KOROWAI PEOPLE: PAPUA’S PINT-SIZE, TREEHOUSE-LIVING CANNIBALS

KOROWAI PEOPLE

The Korowai are a semi-nomadic people known for their small size, treehouses and cannibalism. The Korowai are about the same size as African pygmies— most are less than five feet tall. About 3,000 Korowai live in a swampy 600 square mile tract of forest in southern Papua. Even though they are regarded as an endangered group of people they habitat not in immediately threatened because it lacks oil, precious minerals and commercial valuable trees. In the rain forest where the Korowai live it can take all day to cover five miles on land and four hours to travel two miles up a rain-swollen river. [Source: George Steinmetz, National Geographic, February, 1996 ^^]

The Korowai were largely ignored by the outside world until 1970 when two missionaries for the Dutch Reformed church tried to convert them to Christianity. One of the missionaries, a Dutch protestant named Gerrit van Enk published a study on the Korowai. Van Enk spent 10 years with the Korowai people in humid lowland forest near the upper Becking River and failed to convert a single member of the tribe. Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Paul Taylor studiedthe Korowai and made a 1994 documentary about them, “Lords of the Garden.” Kembaren, a Sumatran who came to Papua around 1990 first visited the Korowai in 1993, and has come to know much about their culture, including some of their language. ^^

The Korowai live in southeastern Papua about 160 kilometers inland from the Arafura Sea, where the Asmat live and Michael Rockefeller disappeared in 1961. Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Most Korowai still live with little knowledge of the world beyond their homelands and frequently feud with one another. Some are said to kill and eat male witches they call khakhua. The best estimate is that there are some 4,000 Korowai. Traditionally, they have lived in treehouses, in groups of a dozen or so people in scattered clearings in the jungle; their attachment to their treehouses and surrounding land lies at the core of their identity. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“The Rev. Johannes Veldhuizen, a Dutch missionary with the Mission of the Reformed Churches, first made contact with the Korowai in 1978 and dropped plans to convert them to Christianity. "A very powerful mountain god warned the Korowai that their world would be destroyed by an earthquake if outsiders came into their land to change their customs," he told me by phone from the Netherlands a few years ago. "So we went as guests, rather than as conquerors, and never put any pressure on the Korowai to change their ways." Van Enk, co-author of “The Korowai of Papua,” coined the term "pacification line" for the imaginary border separating Korowai clans accustomed to outsiders from those farther north. He said he had never gone beyond the pacification line because of possible danger from Korowai clans there hostile to the presence of laleo [outsiders] in their territory. \=\

Book: “Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual” by Paul Raffaele (Smithsonian, 2008)]

Korowai Religion

The Korowai believe that the living inhabitant an inner zone and the dead reside in an outer zone, beyond which are great seas where all will perish when the world ends. One reason that Korowai never converted to Christianity is their belief that contact with a lasheo (a bad spirit that appears as a white man in clothes) would destroy their world. [Source: George Steinmetz, National Geographic, February, 1996 ^^]

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Seeing spirits in nature, they find belief in a single god puzzling. But they too recognize a powerful spirit, named Ginol, who created the present world after having destroyed the previous four. For as long as the tribal memory reaches back, elders sitting around fires have told the younger ones that white-skinned ghost-demons will one day invade Korowai land. Once the laleo arrive, Ginol will obliterate this fifth world. The land will split apart, there will be fire and thunder, and mountains will drop from the sky. This world will shatter, and a new one will take its place. The prophecy is, in a way, bound to be fulfilled as more young Korowai move between their treehouses and downriver settlements, which saddens me as I return to our hut for the night. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“The Korowai, believing that evil spirits are most active at night, usually don’t venture out of their treehouses after the sun sets. They divide the day into seven distinct periods—dawn, sunrise, midmorning, noon, midafternoon, dusk and night. They use their bodies to count numbers...ticking off the fingers of his left hand, then touching his wrist, forearm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder, neck, ear and the crown of the head, and moving down the other arm. The tally comes to 25. For anything greater than that, the Korowai start over and add the word laifu, meaning “turn around.”“ \=\

