Asmat is probably the most well known tribe in Papua
(formerly called Irian Jaya). They become famous not only through their
head-hunting practices in the past, but also because of their unique ideas and
wonderful designs in woodcarving which is considered one among the world's
To the Asmat, woodcarving was inextricably connected with
the spirit world, and therefore, the carving cannot just be principally
considered aesthetic objects. Much of the highly original art of the Asmat is
symbolic of warfare, headhunting, and warrior-ancestor veneration.
For centuries the Asmat were preoccupied with the
necessity of appeasing ancestor spirits, producing a wealth of superbly designed
shields, canoes, sculptured figures, and drums.
The name Asmat most
probably comes from the Asmat words As Akat, which according to Asmat people
means "the right man". Moreover, it's also said that Asmat comes from the word
Osamat that means "man from tree". The Asmat's neighbors to the west, the Mimika,
however, claim the name is derived from their word for the tribe- "manue",
meaning "man eater".
Natives of the region are
divided into two main groups; those living along the coasts, and those in the
interior. They differ in dialect, way of life, social structure, and ceremonies.
The coastal rivers are further divided into two groups, the Bisman people
between the Sinesty and Nin Rivers, and the Simai people.
Around 70,000 Asmat, the
area's largest tribe, are scattered in 100 villages in a territory of roughly
27,000 square km live in a huge tidal swamp land. The tribe was untouched by
civilization until recent times. Dutch outpost, missionary settlements, and
foreign expeditions finally made in road on this isolated culture during the
1950 and 60's.
Formerly, the families of
the entire tribe resided together in houses up to 28 meters long called yeus.
Yeus still used, but not only by men, as clubhouse where bachelors sleep.
Upriver Asmat still live in longhouses, some even construct houses in treetops.
The Asmat live on sago,
their staple, as well as mussels, snails, and fat insect larvae collected from
decaying stumps of sago palms. These last are eaten to the accompaniment of
throbbing drums and ritual dances; larvae feast can sometimes last up to two
weeks. The Asmat also gather forest products such as rattan, catch fish and
shrimp in large hoop nets.
Almost the entire Asmat region is covered in water during
the rainy season, when high tide reaches up to two km inland and low tide flows
up to two km out to sea. This is the largest alluvial swamp in the world, a
low-lying stone less territory of bog forest and meandering rivers emptying into
the Arafura sea.
In the rivers swarm with shrimp, fish, lobster, crab,
fresh water dolphin, sea snake and crocodiles. Living along the banks are
lizards, that grow longer than the Komodo dragon. The forests contain palms,
ironwood, merak wood, and mangroves, and are home for crown pigeons, hornbills,
and cockatoos. There are grass meadows, and flowers like the Dedrobium orchid.
The climate is hot and humid. The rainy season stretches
from October to May, with an average of 40 cm of precipitation each year. The
east monsoon season runs from April April to June, west monsoons strike December
Asmat woodcarving is
considered one among the world's finest. To the Asmat, woodcarving was
inextricably connected with the spirit world, and therefore, the carving can not
just be principally considered aesthetic objects. Much of the highly original
art of the Asmat is symbolic of warfare, headhunting, and warrior-ancestor
veneration. For centuries the Asmat were preoccupied with the necessity of
appeasing ancestor spirits, producing a wealth of superbly designed shields,
canoes, sculptured figures, and drums.
Particularly to call the
still common stone axe, bone knifes as well as the grave stick to remove the
hard skin from a Sago Tree and the wooden Sago hammer. For the decoration of the
body we have to name the bones from the wings of a flying fox. The Korowai women
place this in the nose. Also the necklace from dog´s tooth are really important
for them. The mother give these necklaces to the daughter and this is still in
use. The men use necklaces from pig´s tooth. The women use only a small skirt
made from tree skin and Sago fibres. The men use only a leaf around the penis.
Some groups have just the half of a nut around the penis. Around the chest you
can see also some rotanings. Without their net the women never move out of the
tree house. The men never move out without bow and arrows.