ASMAT AND KOROWAI COUNTRY

ASMAT COUNTRY

Asmat Country contains the worlds' largest and most remote alluvial swamp and some the last unexplored regions of the world. The land itself is swampy, flat and covered with dense tropical rain forests. Many of the rivers near the coast rise and fall with the tides. The tides submerge an area 100 miles inland. Mangrove swamp cruises are offered on the Asmat coast. The region was explored from the 16th to the 19th century by the Netherlands and Britain but the remoteness and lack of resources essentially cut the region off from colonization. Traveling in the region is very slow, difficult The Asmat is a group of former cannibals and headhunters that live along the remote southwest coast of Papua. Also known as the Asmat-wo and Samot, they are a hunting, fishing and gathering people famed for their elaborate woodcarving. They hunted heads up until perhaps the 1980s and only recently switched from stone and bone tools to metal ones. Modern civilization did not touch them until recently. Asmat in local languages means "tree people" or “right man”. The Asmat call themselves asmat-ow (“real people”). [Source: Peter and Kathleen Van Arsdale, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]

The approximately 70,000 Asmat people of the south-central alluvial swamps of Papua Province are of a Papuan genetic heritage. They are scattered in 100 villages across a 27,000 square kilometer area in one of the worlds' largest and most remote alluvial mangrove swamps— a wet, flat, and marshy place, much of it covered with dense lowland tropical rain forests. Many of the rivers near the coast rise and fall with the tides. The Asmat are muscular and tall by New Guinea standards. They average five feet six inches tall. [Source: Library of Congress, ~]

The area where the Asmat live encompasses some the last unexplored regions of the world. The land is covered with bog forests and mangrove and is serrated by many meandering rivers that empty into the Arafura Sea. The tides submerge an area 100 miles inland. During high tide in the rainy season, sea water penetrates some two kilometers inland and flows back out to two kilometers to sea at low tide. During low tide the plains are muddy and impassable. Here is the habitat of crocodiles, gray nurse sharks, sea snakes, fresh water dolphins, shrimp, and crabs, while living along the banks are huge lizards. The forests contain palms, ironwood, merak wood and mangroves and are home to the crown pigeons, hornbills and cockatoos. There are grass meadows and orchids. The Asmat have share the region with the Marind-Anim and the Mimika tribes. [Source: Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Indonesia]

The Asmat have been described as a wood-age culture. They traditionally have not used stone tools, simply because stones are hard to find where they live. Up until white missionaries introduced steel fishing hooks, knives and axes, the only metal or stone items they had were obtained by trading with highland tribes, and these items were so precious that they were usually reserved for ceremonial purposes. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York]

The Asmat speak a language that belongs to the Asmat-Kamoro Family of the Non-Austronesian languages. Bahasa Indonesian is spoken by many. The population growth rate among the Asmat is estimated at around 1 percent. There is little migration into and out of the area where the Asmat live. The name “Asmat” most probably comes from the words As Akat, which according to the Asmat means: "the right man". Others say that that the word Asmat derives from the word Osamat meaning "man from tree". Asmat's neighbors to the west, - the Mimika- , however, claim that the name is derived from their word for the tribe - "manue", meaning "man eater".

Agats: the Main Town in Asmat Country

Agats (along the southeast coast of Papua) is the largest town in Asmat country. It is the obvious jumping off place for Asmat villages. In the town drinking water and electricity are in short supply. Much of the town is on stilts or wooden walkways to deal with the high tides. There is a museum in Agats but the land around the town is still pretty wild wilderness. houses some of the best carvings and artifacts collected from all over the region. The museum of Asmat art contains trophy skulls, bone daggers, stone clubs, 20-ancestor poles, tall battle shields covered with praying mantis and other headhunting symbols. Modern pieces show families collecting sago.

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.

Once a year the Asmat Cultural Festival is held in October dedicated to the development of Asmat art and culture. The main attractions are the carvings and dances performed by villages around Agats. The best carvings in the festival are placed at the Asmat Museum, while the rest are sold through action on the festival site.

