• WorldView
  • 17 Min Read
  • 16 Feb 2016

Meeting the Asmat in New Guinea

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For two tense hours in November of 1981 Bob and I stared across the shallows where the swamps of Irian Jaya merged into the Sea of Arafura in this western sector of the island of New Guinea, which was a province of Indonesia. With our fellow passengers we lined the railings of the M.S. Lindblad Explorer, squinting into the blaze.

At midday, our scouting party had set off in a Zodiac, one of the inflatable rubber launches with outboard motors that the Explorer carried to make landings at virtually inaccessible places. The team set off for the Asmat village of Biwar Laut to explain our coming, present gifts, and set the mood for a peaceful reception. Mike McDowell, an exuberant Australian adventurer, led the way with Sutan Wiesmar, our dignified Indonesian escort, close behind. And there was an eager tag-along, sixteen year-old Mark Heighes, nephew of Valerie Taylor. Val and her husband, Ron, talented Australian underwater film makers and marine naturalists, led our scuba and snorkeling explorations when the waters were clear.

Mike’s walkie-talkie was his fragile connection to the ship, anchored several miles from shore. By sundown we received no message from Mike. Evening closed in and the darkness beyond our cocoon of light and safely was absolute. Still no word.

There were uneasy murmurs among our sixty shipmates. We reminded each other that Irian Jaya was still largely unexplored. We recalled that the Asmats were the tribespeople among whom Michael Rockefeller, the young explorer-photographer, mysteriously disappeared in 1961. Some believed he was cannibalized.

The day before we had steamed past the town of Agats to seek people who were living as they’d lived since the dawn of time. These were jungle people who believed that their mythic ancestors were carved from wood and then imbued with life. They were despised by many Indonesians who called them less than human. Allowing our deepest dreads to rise into our awareness, we muttered to each other that the raids of an Asmat tribal war were swift and deadly. The victors carried home the heads of their victims and, with elaborate ceremony, consumed the brains so that they might incorporate their power.

By midnight, Valerie looked distraught. She cherished Mark like a son. But in reluctant recognition that we couldn’t help Mark, Mike or Wiesmar by staying awake, most of us crept away to our berths expecting (or now just hoping) that our own excursion would begin at dawn. And the wanderers did return. They slipped back aboard at two in the morning after feasting and drinking at Biwar Laut as the villagers celebrated Wiesmar’s reappearance.

Wiesmar was an adopted son of this tribe. On an earlier visit, he had explained, he had accepted their adoption ritual, a pantomime of birth. While a line of women stood with their legs spread wide apart, Wiesmar squirmed through this symbolic birth canal. When he emerged, dripping with sweat as a newborn might drip with amniotic fluid, his three new “mothers”–the chief’s three wives–stooped over and dangled their breasts so he could suckle. He feigned it, brushing his lips across their milkless nipples. Then the corpulent “baby” was lifted by a half dozen men, carried among the villagers, and was finally given his Asmat name.

Wiesmar was our passport.

At daybreak we began droning through the muddy waters. Our eyes smarted from scanning the distant, unbroken wall of lowland jungle, and straining for our first glimpse of the tribesmen. The walkie-talkies in our Zodiacs were the only means of communication with the ship and we would soon be beyond their range. My excitement was tinged with dread. Several months earlier, Mike told us, a party of German adventurers from a sailing vessel attempted to visit the village we were seeking today. They were driven away by a hail of deadly arrows.

Then a wave of nostalgia washed over me. I reached for Bob, my husband, and clutched his hand –a warm, strong hand, broad, with sturdy fingers and raggedy nails. It was two days before Thanksgiving, time to join with our daughter and son in our Connecticut home ––the home we’d soon be leaving to resettle in New Hampshire. What were we doing across the earth in this hot, damp, alien place?

As a psychotherapist I always search for the “whys,” the motives that steer our course through life. Were my husband and I unconsciously re-enacting an ancient drama? From earliest known time and throughout the world, traditional peoples have engaged in rites of passage to foster their transition from one place to another, one life phase to another.