Korowai Life and Society

The Korowai live in tight-knit clans and are divided into two main groups: ones who have direct contact with outsiders and the betul, ones that refuse to interact with outsiders. In the 1990s, when visitors crossed the pacification line into the betul’s ir territory, betul men usually hide their women and children in tree houses and tell the outsiders that the woman and children have been killed by a sorcerer. [Source: George Steinmetz, National Geographic, February, 1996 ^^]

Describing an encounter with a Korowai family, Thomas O’Neill wrote in National Geographic, "We followed him into the forest, as hot and close as a summer attic, and presently come to a tree house just as a family and two small hunting dogs file out of the bush. Startled, the woman and boy duck behind the man. Slowly he approaches us with bow and arrows gripped in his hand."

The Korowai trade bananas and roasted sago for tobacco, salt, fishhooks and clothes. Pigs are a sign of wealth, generally reserved for dowries or settling disputes. Before feasts women sometimes have their heads shaved with the edge of split piece of bamboo by younger women. Many Korowai suffer from extremely painful and irritating tropical illness such as ringworm that causes the skin to peel away and give off an acidic smell. Most of them suffer needlessly as most of these diseases are easy to treat with modern medicine.

On his arrival in a Korowai village, Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “ Korowai children with beads about their necks come running to point and giggle as I stagger into the village—several straw huts perched on stilts and overlooking the river. I notice there are no old people here. "The Korowai have hardly any medicine to combat the jungle diseases or cure battle wounds, and so the death rate is high," Kembaren explains. "People rarely live to middle age." As van Enk writes, Korowai routinely fall to interclan conflicts; diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, elephantiasis and anemia, and what he calls "the khakhua complex." The Korowai have no knowledge of the deadly germs that infest their jungles, and so believe that mysterious deaths must be caused by khakhua, or witches who take on the form of men.” [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006]

Korowai Clothes and Body Marking

Korowai women go topless and wear grass skirts. Some have the thin bones of bat's wings sticking out of their nose. Like other people on New Guinea, they carry their children piglets and other items in net bags which are carried on the back with a strap attached to the forehead. Korowai men wear rattan strips around their waist and long hornbill beaks or penis gourds over their penises. Many carry bag on shoulder along with a bow and arrows. Many Korowai children go completely naked except for necklace of cowrie shells. [Source: Thomas O'Neill, National Geographic, February, 1996, ^^]

Some Korowai file their bottom teeth and have a circle of beauty mark scars on their stomach produced by burning the skin with hot wooden tongs. Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “The young women have circular scars the size of large coins running the length of their arms, around the stomach and across their breasts. "The marks make them look more beautiful," Boas says. He explains how they are made, saying circular pieces of bark embers are placed on the skin. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

In remote areas, the Korowai rarely wear clothes. While socializing with some Korowai who never seen outsiders before, Raffael wrote: “A youngster tries to yank my pants off, and he almost succeeds amid a gale of laughter. I join in the laughing but keep a tight grip on my modesty. The Rev. Johannes Veldhuizen had told me that Korowai he’d met had thought him a ghost-demon until they spied him bathing in a stream and saw that he came equipped with all the requisite parts of a yanop, or human being. Korowai seemed to have a hard time understanding clothing. They call it laleo-khal, "ghost-demon skin," and Veldhuizen told me they believed his shirt and pants to be a magical epidermis that he could don or remove at will.” \=\

Korowai Tree Houses

Some Korowai live in tree houses that are built 150 feet off the ground. They are built of sticks and leaves, perched on a massive tree trunks and look like some kind of huge nest tucked into the forest canopy. The Korowai climb to their treehouses using flimsily notched poles. The roof and the walls of the treehouses are made from sago palm fronds. Fires are started by from rubbing wood with a rattan string are built on mud-covered rattan-strip lattices set over holes in the floor. If a fire gets out of hand it can quickly be cut away from the house, dropping to the ground. Bones and shells kept in the rafters are used for tools or kept as reminders of big feasts. [Source: George Steinmetz, National Geographic, February, 1996 ^^]

