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The name “Asmat” most probably comes from the words As
Akat, which according to the Asmat means: “the right man”. Others say
that that the word Asmat derives from the word Osamat meaning “man from
tree”. Asmat’s neighbors to the west, – the Mimika- , however, claim that
the name is derived from their word for the tribe – “manue”, meaning
“man eater”. The approximately 70,000 Asmat
people of the south-central alluvial swamps of Papua Province are of a Papuan
genetic heritage. They are scattered in 100 villages across a 27,000 square
kilometer area in one of the worlds’ largest and most remote alluvial mangrove
swamps— a wet, flat, and marshy place, much of it covered with dense lowland
tropical rain forests. Many of the rivers near the coast rise and fall with the
tides. The Asmat are muscular and tall by New Guinea standards. They average
five feet six inches tall.
Until the
1970s, the Asmat tribe did not have regular contact with the western world.
During this time, they were not living in the Stone Age [yet]. This is because
stone itself was highly unavailable. It wasn’t until the regular visit of the
missionaries [in the 1970s] that they were introduced to knives, axes, and
other metal items.
 The area where the Asmat live encompasses some the
last unexplored regions of the world. The land is covered with bog forests and
mangrove and is serrated by many meandering rivers that empty into the Arafura
Sea. The tides submerge an area 100 miles inland. During high tide in the rainy
season, sea water penetrates some two kilometers inland and flows back out to
two kilometers to sea at low tide. During low tide the plains are muddy and
impassable. Here is the habitat of crocodiles, gray nurse sharks, sea snakes,
fresh water dolphins, shrimp, and crabs, while living along the banks are huge
lizards. The forests contain palms, ironwood, merak wood and mangroves and are
home to the crown pigeons, hornbills and cockatoos. There are grass meadows and
orchids. The Asmat have share the region with the Marind-Anim and the Mimika
 The Asmat have been described as a wood-age culture.
They traditionally have not used stone tools, simply because stones are hard to
find where they live. Up until white missionaries introduced steel fishing
hooks, knives and axes, the only metal or stone items they had were obtained by
trading with highland tribes, and these items were so precious that they were
usually reserved for ceremonial purposes.
 The Asmat speak a language that belongs to the
Asmat-Kamoro Family of the Non-Austronesian languages. Bahasa Indonesian is
spoken by many. The population growth rate among the Asmat is estimated at
around 1 percent. There is little migration into and out of the area where the
Asmat live.

contact with the Asmat was a sighting from the deck of a Dutch trading ship in
1623. Captain Cook later landed in Asmat territory on September 3, 1770, but
the fierce display by the Asmat so frightened the crew that they made a hasty
Dutch controlled the Asmat territory from 1793-1949, but did not begin
explorations of the area until the early 1900s. The first explorers sent
zoological and artifact specimens back to Europe, where they were received with
curiosity and enthusiasm. The Dutch eventually established a colonial post in
1938. During World War II the post was temporarily closed.
In 1953,
Fr. Zegwaard, a Dutch missionary, reestablished the post at Agats, to serve as
both a government center and a base for missionaries. Agats became the
permanent post of the Catholic Crosier Brothers in 1958. The Crosier
missionaries, who often had anthropology degrees, discouraged the traditional
practices of headhunting and cannibalism, while encouraging the Asmat to retain
many other traditional rituals and festivals. Some of these were eventually
incorporated into the local Catholic practices.

Indonesia received its independence from the Dutch in 1949, but the Dutch
retained control of the western half of New Guinea, including the Asmat region,
until 1962. Then the Asmat area became part of Indonesia. In 1963, to end
headhunting, the Indonesian government burned down all ceremonial houses (jeu),
actively discouraged Asmat ritual and festivals, and severely limited dancing
and drumming. This crackdown lasted until 1968.