Was our choice to travel across the world to a region this remote an unconscious rehearsal for the rupture we faced? Leaving the community where we had met, married, and reared our young was going to mean tearing away from the house, garden, streets, schools, shops, theaters, restaurant, offices, lecture halls, patients, students, colleagues and friends among which our lives had been enmeshed for nearly thirty years. It was going to be a kind of death. Were we drawn to the primal—the earliest modes of human life surviving today—to practice that death by disconnecting emphatically from our familiar existence?

Asmat warriors approach us. Photo by Bob McCollum.

My musings were interrupted when a flotilla of canoes streaked out from an unseen river mouth, each vessel propelled by a dozen or more standing men. In single file, exquisitely balanced in their narrow craft, their dark bodies worked in synchronized effort. Each thrust of the paddles, at least twice the men’s height, was punctuated by a deep and urgent grunt that resounded across the water. “Yu-wa. Yu-wa. Yi, Yi, eh!” As they approached we saw that the aged and the very young were seated between the men, not to be left out of this exuberant male excursion.

Now they were close. Their muscular bodies had been smeared with bold stripes of white lime and red ochre, incongruous with the trade store shorts they wore (and would doff as the day advanced). Their eyes were masked by designs that swirled across their foreheads and cheekbones and traveled down the bridge of their noses—broad noses with bulbous tips. Their nasal septums had been pierced and dragged downward by the weight of carved bone or shell ornaments, causing the nostrils to flare outward and upward like the wings of a bird in flight.

Several men wore strands of dog’s teeth around their necks, and many wore headbands of amber fur bordered with tiny cowry shells. The headbands, like the shafts of some of the paddles, were festooned with white plumage that glistened in the rays of the rising sun. With adornments such as these, the Asmats traditionally “transformed” themselves into birds or fruit-eating bats (“flying foxes”) for a celebration. Or a headhunting raid.

Soon we were encircled by canoes and chanting men and I felt the cold edge of fear. I scanned the other boats for a reassuring glimpse of Wiesmar, but he was invisible in the throng. Surrounded by tribesmen, Bob and I trusted that the good will they felt towards Wiesmar would extend to us. But still, we all waved at them gaily, and smiled urgently to convey our friendly intentions.

The canoes closed in and five men leaped into Bob’s and my Zodiac. Black Melanesian skin was pressed against Caucasian white, an oddly pleasant intimacy. One man had a slender oval face. He looked shy, eager, and very young, holding a carved bamboo horn between his legs. Another man’s face was heart-shaped, his cheekbones wide and the vee of his chin accentuated by a trim moustache and pointed beard. His eyes looked wary beneath his fur headpiece, made from the cuscus , a tree-climbing marsupial. The third had a sculpted face, the bones tautly covered with back-brown flesh. His fur headpiece was adorned with soaring plumage– the white of the graceful egret, the black of the king cockatoo.

Asmat warriors. Photo by Bob McCollum.

The fourth Asmat had frontal facial bones that jutted forward so much that his brows overhung and shadowed his eyes, giving him a menacing mien. The fifth man sported a huge shell ornament that half obscured his face. Joined at his nasal septum, its two sides curved like a wild boar’s tusks or a coiled cuscus tail. Both creatures were symbols of headhunting and the ornament –- a bi pane –was the most important one a man could wear. It announced that he had taken a head.

We all moved toward the river mouth amidst bursts of chanting and the mournful counterpoint of bamboo horns, the horns that were traditionally blown during raids to terrify the enemy. When the tribesmen paused, a few of us had an irresistible urge to respond, so we offered a spirited round of “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream …” The tribesmen looked perplexed.

And we didn’t go gently down the stream. Left to their own, these men would follow the tides that inundated their land every day, sometimes as far inland as sixty miles. But, governed by the schedule of our ship, we had turned upriver against the current, confident that outboard motors could overcome nature’s rhythms. And following our lead but needing more power than muscles could provide, paddlers in twenty dugouts tried to attach themselves to our seven Zodiacs with looping vines and clasping hands.

