From long before historical records reached the south coast of Irian Jaya, the Kamoro occupied their ancestral lands stretching along some 300 kilometers of the Arafura Sea, from Etna Bay to Asmat-land. Their population of about 15,000 souls are divided among some 40 villages and several transmigration sites in the vicinity of Timika.

The Kamoro homeland occupies a smallish portion of the huge island of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland. The island is divided almost equally between the now independent nation of Papua New Guinea and the easternmost Indonesian province of Irian Jaya/Papua. Located just south of the equator, New Guinea boasts of one of the very few remaining tropical glaciers which lie at the foot of the highest peak between the Himalayas and the Andes: Puncak Jaya, at 4886 meters. The island is divided by a central cordillera of mountains running east-west, with alluvial plains of varying sizes to the north and south. The linguistic diversity is absolutely amazing: the five million Papuans speak some 1000 languages (not dialects) which represents some 15 per cent of the world's languages in an area less than 0.15 per cent of the planet's area. The island was one of the last places to be explored and there are still occasional completely untouched tribes coming out of the jungle.

The Asmat and the Kamoro - formerly known as the Mimika people - constitute the northwest border of the south coast New Guinea non-Austronesian language-culture areas, extending from Etnabay in West Papua to Orokolo, Gulf Province of Papua New Guinea. This huge coastal area was the subject of a penetrating, theoretically and methodologically innovative, comparative study by Bruce M. Knauft (l993). However, while the Asmat are reasonably covered, though to a limited extent due to the paucity of systematic ethnographic information, the Kamoro are only dealt with in passing: ritual homosexuality absent; women complementary or integral to male cult life; sister exchange marriage; early trading through rajahs in West Mimika.

Recent years show a happy accumulation of internationally accessible Kamoro data and its interpretations. The publications, specified below, also refer to massive change occurring since the late sixties of the previous century. To put the latter in some perspective; the l96l census of the entire Mimika district showed that the Kamoro (9300) then constituted 97% of the total population, with Chinese and other Indonesians representing 3%, and Europeans about 0.5% . In l998, however, almost the opposite transpired: the Kamoro were then estimated to represent l5% of the total population. The major lever of change was provided by the immigration of huge numbers of Indonesians from other parts of Indonesia. Almost all of these immigrants settled in the eastern part of the district, attracted by the arrival of Freeport Indonesia Mining Company in l967.

According to Kamoro perception and ancient culture, they are the real, true (Kamoro or Asmat) humans, as contrasted with the not so real, not so human, if not un-human mortals who happen to be neighbours or foreigners or enemies; briefly: we, the in-group versus they, the out-group. Also: we the humans as against the ghosts and the spirit-men. 'We humans' live betwixt and between the underworld, the main abode of the ancestors, and the upper world. The humans inhabit the earth that is merely a corridor. Through this corridor there is a constant circular flow of living and dead, of human, animal and vegetal spirits and ghosts, of ancestors and descendants and of eternal culture heroes, between lower and upper world. This bipartite cosmos and its in-between earthly corridor are coterminous with the upstream/downstream, coast/inland (including west/east) habitat of the semi-sedentary Kamoro and Asmat. They move in a cyclical, upwards and downwards fashion for the acquisition of sago, fish, forestial catch and limited horticultural produce.

To the Asmat, the Kamoro people are like their praise pieces. The Asmat have a stronger character and are more aggressive than the Kamoro. In the past, the Asmat people hunted down Kamoro people to show off their power. You know the Asmat people have the bisj, a totem-like pole that is made every time they kill an enemy. The Kamoro have a similar carving, the mbitoro, but it is made to praise their ancestors. See the difference." Kamoro youth figure Thomas "Tom" Kamipeyau said one of the tales often told by elderly Kamoro was the story of the origin of Kokonau. The word Kokonau is derived from Koka and Nau, which respectively mean women and slaughter.

A long time before the Portuguese and Dutch came to our island the Asmat people came and hunted our women. They killed most of the mothers and young women while the men ran into the jungle,. When the Portuguese people came they only met a bunch of frightened men. And they could not communicate because of the language, and only pointed in the direction of their village, saying 'koka nau', or our women were slaughtered. This folktale makes it clear the nature of the Kamoro. The Asmat were forced to defend their survival because they were praise pieces for other, stronger tribes as well, while the Kamoro had a kind of laid-back lifestyle living off the generosity of nature,"Muller said at his house in Pigapu village. Pigapu is about 30 kilometers west of Timika, the capital of Mimika regency, which is home to mining company Freeport.