Crosier Brothers, with Bishop Sowada as their lead spokesperson, intervened to
stop the destructive policy of the Indonesian government. The bishop expressed
the importance of ceremony and ritual in Asmat life, declaring that “without
art and ritual the Asmat culture could not survive”.

aid in the resurgence of Asmat art and ritual, the United Nations underwrote a
project from 1968 to 1974 to encourage wood carving. Later, under the combined
efforts of Bishop Sowada, Tobias Schneebaum, Gunter and Ursula Konrad, the
Asmat Museum for Culture and Progress was opened in the early 1980s. Today, the
Museum hosts an annual woodcarving competition and auction that has stimulated
artistic creativity among the Asmat, and has become an economic boon to the
carvers, who are recognized throughout the world for the richness and quality
of their carvings.

2000, the Asmat founded the Lembaga Musyawarah Adat Asmat (LMAA) to work with
the Indonesian government on behalf of the interests of the Asmat people. In
2004, the Asmat region became a separate governmental administration, with its
own elected head

 One of the most famous missing person cases is the
1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, the heir to the Rockefeller oil and
US Steel fortune and the son of Nelson Rockefeller, the American vice president
during the Ford administration. After graduating from Yale with a degree in
ethnology, the twenty-two-year-old Michael went on an expedition to the Asmat
area of New Guinea, where he traded tobacco and steel fishing hooks for carved
Asmat bis-poles to add to the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York.
 Rockefeller disappeared on his second expedition to
New Guinea. One of the goals of the expedition to the Asmat region was to
purchase as many woodcarvings as possible. On his first visit Michael had been
deeply impressed by the Asmat sculptures, and planned to display these at an
exhibition in the United States. Today the Metropolitan Museum has an
outstanding collection of Asmat art, the majority of which was collected in
1961 by Michael C. Rockefeller. A group of 17 poles from the village of Otjanep
was delivered to the museum after his disappearance.
 Michael Rockefeller was last seen on November 16, 1961
in a jerry-rigged catamaran bound for the village of Otjaneps. He had left the
town of Agats with two mission boys and the Dutch anthropologist Renee Wassing
when the boat’s 18-horsepower motor conked out in the mouth of the Sirets
river. The two boys immediately started swimming for shoreline to get help and
Rockefeller and Davis spent the night on the boat as it drifted out to sea. The
next morning Rockefeller could still see the shore. He tied his steel rimmed
glasses around his neck and attached himself to empty oil cans for buoyancy.
His last words were “I think I can make it.”
 Rockefeller was never seen again. The Dutch navy,
various missionary boats, the Australian Air Force and an American aircraft
carrier participated in the search. Nelson Rockefeller and Michael’s twin
sister Mary arrived in a chartered plane and hired 12 Neptune aircraft to
search the sea and paid the Asmat large amounts of black tobacco in return for
participating in search parties. The search lasted for 10 days before it was
 The Lawrence and Lorne Blair suggest that Rockefeller
was either eaten by sharks, drowned or was eaten by Asmat headhunters. To back
up the last hypothesis they suggest he might have been killed in revenge for
the murder of four Asmat warleaders by a Dutch government patrol in 1958. They
also point out that seems likely he made it to land because it is possible to
touch the sea bottom three kilometers from shore and wade in from a kilometers
and half out. Locals say there are few sharks in the water and the only thing
they worry about is stepping on a stingray.
 An elder war leader in Otjanep told the Blairs that
after returning from fishing some of his friends found Rockefeller laying in
the mud, breathing heavily. Relatives of the friends had been killed by the
Dutch and they speared Rockefeller out of revenge and then dragged his body back
to the village where his head was cut off with a bamboo knife. The cuts were
cleaned out and the body was thrown on a fire. The meat was divided among the
people of the village and the most important men ate the brains.