Encumbered by the clinging canoes, the Zodiacs lurched off course. The strong current shot us all diagonally to riverside. Asmats were swept by overhanging mangrove trees into the turbulent water. Would they drown? Would they become hostile? To our relief, the river was shallow and they clambered back into the boats, dripping but with good humor.

At last, after a four-hour journey, we landed at the village of Biwar Laut, coaxing our Zodiacs onto the grey-brown mud that the ebbing tide exposed. But the canoes veered back out, forming two opposing lines. A gutteral cry set in motion a nautical ballet as thrusting paddles propelled the boats toward, between, and around each other, leaving swirls of glistening sherry-colored water behind.

Village women had gathered among us, their hair shorn as closely as the men’s, their loins and thighs covered with sarongs of shabby trade store cloth. Children who looked as old as three or four clung to their mother’s backs like baby monkeys, well supported by maternal arms. And woven carriers enfolded the youngest ones. No little Asmat seemed unattended.

Then, as the men again approached the shore, the women began hurling sticks and clods of earth toward them. The women were laughing but I learned how much their missiles could sting when two grazed my shoulder. Asmat women, said to be happy and powerful, customarily pelted their men when they came back from an excursion. It was the women’s revenge for any wrongs they had suffered.

“Hey, I’m not a man,” I muttered as I daubed at the trickles of blood on my arm. Yet I wasn’t an Asmat woman either. Was this ambiguity a foretaste of life after our family move – not belonging, my identity peeled away?

Bob and I joined the passengers traipsing through banana trees and sago palms to drier, springier, open ground. It was strewn with wood chips from carvings, both recent and old – the carvings of canoe prows, paddles, spears, shields, drums, headrests for slumber, and ancestor figures for which the Asmats were world-renowned. In Asmat myth, the Creator of Man was also the First Woodcarver, and master carvers were revered.

We gathered in front of the yeu, a longhouse that spanned at least sixty feet and was supported five feet above the ground by several dozen poles. This was where bachelors slept and all the males passed much of the day. It was where hunting forays and ceremonies were planned, and where small boys learned the legends and lore of their people.

We mingled there with the villagers, tramping unavoidably over the buried bones of tribal ancestors with whom they felt always connected. Some of those ancestors’ spirits were embodied in a soaring bis pole erected in front of the yeu. But to our disappointment it was draped today in dried banana leaves that hid the carvings from our eyes.

Asmat wood carver. Photo by Bob McCollum.

To welcome us, the women were starting to dance., but the men couldn’t wait. They began carrying some of their carvings out of the yeu and offering them for sale. The Asmats still lived outside of a cash economy, but those men who had traveled to Agats were aware that carvings had been purchased by the cultural museum there. They also knew that their carvings could be sold for money that could, in turn, be exchanged for fishing hooks, matches, razor blades, and the spiced, pressed tobacco of Indonesia.

Bob and I joined our shipmates as they surged forward, jostling each other in their eagerness to see and compare the carvings. Crude but powerful designs represented the hornbill, the black king cockatoo, the praying mantis, or the bi pane – all symbols of headhunting. Many were painted in an intricate interplay of three colors. White was made from ground shells mixed with water and symbolized strength. Red had been extracted from a special tree and stood for happiness – or violence. Black paint prepared from charcoal represented the vagina or female fluids. Some of our shipmates bargained energetically for drums, spears, ancestor figures and even paddles.

Amidst the confusion, some Asmat women did dance, responding to the insistent beat of their carved hourglass shaped kundu drums. The women’s torsos were almost motionless, but their feet swiveled and their thighs parted and met in rapid oscillations as though wings were being flapped. One elderly woman whose skeleton seemed to press through her withering flesh danced exuberantly, her haunches bare except for a scanty grass skirt pulled back between her thighs like a loincloth and held in place by a woven waistband. She drummed and chanted and sang with such passion that the veins bulged in her neck. I longed to understand her message. I longed to join in her song.


Asmat women drumming. Photo by Bob McCollum.

When the ship had called at small Indonesian islands, many in contact with Europeans since the earliest explorers appeared, I was welcomed into the women’s dances. But although I tried to engage the Asmat women’s eyes, and although I tentatively imitated their movements, they didn’t respond. Their glances were uncomprehending and indifferent.

