The untamed world of the Baliem Valley of West Papua, New Guinea, was first spotted by Richard Archbold in 1938. He spied the mighty mangroves below as he flew over, tucked safe away in his plane. No one would actually visit the exotic forests until Lloyd van Stone, a missionary, came along in the early 50s. Following suit, Rokefeller Jr., a New York state governor’s son, came to the valley with a team of researchers in 1961. Unfortunately, their story did not end with a fate as nice as Stone or Archbold; they had vanished into the ragged woodlands, never to be seen or heard from again.
Today, we live in a very exciting time. It’s the twenty-first century, and many countries around the world are gifted with advanced technology including some of our favorites such as: the Ipod, the laptop, the TV, the cellphone (or any phone for that matter), and my personal love, the internet. That does not mean, however, that there are some places on Earth that have yet to be touched by modern society. One place rich in ancient culture is Indonesia, particularly Papua. In the woodlands of this unforgiving island there exists, even today, many primitive tribes.
Though most tribes reside on the more western reaches of the island, there are still civilizations surviving in what would otherwise be considered the inhospitable parts of Papua, New Guinea. In these places, there are a few main clans that are scattered about the island, alive with outlandish cultures: the Kombai tribe, and the Yali (the mountain people). There are also tribes called the Dani, and the Asmat. It is said that they, as well as surrounding clans of primitive people, have all but ended the advancing of their technology at the last part of the younger Stone Age, or the Neolithic period. But perhaps the most shocking characteristic that still haunts the rainforests of West Papua, would be the rather morbid idea of cannibalism. This ominous tradition continues even to this day, particularly by the Asmat, whose dark legends come alive thanks to their gruesome, cannibalistic ways. Even more dangerous, are the Korowai Dalam, or the people of the trees.
Let’s go back to the 1960s again, and find out exactly why these people are so dangerous-that is, if the fact that they’re cannibals doesn’t already say enough. Here is a brief look at the most recent acts: 1968, an Australian and an American, both missionaries, (Stan Dole and Phil Masters) were hacked and devoured by one of the primitive tribes. Later, an unfortunate-to say the least-Christmas roles around in the winter of 1974, in which four Dutch families found themselves as dinner in the Jayawijaya Mountains, whose hills are filled with hungry aborigines. Upon an endeavor to refuse natives the right to hunt for skulls, a priest as well as twelve others were eaten just two years later.
But why all this bloodshed? The Korowai themselves have claimed that they actually do not eat humans after all … they just eat khakhua, which to them, is an evil spirit that takes over the bodies of their tribesmen. A Korowai member called Boas, explains, “The khakhua eats the victim’s insides while he sleeps, 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.” ( Smithsonian Magazine ). Once the tribe unravels the individual’s horrid secret, they will kill whoever it is they dub a “khakhua” and eat them afterward.
To the tree people of Papua, it is not cruel to eat another human if they are a khakhua. But who exactly is considered to be a khakhua then? Because the Korowai, like any other primitive tribe, depends on the lands to keep them alive, this sometimes results in conflicts between families, including murder and other incidents that are frowned upon in their society. A person who is sick or dying can also be considered a khakhua, because the evil spirit that has taken over their body is the cause of their illness. This and other reasons can result in cannibalism among not only other tribes, but within their own family. But, in the end, it seems as if payback can be the biggest reason for someone in a different tribe being a khakhua. “Revenge is a part of our culture, so when the khakhua eats a person, the people eat the khakuha.” says one of the tribesmen ( Smithsonian Magazine ).
One tradition in pointing out khakuahs is coming to an end: witchcraft. It’s not that the tribes have stopped believing in witchcraft; on the contrary, to them, witchcraft is still alive and well, and definitely evil. To find the cause for this lack of punishment on those who supposedly practice dark arts, you have to look back a few years. The fact that they mostly back off on dark arts is a result of several events that included police officers falling victim to the tribes. One occurrence was written about in the journal Oceania by Rupert Stasch in the 1990s. Stasch, an anthropologist from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, had claimed that his brother-in-law was devoured the tribe after being considered one of these evil spirits. Upon arresting the tribe member who had killed his sister’s husband, he forced the man and one of his assistants into barrels and rolled them around. He also made them eat a variation of distasteful objects, including: unripe fruit, animal dung, chili peppers, and tobacco.
Though people who may or may not practice “witchcraft” are probably safe around the Korowai Dalam, there are still cannibalistic incidents that play out even today. According to Bailom of the tree people, he and his fellow tribesmen had ran after another member called Bunop because they were told he was being eaten by a khakhua. After tying him up, they took him to the brook and shot arrows into him. All the while Bunop screamed and begged for mercy, crying that he was not a khakhua. Doubtful of his claims, Bailom and the others continued until Bunop was dead. Afterward, they chopped off his head using a stone ax. In tradition they turned the head to face away from the body. In more detail, Bailom describes the scene: “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.” (Smithsonian Magazine ). Like any other meal, the tribe cooked Bunop, or the “khakua,” using palm leaves to wrap up the meat and steam the body. Bailom and the others feel as if their actions are justified, as he explains, “It’s normal. I don’t feel sad I killed Bunop, even though he was my friend.”
Smithsonian Magazine (www.smithsonianmag.com)
Papua Trekking (www.papuatrekking.com)