Hidden by the world's richest and most profuse mangrove zone, the Kamoro people lived a semi-nomadic life-style, shifting their few belonging between the sago palm forests (which start at the furthest inland extension of the tidal zone) and the excellent fishing areas near the coast. The sago palm, whose trunk turns to pure starch just before the tree flowers and dies, provides the carbohydrate food supply to the Kamoro. The work of felling the trees and the process of separating the cellulose fibers from the starch requires some hard work but far less energy than other cultures spend in insuring their staple, be it rice, wheat, corn (maize) or any other grain. But while a family's sago supply takes little time to process, say a few days each month, the pure starch contains practically no protein - unlike the grain staples of other cultures. However this is no problem: there is plenty of protein available from the abundant fishing in both the middle and lower reaches of the rivers, the estuaries and at the edges of the Arafura Sea. Fishing is complemented by the hunting of wild pigs, the large, flightless cassowary bird, the marsupial cuscus and other game. The ladies bring home mangrove crabs and bivalve mollusks, both of which proliferate in the mangrove swamps. Tobacco and a few vegetables were cultivated on small patches of land but the best efforts of missionaries and governments to turn the Kamoro into farmers have met with little success. By and large, the territory of the Kamoro provides them with an abundant and fairly well balanced food supply (although the kids could use more vitamins). But the very abundance of nature has created a problem for the Kamoro: with the basic food supply so easy, the need for change is difficult to appreciate for them.

Already logging companies are busy in their area, offering only a few, temporary jobs. Chunks of their land have been taken over for transmigration programs without the knowledge and approval of many of the Kamoro. The modern world is intruding on them and the Kamoro must take some initiative and make better use of the educational opportunities available if they are to survive as a viable culture. As with any group, the Kamoro must also understand, preserve and be proud of their culture, to hold to their roots as the foundation of their identity, in order to face the modern world with solid psychological support. While in the past their traditional culture was denigrated by church and state, the situation has now changed. Both the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Indonesian government fully approve of most aspects of traditional Kamoro culture. But because of a long period when elements of the traditional life-style and religion were either forbidden or discouraged, many of the Kamoro lost pride in (and knowledge of) their culture. The Kamoro festival was held to reverse this trend, to encourage the culture by restoring pride in the ancient traditions.

The Kamoro people work in fishing, marketing, sago-processing, and hunting along their coastal lands. The coastal and river dwellers can best be accessed by boat but some Kamoro people level at higher altitudes. They have traditionally been a semi-nomadic people. Many Kamoro people believe they don't have a lot of goods because although their ancestors are sending goods for them, outsiders are intercepting the goods. Many Kamoro people now live in Etna Bay-government center. The main diet of the Kamoro people is sago and fish. The Kamoro people are known for their wooden canoe ornaments and houses for rituals. Individual clans look up to the clan leader. The Kamoro people have no gospel cassette, film, or videos in their language. Both the Catholic Church in Indonesia and the Evangelical Christian Church in Irian Jaya have worship facilities in the language area.

The Festival Kamoro, locally known as Kamoro Kakuru, which has proven to be a very effective way of introducing the arts and culture of the Kamoro to a wider audience.

The festival was inspired by the yearly Asmat auction that was set up and carried out by Bishop Al Sowada, a Roman Catholic missionary of extraordinary vision who also set up the Asmat art museum in Agats. While its main objective was to preserve the cultural heritage of the Kamoro, the festival also serves as a forum to generate income for carvers and the women who weave grass to make bags.

Besides dance performances, canoe races and cooking demonstrations of traditional food, the festival also features an auction of Kamoro carvings.

During the initiation ceremony young boys are decorated in the most outlandish fashion. His head dress is made of red cloth cassowary feathers and coix seeds.

Although more and more Kamoro are showing an interest in carving, It is not sure if carving is the way to generate sustainable income for the people, as "few of the people have good taste when it comes to carving. Many learned the skills from their parents, but they still have a lot more to learn". Slightly different from the carvings of the Asmat, the works of the Kamoro range from mbitoro, yamate (a kind of shield) and wemawe (the carving of the images of ancestors in an elbows-on-knees position), to tongkat (walking stick), eme or tifa (drum), and mbiikao masks (large masks worn over the head and shoulders for ceremonies).

As in Africa, Oceanea, among the Dayaks and elsewhere, the Kamoro society produced great sculptures, powerfully expressive pieces with simple lines and tools. It was this type of art which inspired many modern painters, especially the cubists and in particular Pablo Picasso whose famous painting, Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (The Maidens of Avignon, a town in France but here referring to a bordello in Barcelona...) features female figures with two of the faces like African masks.

