Korowai or Kombai people, West-Papua, Indonesia, mid. 20th century, private collection from Netherlands.
The Korowai (also called Kolufo) and Kombai are neighbouring tribes, living in the basin of the Brazza River in the vast lowland jungles. This is situated in the foothills of the Jayawijaya mountain range, which is in the southwest part of the New Guinea Island in the Indonesian province Papua (Irian Jaya). There are 4000 or so members of the Kombai, most of whom live in isolated family homesteads in tree houses. Little is known about the Korowai prior to 1978. The Korowai were unaware of western civilization until 1974 when anthropologists embarked on a journey to study them. They live on the upper reaches of the Becking River and the Central Plateau of New Guinea in a swampy rain forest of the Upper Digul Region. The population are only around 2500 to 4000 people.
The Korowai and Kombai people are typical hunter gatherers. They have excellent hunting and fishing skills. The men hunt a wide range of pray including cassowary, wild boar and marsupials in the forest using their bows and arrows with their dogs as trackers. For fishing, the Korowai use their bows and arrows, poison and basket-like traps which they place in artificial dams. The staple food is strach harvested from sago palms. 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. They also cultivate sweet potatoes and other vegetables. 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 Kombai return three months later when the trunk is full of larvae. The sago grub feast is the most important festival for the Kombai, for whom sago is a dietary staple and the putative source of life. Traditionally, sago grub feasts are held at least once during the lifetime of each generation. Sago grub festivals are planned months in advance and correspond with the phases of the moon. The feast itself includes dancing and chanting, which often lasts through the night. The morning after the feast fertility rituals for young boys and sago trees are sometimes performed. It's a festival that reddresses imbalances in life, such as natural disasters and conflicts, and brings peace and harmony back to the community. Domesticated pigs are kept by every clan, and the wild ones are hunted in the jungle. However, the success rate isn't very high and domestic pigs are so valuable that they are usually only killed and eaten at tribal ceremonies, or when other food is hard to get. Food is prepared and shared around the fireplace (meli-bol), which gives warmth in cold weather. Sago grub festivals and pig sacrifices take place close to the sacral area of the territory.
Korowai and Kombai people live in a tree houses (khaim) on ancestral territories (bolüp) that belong to patriclans (yanogun). To defend themselves against attacks from neighbouring clans, such as the Asmat from the south, they built their houses high in the trees, and so became known as "tree peoples". Two or, rarely, three treehouses stand on one clearing in the jungle. Some houses can even reach a height of 35 meters above the ground, but most are between 8 and 12 meters high. In building a tree house, first a big banian tree (baül) is selected to function as the central pole (khokhül). The floor (bülan) of the treehouse is constructed by using spars. The house with veranda (lambiakh) is made of branches, bark of palm tree (betél), leaves and rattan. To reach the house, a long stairs (yafin) are made from thin poles with notches in which to place the feet. As well as providing an escape from the heat and mosquitoes, the tree houses probably originated as their height is a defence against flooding during heavy rains as well as offering protection in times of conflict.
The Korowai believe that the universe is filled with dangerous spiritual beings. The spirits of their ancestors play a special role in this regard. Some older women are said to have knowledge of divination and magical healing. The jungle is divided into clan territories. To Korowai there are also territories of the spirits (laléo-bolüp) where no clans live. There are sacred parts or sacred places (wotop) on most territories, connected with the spirits of the ancestors (mbolombolop). For a stranger to enter a clan's territory is viewed as a threat, potentially to life itself. It's telling that spirit or ghost (kwai), is also the word to describe an outsider. Korowai people calls white outsiders with clothing as (laléo). Both the Korowai and Kombai have been reported to practise ritual cannibalism up the present day. The ritual of cannibalism took place as a form of retaliation and punishment for evil shamans called Khakhua-Kumu, or men who practise witchcraft. After being tortured and killed, a person's body parts will be divided between the clan. Body parts are wrapped individually in banana leaves and then eaten. The Kombai believe that the Khakhua-Kumu eat the souls of their victims, and they must be killed and eaten in return. As the soul is thought to lie in the brain and the stomach, retribution comes by eating those organs of the Khakhua-Kumu, to bring their terror to end.
This aged and absolutely unique warrior necklace is just stunning. There are 41 small teeth woven together with plant fiber cord. Good condition. Age-related wear and signs of use. Lovely dark patina. Dust and dirt. This gorgeous item comes from the collections of a closed ethnographic museum/ foundation in the Netherlands. Size approx. 50,0cm x 4,0cm.