There are no hotels available in Asmat, the only possible way is either to stay at the local house which is called bujang (long house) house, or on Agats there are simple accommodations whose rates change from time to time. One of these inns is the Losmen Pada Elo: Losmen Pada Elo, Jl. Kompas Agats, Tel. 31038. When you wish to visit the Asmat region, it is best to use the services of experienced travel agencies who know the area well and can book your accommodation. As additional precaution it is advisable to report your itinerary to the Police at the airport upon arrival.

Getting There: To reach Agats, you can take a flight from Jakarta or Bali to Timika and then continue by smaller plane to Ewer. From Ewer, you must take a speed boat to reach Agats.The Mozes Kilangin Airport in Timika is served by Garuda Indonesia from Jakarta and Denpasar, and Merpati Nusantara Airlines from the capital of Papua, Jayapura. Susi Air operates flights to local destinations across Papua including from Timika to Ewer.

Mamberamo is a national park along Papua's longest river.

Yaniruma and the Korowai

The Korowai are a pygmy-like people that live treehouses in in southeastern Papua. They live about 100 miles inland from the Arafura Sea, which is where Michael Rockefeller disappeared in 1961. 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. Yaniruma is a settlement at the edge of Korowai territory.

On his travels in Korowai country with a Korowai named Boas, Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “The next morning eight of us board a chartered Twin Otter, a workhorse whose short takeoff and landing ability will get us to Yaniruma. Once we're airborne, Kembaren shows me a map: spidery lines marking lowland rivers and thousands of square miles of green jungle. Dutch missionaries who came to convert the Korowai in the late 1970s called it "the hell in the south." [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“After 90 minutes we come in low, following the snaking Ndeiram Kabur River. In the jungle below, Boas spots his father’s treehouse, which seems impossibly high off the ground, like the nest of a giant bird. Boas, who wears a daisy-yellow bonnet, a souvenir of “civilization,” hugs me in gratitude, and tears trickle down his cheeks. As we pass through Yaniruma, I’m surprised that no Indonesian police officer demands to see the government permit issued to me allowing me to proceed. "The nearest police post is at Senggo, several days back along the river," Kembaren explains. "Occasionally a medical worker or official comes here for a few days, but they're too frightened to go deep into Korowai territory."

“At Yaniruma, a line of stilt huts that Dutch missionaries established in 1979, we thump down on a dirt strip carved out of the jungle. Now, to my surprise, Boas says he will postpone his homecoming to continue with us, lured by the promise of adventure with a laleo, and he cheerfully lifts a sack of foodstuffs onto his shoulders. As the pilot hurls the Twin Otter back into the sky, a dozen Korowai men hoist our packs and supplies and trudge toward the jungle in single file bound for the river. Most carry bows and arrows.”

Traveling in Korowai Country

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Entering the Korowai rain forest is like stepping into a giant watery cave. With the bright sun overhead I breathe easily, but as the porters push through the undergrowth, the tree canopy's dense weave plunges the world into a verdant gloom. The heat is stifling and the air drips with humidity. This is the haunt of giant spiders, killer snakes and lethal microbes. High in the canopy, parrots screech as I follow the porters along a barely visible track winding around rain-soaked trees and primeval palms. My shirt clings to my back, and I take frequent swigs at my water bottle. The annual rainfall here is around 200 inches, making it one of the wettest places on earth. A sudden downpour sends raindrops spearing through gaps in the canopy, but we keep walking. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“The local Korowai have laid logs on the mud, and the barefoot porters cross these with ease. But, desperately trying to balance as I edge along each log, time and again I slip, stumble and fall into the sometimes waist-deep mud, bruising and scratching my legs and arms. Slippery logs as long as ten yards bridge the many dips in the land. Inching across like a tightrope walker, I wonder how the porters would get me out of the jungle were I to fall and break a leg. "What the hell am I doing here?" I keep muttering, though I know the answer: I want to encounter a people who are said to still practice cannibalism.

“Hour melts into hour as we push on, stopping briefly now and then to rest. With night near, my heart surges with relief when shafts of silvery light slip through the trees ahead: a clearing. "It's Manggel," Kembaren says—another village set up by Dutch missionaries. "We'll stay the night here."”

