Legs are roots, body is a trunk, head is a crown: how life works in the Indonesian Asmat tribe

They believe they came from trees and can stand for centuries. If they are not broken by evil forces. To prevent this from happening, the Asmats carve dead ancestors from the wood, make boats of spirits and smoke the mummies of leaders on charcoal


Black people living on the southwestern coast of the island of New Guinea, in the Indonesian province of Papua. The population is about 70 thousand people. They speak the Asmat language, which is a trans-New Guinea language. Build villages on the seashore or in the jungle. The main occupations are hunting and agriculture. Until the middle of the 20th century, cannibalism and headhunting were practiced.

Asmats are wood carvers. Their ritual sculptures are considered works of art. They profess animism. In the second half of the 20th century, many converted to Catholicism. Since 1949, Papua has belonged to the Netherlands. In 1963, the UN transferred it to the power of Indonesia. The Asmats, like other tribes of Papua, hoped that the province would receive the status of an independent republic within Indonesia, but this did not happen. Since then, the Asmats have been fighting for freedom and the preservation of traditions.

Legs — roots, body — trunk, head —crown: how life works in Indonesian Asmat tribe

Legs — roots, body &mdash ; trunk, head — crown: how life works in the Indonesian Asmat tribe

Beni Berif

Asmat, born in 1980.
Growed up in the jungles of the Indonesian province of Papua.
Works in Jakarta at the theme park Taman Mini “Indonesia Indah”: tells Indonesians about the Asmat culture.

“Each of us is like a tree”

At work in Jakarta, I wear shorts and a T-shirt. This is the requirement of the Indonesian government. But at home, in Papua, I walk almost naked even down the street. On my head I wear a bandage made of monitor lizard skin with feathers of cassowary birds: Asmats have a close connection with the jungle, our ancestors come from the forest. And I close the intimate place with a cat. This is a cover made of dried and hollowed lagenaria bottle gourd, which our men put on the genitals. Ropes made of sago palm leaves are attached to the case, they are wrapped around the waist. While you are in the koteka, mosquitoes will not bite! Kidding. In fact, the koteka is the only hygienic clothing available for men in the jungle.

We have almost no clean water to wash. Around only rotten swamp. Since the 1970s, the Indonesian authorities have been trying to force the Asmats to wear “human things”, as they say. There was even a government operation “Koteka”. But in the end, my fellow tribesmen developed skin diseases due to dirty clothes, and we returned to our traditional covers.

Legs — roots, body — trunk, head —crown: how life works in Indonesian Asmat tribe

Through koteka we connect with the first people of the Earth, our ancestors. Asmats believe: before the Creation of the world, people lived beyond the horizon, where the sun sets in the afternoon – dies to be born again. One day two of them, a man and a woman, sinned. And then God banished them to earth. They descended into the mountains. And they discovered their nakedness, which they had not noticed before. Then the man put on a koteka, and the woman a skirt made of palm fibers. If we bury this custom now, the ancestral spirits will grind us down like sago.

According to legend, Asmatov was created by one of the first people on earth. His name was Fumeripitis. I don't know why he ended up alone, perhaps the man's wife was eaten by a crocodile. Phumeripitis went into the forest and, out of boredom, carved figures of men and women from mangroves and iron trees, as well as a drum, which he called typhus. Then he began to beat the typhus to cheer, and then the figures came to life and began to dance. This is how the Asmats appeared.

We believe that each of us is like a tree: the legs are the roots, the body is the trunk, the head is the crown. And, like trees, we are able to live for a long time if evil forces do not try to cut down or dry us up. In general, if an asmat dies not at birth and not from old age, then evil is to blame.

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“The spirit of the deceased Asmat usually evaporates”

The evil forces are the spirits of the ancestors. They nest in trees. The most terrible & nbsp; – osbopany. During their lifetime they were villains and after death they have not changed: they send misfortunes on us. Asmats are also pursued by dambin-ou, the spirits of ancestors who did not die by their own death. These spirits take revenge on the living descendants for the murder. And there are the spirits of people who have recently died and want to take the rest with them. Until they are taken away, they will not go to the afterlife kingdom of Safar. When they hunt for our souls, the village is covered with diseases and pestilence.