It was originally thought the Korowai built their treehouses as a form a protection against enemies but now some anthropologists believe they live there to stay dry during times of heavy flooding. Some parts of the Papua they inhabit receive over 450 centimeters of rain a year and most of it falls during a few months in the rainy season. When a tribesman was asked why he lived in a treehouse he told Steinmetz "to see the birds and mountains and to keep sorcerers from climbing my stairs." ^^

A Korowai man that O’Neill met said he lived in a tree house with two families made up comprising eight people. "Now the pigs live with us too," he said, "until we kill them for food. Maybe then we will move to another hunting ground and build a new house." [Source: Thomas O'Neill, National Geographic, February, 1996,☼]

Some clans that once shared a single home in the forest canopy have moved to separate lower homes in jungle clearings because tensions between clans have been reduced and it is safe enough for families to move out of their tree houses. Some live in villages formed around a longhouse, which is built around a sacred pole.

Korowai Food

Korowai settled in jungle clearings grow taro, tobacco, sweet potato and bananas. Grubs, or scarab beetle larvae, found in sago palm logs are considered a delicacy. The sago palm pith, which is beaten into a pulp, moistened into dough and then roasted, is the main food source.

Korowai hunters use specialized arrows for killing birds, fish, reptiles and humans.Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “ Bailom shows me his arrows, each a yard-long shaft bound with vine to an arrowhead designed for a specific prey. Pig arrowheads, he says, are broad-bladed; those for birds, long and narrow. Fish arrowheads are pronged, while the arrowheads for humans are each a hand's span of cassowary bone with six or more barbs carved on each side—to ensure terrible damage when cut away from the victim's flesh. Dark bloodstains coat these arrowheads. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

There is less large game in the forests of Papua than there are in the forest of Africa and Amazonia and consequently large animals or birds are rarely killed and insects are commonly eaten. Dogs are kept for hunting. One of the biggest animals they hunt is the ostrich-like cassowary. The Korowai use every part of the bird—the feathers, meat, bones and tissues—for something. [Source: George Steinmetz, National Geographic, February, 1996 ^^]

On the food he was served in deep in forest, Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “ The next morning four Korowai women arrive at our hut carrying a squawking green frog, several locusts and a spider they say they just caught in the jungle. "They've brought your breakfast," Boas says, smiling as his gibe is translated. Two years in a Papuan town has taught him that we laleo wrinkle our noses at Korowai delicacies. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

Korowai Feasts and Festivals

Sago grub festivals are planned months in advance and correspond with the phases of the moon. The grubs are harvested from logs which have been carefully cut, split and left to rot so the beetles can enter and lay their eggs. After two months the grubs are roasted and eaten. The feast itself includes dancing and chanting, which often lasts through the night. The morning after the feast fertility rituals for young boys and sago trees are sometimes performed. Composed of many stages of preparation, celebrations and rituals, such festivals help to ease tensions between clans and form alliances. ^^

On a feast in a treehouse, Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “After an hour’s trek, I reach a clearing about the size of two football fields and planted with banana trees. Dominating it is a treehouse that soars about 75 feet into the sky. Its springy floor rests on several natural columns, tall trees cut off at the point where branches once flared out. Boas is waiting for us. Next to him stands his father, Khanduop, a middle-aged man clad in rattan strips about his waist and a leaf covering part of his penis. He grabs my hand and thanks me for bringing his son home. He has killed a large pig for the occasion, and Bailom, with what seems to me to be superhuman strength, carries it on his back up a notched pole into the treehouse. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“Inside, every nook and cranny is crammed with bones from previous feasts—spiky fish skeletons, blockbuster pig jaws, the skulls of flying foxes and rats. The bones dangle even from hooks strung along the ceiling, near bundles of many-colored parrot and cassowary feathers. The Korowai believe that the décor signals hospitality and prosperity. I meet Yakor, a tall, kindly eyed tribesman from a treehouse upriver, who squats by the fire with Khanduop, Bailom and Kilikili. Boas’ mother is dead, and Khanduop, a fierce man, has married Yakor's sister. When the talk turns to khakhua meals they have enjoyed, Khanduop's eyes light up. He's dined on many khakhua, he says, and the taste is the most delicious of any creature he's ever eaten. \=\

