Ceremonial ancestor skull "Asmat"
Asmat people, Irian Jaya, New Guinea, Indonesia, c. mid. 20th century, private collection from Netherlands.
The Asmat are a coastal people occupying a low-lying swampy region intersected by many rivers in Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. Dense forest and mangrove swamp cover 85% of its area and parts of the interior remain unexplored. Their homeland covers approximately 25,000 square kilometers in southwestern Irian Jaya, former Netherlands New Guinea (and West New Guinea). Travel is only possible by dugout canoe (called ci). The population is estimated about 70,000 people, living in villages, about 120 in number with population of up to 2,000. Asmat may be thought as an umbrella term for twelve different ethnic sub-groups with shared linguistic and cultural affinities and sense of shared identity. The Asmat people who live along the rivers are divided into 12 clans/groups: Joirat, Emari Ducur, Bismam, Becembub, Simai, Kenekap, Unir Siran, Unir Epmak, Safan, Aramatak, Bras, and Yupmakcain.
The first contact by Europeans was made by the Dutch trader, Jan Carstensz, in the year 1623. Captain James Cook arrived in the area on September 3, 1770. Occasional contacts were made over the next 50 years. However, until the 1950's, Asmat's remote and harsh location almost entirely isolated the Asmat from other peoples. Permanent contact has been maintained since early 1950's. Missionaries arrived relatively late in the Asmat region. A Catholic mission began its work there only in 1958, but the pace of change in this once remote region greatly increased after the 1960's.
The Asmat build houses (tsyem) from abudant timber in the area. Most are home to an extended family consisting couple, their children, and the husband's parents. In addition there is at least one men's house jeu (called also jew, djeu or yeu) in each village. The jeu is rectangular, long and narrow, and is built on stilts. A jeu has several fireplaces (wair, wir), according to the number of the families who live there, and a central fireplace (mboijir). Mud, water, and trees are the basic elements of Asmat material culture, the daily diet consisting of sago, forest game, fish, and other items gathered from their forests and waters. The staple food sago is strach harvested from sago palms (Metroxylon sagu). The men are responsible for cutting down the sago palms, which grow in clumps of a few dozen, wild in the forest. Once felled, the women and girls will then drain and dry bundles of starchy pulp extracted from the inside of the palm, before pulverising it into flour and baking a kind of bread. Also, a great delicacy are the sago grub, the larvae of a large weevil beetle (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus). A palm is cut down, left for a month, then wrapped in leaves where it continues to rot, during which time the grubs develop within the tree. The Asmat return three months later when the trunk is full of larvae.
Asmat people are widely known for the quality of their wood sculptures, and they are also notorious for their traditional practises of headhunting and cannibalism, which were linked to the unsolved disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, 23 year old son of former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, in 1961 while touring the region to collect indigenous artwork. After graduating from Yale with a degree in ethnology, Michael went on an expedition to the Asmat area of New Guinea, where he traded tobacco and steel fishing hooks for carved Asmat ancestor bis-poles (bisj) to add to the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His disappearence, followed by an intensive and ultimately unsuccessful search by the Dutch authorities, was the source of much speculation as to Mr. Rockefeller's fate. Recently, author Carl Hoffman in his book "Savage Harvest", presented evidence that Rockefeller was killed and eaten by people from Ostjanep village.
The Asmat have traditionally been animists who believed in a pantheon of spirits that dwelled trees, rivers or natural objects or were spirits of deceased ancestors. An axiom of the Asmat is the belief that the universe contains good and evil spirits. The spirits of the ancestors (yi-ow) fertilise the sago and also protect the people from calamity. The malevolent spirit (osbopan) which live lives in dark caves, trees, big stones, or inside animals, should be appeased to avoid calamity. The goal of religion was to bring about harmony and balance with the cosmos. This was achieved through a variety rituals and practises interwoven with daily life that traditionally included things like woodcarving, warfare and, headhunting. Headhunting raids were an important element of Asmat culture until missionaries suppressed the practise, which, according to some accounts, persisted into the 1990's. The death of an adult, even by disease, was believed to be caused by an enemy. Asmat believe that death occurs only through magic or murder. Spirits of the dead demand vengeance. Only through the death of an enemy are spirits of the murdered individual appeased and leave the land of the living for the the land of the dead. Only through death can life begin, and relatives sought to take a head in an endless cycle of revenge and propiation of ancestors. Heads were thought necessary for the rituals in which boys were initiated into manhood. Cannibalism was a subsidiary feature of the rituals that followed the taking of heads.
