Dani & Yali tribes

The fertile Baliem Ground Valley lies in Irian's highlands an hour's flights from Jayapura. It's cool here, at some 1,400 meters or more. Early morning clouds and mist often hide the surrounding heights, giving a timeless and mystical atmosphere which slowly dissipates with the sun's rays. The Baliem river, of rich creamy brown tones, snakes through the valley before pouring out through a gorge to the south and the Arafara Sea. This is home to the Dani tribe, the most famous of Irian's interior. These former-warriors lived in isolation until they were discovered in 1938.

They grew stupendous harvests of their staple sweet potatoes in the rich valley soil with the help of an efficient irrigation system. As the men had plenty of time left over after the gardening chores were done (most of which were done by the women anyway), ritual warfare developed to a degree seldom matched anywhere.

Today, after over 50 years of contact with the outside world, the Dani's life-style has changed somewhat but many of the men still wear distinctive penis sheaths, women wear grass skirts and agriculture is still centred around sweet potatoes.

Pigs and women remain a man's most valued possessions.

Occasional ritual battles result in dozons of casualties to arrows, spears and the odd imported axe. Funerals and marriage rites have changed little over the years.

A visit to the region of the Baliem Valley can be tame or adventurous. For those who need a degree of creature comforts, Wamena has acceptable hotels and meals, and locally organised day trips which could include a Dani ritual. Hardier souls can set out by public transport, then trek to many a fascinating village.

Guides are essential for these jaunts where one has to rely on local hospitality (small payment is appreciated) and take victuals unless you can survive on a straight diet of sweet potatoes.

Wamena, the capital of the Jayawijaya district with a population of just over 100,000, is the largest town in the central highlands of Papua. With several thousand people, is the only urban centre in the Baleim.

All flights land here, the highlands' main airstrip. The district's principal government officials all live in Wamena, along with many students of the high school and teacher training college. The Roman Catholic Church has its highland headquarters here. There's a post office, a book shop and telephone service and best of all, there's the daily market. In the early hours of dawn, the Dani from miles around begin to drift to the market. Most of the locals bring surplus sweet potatoes and vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and cabbage along with pineapple and a variety of bananas. Souvenirs like bows and bunches of multipurpose arrows, each for a different kind of game, including humans, can be bought. Other items include penis sheaths, stone axes and cowrie shells, formerly used as money.



There are a few traditional Dani villages near Wamena. The nearest, Pugima, can be reached in an hour's stroll for a first taste of local culture.


Jiwika, some twenty kilometres away, is linked by a good road andfrequent public transportation. En route to Jiwiika, all tours stop to see the mummy of Akima, the smoke dried remains of a powerful war chief who has access to the world of spirits.


There is also another mummy, not so popular but cheaper to photograph. A night in a basic losmen at Jiwika makes a good base to explore this section of the valley. An hour's steep climb leads to a brine pool from where salt is still extracted in the traditional way. The road continues out of Jiwika, with caves and villages along the way. This road will, someday, link with one being built from Jayapura.

To the south of Wamena, a road of sorts leads part of the way to Kurima, at the head of the Baleim Gorge. Paths along the gorge lead to the Yala tribe who saw their first missionaries only a generation ago.

On the other side of the Baleim Valley from Jiwika, a road of sort leads to Pyramid at the northern entrance to the valley. Before Pyramid, side paths head into the mountain, past Dani villages to uninhabited lands where Lake Habbema and the snow-capped Mount Trikora are located. Pyramid, a Protestant Missionary Centre, lies on the main paths leading out of the Baliem Valley to the territory of the Western Dani.

The sub-district centre of Karubaga can be reached in three or four days on a good path. If you don't feel like trekking back, Merpati has a couple of scheduled flights a week from Karubaga to Wamena and there are also occasional missionary flights.



Or, if you are up to it, you can keep hiking out of Karubaga to Bokondini and onto Tiom to the west.


The Yali tribe is most likely the smallest of Papuan nations. I wrote "likely" because I am convinced that not all the nations living in New Guinea (including Irian Jaya), have yet been discovered.