Their energy was intense, yet they looked as though they had been sucked dry by their babes. Among the older women, probably younger than I, bare breasts were pendant flaps of skin, abdomens were slack, loins were skinny and narrow. The Asmats gathered a variety of protein foods—fish, crustaceans, birds, wild boars, cuscus, flying foxes (fruit-eating bats), and highly prized sago beetle grubs. But it looked doubtful that the women got the share they needed.

After the dance we were allowed into the yeu; it faced the river so that the men could watch for approaching enemies. This was a male domain, forbidden to women except for special occasions – a celebration of peace between villages, the inauguration of a newly built longhouse or, apparently, an arranged visit by foreigners. We reached the porch and the five raised entrances by clambering up a sturdy pole with notches hacked out to form crude steps – a ladder that could readily be drawn up and pulled inside while arrows were drawn against invaders. Our awkward entrance must have provided a strange spectacle for the silent watchers.

The interior was dim and dense with smoke from five or six fires smoldering on mud hearths that protected the wooden flooring. We could barely discern the shapes of seated men grouped around their family hearths, with their drums and spears stacked on rafters above. And our understanding of what we saw was as hazy as the air. Bob and I retreated, frustrated by our sense of disconnection. It wasn’t simply to view images–as though we were watching a television documentary–that we had traveled across the world.

Photo by Bob McCollum.

The Asmat women had melted away into the shadowy dwellings they shared with their young–airy but simple dwellings raised on poles. Three sides were enclosed by vertically aligned stems of the sago palm leaf, and the roofs were made of thatch.

A few of us tried to explore the village, escorted by eager children. My companion, a little girl, stroked the beads of perspiration off my hand and probed my arm through my long-sleeved shirt. Bob’s escort was concerned with his sweat. He drew his fingers across Bob’s streaming neck and then wiped the wetness on himself, first his own neck and then his groin, maybe absorbing Bob’s essence to strengthen himself. And Bob happily surrendered his sweat as a pleasant alternative to his head.

The going was precarious. The few dry pathways were connected by slimy logs and a misstep would mean a plunge into the ooze. We soon turned back. Most of our shipmates returned to the Zodiacs to chug away for their picnic lunch. One by one, Asmat men and boys were doffing their shorts and exposing their bodies to whatever whisp of breeze they could find in this torrid climate.

Mike stayed behind with Wiesmar. Valerie, who was searching for a new lizard skin for her kundu drum, stayed with Mark and Ron. And Ellen, a young American teacher, stayed with Bob and me. She clearly shared our rising urge to communicate, to reach across the chasm between our techno-culture and these people’s elemental existence.

Feeling uncertain about how to do that, the three of us crouched on a dry log in front of the yeu. More curious children gathered around. Their sparkling eyes and sweet smiles drew us toward them even as we fought the urge to back away from the purulent green mucus oozing out of their noses. There was an expectancy as the children gazed at us and we at them, so Ellen lifted her arms and began to count, signing each number with her raised fingers.

“One”, she said. “One”, they replied. “Two.” “Two”, came the response. And so pure was the imitation that when she stammered “s-s-seven” the response was “s-s-seven” with precisely the same inflection. These children’s ears were so attuned to the myriad sound of the rainforest that no subtle change was missed.

Ellen fell silent. The children’s eager gazes were unwavering so I began to sing. They listened intently, bright brown eyes fixed on my face, and they drew even closer. Impassive men watched from the porch of the yeu and Bob was quiet too. My repertory of college songs and folksongs was soon depleted. But, perhaps because it was approaching Christmas, I thought of carols. “Silent Night, Holy Night,” I sang softly. And then I felt an uncanny awareness that I was no longer singing alone. As though there was an echo coming out of the jungle, clear young voices accompanied my own. The words were in a strange dialect but the melody, surely taught by an itinerant missionary, was pure and true.

“All is calm, All is bright . . . “ Eerily, in a forested swamp 10,000 miles from the snowy lanes and Yuletide lights of home, we celebrated the Christmas message with children of headhunters.