The wide south-east swath of land of the Indonesian part of the island of Papua comprises flat plains overgrown with mangrove forests serrated by many rivers. These plains lie so low that at high tide during the rainy season, sea water penetrates some two kilometers inland and flows back out to two km to sea at low tide. During low tide the plains are muddy and impassable. This is the largest alluvial swamp in the world, a low-lying territory of bog forest and meandering rivers emptying into the Arafura Sea.
Here is the habitat of crocodiles, gray nurse sharks, sea snakes, fresh water dolphins, shrimp, and crabs, while living along the banks are huge lizards. The forests contain palms, ironwood, merak wood and mangroves and are home to the crown pigeons, hornbills and cockatoos. There are grass meadows, and orchids do bloom here.
In such inhospitable landscape the Asmat have made this their home, next to the Marind-Anim and the Mimika tribes.
Among these, the Asmat are the best known, or the most infamous. They are fierce warriors who in the past practiced head-hunting following their culture and belief. But through their complex culture, they have also created some of the world’s most outstanding wood sculptures, exemplified by strong lines and design, most coveted by art collectors around the world.
Despite prized among the world’s finest primitive arts, nonetheless, to the Asmat themselves, their woodcarving is inextricably linked with the spirit world, and therefore, are not principally considered as aesthetic objects. Much of the highly original art of the Asmat is symbolic of warfare, headhunting, and warrior-ancestor veneration. For centuries the Asmat, preoccupied with the necessity of appeasing ancestral spirits, produced a wealth of superbly designed shields, canoes, sculptured figures, and drums.
Many of these masterpieces are today on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Asmat region shot into world spotlight when in 1961 Michael Rockefeller, son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller disappeared here on his second expedition to New Guinea. This time the expedition was to the Asmat region itself to purchase as many woodcarvings as possible.
On his first visit Michael had been deeply impressed by the Asmat sculptures, and planned to display these at an exhibition in the United States. On this fatal trip, accompanied by a Dutch art expert, the two hired an outboard-powered catamaran, but on this journey the boat capsized pushed by the rushing incoming tide. Impatient, Michael swam to shore never to be seen or heard of again. Whether he was dragged down by the tide, was ripped by crocodiles or hunted down by the Asmat remains a moot question.
The name “Asmat” most probably comes from the words As Akat, which according to the Asmat means: “the right man”. Others say that that the word Asmat derives from the word Osamat meaning “man from tree”. Asmat’s neighbors to the west, – the Mimika- , however, claim that the name is derived from their word for the tribe – “manue”, meaning “man eater”.
The indigenous people in the region are divided into two main groups; those living along the coasts, and those in the interior. They differ in dialect, way of life, social structure, and ceremonies. The coastal river areas are further divided into two groups, the Bisman, living between the Sinesty and the Nin River, and the Simai.
Around 70,000 Asmat, the largest tribe in the area, are scattered in 100 villages in a territory of roughly 27,000 square km living in this huge tidal swamp land. The tribe was untouched by civilization until recent times. Dutch outposts, missionary settlements, and foreign expeditions finally made inroads into this isolated community only in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Formerly, entire tribal families lived together in houses of up to 28 meters long called yeus. Yeus are still in use today, but are only occupied by men for rituals where unmarried men sleep. Upriver, the Asmat still live in longhouses, while the Kombai and Korowai Asmat still live in houses constructed in treetops.
The Asmat live on sago, their staple diet, as well as on mussels, snails, and fat insect larvae collected from decaying stumps of sago palms. These are eaten to the accompaniment of throbbing drums and ritual dances. Larvae feasts can last up to two weeks. The Asmat also gather forest products such as rattan, and catch fish and shrimp in large hoop nets.
The Asmat are semi-nomads, their life depending on conditions on the river which is their sole means of transport and their source of food.
Today in the village of Agats, raised walkways form a network above the muddy ground. The walkways link the village landmarks – churches, mosque, schools, Catholic mission offices, post office, police station and several government offices and a few shops selling basic goods. At high tide, small canoes and outboard motor dugouts weave through a small network of canals.
The Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress houses some of the best carvings and artifacts collected from all over the region.
Once a year the Asmat Cultural Festival is held in October, dedicated to the development of Asmat art and culture. The main attractions are the carvings and dances performed by villages around Agats. The best carvings in the festival will be placed at the Asmat Museum, while the rest are sold through action on the festival site.
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