Visiting an Isolated Korowai Community

Describing an encounter with an isolated betul clan with a guide named Baleamale, Steinmetz wrote: "On the far side was a low tree house, where a group of men had gathered, including Balemale's brother. He clutched a bow and arrows in one hand and a massively barbed arrow in other, which was shaking uncontrollably. Gerrit tried to calm him. The man wanted to kill us, he said, but didn't want to damage relations with his brother. 'Why are you here," he demanded. "There is no food for you. It would have been better if you had kept far from here.'" [Source: George Steinmetz, National Geographic, February, 1996 ^^]

"We made a fast retreat," Steinmetz wrote, "nervously returning the next morning. Balemale's brother was less threatening on our second visit—and even let Johannes give his daughter an injection for her disfiguring skin disease—but soon he was again demanding that we leave. It was late in the day, he explained, and we might be attacked when it grew dark. He had been willing to listen to us, but he warned the upstream people would not be so hospitable. So we withdrew again as night fell, spending the tense hours until dawn at the camp we had pitched uncomfortably near the Korowai clearing." ^^

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “ For days I've been slogging through a rain-soaked jungle on a quest to visit members of the Korowai tribe. Soon after first light this morning I boarded a pirogue, a canoe hacked out of a tree trunk, for the last stage of the journey, along the twisting Ndeiram Kabur River. Now the four paddlers bend their backs with vigor, knowing we will soon make camp for the night. My guide, Kornelius Kembaren, has traveled among the Korowai for 13 years. But even he has never been this far upriver, because, he says, some Korowai threaten to kill outsiders who enter their territory. Some clans are said to fear those of us with pale skin, and Kembaren says many Korowai have never laid eyes on a white person. They call outsiders laleo ("ghost-demons"). [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“Suddenly, screams erupt from around the bend. Moments later, I see a throng of naked men brandishing bows and arrows on the riverbank. Kembaren murmurs to the boatmen to stop paddling. "They're ordering us to come to their side of the river," he whispers to me. "It looks bad, but we can't escape. They'd quickly catch us if we tried." As the tribesmen's uproar bangs at my ears, our pirogue glides toward the far side of the river. "We don't want to hurt you," Kembaren shouts in Bahasa Indonesia, which one of our boatmen translates into Korowai. "We come in peace." Then two tribesmen slip into a pirogue and start paddling toward us. As they near, I see that their arrows are barbed. "Keep calm," Kembaren says softly.” \=\

Socializing in a Remote Korowai Treehouse

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “I can hear voices as I climb an almost vertical pole notched with footholds. The interior of the treehouse is wreathed in a haze of smoke rent by beams of sunlight. Young men are bunched on the floor near the entrance. Smoke from hearth fires has coated the bark walls and sago-leaf ceiling, giving the hut a sooty odor. A pair of stone axes, several bows and arrows and net bags are tucked into the leafy rafters. The floor creaks as I settle cross-legged onto it. Four women and two children sit at the rear of the treehouse, the women fashioning bags from vines and studiously ignoring me. "Men and women stay on different sides of the treehouse and have their own hearths," says Kembaren. Each hearth is made from strips of clay-coated rattan suspended over a hole in the floor so that it can be quickly hacked loose, to fall to the ground, if a fire starts to burn out of control. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“A middle-aged man with a hard-muscled body and a bulldog face straddles the gender dividing line. Speaking through Boas, Kembaren makes small talk about crops, the weather and past feasts. The man grips his bow and arrows and avoids my gaze. But now and then I catch him stealing glances in my direction. "That's Lepeadon, the clan's khen-mengga-abül, or 'fierce man,'" Kembaren says. The fierce man leads the clan in fights. Lepeadon looks up to the task. "A clan of six men, four women, three boys and two girls live here," Kembaren says. "The others have come from nearby treehouses to see their first laleo." \=\

