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A Closer Look at the Asmat People of New Guinea

Some Interesting Facts About the Asmat

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Deep in the southern coast of New Guinea, surrounded by tropical rainforest and mud all over the ground are the Asmat people. In an island where one side is inaccessible from the sea and the other has a snowy mountain range live a people 60,000 strong, safe from enemy attack. Wood, masks, drums, and art are the four elements essential to the Asmat people of New Guinea. Asmat, another name for wood, was chosen as the name of the people because they believe they were created from it. Masks, a beautiful form of artwork in the Asmat culture, offers a great sense of culture. There are two types of masks for the Asmat, one representing ancestors and fertility, the other representing the community. Drumming is significant to the way of life, and very simple music is played on the drums during any sort of festival or event. Lastly, and probably the most famous is the art of the Asmat family. The Asmat artists, referred to as wow ipits, only use three colors: white, the basic color; red, to detail tattoo marks or bone structure; and black, used only for the hair. Most of their art is two-dimensional, along with round figures and large protrusions. These elements combined with the people of this community bring together a beautiful sense of culture, respect and meaning to the word Asmat.

The people that belong to this family live in villages divided into quarters with a large ceremonial house in the center called a yeu. Each household must have a fireplace for each woman living there and the yeu must always face water. The yeu is very important in the Asmat culture because all the festivals, ceremonies and dances take place in there. Unmarried boys and men usually spend a great amount of their time in the yeu, also referred to as the bachelor house. From there, the men keep an eye on their enemies and ensure the safety of their village. Long rows of fireplaces inside the yeu, called jowse, represent each family group. Curiously, women are only allowed in the yeu on special occasions, but their presence is vital when inaugurating a new ceremonial house or adopting others into the yeu tribe. When an outsider is initiated into the yeu tribe, the women must enter the yeu and stand one in front of the other with their legs widespread. The newcomers then pass between the women’s legs while the women moan, representing childbirth. This initiation resembles the women giving birth to the new members of the group. Rituals such as this among the Asmat people always have a purpose and weave together the idea of food, sexuality and hunting. Surprisingly, the Asmat people are thought of as killers that believe in cannibalism, fierce warriors and murderers. It is true that in the former days the head of the family collected the brains of the enemy and victoriously ate them, but after 1954, when the Asmat people were reestablished, they did away with their cannibalistic ways. The Asmat people are not cruel, their actions and beliefs have deep meaning and are a significant part of their culture. The Asmat do not chop down Sago trees to hurt their earth or kill nature’s gifts, in fact, the Sago tree is known as the “tree of life” and is considered a human being, a woman to be exact, to the Asmat people. Just as a woman bears children, the tree bears sago, an edible starch, and the main source of food for the Asmat. To show reverence to the Sago tree, there is an important initiation and ceremony that is held frequently. A tree is picked out at random and dressed with a woman’s skirt, a skirt made out of the same leaves a woman wears around her waist. The skirt is then decorated with masculine symbols, to represent men as well, and once it is fully dressed it is called the “mother tree” of the feast. Then, to initiate this tree as one of their sacred Sago trees, the decorated tree is cut down, another important ritual to the Asmat, which closely represents the slaying of an enemy. Once opened, if it contains the precious sago, it is initiated as a Sago tree, and screams can be heard miles away. An enormous feast follows this joyful initiation of the Sago tree.

To undo the myth that Asmats are murderers and kill for joy exist the deep symbolism that accompanies the ceremony of eating the brains of an enemy. In the days when the Asmat were cannibals, the an, a bowl symbolizing a woman’s vagina, was used to collect brains. With a stone ax, a hole would be made in the temple of the fresh skull, the brains removed and placed in the an. The sexual symbolism came together with the brains representing sperm in the woman’s vagina. There is another initiation that shows the profound meaning of a human skull among the Asmat culture. Once a fresh skull is obtained, it is painted with chalk, ashe, and ochre. Decorations are placed all over the skull and it is laid between the legs of the initiate. The initiate is forced to stare at the skull for two or three days, until the entire village comes together to witness the event. The villagers decorate themselves and their canoes, and the initiate stands in the canoe of his family members, holding a stick, portraying himself as an elderly man. As the drumming begins, the canoes start rowing down the river, and the initiate is thrown into the water along with his skull. After he is successfully recovered, he is undressed, and the skull is his to keep. After learning about the different initiations and rituals that complete the Asmat culture one can only agree that they are meaningful to the people as well as unique to their primitive surroundings.

Rockefellar, Michael Clark. The Asmat of New Guinea. New York: March 1967.
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