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Asmat: The Tribe Where Cannibalism Makes You A Real Man

By Njideka Agbo 22 February 2018   |   7:00 am

Located in the New Guinea in the Papua province of Indonesia lies the Asmat people. Although the meaning of Asmat is often disputed with some claiming it means man from tree while her neighbours, the Mimika, say the name means man-eater, the Asmat refer to themselves as Asmat-ow meaning real people.

Asmat is made up of 12 sub-ethnic groups with over 100 villages and her people live in a place that is largely unexplored. These prolific hunters are also known for their wood carving and sculptures.

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.

Hand Made Asmat Sculpture. Photo credit: Pinterest

The Asmat are a deeply religious people who believe in the ancestral worship. Their ancestors are represented by wooden canoe carvings and figurines.

The Head

Until the 1980s, Asmat men showed their sexual prowess and loyalty to their kinsmen by killing an enemy so they (the kinsmen) can eat. The head was prepared for consumption by baking and scraping off the skin of the head.

They often likened a man to a “tree”. A man’s head was considered the “tree’s” fruit and was used for their initiation rites. The initiation procedure was done by placing the head between the thighs of the intended initiate to get its power. This was partly guided by the belief that once a man is killed and eaten, his powers and skills get transferred to them.

Asmat Tribe Preparing For One Of Their Missions. Photo credit: Pinterest

The “fruit” (human head) is very precious to them such that during burials, they cut it off and the head is used as a pillow. They believe that anyone who died untimely was killed by the unnatural causes hence the need for revenge. To fulfil the ancestors’ demand for justice, they often drew a ritual calendar for headhunting and revenge missions. It is among this people that the heir to Nelson Rockefeller, Micheal Rockefeller, was allegedly killed.

Their strategy was simple: Build houses close to the river so that when a potential enemy surfaces, they attack. After eating, the lower jaws or other parts of the human vertebrae were used as trophy pendants that made people see them as real men.