“After an hour of talk, the fierce man moves closer to me and, still unsmiling, speaks. "I knew you were coming and expected to see a ghost, but now I see you're just like us, a human," he says, as Boas translates to Kembaren and Kembaren translates to me. "We shouldn't push the first meeting too long," Kembaren now tells me as he rises to leave. Lepeadon follows us to the ground and grabs both my hands. He begins bouncing up and down and chanting, "nemayokh" ("friend"). I keep up with him in what seems a ritual farewell, and he swiftly increases the pace until it is frenzied, before he suddenly stops, leaving me breathless. \=\

“Lepeadon tells Boas he wants me to stay longer, but I have to return to Yaniruma... As we board the pirogue, the fierce man squats by the riverside but refuses to look at me. When the boatmen push away, he leaps up, scowls, thrusts a cassowary-bone arrow across his bow, yanks on the rattan string and aims at me. After a few moments, he smiles and lowers the bow—a fierce man's way of saying goodbye.” \=\

Korowai Cannibalism

Some people say the Korowai are among the last people on earth to practice cannibalism. Outsiders are almost never invited in their homes and some people speculate this is because they have human bones hidden inside but most likely they just don't their privacy invaded. [Source: Thomas O'Neill, National Geographic, February, 1996,☼]

The Australia journalist Paul Raffaele visited the Korowai to investigate reports about their cannibalism. In a review of Raffaele’s book “Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual,” Richard Grant wrote in the Washington Post, “Lacking any knowledge of germs and microbes, they ascribe all deadly illness to witchcraft, and a dying Korowai will whisper the name of the khakhua, or male witch, who is responsible. It will be a man they all know who has been invaded by the evil khakhua spirit, and he must now be killed, cut into pieces, roasted in leaves and eaten. Raffaele doesn't actually witness any cannibalism...but he gathers plenty of interesting detail. The Korowai say the meat tastes good, similar to a young cassowary (an ostrichlike bird), and the best parts are the brain and the tongue. Raffaele asks them if they also eat their enemies, and they are appalled. "We don't eat humans," they assure him; "we only eat khakhuas." [Source: Richard Grant, Washington Post, July 30, 2008]

Cannibalism is believed to have been practiced among prehistoric human beings, and it lingered into the 19th century in some isolated South Pacific cultures, notably in Fiji. Richard Grant wrote in the Washington Post: “In 1979, the American anthropologist William Arens published an influential book arguing that tribal and ritual cannibalism has never existed; he held that the innumerable firsthand accounts were all racist lies advanced to justify conquest and colonization. It is unfortunate for Raffaele, and his readers, that Arens and his disciples are still taken seriously in academia, because it forces him to keep presenting evidence, over and over again with increasing exasperation, that, yes, all over the world -- including medieval Europe where people ate pieces of mummified corpses to cure certain diseases -- human beings have practiced cannibalism.” [Ibid]

“After we eat a dinner of river fish and rice,” Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: A Korowai named Boas “explains why the Korowai kill and eat their fellow tribesmen. It's because of the khakhua, which comes disguised as a relative or friend of a person he wants to kill. "The khakhua eats the victim's insides while he sleeps," Boas explains, "replacing them with fireplace ash so the victim does not know he's being eaten. The khakhua finally kills the person by shooting a magical arrow into his heart." When a clan member dies, his or her male relatives and friends seize and kill the khakhua. "Usually, the [dying] victim whispers to his relatives the name of the man he knows is the khakhua," Boas says. "He may be from the same or another treehouse." [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“The killing and eating of khakhua has reportedly declined among tribespeople in and near the settlements. Rupert Stasch, an anthropologist at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, who has lived among the Korowai for 16 months and studied their culture, writes in the journal Oceania that Korowai say they have "given up" killing witches partly because they were growing ambivalent about the practice and partly in reaction to several incidents with police. In one in the early '90s, Stasch writes, a Yaniruma man killed his sister's husband for being a khakhua. The police arrested the killer, an accomplice and a village head. "The police rolled them around in barrels, made them stand overnight in a leech-infested pond, and forced them to eat tobacco, chili peppers, animal feces, and unripe papaya," he writes. Word of such treatment, combined with Korowais' own ambivalence, prompted some to limit witch-killing even in places where police do not venture. Still, the eating of khakhua persists, according to my guide, Kembaren. "Many khakhua are murdered and eaten each year," he says, citing information he says he has gained from talking to Korowai who still live in treehouses.” \=\

