ASMAT PEOPLE

History and Culture

Asmat is located in the Province of Irian Jaya which is the western half of the island of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world. New Guinea is situated just below the equator in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, 93 miles (150 kilometers) north of Australia. The entire island covers an area about 310,000 square miles (800,000 square kilometers).

The tropical climate has high daily temperatures and humidity. Daily temperatures vary little, ranging from 72 F (22 C) in the early morning to 92 F (33 C) at noon. The Asmat area is very humid year round.

The first recorded sighting of the people of Asmat by explorers was from the deck of a ship in the year 1623. A Dutch trader, Jan Carstenz, recorded this sighting. Later Captain James Cook and his crew were the first to actually land in Asmat on September 3, 1770. According to accounts by Captain Cook, the Asmat warriors engendered such great fear that the explorers retreated.

In 1826, another Dutch explorer, Kolff, anchored in the same area as that visited by the earlier explorers. This time, when the Asmat warriors again frightened the visitors with loud noises and bursts of white powder, which appeared to be gunfire, Cook's crew returned rifle fire on the Asmat people.

The Dutch, who gained sovereignty over Asmat and the western half of the island in 1793, did not begin exploring the region until the early 1900's, establishing a government post in Merauke. From there, exploratory excursions set out for Asmat to gather specimens and information. (Though Indonesia became independent in 1949, Dutch New Guinea was held by The Netherlands until 1962.)

During the first two decades of the 1900's, Asmat artifacts were taken to Europe where there was great excitement about this new discovery.

In 1938, the first permanent post of outsiders was established in Agats as a result of government and missionary patrols through the area. In 1942, however, this post was closed due to the conflicts of World War II.

After the war, Fr. Zegwaard, a Dutch Missionary of the Sacred Heart, began patrols from Mimika into Asmat. In 1953 he reestablished the post in Agats, which was to become the government headquarters and the base for Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries. In 1958, the first four Crosier missionaries from the United States arrived in Asmat. In 1962, the Indonesian government took over Dutch (western) New Guinea, bringing many new changes for the Asmat people and their area.

"To appreciate Asmat art one is obliged to obtain an understanding of the environment and the milieu from which the artist arises. Although the land of Asmat might be misconceived by some as a congenial sunny place of ease, the very opposite is true. The environment is harsh, an alluvial swamp, barely bobbing above sea level, and almost constantly inundated by daily tides and heavy rainfall. Mud is a consistent bane to life. The jungles, overgrown by huge trees, bushes, and entangled thorn vines, are exceedingly difficult to trek through. Passage from one area of the jungle to another is managed conveniently only by use of a dugout, paddled on the myriad river system cutting and winding through it.


"Few large animals live in this wilderness, only the wild boar and the domesticated dog are found. Smaller animal species, such as marsupials, rats, flying foxes and flying squirrels are numerous. Reptiles, such as crocodiles, lizards and snakes find the swamp a damp and congenial habitat. The rivers provide fish, shellfish and some turtles. A relatively large variety of birds, the hornbill, king cockatoo, the crown pigeon and the bird of paradise among the most noted, bring both musical and raucous sounds to the jungle. The species and numbers of insects seem unlimited.

No stone or metal is indigenous to this land located on the southwest coast of New Guinea. Pottery has not been developed. Gardening and farming are impractical. However, if the jungle is cleared, the soil is quite fertile, especially in the peat-type areas, but only for two plantings. Once cleared, the land is quickly leached of nutrients by the rain (200 inches a year) and tides.



Brackish river water and coconut milk are the main liquids for drinking. Food consists of that which is gathered in the jungle or caught in the water. The staple of the meager Asmat diet is sago, a coarse starch obtained from a palm tree. Fish, wild boar, an occasional crocodile, birds and fruit are also common foods. The larvae of the capricorn beetle, often called the sago grub, and rats are also eaten.

The Asmat are now believed to number about 65,000. Many live in the foothills of the Jayawijaya Mountains in the western half of the island and remain difficult to contact. They live in villages with populations that vary from 35 to 2,000. In coastal areas, villages are located along the outer bends of rivers. In the past, watchtowers and huts were sometimes built 30 to 60 feet above ground for a better view of the approaching enemy.

The Asmat people have traditionally been seminomadic hunters and gatherers. Using rivers as highways, they paddle their canoes through the forest in search of fish, game, fruits and vegetables harvested from small gardens, and sago palm.?Asmat means The Real People, in contradistinction to others. "The Asmat call themselves Asmat-ow, "We, the real people, in contrast to the souls of the dead and other spirits and to other people living close by. An alternate interpretation of the name is People of the Tree. One creation myth has the Asmat being carved out of wood and brought to life by the playing of the drum. They frequently compare themselves to a tree: the feet are the roots, the torso is the trunk, the arms are the branches and the head is the fruit of the tree.

The origin of the universe is of no concern to the Asmat nor whether a supreme being created, rotects, governs it. The issue is rather how humans fit and survive in an animated cosmos. Humans, animals, plants-everything is imbued with spirit and therefore animated. This Asmat belief is most properly described as animism.

The cosmos is a unity of animated spirits. If any dualism exists it is not one of sacred and profane, but one of physically visible and physically invisible spirits, all of which are always present at all times. These spirits are localized not only in immediate surroundings, but also at the bottom of rivers, in whirlpools, and in the world above and beyond.

Carvings are embodiments of the ancestral spirits which control the universe. To keep the cosmos in order, the Asmat placated their ancestors through carvings, ritual feasts, warfare, the taking of heads and cannibalism. The carvings make evident the vital interdependence between the tangible and the intangible.

Ritual also helps make invisible spirits visible and present. Rituals, often very complex ones, assure efficacy if done correctly. The carving of ancestor poles makes the ancestors visible. Through the mask feast, ancestors actually visit the living and reaffirm relationships, thereby assuring the living of the assistance of their ancestors.

Magic also exercises control of spiritual powers. Magical formulas and potions are eagerly sought, and once discovered, they must be closely guarded secrets.

Though difficult to comprehend, it is important to consider practices such as headhunting and cannibalism within the Asmat belief system. Almost every Asmat action is motivated by a philosophy of balance which requires equilibrium in all interactions. When imbalance occurs, the Asmat suffer from illness, death, hunger and other misfortunes. Therefore, they are vigilant about their responsibility to maintain equilibrium in every aspect of their lives. In the case of headhunting in the past, an Asmat was acting responsibly when he reacted to a death in his village by killing an enemy from another village. Births and deaths are experienced as a way of balancing the number of living people with the number of spirits.

Keeping the cosmos in balance is critical for survival and order in the Asmat society. Balance must be maintained with one's spirits, enemies, peers, family and environment. Reciprocity maintains an equilibrium which produces harmony.

The headhunting cycle captures the need for balance. The spirits of those killed in headhunting cannot go to Safan, the spirit world, until an equal number of people have been killed from among those who caused the initial imbalance. Deaths caused by malevolent magic require the same response. Restoring balance, not revenge, is thus the goal.

The animal world is also balanced with the human. "Titokon of Erma possessed extraordinary magic in hunting crocodiles. By selling the skins... he obtained many prized goods, which enhanced his prestige in the village... One day, however, his son drowned. Titokon immediately concluded that a spirit crocodile he had killed had retaliated by taking his son. He ceased to hunt crocodiles for many years. Once he felt that animosity no longer existed... he took up hunting again with the same luck. Soon after, his grandson died; it was clear that the animosity had not really ceased. Titokon no longer hunts crocodiles.

Marriages are arranged to maintain balance. If two families can exchange daughters, everything works easily. Gifts of food or tools might be required however, to ensure an equal exchange. The promise of a future bride might also suffice, but the high rate of infant mortality frequently complicates these arrangements and leads of disruptions.

The exchange of food and services is guided by reciprocity. Debts are remembered and require payment. Failure to make payments disrupts village life significantly.

Ceremonial or ritual events can also restore balance. In some cases of extreme animosity between villages, a person might risk offering himself to the enemy as a peace offering. If accepted, peace followed. If not, the cycle would continue.

Pregnancy is also a matter of balance, namely maintaining a balance between the number of relatives in the spirit world and in the physical world. Asmat society is basically patriarchal. Men are chiefs, warriors, carvers, drummers, guardians and performers of myth and ritual. They make canoes, build houses, assist in gathering sago and hunt pigs and crocodiles. Women care for the house and children, gather fire wood, fish, weave mats and bags, and prepare food. They often urge the men to perform rituals, including retaliatory headhunting raids, to keep the cosmos in balance. Both women and men, however, can obtain and use magical powers.

Marriages are arranged with an exchange gift to the bride's family. Traditionally, a male is most marriageable if he had taken a head in a raid on a neighboring village. Most marriages are monogamous, yet polygamy is accepted and esteemed. Noted or prestigious men could more readily acquire more than one wife. The relative number of men and women in a village plays a role, as does the stigma attached to childless females and the obligation to perpetuate the family. Further, the work of the wives adds to the economic base or strength of the husband. Husbands and wives live together in family huts as a norm in some parts of Asmat though the men spend substantial time in the feast house during feasts.

Single young men often live in the "long" or feast house. Several families might live in the same hut. First wives stay with the husband's family when widowed; subsequent wives frequently return to their natural families.

Male potency is very obvious in Asmat art. The tsjemen (penis) of the bisj (ancestor) pole is the most obvious example. Manliness, bravery, fearlessness, and the killing of an enemy also indicate potency. Both male and female figures are anatomically correct in Asmat art.

Human reproduction is not well understood. The Asmat believe that women can get pregnant by a green tree frog landing on their shoulder-actually a spirit seeking reincarnation in a woman it judged to be a good mother. Passing by or drinking from certain whirlpools at the junction of rivers where spirits live could also result in pregnancy. Semen feeds the fetus in the womb while the action of the penis during intercourse shapes the embryo into a human form.
Intercourse between husband and wife is not permitted until after the last child walks. While it may be an effective method of spacing children dependent on nursing for survival, the Asmat feel that intercourse generates such energy in the hut that a small child is not able to tolerate it.

Affection in public is rare between men and women. Men, however, can walk hand in hand in the village. Wife exchange, or papisj, is a way of bonding families and even whole villages. It leads to social obligations such as mutual assistance in warfare and care of the sick. Imui pacts celebrate friendship between a woman and another woman or between a man and another man regareded as her or his intimate and personal friend. Valued as a permanent lifetime bond, the breaking of Imui pacts are regarded as a serious social infraction. Debate exists among researchers and anthropologists whether Imui pacts should be regarded as sexual as well as personal and social in nature.

Life and death are part of a cycle for the Asmat which moves back and forth between the physical world and life in the spirit world. Birth and death are ways of balancing the population between the two worlds, of keeping the cosmos in balance. One is not reborn to advance in the spiritual life or as punishment for the past.

Babies and old people die of natural causes. The death of the aged is a normal passing from life in this world to life in the other. Babies die because they lack sufficient life forces called yuwus and ndamup. The Asmat believe that young children, fifty to sixty percent of whom die before age five, choose to die, to return to the spirit world because they felt neglected or mistreated by their families.


People die of extraneous causes: headhunting, malevolent magic or childbirth. The spirits of those killed in headhunting or by magic roam in a sort of limbo between the physical and spiritual worlds until their deaths are avenged and balanced is restored. It is not clear how the spirits of women who die in childbirth are freed, but they are considered dangerous to the living, especially to males. Few people reach the age of 60 and rarely 70. Malaria, pneumonia, infections and parasites are the major fatal illnesses, and cholera epidemics also occur occasionally.

Burial is customary today. Because of the lack of embalming, the heat and humidity require that burial occurs on the day of death. The high water table makes burials difficult, bodies are tied to sticks placed crossways in the grave to hold the corpse from flowing away. Traditionally, some villages always buried the dead, while others placed the bodies on racks at the end of the village. In southern Asmat, ancestral skulls are used as pillows and hung around one's neck to keep the memory of the deceased alive and the spirit present as a protection.

For the Asmat, carving is part of the ritual and religious life of the community. Their carvings act as mediators between society and the world of their ancestors. The Asmat believe that spirits, especially those of the ancestors, control the activities of the living. Through carvings, the Asmat make direct contact with their ancestors. Each carving is named for someone who has recently died. Once the carving is named, it embodies the spirit of that person. Carvings play a key role in many Asmat ceremonies and during the feasts associated with them.

Ancestor (Bisj) poles are spectacular traditional carvings. Consisting of two or more human figures carved one above the other, an ancestor pole can reach a height of 25 feet. Each pole is carved from the soft wood of the mangrove tree. The wing, Cemen, is a root left intact when the tree is cut down. Each figure on the pole represents a person who has died. Oftentimes, the Bisj poles were carved in conjunction with feasting which preceded a head hunting raid.

War shields are also tremendous expressions of Asmat art. The ancestors for whom each shield is named are believed to embody the shields and they give tremendous power and strength to the warrior when going into battle. The combination of the ancestor's strength and that of the symbolic designs on the shield's surface are believed to terrify the enemy so that the foe runs away or drops his weapons and becomes immobilized.

The Asmat use only three colors in carvings: white, red, and black. All have spiritual as well as decorative manifestations. White (lime) comes from mussel shells that have been burned and crushed. Painted on canoes, white gives speed, strength and protection. On figure carvings, white represents human skin. Red comes from mud found along river banks. After baking in fire, the mud is a deep rich red. When the red is painted on canoes, they become faster in moving down the rivers. Red applied around a man's eyes imitates the eye feathers of an angry cockatoo which brings fear to the enemy. On figure carvings, red is used to outline scarifications and to separate black hair from white skin. Black comes from charcoal and signifies body hair on the carvings.

Because carvings are so important in the daily life of the Asmat, each village supports its own group of carvers. Individuals who commission carvings assume responsibility for feeding the carver and his family while the work is being completed. Delicacies such as sago larvae are particularly welcome. Tobacco too is coveted.

War shields are the most powerful expression of Asmat art. The ancestors for whom they are named live within them, embody them, and give such power, force, and fierceness to the owner that he feels invincible. The combination of the ancestor's strength and the strength of the symbolic designs carved and painted on the shield's surface terrifies the enemy so that he runs away or drops his weapons and becomes immobilized. He is then easily captured and taken into the canoe where he is tied and later beheaded.

The spirituality of the Asmat is most clearly seen in their intense relationship with their shields. This relationship may vary according to the need for vengeance, either on the part of the shield's owner or on the part of its spirit. This spirit may even become full-bodied to the extent that it can be seen walking around and talking to people, as if it had not died. The owner feels the spirit's presence constantly and responds to its demands, particularly for revenge. The spirit, in turn, endows its descendant with immense power and with the courage to go fearlessly into battle and to return home intact from every violent encounter. The spirit, if not treated properly, may also do great damage, emptying the rivers of fish or the forest of animal life, spreading disease, or rotting the sago palms.


Shields are powerful not only as weapons in warfare but also as protective devices against malevolent spirits and ghosts. Shields stand close to the doorway of the family house or lie on the floor blocking the entrance so that the ancestors can guard the house while the family is away. During feasts, shields are often displayed in groups so that the energy from one adds to the energy of the next, the cumulative effect investing the warriors with great courage, endurance, and accuracy with weapons. Spears and bows and arrows were not only used in warfare but were also the tools of hunting animals and birds. Asmat can be divided into four stylistic areas, each with its own types of carvings, including a distinctive shape of shield and particular design motifs.

In all four of these geographic areas, war shields are made from the buttress root of a mangrove tree or other rhizophore. In the past, bone and shell were used to carve the designs; today, metal tools are commonplace.

Shields from Coastal and Central Asmat are rectangular in shape, with a phallic projection from the top called the cemen (penis) of the shield. Shields from villages in Northwest Asmat are wider and more oval, and have a clearly separated head section, most often called a rayfish. Shields of the Tjitalk or Kaunak villages of Eastern Asmat produce the largest shields. The top comes to a rounded point that represents an abstracted human head. The bottom is flat. Brazza River shields are similar to those of the Tjitak villages except that the top comes to a sharp point. Near the top, a pair of spiral eyes and a nose represent the ancestor for whom the shield is named.

The main body of shields is covered with headhunting symbols that vary according to the region in which they are carved. The boldest designs come from the South Coast and most often represent the shell nosepiece design that symbolizes the tusks of a wild boar. This may be combined with the ainor design*, a symbol so terrifying to the enemy that he drops his weapons. Shields from the Northwest are smaller and are more intricately designed, with symbols that include the flying fox, flying fox feet, cuscus tails, whirlpools and the bones of wild pigs. The Tjitak people often carve the entire body of the shield with a single design that is repeated several times and represents water swirling down the sago trough. Little is known of other designs among the Tjitak, and still less about those of the people of the Brazza River.

All designs give attributes to the owner of the shield that are necessary to his living in a world of spirits, who may be helpful or malevolent, depending upon the relationship between the spirit of the shield and its owner. It is to the owner's advantage to appease all spirits, including those that inhabit the forest and the rivers. Appeasement adds to a man's physical well-being and to his emotional comfort. The combination of the ancestor spirit, the spirits of the headhunting symbols on the shield, and those of the forest gives a power to men that makes them invincible.

Drums are the most durable of Asmat carvings. They are made from a hard wood, some even from ironwood, although most carvers avoid the latter because of its weight. It takes months to carve a drum; the carver must carefully watch the drying process or the piece of wood will split. Shaped like an hourglass, it is elaborately carved and incised with headhunting symbols.

After a carver has chosen a section of log to work with, he places hot embers on top of the wood to char and burn it. With a digging stick he carves out the interior. When the drum is ready, a lizard's skin is sealed to the top with a glue made of human blood and white lime. The blood, from the calves of the owner, is mixed with the lime to make a glue which is smeared around the top to hold the lizard skin. The head of the drum is tuned with the heat of the fire and more finely tuned by placing knobs of beeswax on top of the skin. A drum is held by the handle and normally played by a seated man, the drum resting on his thighs.

Although the drum as a whole is named for someone recently deceased, small figures on the handle may also be given names .