Wood carving is a flourishing tradition among the Asmat, and wood carvers are held in high esteem. These cultural artefacts include shields (jamasj), ancestor poles (bisj), ritual soul ships (wuramon), ancestral poles (omu), spirit costumes (jiwawoka), the sago hammer (amosus), paddles (po), rope costume masks (dorae, manimar, jiwawoka, dato, dat jumo), drums (tifa or em), canoe prows (ci cemen), crocodile figures (bünüts) and equally large figures (basu suangkus). The culture hero (fumeripits) is considered the to be the very first wood carver, and all subsequent wood carvers (known as wow cescu ipits) have an obligation to continue his work. The Asmat also believe that there is a close relationship between humans and trees, and recognize wood as the source of life. The Asmat believe that the sago palm (amos) is akin to a mother who gives life when she delivers baby. Asmat have a strong tradition of carving figural sculpture out of wood. These figures which are representations of ancestors, are traditionally displayed inside men's ceremonial house. Although these sculptures commemorate specific individuals who have died, they are not direct portraits, and have generalized features and similar body types. A common pose for these ancestral figures is the elbows-to-knees position (wenet pose), believed to be the same pose that all humans assume at birth and again at death. Asmat believe they are related to praying mantises which also eat their own kind. Trophy skulls, bone daggers, stone clubs are all associated with headhunting. As a symbol of their headhunting skills men often wear bamboo and cassowary-quill pendants decorated with human vertebrae.
The Asmat had a distinctive skull cult. They had two types of ritually venerated skulls. The skulls of important and honoured ancestors would be decorated and kept within the clan, to be venerated and publicly presented during special ceremonies. Occasionally these skulls were also used as a pillow for sleeping or as a neck rest by the reigning family head. These skulls were called ‘ndambirkus’. The second group are the skulls of enemies who had been killed, however, were kept in the central mens’ house as trophies, as proof of the bravery and skill of a warrior, proudly displayed and decorated similarly to become a ‘ndambirkus’. These, however, were called ‘ndaokus’, they have two features that make them easily recognisable, ‘war trophies’ always have a hole in one of the skull’s temples. Through this hole, the brain of the enemy was removed. In addition, ‘ndaokus’ skulls generally lack a lower jaw. This is because the jaw bone was removed and given to the women as a pendant for their necklaces – as a final, humiliating insult toward the defeated enemy.
Absolutely stunning ancestor skull of the Asmat people. Dark patinated skull of an old man, the lower jaw missing. Upper jaw (maxilla) and palate decorated with clay, resin and various shells. Good condition. Age-related wear and signs of use and handling over many years. Gorgeous polished shiny patina. Dirt, dust and soot. Size approx. 15,5cm x 14,0cm x 16,0cm. Modern metal stand included.
References, citations and sources:
The Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress, Tobias Schneebaum, Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, December 1982.
Oceania, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Peter and Kathleen Van Arsdale, ed. by Terence Hays, G.K. Hall & Company, 1991.
Asmat Art: Seventy years of Asmat woodcarving, Simon Kooijman, Pacific Arts Newsletter No.4, January 1977, pp. 9-11.
Consept Alignment for Sustainability: Relevance of the Mauri Model in Asmat, Southern Papua, Elisabeth V. Wambrauw & Te Kipa Kepa Brian Morgan, AlterNative An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 10(3), September 2014, pp. 288-302.
Art and Culture of the Asmat, Holmes Museum of Anthropology, Wichita States University, 2021.
Headhunting Practises of the Asmat of Netherlands New Guinea, Gerard A. Zegwaard, American Anthropologist New Series, Vol.61, No.6, December 1959, pp. 1020-1041.
"The Asmat", In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Emily Caglayan, Ph.D., Department of Art History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-, October 2004.
Oceanic Art - Ozeanische Kunst - Art Oceanien, Anthony J. P. Meyer, 1995.