Taylor, the Smithsonian Institution anthropologist, described khakhua-eating as "part of a system of justice." Later Raffaele’s guide Kembaren “brings to the hut a 6-year-old boy named Wawa, who is naked except for a necklace of beads. Unlike the other village children, boisterous and smiling, Wawa is withdrawn and his eyes seem deeply sad. Kembaren wraps an arm around him. "When Wawa's mother died last November—I think she had TB, she was very sick, coughing and aching—people at his treehouse suspected him of being a khakhua," he says. "His father died a few months earlier, and they believed [Wawa] used sorcery to kill them both. His family was not powerful enough to protect him at the treehouse, and so this January his uncle escaped with Wawa, bringing him here, where the family is stronger." Does Wawa know the threat he is facing? "He's heard about it from his relatives, but I don't think he fully understands that people at his treehouse want to kill and eat him, though they'll probably wait until he's older, about 14 or 15, before they try. But while he stays at Yafufla, he should be safe." \=\

Hanging Out with Korowai Cannibals

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “On our third day of trekking, after hiking from soon after sunrise to dusk, we reach Yafufla, another line of stilt huts set up by Dutch missionaries. That night, Kembaren takes me to an open hut overlooking the river, and we sit by a small campfire. Two men approach through the gloom, one in shorts, the other naked save for a necklace of prized pigs' teeth and a leaf wrapped about the tip of his penis. "That's Kilikili," Kembaren whispers, "the most notorious khakhua killer." Kilikili carries a bow and barbed arrows. His eyes are empty of expression, his lips are drawn in a grimace and he walks as soundlessly as a shadow. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“The other man, who turns out to be Kilikili's brother Bailom, pulls a human skull from a bag. A jagged hole mars the forehead. "It's Bunop, the most recent khakhua he killed," Kembaren says of the skull. "Bailom used a stone ax to split the skull open to get at the brains." The guide's eyes dim. "He was one of my best porters, a cheerful young man," he says. Bailom passes the skull to me. I don't want to touch it, but neither do I want to offend him. My blood chills at the feel of naked bone. \=\

“Around our campfire, Bailom tells me he feels no remorse. "Revenge is part of our culture, so when the khakhua eats a person, the people eat the khakhua," he says. "It's normal," Bailom says. "I don't feel sad I killed Bunop, even though he was a friend." In cannibal folklore, told in numerous books and articles, human flesh is said to be known as "long pig" because of its similar taste. When I mention this, Bailom shakes his head. "Human flesh tastes like young cassowary," he says, referring to a local ostrich-like bird. At a khakhua meal, he says, both men and women—children do not attend—eat everything but bones, teeth, hair, fingernails and toenails and the penis. "I like the taste of all the body parts," Bailom says, "but the brains are my favorite." Kilikili nods in agreement, his first response since he arrived. \=\

When the khakhua is a member of the same clan, he is bound with rattan and taken up to a day's march away to a stream near the treehouse of a friendly clan. "When they find a khakhua too closely related for them to eat, they bring him to us so we can kill and eat him," Bailom says. He says he has personally killed four khakhua. And Kilikili? Bailom laughs. "He says he'll tell you now the names of 8 khakhua he's killed," he replies, "and if you come to his treehouse upriver, he'll tell you the names of the other 22." \=\

“I ask what they do with the bones. "We place them by the tracks leading into the treehouse clearing, to warn our enemies," Bailom says. "But the killer gets to keep the skull. After we eat the khakhua, we beat loudly on our treehouse walls all night with sticks" to warn other khakhua to stay away. As we walk back to our hut, Kembaren confides that "years ago, when I was making friends with the Korowai, a man here at Yafufla told me I'd have to eat human flesh if they were to trust me. He gave me a chunk," he says. "It was a bit tough but tasted good." \=\

