5 Striking Facts about Korowai Tribe of West Papua

West Papua

The land of Papua is indeed an archipelago at the eastern end of Indonesia with various beautiful cultures and ethnic groups that always surprise us with their uniqueness. Korowai is one of West Papua indigenous tribes who live in the very isolated territory, in the world’s least explored jungles in Mappi Regency. They live in tree houses which can be as high as 50 meters from the ground. The house is locally called “Rumah Tinggi”.

It is believed that in 1974 the Korowai had been first discovered by a group of lost scientists who accidentally entered the territory of the tribe. Led by US cultural anthropologist—Peter W. Van Arsdale, the group decided to stay, study, and record the daily lives of the Korowai people. Many photographers and journalists have undertaken expeditions to get to know this remote tribe who is believed in practicing cannibalism.

Facts about Korowai Tribe of West Papua

West Papua

The Korowai people survive by relying on nature to protect and nourish them. They have a staple food in the form of sago, Papua Traditional Sticky Food, made from the sago tree. They also eat fish and caterpillars from the sago tree—raw or roasted. Moreover, there are several interesting facts about the tribe.

  • Live in high treehouses

The people live in small clans or groups. Each group has a particular territory. Usually, there will be no more than five treehouses in one settlement. Living in treehouses protects them from certain dangers—rival clans attack and evil spirits that always stay on the ground.

The treehouses were made using a sturdy Banyan tree as the central pole, the bark of sago palm for the walls and floor, also sago leaves for the roof. They used strong rattan ropes to string the house. The only access available to reach the treehouse is a long ladder.

  • They believed they were alone

Unlike the other Papuan Tribal Communities, the Korowais have no idea that other people existed beside them in this world. Their first contact with the outside world was in 1974. They are also ignorant of modern medical medicine. This makes the death rate is quite high because they use only spices and herbal ingredients that they find in the forest to treat various diseases. 

As one of the unique West Papua indigenous tribes, many still believe that outsiders may carry evil spirits or demons. Some of them probably even never seen another person with different color of skin in their life.

  • Women marry in teenage and are sent to the forest to give birth

While Korowais men tend to wait until they are at least 20 years old to get married, most women are married in their early teenage years, right after the first menstruate. There is a life typically of up to 15 people in one treehouse, consisting of a man, the wife or wives, and children. Once a teenage girl in the family home is married, she is seen as an adult and must leave to live with her husband.

It is also reported that the pregnant women in the Korowai tribe of West Papua are sent to the deep forest to give birth. They are sent far away from home and do all by themselves! It is captivating to know about this extraordinary culture in a world where newborn babies are now welcomed with the luxury of family joy and a warm, filled bathtub.

  • Bow and arrows to attack animals and people

Rumor has it that the Korowai Tribe has inhabited the West Papua region for 10 thousand years. Hunting is in their blood, and they are doing it in a most primitive manner—with bow and arrows. Not only animals, these tools—the bow which has a barb on it—are also used for hunting down people who seem like a threat, like intruders from rival clans or even unwelcome strangers.

  • Practicing cannibalism

The Korowai tribe of West Papua is one of the least known tribes in the world to have been practicing cannibalism. They deliberately practice it because they think there is a Khakhua (magician or demon) disguised as a male member of their tribe. The Khakhua is thought to spread various diseases to their ethnicity as Korowai was frequently exposed to several outbreaks of disease, including malaria, tuberculosis, elephantiasis, and anemia.

For Korowais, if someone died falling from a treehouse or was killed in battle, then the cause of death was acceptable. Unfortunately, they don’t have any knowledge of germs or microbes. Thus, when someone dies mysteriously, they have faith it is because of a Khakhua who came from the afterlife.

Today Korowai’s population stands at 3,000; most of them are probably unaware of a world outside of where they live. They continue to exist and live their lives according to their traditions for a long time. Even now, the Korowai is one of the favorite destinations for tourists and adventurers from abroad, who are excited to learn about the lives and culture of West Papua indigenous tribes.

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  1. West Papua: From Local Tribes’ Traditional Curing to Modern Health Development - PPA
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