 Many Asmat have converted to Christianity, although a
large number continue to practice the religion of their ancestors. For example,
many believe that all deaths—except those of the very old and very young—come
about through acts of malevolence, either by magic or actual physical force.
Ancestral spirits demand vengeance for these deaths. The ancestors to whom they
feel obligated are represented in shields, in large, spectacular wood carvings
of canoes, and in ancestor poles consisting of human figurines. Until the late
1980s, the preferred way for a young man to fulfill his obligations to his kin
and his ancestors and prove his sexual prowess was to take the head of an enemy
and offer the body for cannibalistic consumption by other members of the
village The Asmat have traditionally been animists who believed in a
pantheon of spirits that dwelled in trees, rivers or natural objects or were
spirits of deceased ancestors. The goal of religion was to bring about harmony
and balance with the cosmos. This was achieved through a variety rituals and
practices interwoven with daily life that traditionally included things like
woodcarving, warfare and headhunting. The spirits of ancestors are believed to
be the cause of many illnesses and some rituals are meant to appease them.  Asmat
religious practitioners include sorcerers and shaman, whose primary duties are
to mediate between the human and spiritual world, often in the form of healing
and exorcisms. To become a shaman requires a long apprenticeship. Clan leaders
preside over rituals and ceremonies such as adult adoption, initiation and the
construction of men’s houses. Asmat rituals have traditionally been performed
in accordance with a two- or four-year cycle and included dancing, epic poem
singing and woodcarving. Revenge warfare and headhunting raids were often
performed in accordance with the ritual calendar. ~
 The Asmat equate a human with a tree. The legs are the
roots, the torso is the trunk, the branches, arms, and the head, fruit. In the
old days in some parts of the Asmat world a freshly severed head—the fruit—was
needed for initiation rites in which a boy became a man by placing the head
between his thighs to draw its power
 In the beginning, according to the Asmat creation
myth, a corpse of a man floating in the sea was brought to life by a great
bird. In a previous life the man had seduced his brother’s wife and was
banished from his community and drowned when his boat capsized during his
escape. On returning to life he floated to the land where the Asmat live today.
But there was on one there and he grew bored. He tried bring to life some
statues he carved but no luck, finally the spirit told him to go into the
jungle to seek out the “tree woman.”
 The man was told to chop off the tree woman’s head and
return it to village where it would bring the statues he made to life. The man
did what he was told. The spirit was right and soon the statues were dancing
around to his delight. Then, one day a crocodile showed up and it and the man
engaged in a horrible battle. The man eventually emerged the winner but he was
so angry he chopped the crocodile in three pieces: one he hurled so far it lost
its color. This produced the white race. Another was tossed a little less hard
so it lost only part of its color. This produced man with brown skin. The third
was left where it was giving rise to black men.

