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 finest. 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. 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.
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