Asmat is a name of a tribe in west papua that long scared people and became a synonym for cannibals. Asmat members in the time of war ate brains of their enemies mixed with sago worms from their halved skulls. Asmat is the most famous cannibalistic tribe on Papua. They would put human skulls under their heads instead of a pillow.
human skulls as a pillow
Asmat did not only hunt for skulls, they also worshipped them. The skulls of the deceased were stripped of the brain and the eyes and nasal parts were closed up in order to prevent evil spirits to enter or exit the body. Skulls that were modified and decorated in this way, were displayed by the Asmat in a honorable place in their long homes. Fortunately (now you can breath hehe…) the evil reputation of Asmat has become history. The missionaries have done a lot of work in changing this. Thanks to it, we can now go to the Asmats for a visit.
The Asmat tribe resides in the tidal swamplands of West Papua’s south coast. They are renowned amongst tribal art experts world wide as woodcarvers of the highest order. The Asmat Wowipit (wood carver) has a truly spiritual approach to carving and each piece made is imbued with the spirit energy of their ancestors. An Asmat carving can therefore be regarded as a bridge between the material and spirit worlds.
asmat wowipit (wood carver)
Their small drums, statues, engraved boats are admirable. Many originals of the woodcraft from the Asmat tribe are now shipped from Papua to Europe or America, and decorate German or American museums, galleries, or households. Asmat woodcraft became a wonderful exported good for worldwide exchange, public sales, and auctions.
Asmat statue at Monterey Museum of Art
Asmat woodcraft at Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University
If you are of mystical, inquisitive nature, a visit to the Asmat and an experience of their lifestyle and beliefs will be very rewarding indeed. Signs and links to the spirit-world are everywhere. It should be stressed that the Asmat region is sometimes difficult and uncomfortable. To access Asmat you can hire speedboat, longboat or if you want something different try using kole-kole (traditional boat). There is a lot of mud and insects and any visitor should be prepared for that reality. However, if you have a real interest in probing and understanding Asmat culture then this would be the trip of a lifetime.
Asmat traditional boat
Traveler must obtain a travel permit letter or known as Surat Keterangan Jalan to get the access into the interior part of Papua. You can obtain the Surat Keterangan Jalan at main town police station such as Jayapura, Merauka, Timika, Biak, Nabire, Monokwari and other main city. The permit of lasts will depend on your request, from 1 week until 1 month or even longer. Please prepare copies of your passport, recent photograph and list of places you wish to visit. Its easy to get the Surat Keterangan Jalan, because the officers are friendly and helpful. You can ask your travel agent to arrange the Surat Keterangan Jalan.
map of asmat tribe area, taken from google maps