In ancient times, a God
named Fumeripitsy came down to earth. He explored the earth and started his
adventure from the western horizon of the sunset. In his adventure, the God had
to confront a giant crocodile and defeat him. Despite the victory, the god was
badly wounded and washed up on a river bank.
Although felt hurt, the
God tried to survive until he met a flamingo bird that is noble. He helped the
Gods to recover from the wound. After recovering, the gods lived in that area
and built a house then carved two very beautiful statues. He also made a very
loud drum sound to keep him dancing endlessly. The dance movement of the God
was so powerful that it makes the two sculptures carved into life. Soon after,
the two statues joined in the dance and moved to follow the God. The two
statues were the first human couple to be the ancestors of the Asmat tribe.
The mythological about
the descents of the God is a trust owned by the Asmat Tribe, one of the largest
tribes in Papua. This myth keeps the Asmat tribe believing that they are gods
until now. It is not excessive, because Asmat does have a culture that is highly
respected. In fact, this tribe has been known to foreign countries.  That
is why it’s not surprised if there are many researchers from around the world
often visit the village of the tribe Asmat. They are generally interested in
studying the life of the Asmat, its belief system, and the unique customs of
the Asmat tribe.
 Many Asmat have converted to Christianity. There has
been a great effort to adapt Christianity to the needs of the Asmat. One
missionary said, “We can stretch our minds as far as possible and still we
can never see the world as the Asmat do.” In an effort to help the Asmat
“find God in the natural world,” Father Vince Cole wears and tooth
necklace and fur headband over his red shirt and cut-off blue jeans.
Attempting to rebuild the Asmat culture, which was nearly
destroyed in the 1960s by the Indonesian government, which tore down men’s
house, outlawed feasts and destroyed sacred objects, the Crosiers incorporated
Asmat rituals into their Catholic services. They also acted as mediators in
clan conflicts and as intermediary between the Asmat and the Indonesian
government. Some Catholic churches have been modeled after the traditional
men’s house with fire pits, ancestor poles and altars made from huge tree
trunks. Christ is depicted with a crown of feathers. Worshipers at one church
are called to prayer with a bell made from an old brake drum. At prayer
meetings held at the traditional men’s house men come with painted bodies,
egret feathers stuck in their headbands, and daggers made from cassowary
shinbones. The worshipers drum, dance, pass around roasted sago as a sign of
sharing, and read passages from a Bible translated into the Asmat language.
 The Asmat believe that when they killed and ate a
person, they became that person and absorbed his skills. This is similar, of
course, to the Catholic belief that we eat the body of Christ to become Christ.
So missionaries say, ‘Look you don’t have to go out and kill. You now have
Christ’…What are Catholics after all, but ritualist cannibals?”
The Asmat have also done their bit to adapt to Christian
Western culture. In the village of Agats they are forbidden from appearing
naked. Some worked for several weeks to earn money for shorts.
 Asmat funeral ceremonies feature ceremonial shields
which represent the revenge of the dead, ancestor poles (bis) and
ancestor figures (kawa). There is often intense grieving and physical
expressions of loss. To express their grief over the loss of a husband Asmat
women traditionally rolled in patches beside their house. The ritual was
intended not only as an expression of grief but also a way to mask the woman’s
scent from his ghost. Other mourners cover their head with red clay and stab
the earth with bone daggers.
 Sometimes the Asmat begin mourning the dead before
they are dead. There was a story of a man who was dying when the villagers
rushed into his house to wail over him and “suffocated the poor
fellow.” Another time a woman collapsed in front of her house. Her family
gather around inside the house expressing their grief and received a terrible
shock when the “dead” woman walked in demanding to know what was
going on. Apparently she only fainted.
 The purpose of an Asmat funeral is to placate the
spirits of the dead so they don’t bother the living. Those successfully
placated enter safon; “the other side.” The bodies of Asmat dead
used to be wrapped in pandanus leaves placed on platforms to rot after the head
had been removed and was worn as pendant or used as a pillow.
 Until the 1950s, warfare, headhunting, and cannibalism
were constant features of Asmat social life. The people would build their
houses along river bends so that an enemy attack could be seen in advance. Many
Asmat believe that all deaths—except those of the very old and very young—come
about through acts of malevolence, either by magic or actual physical force.
Ancestral spirits demand vengeance for these deaths. The ancestors to whom they
feel obligated are represented in shields, in large, spectacular wood carvings
of canoes, and in ancestor poles consisting of human figurines. Until the late
1980s, the preferred way for a young man to fulfill his obligations to his kin
and his ancestors and prove his sexual prowess was to take the head of an enemy
and offer the body for cannibalistic consumption by other members of the
 The Asmat have traditionally practiced headhunting,
cannibalism as part of their ritualized warfare scheme which usually involved
revenge rectification of cosmic or clan imbalances. The heads from captured
enemies were baked and skinned; a hole was cut in the skull and the brain was
scraped out and eaten. The lower jaws were ripped off and worn as a pendant
advertising prowess in war, and the skull was used as a pillow. Asmat believe
they are related to praying mantises which also eat their own kind. Trophy skulls,
bone daggers, stone clubs are all associated with headhunting. As a symbol of their
headhunting skills men often wear bamboo and cassowary-quill pendants decorated
with human vertebrae. Women sometimes borrow the pendants during feasts and
wear them with dog-tooth necklaces and possum fur bonnets.
 Officially headhunting ended the Indonesian part of
New Guinea in the 1960s. But it still seemed to be going on in the 1970s and
who knows perhaps it goes on from time to time even now in remote areas. Some
anthropologists have said prohibition of clan warfare and headhunting has left
a huge void in Asmat culture that the modern world has yet to replace.
 The Asmat have traditionally believed that only the
very young and very old die from natural causes. Everybody else died as a
result of black magic or tribal fighting. Therefore, almost every death needs
to be avenged. In the old days this concept resulted in headhunting raids and
revenge wars. These day the power of the dead is still taken very seriously but
is dealt with ceremonial rituals but “avenging” still may occur.
 Asmat warfare was traditionally in the form of raids,
ambushes and skirmishes. Head hunting raids were usually organized to avenge
the killing of a member of the raider’s tribe. Before the raid began the men
painted themselves and decorated their canoes while women prepared a victory
feast and exhorted their men to fight bravely. If you don’t fight, you can be
branded a coward, a traitor. The young people grow up hearing their leaders
talk about the great wars. Then they go out and fight too.
 Another way for one tribe to make peace with another
is for a chief in one tribe to give a child to another, often to make amends
for a child killed in a previous raid. To ease tensions sometimes neighboring
villages adopt members of each other’s tribe. During the “adoption”
“children” paint their faces with ocher and cover their heads with
palm leaves. Men of the other tribe lay naked and face down and their women
stand above them. The “children” then climb over the men’s bodies and
through the women’s legs in an act meant to symbolize coming through the womb.
The woman moan as if they are in labor and the “children” keep their
eyes closed until they have emerged. When a child is through the woman’s legs
the “father” announces the successful birth. The “children” continue
playing their roll for several more days, acting childish and learning how to
fish and hunt.

