The Cannibalistic Tree People of Papua

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Image: Web Urbanist

High above the forest floor, deep in the swampy lowland jungles of Papua, tree houses greet the eyes of explorers trekking into what remains one of the last remote corners of the globe. The tree houses tower overhead at heights of over 80 feet above the ground, appearing to teeter but held firm by Sago palm tree fibres. These constructions are the homes of the Kombai and the neighbouring Korowai, tribal people numbering in the thousands who decorate their bodies with bones and may still count cannibalism among their customs.


Image: 710928003

The tree houses stand in clearings cut out of the forest by the tribespeople, who fell trees using only the most rudimentary of stone axes. These dwellings offer an escape from the heat and biting insects below the jungle canopy, and are thought to have originated as a safeguard against flooding during heavy rains while also providing protection in periods of conflict. Enemy headhunting tribes like the Asmat from the south used to maraud through these regions and the trees may have been the only refuge for the Korowai and the Kombai.

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Image: 710928003

The Korowai and the Kombai are distinct ethnic groups, each with their own language, but they do manage to interact and also share similar cultural practices. They are skilled hunter-gatherers whose men track prey including cassowary and wild boar. They still trade in objects like bone jewellery and knives, and may have only been introduced to metal and our idea of clothing in the 1970s, when the first missionaries arrived. Utensils such as bamboo shards are used to slice meat, shells to hold water, and heated stones in place of cooking vessels.

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