Yalis were discovered no later than in 1976. They make their homes in the highlands; this is what inhabited areas of mountains are called in Papua. Inland, and especially areas near the mountains, are the least accessible territories which were thus discovered most recently.


The Papuan Yali tribe belonged to the most dreaded cannibals of the western part of the New Guinea Island (Irian Jaya). They are ranked among the pygmy group of nations (dwarf nations), and more precisely among pygmy negrits.

Despite the fact that mature men are scarcely taller than 150 cm, and that they have never been head-hunters, they are respected by their enemies. The fear reached such a degree that the Yalis couldn't visit each other. As a result, in every valley the language developed in a different way. The difference was so striking that the Yali tribe members themselves claim that the valleys don't understand each other.

The reason why, the group of cannibals called Papuan Yalis were particularly dreaded, was because they totally destroyed their enemies. They did not only eat the body, but they allegedly ground the bones to dust, which was then thrown into the valley. They did all this to prevent the victim from ever returning. People from the neighboring villages were not only killed for revenge, but sometimes just for meat...

Papuan mountain Yali tribe members dwell some 2,000 - 2,500 m above sea level. There are two ways to reach them. First, there is a very difficult but also beautiful trek. This several day long trek starts at Wamena (1800 m). It traverses the Jayawijaya mountain range and a mountain saddle situated at 4000 m above sea level, not far from the summit of Mount Elit. The trek is so strenuous because the Papua mountains are very rugged and steep.



You won't avoid trekking, even if you decide for the second alternative - a plane. To see the Yalis you flew in to see, you will have to follow them to their villages, which lie in the mountains. If you want to see also the lowland Yali tribe members, who live 1000 - 1500 m above the sea level, you'll have to extend your trek by several days. You won't regret it though. The fantastic sceneries, which will be offered as a reward for this effort, will remain your lifelong memories. Take my word on that!


The Papuan mountain Yali tribe members live in round huts built from cut planks and roofs made of pandan leaves. Women and men live separately. Women have their own houses and men live in community houses (honai).

Men wear traditional big "rattan" skirts and kotekas. The skirts are composed of large number of separate strips of rattan approximately 5 mm wide, which are coiled around the body like a tyre. These "tires" are connected on several places. The result is a kind of skirt which covers the bodies of Yalis from breasts down to knees. The front of this skirt is supported by a koteka, a "penis tube" made of wooden fruit from the bottle plant.


Yali women wear traditional small and short skirts made of grass. Their breasts are left bare, similar to in the rest of the Papuan tribes. The skirts merely cover their genitals. They consist of two parts - the front one and the rear one. A small string encircles their waists, and the rear part of the skirt is usually worn beneath their butts. A part of their dress is also a bag woven from threads made of orchid fibers.

The bag, full or empty, covers the women's back and butt. Often it ends at their knees. The skirt consists of four layers. The first layer is given to girls, when they reach approximately four years of age. One layer is added every four years. As soon as the number of layers reaches four, it means that the girl is mature and she can marry.

Papuan lowland Yali tribe members are significantly different from highland Yali. Men don't wear rattan skirts, only kotekas. Women don't wear small four-layer skirts, but long skirts made of grass. It could be said that they are not as interesting as the mountain Yali, but the opposite is true.

Lowland Yali almost live in isolation and are thus affected by outside influence only to a very small degree. It is fantastic to visit both cultures during one trek. A descent from the mountains to the lowland can be a very pleasant experience, considering that your diet changes as well. The diet of sweet potatoes might change to buamera (pandan fruit) or even sago.


The Yali tribe has a similar way of life to the Dani people. The Yali lives on hills and flat terrain. The temperature of this area is 20 degree Celcius - 30 degree Celcius in the day time and at night 10 degree - 15 degree. The total population of this area 30.000 people. Compared with the Dani, the Yali are more primitive. They are also less influence by outside world. The largest villages around are Angguruk and Kosarek.