 An Asmat raiding party typically took off in canoes
and parked them a couple of river bends before the village they planned to
attack. One of the chiefs got out to scout a good route. The raiding party then
broke into two groups: one heading through the forest and other advancing in
canoes. When groups were in position a handful of lime was thrown into the air
signaling the raid to begin. Surprise was important. The idea was to kill everybody
before they had a chance to get their weapons. As many as forty or fifty people
were killed in some raids, including women and children. While the bodies
of the dead were dragged to trenches for burial the headhunters sang: “We
have killed a man, we have killed a man, we are happy.” Dragging the
bodies through the trenches the warriors shouted, “There’s no need for you
to attack us again. We’ve revenged our dead now, so let’s live in peace.”
The heads were then cut off with bamboo knives and carried home. Once in the
villages the warriors went into their ceremonial house and displayed each head
and related the story of how it was captured.
 Journalist Malcolm Kirk landed at a village in the
Asmat area in the 1970s. The atmosphere he said was disturbing. The town was
unnaturally quiet and the men who greeted them were armed with bows and arrows.
His guide told him that they had better get out of there, “I’ll explain
why later.” When they were safely around a bend in their boat the guide
said, “We walked right into a head hunting raid. Everyone we saw was from
another village. The [villagers] heard them coming and fled.” Kirk then went to
another village, called to, and traded some tobacco and fishhooks for some bone
and crocodile jaw daggers. When they went back to their boat their guide told
them that 15 bowmen watched them from the jungle ready to kill on signal. But
why? “The Two people had recently gone head hunting and killed five
people. They thought we might have come to punish them,” the guide said
 The Indonesian government no longer allows revenge
killing and the consumption of human brains. To end Asmat clan warfare, the
government banned Asmat festivals and burned their carvings. Attacks, ambushes
and skirmishes still occur from time to time. Missionaries complain that if the
Asmat were left to their own devises they would spend all their time drumming,
dancing and plotting wars.
Although the Dutch
colonial government did not cover the territory of Asmat until 1938, and
Catholic missionaries also just started their mission in 1958, in fact major
changes occurred in the region after the 60s. In the early 90s, Asmat tribes
began to follow education programs from the government and began to embrace
As the wood and oil
processing industries began expanding into this region, fragile environmental
conditions and mangrove forests in their coastal areas are threatened with
destruction due to waste disposal and soil erosion. Although the Asmat have
succeeded in achieving national and international awards for their artwork,
this fame has not provided significant input to the Indonesian government in
making decisions affecting land use in the Asmat territory until the early 90s.
Those are the history of
Asmat Tribe Indonesia. Behind the admiration of Asmat’s art it might embedded
in the minds of the people that Asmat tribe is a primitive tribe and cannibal
humans who like to head enemies. Today Asmat tribe is more famous for its work
art in the field of sculpture and carving. No matter what cultures that Asmat
people have, it is one of the Indonesians culture that must be preserved.
Source: Peter and Kathleen Van
Arsdale, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by
Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991)
Source: Malcolm Kirk, National
Geographic, March 1972
Source: “Ring of Fire” by
Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York
Source: Library of Congress
©️ Johnson Jakins

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