Sunday, May 17, 2009

Crossing the waters: Reaching the Asmat tribe of Papua

The Asmat are a coastal people occupying a low-lying swampy region in southwestern Papua. Their homeland covers approximately 29,000 km² (similar to Belgium), on which live about 65,000 people, in villages with populations of up to 2,000.

The Asmat and their natural environment are intertwined, as the culture and way of life are heavily dependent on the rich natural resources found in their forests, rivers, and seas.

The forests are rich in game, mangroves and other trees make for an endless source of wood. The abundant sago palm is the staple food of the Asmat, who process its starch.

Rivers are the life line of the Asmat region, being the only transportation infrastructure. Since the tides can be felt up to 100 km from the sea shore, people have a strong connection to the movements of the water and boats play a very important role. They exist in plenty of sizes, from small, plain fishing boats to huge, intricately decorated war and ceremonial canoes, all of the dugout type.

The absence of stone and the abundance of trees make wood the primary building material. Extended families occupy large houses on stilts, built of bamboo, sago bark, and sago frond thatching. Men sleep apart from their wives in the men's longhouse (yew). Ceremonial activities that take place inside the men's house are prohibited to women.

Wood and woodcarving play a central role in Asmat daily life and mythology. Any child learns early on how to fell a tree, carve wooden utensils, and build a house or a simple canoe. The Asmat believe that they originate from wooden figures carved by their creator God, Fumeripitsj. After carving a man and a woman, Fumeripitsj was not satisfied with his lifeless work and carved a drum. Once the drum started to be beaten, the wooden figures awakened to life and multiplied. Master woodcarvers are among the most respected people in villages, as they are though to be descendants of the creator god.

This intimate link between people and trees is reflected in headhunting. People are like trees. Legs are roots, the body is the trunk, arms are branches and the head is fruit. Therefore, fruit-eating animals are symbols of headhunting. Like these animals eat fruit to live, the Asmat have to take heads to go on living. Hence, war canoes are often decorated with cockatoos, fruit bats, hornbills, or the praying mantis for an obvious reason. Death by natural cause is unknown, so death is to be avenged. When a death occurs, family and friends of the deceased roll in the mud of the riverbanks to hide their scent from the ghost of the deceased. Ceremonies ensure that the ghost passes to the land of the dead, referred to as ‘the other side’. The skull of a person's mother is often used as a pillow.

April 2009.

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At May 20, 2009 at 10:24 AM, Blogger Sidney said...

"Men sleep apart from their wives"

They might be primitive but they are intelligent ! ;-)

Oh... I hope you still have your head! ;-)

Do they have WIFI there?


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