In order for the dead to stop dragging people to the other world, we carve the figures of the dead from mangrove, teak or sago trees – kaue. Often we take a whole trunk and cut out a chain of figures from it: one stands on the shoulders of the other, as if growing out of it. At the bottom of the trunk – sculptures of distant ancestors, at the top – recently departed. It's called a bis. This is how my people depict the connection of generations, a family tree.

Legs — roots , body — trunk, head —crown: how life works in the Indonesian Asmat tribe

The ability to create kaue and bis was passed on to us from Fumeripitis and continues to be passed on to our children with mother's milk – tree sap. On the Day of Remembrance of the Dead, carvers whose relatives have left this world go to make figures in a ritual house made of iron wood, covered with sago leaves. The house is called Yeu. Inside there is nothing but tools for carving kaue: bamboo knives, bones, shells. Our masters sit right on the floor – a flooring of bamboo stalks, so they are closer to the ground, the roots. Asmats have no furniture at all, even in residential buildings.

When the sculptures are ready, all the men of the tribe gather in yeu, beat tifa, perform a dance: they jump on the spot, loudly pronounce the names of the dead and ask the ancestors to take the souls of the deceased in Safar. After that, we take the kaue to the thicket, cut it with an ax and cover it with palm leaves. Otherwise, the spirits of the dead will return.

1/3After the bis ritual, the Asmats take the kaue to the thicket and cover them with palm leaves so that the evil forces do not return

If the kaue did not help and the people continue to wither away, we knit mask dresses from sago ropes that completely cover the body and head, with slits for the eyes. The mask should resemble the features of a dead man who will never go to Safar. A man from the tribe puts on this outfit and temporarily transforms into the deceased. He goes around all the houses & nbsp; – says goodbye to the village. Then the inhabitants gather at the Yeu and dance – they see off the deceased. After that, the masked man hides in the jungle. And the spirit of the deceased Asmat usually evaporates.

Well, if the masks didn’t work, the boats of spirits remain – vuramon. They don't have a bottom. And between the sides, wooden figures of creatures are inserted like transverse beams, which, according to the beliefs of the Asmats, give life. This is, for example, the wood turtle (mbu): it lays so many eggs that we consider it a symbol of fertility. In addition to the Mbu, the tribesmen depict human-like water spirits (etsjo). They help keep you from drowning. We name each of the figures in honor of the deceased, whom we want to see off to Safar. We lower the boat into the river, and it floats away.

Legs — roots, body — trunk, head —crown: how life works in the Indonesian Asmat tribe

It depends on the dead relatives whether we will return from the hunt alive. In order to shoot snakes and cassowaries, one often has to swim through the marshy rivers that fill most of our jungles. Dangerous occupation. Crocodiles often attack along the way. For protection, we name each hunting boat after one of the deceased whom we want to remember, and on its bow we carve wooden kaues of this deceased and his deceased ancestors. Outside, we cover the canoe with white paint from crushed shells. It is a symbol of bones, what remains after death. The inner side of the canoe is red, the dye is made from clay. Color means blood, life. The hunter is always between life and death.

It happens that the game is not caught. But if we constantly honor the memory of our ancestors, they will not let us starve. They will send sago palms. From their trunks we get delicious sago grits, and we cut the bark into thin slices, dry, fry and eat. Or matoa. These fruits grow on trees, they have a thin yellow-green shell, and inside – a transparent white pulp. Satisfies both thirst and hunger. Personally, I eat them from morning to evening, so I am always alert and healthy.

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“A sick person should not be fed or treated”

Illness is certain death. If one of ours suddenly fell ill, his relatives enclose the part of the house where this person lies with sago branches, while they themselves stay away from him. After all, the patient can take the whole family with him to the afterlife. A sick person should not be fed or treated. Only spirits can bring him back to life.

If the patient still dies, he must be immediately taken out and put on a bamboo flooring. There the body will rest until it decomposes. The forest gave & nbsp; – the forest took. Some people take the skull into the house and put it under their head instead of a pillow in order to feel a connection with their ancestors. However, some of my fellow tribesmen let the canoe with the dead downstream. And recently, Asmats are increasingly burying relatives according to Christian customs.

