathleen Van Arsdale, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]

Most Asmat continue to subsist on hunting, gathering and fishing. Raising and processing sago is their main food processing activity. Horticulture activity was introduced in the 1950s but conventional agriculture is problematic in the Asmat’s marshy world. Some wage-based activities have been introduced, primarily the production of timber or crocodile hides, some of which are exported to Singapore and Japan. ~

Land has traditionally been owned by a clan or settlement not individuals and the demarcation lines, often marked by natural barriers such as rivers, fluctuated with claims made by different clans. Groves of sago palms and hardwood trees have traditionally been the most desired resources. Sometimes different clan groups fought over them. In recent years there have been conflicts over land between the Asmats and the Indonesian government, which has a different view about landholdings.

In the old days most trade was done to obtain stone for axes or items that had ritual value such as triton shells. These were obtained through trade networks with other tribes that extended through the foot hills and highlands. Later the Asmat obtained goods from Indonesian traders of Javanese and Chinese descent.

Asmat, Environmental Issues and Indonesia

Agats is the main village in the Asmat region. Here, raised walkways form a network above the muddy ground. The walkways link the village landmarks – churches, mosque, schools, Catholic mission offices, post office, police station and several government offices and a few shops selling basic goods. At high tide, small canoes and outboard motor dugouts weave through a small network of canals. [Source: Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Indonesia]

Attempting to rebuild the Asmat culture, which was nearly destroyed by the Indonesian government in the 1960s by tearing down men's house, outlawing feasts and destroying sacred objects, the Crosiers incorporated Asmat rituals into their Catholic services. They also acted as mediators in clan conflicts and as intermediary between the Asmat and the Indonesian government.

The Asmat they still have a long way to go to become part of the modern world. The government got the Asmat hooked on tobacco and then offered them free tobacco if they gave up cannibalism and headhunting. The Indonesian government authorized logging of Asmat land in the 1960s.

As large timber, oil, and mining companies expanded their operations into the Asmat region, the fragile, low- lying mangrove forests that were home to many Asmat has came under threat from industrial waste and soil erosion. The Asmat appear to be gaining some national and international recognition for their artwork; however, this fame has not resulted in their acquiring any significant political input into decisions of the Indonesian government affecting the use of land in traditional Asmat territory. Although there is currently little evidence of Free Papua Organization (OPM) activity among the Asmat, there has been a history of resistance to logging companies and other outside intruders, often in the form of cargo cults and other ritual activity. [Source: Library of Congress]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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