Traveling in the Korowai Heart of Darkness

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “ I ask Kembaren if he is comfortable with the idea of two cannibals accompanying us. "Most of the porters have probably eaten human flesh," he answers with a smile. Kembaren leads me down to the Ndeiram Kabur River, where we board a long, slender pirogue. I settle in the middle, the sides pressing against my body. Two Korowai paddlers stand at the stern, two more at the bow, and we push off, steering close by the riverbank, where the water flow is slowest. Each time the boatmen maneuver the pirogue around a sandbar, the strong current in the middle of the river threatens to tip us over. Paddling upriver is tough, even for the muscular boatmen, and they frequently break into Korowai song timed to the slap of the paddles against the water, a yodeling chant that echoes along the riverbank. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006 \=\]

“High green curtains of trees woven with tangled streamers of vine shield the jungle. A siren scream of cicadas pierces the air. The day passes in a blur, and night descends quickly. And that's when we are accosted by the screaming men on the riverbank. Kembaren refuses to come to their side of the river. "It's too dangerous," he whispers. Now the two Korowai armed with bows and arrows are paddling a pirogue toward us. I ask Kembaren if he has a gun. He shakes his head no.

“As their pirogue bumps against ours, one of the men growls that laleo are forbidden to enter their sacred river, and that my presence angers the spirits. Korowai are animists, believing that powerful beings live in specific trees and parts of rivers. The tribesman demands that we give the clan a pig to absolve the sacrilege. A pig costs 350,000 rupiahs, or about $40. It's a Stone Age shakedown. I count out the money and pass it to the man, who glances at the Indonesian currency and grants us permission to pass.

What use is money to these people? I ask Kembaren as our boatmen paddle to safety upriver. "It's useless here," he answers, "but whenever they get any money, and that's rare, the clans use it to help pay bride prices for Korowai girls living closer to Yaniruma. They understand the dangers of incest, and so girls must marry into unrelated clans."

“About an hour farther up the river, we pull up onto the bank, and I scramble up a muddy slope, dragging myself over the slippery rise by grasping exposed tree roots. Bailom and the porters are waiting for us and wearing worried faces. Bailom says that the tribesmen knew we were coming because they had intercepted the porters as they passed near their treehouses. Would they really have killed us if we hadn't paid up? I ask Bailom, through Kembaren. Bailom nods: "They'd have let you pass tonight because they knew you'd have to return downriver. Then, they'd ambush you, some firing arrows from the riverbank and others attacking at close range in their pirogues."

“The porters string all but one of the tarpaulins over our supplies. Our shelter for the night is four poles set in a square about four yards apart and topped by a tarp with open sides. Soon after midnight a downpour drenches us. The wind sends my teeth chattering, and I sit disconsolately hugging my knees. Seeing me shivering, Boas pulls my body against his for warmth. As I drift off, deeply fatigued, I have the strangest thought: this is the first time I've ever slept with a cannibal.

“We leave at first light, still soaked. At midday our pirogue reaches our destination, a riverbank close by the treehouse, or khaim, of a Korowai clan that Kembaren says has never before seen a white person. Our porters arrived before us and have already built a rudimentary hut. "I sent a Korowai friend here a few days ago to ask the clan to let us visit them," Kembaren says. "Otherwise they'd have attacked us." I ask why they've given permission for a laleo to enter their sacred land. "I think they're as curious to see you, the ghost-demon, as you are to see them," Kembaren answered.

“At midafternoon, Kembaren and I hike 30 minutes through dense jungle and ford a deep stream. He points ahead to a treehouse that looks deserted. It perches on a decapitated banyan tree, its floor a dense latticework of boughs and strips of wood. It's about ten yards off the ground. "It belongs to the Letin clan," he says. Korowai are formed into what anthropologists call patriclans, which inhabit ancestral lands and trace ownership and genealogy through the male line. A young cassowary prances past, perhaps a family pet. A large pig, flushed from its hiding place in the grass, dashes into the jungle. "Where are the Korowai?" I ask. Kembaren points to the treehouse. "They’re waiting for us."”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Indonesia Tourism website ( indonesia.travel ), Indonesia government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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