Long ago, before the overwhelming intrusion of the outside world, the wood sculptures of the Kamoro people qualified them as one of the world's greatest carving cultures, on a par with the world-famous Asmat, their better known neighbors. As with other traditional societies, the so-called ‘primitive' art of the Kamoro was an integral part of their culture, with the most spectacular pieces serving an essential function in their religious life. But when the spiritual underpinnings of the traditional religion were cut by the Catholic Church, the carvings lost their raison d'être. The art of the Kamoro was set to die out. Almost but not quite. Pieces were still made for ceremonies, essentially initiations, which however were ‘sanitized' by church and state: nose-piercings and post-ritual sexual hanky-panky were forbidden.

Thus the art of the Kamoro people, along with their culture in general, suffered traumatically from the mid-1920s when the Dutch government and the Roman Catholic Church established themselves in the area of Kokonau. The Kamoro were also strongly discouraged from following their semi-nomadic existence: free spirits are the bane of governments everywhere. Settled populations can be counted, educated, taxed, controlled. Wandering folks do as they please, a dangerous precedent. But before we totally condemn the interference of the outside world on the Kamoro, let us remember that their life span was on the order of some 30 years, with infant mortality from malaria reaching 50 per cent of live births. (The population of the whole island of New Guinea, now well over six million, never exceeded one million until the colonial powers brought in western medicines and forced the cessation of tribal warfare.) The Kamoro were also the prey species of the more aggressive and better organized Asmat. There are records of devastating raids, with many Kamoro heads heading east (minus the bodies of their owners) to decorate Asmat houses and appease bloodthirsty spirits there. The Dutch-trained police and modern firearms drastically swung to balance of forces to the advantage of the Kamoro, and soon the Asmat understood that, brave and clever as they might be, they would only lose their own heads if they persisted in raiding the Kamoro villages.

The pre-contact Kamoro social structure had developed to a point somewhere between loose bands and permanent villages. While bands number members in the dozens and shun permanent settlements, tribal organization involves hundreds, with fixed villages. At the Kamoro stage of social organization, land belongs to clans called taparu, not to villages or the tribe as a whole unit. To the chagrin of Dutch and Indonesian administrators, the Kamoro have not yet developed any centralized chieftainship structure which could lead the entire ethnic group. They do not even have the position of a traditional village leader. In their level of organization, or political hierarchy, the Kamoro are closer to what Jared Diamond (in his book Guns, Germs and Steel) calls "an informal, egalitarian government [where] information and decision making are both communal. Not only is status not inherited; no member of a traditional tribe can become disproportionately wealthy by his or her own efforts, because each has individual debts and obligations to many others." So the current leadership structure, such as village chiefs, are impositions, for the convenience of the outside world and not sure-fire mechanisms for dealing with the Kamoro. It's not like the chief makes all the decisions and all the Indians meekly accept this decision. The Kamoro society is based on ‘taparu' or clan-like divisions, with some ancient matriarchal bases and each of whom own and control chunks of land. Each taparu has one or two male leaders. And most villages have several taparu, some large, some small, to complicate matters.

While the Kamoro culture had suffered greatly, it had not been extinguished by the Dutch government and the Catholic Church. But in the 1960s, the missionary Frank Trenkenschuh paints a bleak picture indeed: "Mimika strikes a person as a dead area filled with zombies. There is no work and no interest in work. Religion of the past is no longer celebrated and the Christian religion means nothing to the people. The past is gone forever. The present lacks vitality. The future holds no hope." It was difficult, he continues, to keep missionaries interested in the area: from 1959 to 1969, the East Mimika area had 13 different pastors, leaving no time for the people to know and trust their priest. In 1982, according to Father Trenkenschuh, almost 40 years had passed since local feasts had been held. Already by 1970 it was believed that almost all local art disappeared and only old men could still carve. Trenkenschuh completes his most negative assessment: "This is a society without pride in itself and one which totally lacks any sense of excitement or enjoyment of life." Far too many were devoted to drinking the fermented juice of the segero palm as "in not one village was there a single job which essentially demands an educated person....the Freeport Copper Project [in the early 1970's]....by and large, bypasses the ordinary Mimikans. The wall of indifference the Mimikan people have erected around themselves has made it impossible to hire even simple labor forces from among the Mimikans. The mountain peoples are the backbone of the local work force for Freeport. The Mimikans are not willing to work".

But perhaps the real picture was not quite so bleak. As the anthropologist Jan Pouwer already remarked in the mid-1950s, the Kamoro were totally Christian in the presence of a priest but totally traditional when left alone. They succeeded in preserving at least a part of their culture through passive resistance to changing their nomadic and spiritual way of life. So rituals went on, unbeknown to the church.

