LOCATION: Indonesia (province of Irian Jaya on the island of New Guinea)
LANGUAGE: Asmat-Kamoro language family; Bahasa Indonesia (national language of Indonesia)
RELIGION: Christianity; Asmat religion based on spirit worship
The Asmat are a Melanesian people who live within the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. They are widely known for the quality of their wood sculptures. They are also notorious for their traditional practices of headhunting and cannibalism. These Asmat practices have been linked to the unsolved 1961 disappearance of the twenty-three-year-old son of former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was touring the region to collect native artwork.
The Asmat's first European contact was with the Dutch in 1623. For many years the group had few outside visitors due to their fearsome reputation. The Dutch began to settle the Asmat area in the 1920s, bringing in the first Catholic missionaries. Contact with the West has expanded steadily since the 1950s, and traditional Asmat warfare and cannibalistic practices have declined.
The Asmat are a coastal people occupying a low-lying swampy region. Their homeland covers approximately 9,652 square miles (25,000 square kilometers) in southwestern Irian Jaya. The swamps include sago palms, mangroves, and patches of tropical rain forest. The Asmat population is estimated at about 65,000 people, living in villages with populations of up to 2,000.
The Asmat languages belong to the Papuan language family known as Asmat-Kamoro, which has over 50,000 speakers. Due to missionary work in the region, the central Asmat now have a written form of their spoken language. A form of Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of the Republic of Indonesia, is spoken by many Asmat men.
Many Asmat myths are about their head-hunting tradition. According to one myth, two brothers were the original inhabitants of the Asmat region. The older brother convinced the younger brother to cut off the older brother's head. Then the decapitated head of the older brother instructed the younger one about headhunting, including how to use decapitated heads in initiation rituals for young males.
Before Christianity was introduced to their region, the Asmat practiced a native religion involving spirit worship and fear of the ghosts of the dead. It was believed that most deaths were deliberately caused by evil forces. The ancestral spirits were said to demand that wrongful deaths be avenged by killing and decapitating an enemy. The person's body was then offered to the community for cannibalistic consumption.
Missionary activity has introduced Christianity into the Asmat area.
In traditional Asmat societies, there were elaborate cycles of ceremonial feasting throughout the year. Feasts that celebrate deceased kinfolk are still very important celebrations. In the past, most feasting events were associated with raiding and headhunting.
Asmat who have embraced Christianity celebrate the major Christian holidays. Although Islam is the major religion of Indonesia, it not practiced among the Asmat population.
Male initiation, although still practiced, has lost much of the significance it held in pre-colonial Asmat society. Traditionally, each initiate was given a decapitated head so that he could absorb the power of the deceased warrior to whom the head had belonged. After being plunged into the sea by the older men, the initiates were symbolically reborn as warriors. Male initiation rites among the Asmat no longer involve decapitation.
When a death occurs, family and friends of the deceased roll in the mud of the riverbanks to hide their scent from the ghost of the deceased. Ceremonies ensure that the ghost passes to the land of the dead, referred to as "the other side." The skull of a person's mother is often used as a pillow.
Little is known about everyday Asmat life. Currently Indonesia limits the amount of time researchers may spend in Asmat country. Missionary and government influence have effected social customs such as greetings and other forms of etiquette.
Asmat houses are elevated on stilts to prevent them from flooding during the rainy season. Ordinary Asmat dwellings do not have running water or electricity. Most houses have an outside porch area where people can gather to gossip, smoke, or just watch their neighbors.
Asmat society is divided into two halves called "moieties" by anthropologists. Within a given village, a person is supposed to marry someone who belongs to the opposite moiety. After the marriage, the bride moves in with her husband's family. Extended families occupy large houses built of bamboo, sago bark, and sago frond thatching. Men sleep apart from their wives in the men's longhouse (yew). Ceremonial activities that take place inside the men's house are prohibited to women.
Wife beating was an accepted practice in the past. Unmarried women and girls are still beaten by their fathers or brothers if their behavior is considered unacceptable. A woman's property is transferred to her husband at the time of marriage, and she loses control over it.
The Asmat traditionally have worn little or no clothing. Footwear is not often owned. Due to missionaries and other outside influences, many Asmat today wear Western-style clothing. The most popular attire is rugby shorts for men and floral cotton dresses for women. Men may have their noses pierced and wear wild pig or boar tusks. Both men and women paint their bodies on ceremonial occasions.
Fish and the sago palm are the staple foods of all Asmat groups. Canned meats and fish, as well as flour, tea, and sugar, have become important food items as well. A butterfly larva often found in rotting tree carcasses is an important ritual food considered a delicacy among the Asmat.
Missionaries and colonial administrations have set up various schools in the Asmat region. Schoolhouses have been built in the coastal Asmat area.
Asmat drums have an hourglass shape and a single, lizard-skin-covered head that is struck with the palm of the hand. The other hand is used to hold the drum by a carved handle. Although the Asmat regard drums as sacred objects, they do not define instrumental sounds as music. Only singing is classified as music in Asmat culture. Love songs and epic songs, which often take several days to perform, are still important forms of expression.
Traditionally, dance was an important part of Asmat ceremonial life. However, missionaries have discouraged it. The Asmat have a great deal of oral literature, but no written tradition.
The Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress is collecting artifacts from all areas of Asmat culture. It produces catalogues and other publications on Asmat culture, mythology, and history.
The Asmat are hunters and gatherers. They hunt crocodiles and other animals, and they gather and process the pulp of the sago palm. Some also grow vegetables or raise chickens. There is a traditional division of labor along gender lines. Women are responsible for net fishing, gathering, and other domestic tasks. Men are responsible for line and weir (enclosure) fishing, hunting, gardening, and the felling of trees. The sale of woodcarvings to outsiders represents an additional source of income.
Traditionally, male competition among the Asmat was intense. This competition centered on the demonstration of male prowess through success in headhunting, acquiring fishing grounds and sago palm stands, and gathering a number of feasting partners. Males still compete in these areas, except headhunting which is now prohibited.
The Asmat region of Irian Jaya is still very isolated. Western forms of entertainment and recreation are not available.
Asmat art is highly valued by European and American art collectors. Much of the Asmat artistic tradition is tied to the practice of headhunting. Thus, since the prohibition of headhunting, the production of Asmat artifacts has declined.
The central and coastal Asmat traditionally produced decorated shields, spears, digging sticks, canoes, bows and arrows, and a wide range of elaborate carvings. The most famous ritual carving of these groups is the ancestor pole, or bis. These elaborate carved objects commemorate the deaths of those killed in battle or by sorcery. They were erected during the feasts that preceded headhunting raids to avenge those deaths.
The Asmat are fighting to retain their traditional ways of life in the face of pressure by Indonesian administrators. Many Asmat have converted to Christianity and are being educated in Western-run schools. However, they have been able to exercise some influence over government policy regarding the use of their land.
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