The death of a tribal leader is a special grief. After all, he, like the bark of a tree, protects us from the effects of evil forces. The leader is a guide to the world of spirits, he knows how to communicate with them. He cannot be buried like mere mortals. Therefore, the relatives of the deceased build a hut – honai from the leaves of the sago palm tree, make a fire in it and smoke the body. In order for the process not to be interrupted, relatives are required to maintain the fire around the clock. After 30 days, the skin turns black, shrinks – a mummy is formed. We place it on top of the nearest hill or mountain. There the spirit of the leader continues to protect us from evil.

Legs — roots, body — trunk, head —crown: how life works in Indonesian Asmat tribe

We want to live long. But if no one dies, our race will cease to exist. Asmats believe that conception takes place in another world. The spirit of the ancestor is infused into the future mother, and the sex of the child depends on whether a man entered into her or a woman. Each deceased relative gives life to one of the Asmats. If a girl is born, she is raised by women until the age of 17. A boy lives with his mother until the age of six, and then undergoes an initiation rite – initiation into a man. After that, he grows under the supervision of other men.

Legs — roots, body — trunk, head —crown: how life works in the Indonesian Asmat tribe

Previously, we believed that the death of fellow tribesmen required vengeance, therefore, for each deceased, someone from the warring tribe was killed and his body was eaten by the whole community. And the head of the slain was used for the ritual of initiation into men. The boy was left for three days in Yeu. He squeezed the skull of the enemy between his legs and absorbed the spirit of the deceased through the genitals. So the evil was completely absorbed, and the boy, having accomplished his first feat, matured.

Now the initiation is different. The boy lives for several months in yeu and waits until the day of the vuramon boat arrives. Then he will have to enter the river and lie on his stomach on the wooden figures. Then the boy returns to the shore, and one of the men of the tribe carves some drawings on his body, usually the spirits depicted on the vuramon. From that moment on, the boy becomes a man, a real Asmat.

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“We will not stop fighting for freedom”

Ever since Indonesia forcibly annexed Papua in the 1960s, our people have been crushed by an iron tree trunk. The Indonesian authorities are eradicating the traditions of the Asmats. They dig mines in the sacred mountains, where the first people of the Earth came from, they are looking for gold there. Cutting down Forrests. We are forbidden to appear in kotekas in public places and perform rituals. They take the Asmats to Jakarta and do not allow them to stay as a diaspora. We have to create families with representatives of other tribes. As a result, our people forget the language, culture.

We are “monkeys” for the Indonesians. When Asmats stage protests, they are imprisoned and killed. The only thing the conquerors recognize is our kaue. They are exhibited at the Museum of Asmat Culture and Progress in the city of Agats. But we will not stop fighting for freedom. We will not allow to destroy what our ancestors planted. As long as we fight and uphold our customs, we will not be uprooted.

Papua, Indonesia*

Legs — roots, body — trunk, head —crown: how life works in Indonesian Asmat tribe

Administrative center Jayapura
Province area of ​​Papua 319,036 km² (1st in Indonesia)
Population 3,347,100 (21st place)
Population density 10.5 people/km²

Indonesia area 1,904,569 km² (14th place in world)
Population ~ 277.8 million people (4th place)
Population density 143 people/km²

SIGHTSLorenz National Park is the largest in Southeast Asia; Mount Jaya, the highest in Oceania (4884 m); Mount Mandala (4757 m).
TRADITIONAL DISHESpapeda – a decoction of sago flour with grilled fish; tuna yellow soup.
TRADITIONAL DRINKS matoa juice, rainwater.
SOUVENIRS dried gourd koteka, sago fiber skirt, typhus drum, wooden sculptures.

DISTANCEfrom Moscow to Jayapura ~11,050 km (from 18 hours of flight excluding transfers)
TIME ahead of Moscow by 6 hours
VISA Russians need it, can be obtained at the airport
CURRENCY Indonesian rupiah (100,000 IDR ~ 6.6 USD)< /p>

* In 2022, the province of Papua, which occupied a large part of the Indonesian territory of New Guinea, was divided into four provinces: Papua, Central Papua, Papua Pegunungan and South Papua


Material published in Vokrug Sveta magazine No. 9, November 2020, partially updated in July 2023

Katerina Mironova

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