With the ever growing influence of Freeport on the scene, the Kamoro saw that not everyone depreciated their culture. Their carvings were brought by the company for public display as well as by individuals for their homes. Dances were sponsored for company events. And contrary to the assessment of joblessness among the educated Kamoro, Freeport also offered excellent opportunities to any Kamoro with a good education. By encouraging both the traditional culture and education, the mining company had gone a long ways to bring the Kamoro culture out in the open and proud of itself, ready to face the modern world from the firm base of a self-assured culture. This is one of the many unsung accomplishments of Freeport Indonesia, completely ignored by the company's critics who have not taken the time necessary to visit and study the Kamoro.

Kamoro houses are made of all-local materials but family houses have only appeared after the arrival of government and Christianity.

Kamoro villages are always located next to water; either the ocean or a river. The reason for this is that all travel is by canoe.

The Kamoro living on the coast travel to kapiri kame (shelters made of pandanus leaves) inland where they have easier access to sago trees and other resources from the tropical rain forest. Sago palms are scattered in the wild and the Kamoro just fell the trees and break up the pith in the trunk. A felled sago tree, if left to rot, will produce one of the Kamoro's favorite delicacies: koo, or the sago grub. Another favorite delicacy is tambelo, a kind of mollusk found in felled mangrove trees. Both delicacies are always eaten raw. A local delicacy is called ko in the kamoro language although it looks like a long slimey worm it is in reality a bivalve mollusc of the same family as ships worms.

The Kamoro was a culture -- like many others in Papua -- facing a delicate, sometimes humorous, and occasionally painful process of change. The question is how this change will shape the lives and the culture of the Kamoro.

Natural phenomena, celestial bodies and man always existed in an ever-present cosmos. These were not created but transformed and re-directed by superhuman culture heroes who mainly operated on and from the in-between earth. They acted as superior tricksters outdoing their powerful literal namesakes in upper-and underworld. By so doing the earth was made suitable for real man. They re-directed sun, moon, fire, rain and winds, and re-established and re-distributed sago, fish, hunting equipment including dogs, and garden products. Their acts and exploits served the needs of man. Also, at least in Mimika, the two main and major rituals relating as female to male, the Emakame and Kaware rituals, were instituted in and to some extent stolen from the underworld by them. The former ritual safeguards reproduction of humans and their environment; its constituting myth reconstitutes and re-distributes men, turns them into separate groups including groups of foreigners. The latter ritual safeguards communication with the dead, the ancestors, the under- and upper world. Initiation of the adolescents and honouring as well as getting rid of the dead in an elaborate succession of stages are autonomous rituals closely connected with the two main, 'female' and 'male' major rituals. To what extent this set up also applies to Asmat is unclear, due to the paucity of data. There are pertinent parallels but their orientation is clearly different.

Space and time in cosmos, culture and society are regulated, set and kept in motion by the golden principle of reciprocity (Kamoro: aopao) between two halves of varying composition. Bipartition is a fundamental property of Kamoro and Asmat cosmos, culture and society. Aopao stands for counterpart, counter-word, counter-act, quid pro quo, and revenge. Reciprocity is the prime mover of social state, social process and history. It also includes engagement with the foreigners, their acts, power and wealth. The anthology is named Amoko after the eternally present era (amoko) of the culture heroes (amoko-we). This era relates to the era of humans as bottom, root, inner essence if you like (mopere or mapere), to top, outer surface (ipere), as deep reality to mere appearance.

While the Kamoro killed (but probably did not eat) their fair share of explorers, they missed the one man who could have brought them fame and fortune: Michael Rockefeller. The (denied) claim to that bit of notorious reputation goes to their next door neighbors, the Asmat. Although the young Rockefeller was probably drowned and his possible (involuntary) contribution to the essence of a cannibal meal vociferous denied by the Asmat, that makes poor journalistic copy. In the well-financed and high-powered search subsequent to Michael's disappearance, the Asmat received tons of free publicity which subsequently helped to bring their carvings to the attention of the art world. That the young Rockefeller was collecting Asmat art when he vanished - he was last seen trying to swim to shore from an overturned boat - also helped, along with the later permanent exhibit of his collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. No such luck for the Kamoro.

Language Information and use:

The Kamora are sometimes known as the KAMORA, MIMIKA, LAKAHIA, NAGRAMADU, UMARI, MUKAMUGA, NEFERIPI, NEFARPI, MASWENA, NAFA, KAOKONAU, or UMAR people. Tarya, Yamur, Nanesa are three Kamoro language dialects. The Kamoro people have regular contact with other coastal people. The Kamoro language is part of the Asmat-Kamoro language family.

References :

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