Account of Korowai Cannibalism

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: ““The fire's reflection flickers on the brothers' faces as Bailom tells me how he killed the khakhua, who lived in Yafufla, two years ago. "Just before my cousin died he told me that Bunop was a khakhua and was eating him from the inside," he says, with Kembaren translating. "So we caught him, tied him up and took him to a stream, where we shot arrows into him." Bailom says that Bunop screamed for mercy all the way, protesting that he was not a khakhua. But Bailom was unswayed. "My cousin was close to death when he told me and would not lie," Bailom says.[Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“At the stream, Bailom says, he used a stone ax to chop off the khakhua's head. As he held it in the air and turned it away from the body, the others chanted and dismembered Bunop's body. Bailom, making chopping movements with his hand, explains: "We cut out his intestines and broke open the rib cage, chopped off the right arm attached to the right rib cage, the left arm and left rib cage, and then both legs." The body parts, he says, were individually wrapped in banana leaves and distributed among the clan members. "But I kept the head because it belongs to the family that killed the khakhua," he says. "We cook the flesh like we cook pig, placing palm leaves over the wrapped meat together with burning hot river rocks to make steam." \=\

“Some readers may believe that these two are having me on—that they are just telling a visitor what he wants to hear—and that the skull came from someone who died from some other cause. But I believe they were telling the truth. I spent eight days with Bailom, and everything else he told me proved factual. I also checked with four other Yafufla men who said they had joined in the killing, dismembering and eating of Bunop, and the details of their accounts mirrored reports of khakhua cannibalism by Dutch missionaries who lived among the Korowai for several years. Kembaren clearly accepted Bailom’s story as fact.” \=\

Korowai and the Modern World

In recent years the Indonesian government has tried to get the Korowai to move from the forest and settle in towns. Some now wear shorts and shirts and they definitely have developed a taste for tobacco. Some Korowai have moved to settlements established by Dutch missionaries and some tourists have ventured into Korowai lands. But in the deep rain forest one goes many the Korowai cling to their traditional ways. When asked if he wanted to move to a settlement, one Korowai man told National Geographic, "We don't want to leave the forest. My wife is afraid of the town, and I don't like that the houses are so close together. I don't like that a stranger gives us orders and tells us what to do." ^^

On his departure from the Korowai region, Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Before I leave, Khanduop wants to talk; his son and Kembaren translate. "Boas has told me he'll live in Yaniruma with his brother, coming back just for visits," he murmurs. Khanduop's gaze clouds. "The time of the true Korowai is coming to an end, and that makes me very sad." Boas gives his father a wan smile and walks with me to the pirogue for the two-hour journey to Yaniruma, wearing his yellow bonnet as if it were a visa for the 21st century. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“Three years earlier I had visited the Korubo, an isolated indigenous tribe in the Amazon, together with Sydney Possuelo, then director of Brazil's Department for Isolated Indians . This question of what to do with such peoples—whether to yank them into the present or leave them untouched in their jungles and traditions—had troubled Possuelo for decades. "I believe we should let them live in their own special worlds," he told me, "because once they go downriver to the settlements and see what is to them the wonders and magic of our lives, they never go back to live in a traditional way." \=\

“So it is with the Korowai. They have at most a generation left in their traditional culture—one that includes practices that admittedly strike us as abhorrent. Year by year the young men and women will drift to Yaniruma and other settlements until only aging clan members are left in the treehouses. And at that point Ginol's godly prophecy will reach its apocalyptic fulfillment, and thunder and earthquakes of a kind will destroy the old Korowai world forever.” \=\

Kombai

The Kombai are a tree-dwelling people with a culture similar to that of the Korowai, but their language is very different. Families, dogs and piglets all live together in Kombai tree houses. Men and women usually stay in separate areas defined by different hearths. Sexual relations are usually not allowed inside the treehouses. [Source: George Steinmetz, National Geographic, February, 1996 ^^]

Describing one of his first encounters with the Kombai people, Steinmetz wrote: "I was eating a lunch of tinned biscuits and tea when a shrill cry rose from the far side of the clearing. I glanced up just as two naked men burst into view and came dashing towards us, fitting large barbed arrows to their bows. Our porters halted them, bows drawn just yards a way. Angry words flew, then quieted as my interpreter offered them gifts and greetings. I soon learned they were father and son, that we were the first outsiders they had ever seen, and that they intended to kill us." ^^

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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