The Asmat are renowned for their bold woodcarving and their headhunting and cannibalistic way of life. To understand the Asmat, we must understand the habitat that they live in.
The Asmat live on the rugged and isolated southern coast of Irian Jaya, in an area of approximately 10,000 square miles. The dominant habitats there are swamps and mangroves.
The Asmat homeland has been described as ..."...essentially a gigantic mud plain covered by ...tropical rain forest. Numberless rivers intersect it. Beneath the green blanket of forest lies mud...Besides one or two forlorn patches of firm sand, the remnants of old dunes, the spongy soil yields easily to the tread of human feet. Mud is everywhere; even the rivers are grey with it." from The Asmat of New Guinea: The Journal of Michael Rockefeller
The Asmat World View: The Asmat believe all things have a spirit (animism): humans, animals, plants and even special locations such as a whirlpool or the bottom of a river. They also believe that the universe is divided between the world that can be seen and the unseen realm of the spirits. To the Asmat, it was important to maintain a proper balance between the seen and unseen. Birth and death balance the population between the seen and unseen realms, and one cannot take place without the other. An imbalance is manifested in disease, hunger, misfortune and death--caused by unsettled spirits.
An Asmat canoeing song
Headhunting and cannibalism were customary among the Asmat until the early 1960s. Head-hunting is driven by the desire to restore imbalances. Only the deaths of old people and babies are considered natural. Old people pass naturally to the other world, and babies and children under 5 die either because they have insufficient life force or because they wish to return to the spirit world. Other people die either because they are killed physically or by black magic. To the Asmat, there is no such thing as a natural untimely death, particularly of important people. The spirit of such unfortunate people are unable to move on to the proper spirit world and roam in limbo. They work mischief on the living until an equal number are killed from among those who caused their deaths. The spirit of women who die in childbirth are considered especially dangerous, especially to males. Through cannibalism, the Asmat believe they are able to harness the power of their enemies.
The Asmat like to be close to their ancestors. Men wore the skulls of their ancestors on their body, bringing them along to important festivals and using the skull as a pillow when they slept. The skulls of important headhunters were handed down the generations. Even today, skulls and bone fragments are still worn to invoke the spirits' power and protection.
Asmat daily life: the Asmat are semi-normadic hunter gatherers. Their staple food is sago, the only carbohydrate that grows plentifully in their harsh environment. Pottery is unknown to them because the muddy soil is unsuitable. As there are neither cooking pots nor stone pit-ovens, all food has to be roasted over open fires. They don't even have bamboo containers as only thin bamboo grows in their vicinity. Their bamboo drinking containers are obtained through barter with the highlands. The Asmat make no alcoholic drinks but they are keen smokers. However, as they grow no tobacco, they must barter for this favoured commodity with both inland tribes and visitors to the area. They drink the brackish water that surrounds them, collecting this at low tide when the saltiness is lowest.
Hunting wild pigs is considered as dangerous as headhunting. The Asmat use simple weapons and, although assisted by a hunting dog, the hunter must kill the animal himself. The rituals observed with the carrying of the slain animal to the public house, the welcome and praise given the hunter, even the butchering of the pig, are much the same as those observed with the taking of a head. An Asmat wild pig is almost black, so it is suggested that its colour makes it identifiable with the human being. A pair of boar’s tusks, worn around the arm, has a status value roughly equal to a headhunted human skull. In the past, they also used to wear large white shells shaped like tusks through their noses.
Taming of the Asmat:
The Asmat remained isolated from "modern" society until the 1950's, protected by their remote and rugged location. On one side is a mountain range covered by dense, almost impenetrable jungles and on the other, the mud flats of waterways with treacherous currents. There are currently an estimated 65,000 Asmat living in 60 villages. In the 1960's, some villages were as large as 1,000-1,500, while tiny ones had only 50-100. But the average was 300-400.
The Crosiers, Catholic missionaries, were the first Westerners to establish a permanent presence near the Asmat territory in 1958. In 1961, Michael Rockefeller disappeared in Asmat territory. He was collecting Asmat art for the New York Museum of Primitive Art and no one knows what happened to him after his boat capsized and he was stranded in a bank in the middle of a river. Some believe he drowned or was eaten by crocodiles. Others believe that he made it to shore, but was killed and eaten by the Asmat. Yet others believe he just went native to be among the Asmat that he so admired.
Irian Jaya came under Indonesian rule in 1962. The Indonesians forbade all ceremonies and feasts and the use of carving tools. In 1963, festival houses and other cultural and ritual items were burned. Dancing and drumming were prohibited. Foreigners were not allowed into Asmat territory until 1991.
Irian Jaya was called Netherlands New Guinea until 1962, then West New Guinea. After 1963, it was administered by the Republic of Indonesia as the province of Irian Barat (West Irian) pending final status. In August 1969, West Irian was officially declared part of Indonesia.
Neighbours of the Asmat: The forest-dwelling Korowai have taken to building tree houses near the top of 40m tall trees. They are believed to do this for safety from the Asmat. The only into their house is a springy climbing pole which can be pulled up quickly. The pole is also placed so an eye can be kept on it from anywhere in the house. Nevertheless, the Korowai themselves practice cannibalism, but only on those of their members which they believe are warlocks (male witches). Such individuals, they believe, are driven by the urge to become cannibals and must thus be tried, tortured and eaten.
The Korowai live in the Geelvink Bay region at the westernmost end of Irian Jaya. Their art is distinctly individualistic. Although they are not headhunters, their art also incorporate ancestor figures which they believe are home to souls of the dead.
Following the natural death of an important person (like a chief or a first-born Son), a vigil is kept near the body until the head drops off by itself. This takes about twenty days. The flesh from the skull is allowed to decompose (this takes up to three months) before it is placed in a newly carved receptacle called the korwar. The relatives meditate in front of the korwar and ask the advice of the spirit. Belief in the presence of the spirit is so strong that if anything unusual occurs during meditation, such as an unexpected twitch or a sharp pain, it is taken that the korwar disapproves of the request being made. The korowar are displayed at major events such as births and weddings.
More neighbours of the Asmat: The Mimica people produce shields and plates depicting figures with prominent navels. Their region is located to the immediate west of the Asmat territory. The people of Minica believe that the spirit of a child enters a woman via her navel and conception then occurs. Mimica women stand on the seashore waiting to catch the child-spirit from the ocean winds.
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