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Asmat Bis Pole

The Asmat people live on New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, located just north of Australia.

This area is one of the wettest on earth. Land is often under water due to the high tides.
Asmat-Papua, 2006, digital photograph by 710928003 on

It’s hard to get around in the swampland. Most travel is by dugout canoe.
Village Asmat, 1991, digital photograph by christiancaron2000 on

key idea
Keeping life in balance

Nearly 70,000 Asmat people live in the swamplands of southwestern Papua province, on the island of New Guinea. Life in this environment is not easy. High tides, thick mud, and overgrown jungles make travel difficult, and the Asmat remain relatively isolated from the outside world. They live off the land, hunting and fishing and gathering food in the rain forest.

You might think life would be simple for the Asmat. But in fact, their existence is a complicated balancing act between two worlds—the world of the living and the world of the spirits. The Asmat believe that spirits, especially ancestor spirits, control the activities of the living. When death occurs in a community, life may become unbalanced. And that can have disastrous results, such as disease, hunger, and death.

To ensure order and harmony, the Asmat perform ceremonial rituals. Until the mid-20th century, some of their rituals included head-hunting and cannibalism. When a person died, the community felt the need to avenge the death by killing someone from an enemy village. The Asmat believed that was the way to restore balance between the numbers of living people and spirits.

For several years during the 1960s, the Indonesian government outlawed all clan houses, events, and wood carvings associated with Asmat ceremonial rituals, even though most head-hunting and cannibalism had stopped by then. Luckily, with the help of Catholic missionaries, the Asmat regained the right to hold ceremonies and to create the elaborate wood carvings that accompany them.

February 2009