Asmat Villages

Indonesia and the Asmat World

Leks & Linda Santoso|October 20, 2006|Blog Post

Leks Santoso, a lifelong resident of Indonesia, and his wife, Linda Hahn Santoso, are Zegrahm's tour partners for expeditions to the western South Pacific. Their in-depth knowledge of the region shines through in this personal look at these islands of diversity and especially the fascinating Asmat culture of West Papua.

The Republic of Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world and encompasses 13,000 islands. Its history is built on the rich legacy of people from diverse backgrounds who came in search of the fragrant treasures of the Spice Islands or the exotic woods of Kalimantan, Sumatra, and Java. As a result, more than 350 distinct languages are spoken among the population of about 200 million and each island showcases its own unique culture—through rituals and ceremonies, clothing, music, and art.

For us, Indonesia is a glorious place to call home, especially because our professional lives revolve around showing it to travelers in a highly personal way. Every time we return from our trips we feel we've made new discoveries. And we're always inspired by watching age- old traditions like women weaving their intricate ikats, listening to haunting music, or swimming in the clear waters among a rainbow of fish.

Our most favorite—and the most remote—place to visit is West Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya. More than 200 distinct people live here, including the famous Asmat, a term used to refer both to the region and to its people. The first recorded sighting of the Asmat people by explorers was from the deck of a Dutch trading ship in the year 1623. Captain James Cook and his crew were the first to actually land in the Asmat on September 3, 1770. According to accounts by Captain Cook himself, the Asmat warriors caused such great fear that the explorers retreated.

The homeland of the Asmat, on the island's southwestern coast, is a wide muddy plain intersected by countless winding rivers and small streams and covered with mangroves, tidal swamp, freshwater swamp, and lowland rainforest. The largest of these rivers empties into the Arafura Sea, the shallow body of water that separates the island of New Guinea from Australia. It is estimated that there are between 64,000 and 70,000 Asmat people living in villages whose population ranges from as few as 35 inhabitants to as many as 1,850. Part of the region is located within the boundaries of Lorentz National Park, a World Heritage Site, and the largest protected area in Southeast Asia.

The Asmat are Animists and believe that spirits—both good and evil—dwell in every facet of the environment. Their goal has always been to maintain balance and harmony between the spiritual and ancestral world and the temporal world they remain in. Until as recently as the mid-20th century this was carried out through warfare, headhunting, and cannibalism, a ritual that allowed the living human to absorb and control the spirit of the dead victim—sometimes the strength and courage of a warrior, perhaps the beauty of a woman, or even the youthfulness of a child.

Art has always played a major role in Asmat ceremony and wood and carving are at the heart of the culture's mythology. The Asmat believe that Fumer-ipits, the Great Woodcarver, created the Asmat people, first building man's ceremonial house, yeu, then filling it with wooden figures of men and women. He then carved a drum and, by playing it, brought the figures to life.

To perpetuate this creation myth, every Asmat village had its resident carver. When someone died, the family of the dead would support the family of the carver until he had completed the article requested by the dead person's family. A carver would not begin this very important task until he had meditated and selected just the right piece of wood.

Woodcarving continues to be the ceremonial expression of honoring the ancestors, and the impressive and elaborate art remains part of daily life. Thanks to the American bishop, Alphonse A. Sowada, the Crosier Mission in Minnesota, and Tobias Schneebaum, author of Where the Spirits Dwell, many beautiful traditional pieces of Asmat art are preserved and showcased in the outstanding Asmat Art Museum in Agats.

We urge you to seize this unique opportunity to experience first-hand the belief system of the fascinating Asmat people and to learn how these beliefs have shaped what has become the most important primitive art in the world.

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