Asmat – the most dreaded cannibals

Asmat tribe – New guinea – West Papua (Irian Jaya)

Asmat skull

Asmat skull-Agats Photo©

Asmat skull culture – Agats Asmat museum

Asmat – a skull serving as a pillow*Photo©archiv of Petr Jahoda*

Asmat skull

Asmat skull-Agats Photo©

Asmat. A word that long scared people. Asmat is a word that became a synonym for cannibals. Asmat is a tribe whose members in the time of war ate brains of their enemies mixed with sago worms from their halved skulls. A son of New York governor disappeared in the territory of the Asmat tribe. Asmat used to use human skulls instead of a pillow. Asmat, is a word which evokes more than respect…

We can finish the expedition to Korowai and Kombai tree people by visiting the Asmat tribe.

Asmat – The head-hunters – West Papua

Asmat war boats

Naked Asmat on war boats Photo©archiv of Petr Jahoda

Asmat is the most famous cannibalistic tribe on Papua. They would put human skulls under their heads instead of a pillow. They would eat brains of their animals mixed with sago worms straight from their halved skulls. They live on small islands in mangrove vegetation nearby the sea, on the south side of the western part of the New Guinea Island. The Asmat build long houses, where they live together. Every family has its own reserved fireplace. In the long house about six or even ten of the group members live.

Besides the fact that the Asmat were head-hunters, they also “hunted for names”. Every person was named after someone deceased, or after a killed enemy. A child was sometimes given a name only ten years after it was born, and after its village set out to kill a man from an enemy village nearby. They had to learn the name of the man they killed, and then bring his skull to their village. Only in this way could a person get a name.

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, 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”.

Papua – Asmat – the disappearance of the Rokefeller expedition

Asmat woodcraft

Asmat cannibal woodcraft motive Photo©JahodaPe­

Asmat villages lie in a labyrinth of rivers, small islands, and blind stream branches made up of mangrove vegetation, that extends deep into the inland of west Papua. In river deltas, changes in the water level can be related to high and low tides. It is said that these changes occur up to 100 km far from the sea.

The Asmat culture attracts scientists, and their skillfulness tempted collectors. In the beginning of the 70’s, leading an expedition while he was working for the New York Museum, Michael Rokefeller probably died in the Asmat territory.

In 1961 the twenty-three year old American son of the New York State governor disappeared in the woods in the southern region of the island, and he was never found. The rescue group sent to the Asmat territory failed to find any evidence of him. Today, we can only guess whether the expedition was assaulted, killed and eaten, or any other number of things. In the territory, which is home to the Asmat tribe, there lives a group of large sea crocodiles. It is possible that the expedition crew got lost in the mangroves or their boat keeled over, and that they were eaten by crocodiles. But it also can’t be ruled out that they didn’t become victims of the cannibalistic Asmat tribe…

Asmat – excellent woodcarvers- west Papua

Asmat woodcraft

Asmat wood craft in Agats*Photo©Petr*

The members of the Asmat tribe believe that they arose out of wood. Therefore, wood is sacred for them. Even in ancient times they carved wonderful things from wood. Asmat are considered to be the best woodcarvers of the stone-age.

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.

Contemporary and civilized Asmat use metal tools. They are visited by salesmen, most of whom are German, who ask them to make large numbers of statues so that they can trade them in Europe or America. Thanks to that, the Asmat territory can now be considered safe, and tourists no longer have to be afraid of cannibalism.

Asmat and Korowai & Kombai tree people – West Papua


Kombai women Photo©JahodaPe­


Kombai tree house Photo©JahodaPe­


Kombai man Photo©JahodaPe­

The territory of the Asmat tribe lies near the Brazza River, along which the tree people, Korowai and Kombai, also live. Therefore, it is possible to link the visit to the Asmat territory with an expedition to the tree people.


Kombai in sago field are mostly friendly – Miss Eva likes children Photo©JahodaPe­ (Papua guide)

The several hundred kilometers long sail against the current is also interesting. You don’t need to be afraid of crocodiles, since nowadays they hunt mainly at night, and are very timid. It is difficult to catch a glimpse of them, and in the upper part of the stream the crocodiles are small. So far we haven’t seen a living crocodile in the Asmat territory, and neither in the Korowai and Kombai territory.

Asmat tribe – itineraries and schedule

Asmat tribe expeditions itineraries and schedule: