Biak Island

Biak Island

Geography, History and Culture

Biak is located in the Cenderawasih Bay of the Eastern Indonesian Province of Papua. Biak is a place, rich in history and blessed with natural beauty. Its coastlines are made up of white sandy beaches, mangrove swamps and  impressive coral limestone cliffs reaching an average height of 60 meters. The land is generally flat, but towards the north, it reaches up to about 700 meters.This relatively undiscovered tropical paradise has a very unique biodiversity, and because of its isolation, many new floras, faunas, endemic birds and small mammals, may be discovered upon careful research and studies; such as a discovery of a tree dwelling tiny little frog, Oreophryne kapisa, about 20mm long, in the year 2000 by a local self-taught naturalist, Mr. Marthinus Kapisa.The surrounding sea boasts a diverse variety of marine life, and more than 200 species make their home around these crystal clear waters. This remote island and its surrounding islands, have one of the best coral reefs in the world, with many drop offs, underwater caves and tunnels, and over-hangs, to explore.

During the Second World War, Biak was invaded by the Japanese in April 1942, but in July 1944 it was re-captured by Allied forces after many fierce battles, in which the Japanese Imperial Army lost about 33,000 lives and the Allied forces lost about 9,800 lives. The first tank battle of the Pacific began here. Do not be surprised if you find WWII relics and human remains littering in the forests when trekking or exploring the limestone caves.Many wrecks, such as landing crafts and aeroplanes, can be found in the sea, and many have turned into new homes and coral gardens for the marine life. The people of Biak are very friendly and hospitable towards foreigners. The people here are very musically inclined, so you can often hear singing and see dancing in the evening.

There are two pressing questions when dealing with or looking at Papuan history. They are respectively, "Where do the Papuans come from?" and "How did they get to Papua?" These are not questions easily answered or indeed, conclusively answered at all. To answer the questions one must examine various data such as genetics, linguistics, oral histories and myths and of course written histories. Needless to say the most reliable sources (written history) are also the rarest and most incomplete. There are two native people groups to be found in Papua. Melanesians (generally your islanders such as Biak and Sorong) and Papuans (formerly known as Negritos) with two distinct Papuan and Austronesian language groups.

What is known, is that approximately 40,000 years ago the first Papuans arrived by boat/raft in West New Guinea . The later arrival of the Austronesians pushed the Papuans eastward resulting in the occupation of the highlands about 30,000 years ago. In some cases, such as the islands areas (Biak etc) it resulted in intermingling, leading to the development of the Melanesian populations. It is assumed that the Papuans originated in Africa with one theory postulating their departure from East Africa - near what is now Madagascar - and moving through mainland Asia and then into the islands. However, there is some evidence to suggest there may have been people in New Guinea as far back as 60,000 years ago.

Their ancestors would probably have been the original Asians. Successive migrations from China and mainland Asia gradually pushed the Papuan ancestors eastwards till they hit New Guinea, Australia and the Pacific islands beyond. Small-related populations used to be found and in some cases still remain in other parts of Asia. Indeed, in Biak one used to be able to find a distinct people group* who dominated the interior of the island and whose genetics and appearance suggest a "pure" Papuan ancestry. They were known as Arfak or Faksi but any linguistic proof of their Papuan ancestry has been lost as a result of the domination of the Biak language.

Archaeology and linguistics indicate an essentially eastward migration throughout Papua with the Melanesians dominating the islands and a few coastal areas. In some places, such as Sentani, there is evidence of intermingling. Given the Biak peoples love of slave trading one can also find evidence of long term intermingling within the Melanesian populations. The Papuans went on to populate the mountain areas and most of the lowland areas. What is not clear is if there were two similar migrations through both the lowlands and the highlands or if there was one basic migration with people sometimes moving to the mountains from the lowlands and sometimes moving from the mountains to the lowlands. However, further discussion of that lies far outside the scope of this treatise.

Interestingly, anecdotal evidence and some local stories collected by this writer suggest that the migrations may have in fact only recently been concluded. One Papuan subject in his 40's from the Eastern Highlands of West Papua who spoke with the writer can still remember as a child moving into their unoccupied valley. Yet today almost all habitable areas in New Guinea appear to be inhabited. Also, creation/migration myths passed down through an oral tradition retain remarkable consistency, suggesting a relatively recent history. Equally interesting is that some Northern areas of Timor and Halmahera possess Papuan related languages indicating a possible 'return' migration.

KORWAR (Ancestor Figure)

Created in the Cenderawasih Bay, korwar represented individuals who had recently died. Each served as a supernatural container from which the spirit of the newly deceased ancestor could be called for consultation or used for the presentation of offerings.

Korwar imagery was highly conventionalized, depicting the ancestor in a seated or standing position with the robust head and arrow-shaped nose that are the hallmarks of the style. Although the sex of the figures is often difficult to determine, all were originally male or female, depending on the gender of the deceased. Normally kept in the house of the deceased's family, korwar were also carried along on dangerous sea voyages to assure a successful outcome. Cenderawasih canoes had korwar heads incorporated into their prow and stern ornaments, and miniature korwar were carried as amulets. The pervasive presence of these korwar images protected the living and emphasized the importance of ancestors in all aspects of everyday life.