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.
Every year, they conduct the Sago-Larva feast. Recently the local
government of West Papua together with the tourism office started the
yearly art and culture festival on the first week of October, to support
and maintain the Asmat art and culture. Besides traditional dance, during
the festival, they sell Asmat woodcarvings.
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.
Flora and Fauna
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
to March.back to the top