Asmat tribe on boats

Unveiling the Hidden World of the Asmat Tribe in West Papua

2 months ago Indonesia

The Asmat Tribe, found in remote West Papua, Indonesia, has a fascinating ancient culture and possesses world-renowned wood carving skills. Known for their exceptional artistry, the Asmat people also have a complex social structure and a dark history of headhunting and cannibalism. With an estimated population of 70,000, the Asmat are divided into a few hundred smaller villages, with some home to up to 2000+ people. 

 

Cannibalism and headhunting

Asmat

 

Historically, the Asmat people were documented headhunters and cannibals, believing they could absorb the spiritual power of their enemies through their skull. An intricate initiation ceremony involving captured heads invited young Asmat boys into manhood.

  

Although there are reports that the Asmat continued to practice cannibalism into the 1990s, Catholic missionaries condemned headhunting upon setting up a post in the region in the early 1950s. They gained steady success in persuading the Asmat people to abandon human skull worship. Today, the Asmat are primarily Catholic and their cannibalistic rituals are a thing of the past.   

 

Spiritual beliefs

Asmat tribe

 

The Asmat culture revolves around the idea of bisj, a spiritual force believed to inhabit all living things. This belief system influences their daily lives, art, rituals, and social interactions. 

 

The Asmat’s reverence for bisj can be seen in their striking wooden carvings, often depicting ancestral spirits, symbolic animals, and intricate patterns. These carvings are artistic expressions but also used as ceremonial objects and symbols of spiritual significance. The Asmat’s large, carved bisj poles – are designed to keep the spirits of those who have recently died away from the village and are fashioned during elaborate festivals. 

 

On Aqua Expeditions’ exclusive 2025 voyage to the Asmat region, guests will have the opportunity to gain a deeper insight into the lives of the locals. Expect visits to the Asmat tribe’s communal houses, and observations of the tribe’s unique art and crafts, and exotic traditional dances.

 

Wood carvers

Asmat woodcarving

 

Through their belief in bisj, the Asmat recognise a strong connection between humans and trees. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Asmat gained global recognition for their detailed wood carvings of ancestral figures, shields, masks, drums, and ceremonial objects. These carvings are still displayed in leading international museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. 

 

Gifted wood carvers are highly respected and revered in the Asmat community. Today, the Asmat continue to carve sculptures out of wood, traditionally displayed in the men’s jeu, a ceremonial house where community leaders gather to discuss tribal issues and create artworks. 

 

Forests are at the heart of the Asmat way of life. However, deforestation and excessive foreign logging threatens their traditional hunter-gather existence and wood supplies on Asmat lands are diminishing. Along with local government subsidies, the Asmat’s traditional wood carved canoes are also slowly being replaced by motorized boats.

 

Patriarchal society

Asmat man close up

 

The Asmat society is organized into clans, with each group living in a yoy, or longhouse. These communal dwellings foster social connection and community, with each clan member sharing responsibilities and resources. The community is primarily a patriarchal society, with a strong emphasis on male leadership. Males typically take on decision-making, leadership, and spiritual practices while women look after children and gather food and firewood. 

 

Polygamy is not out of the norm, with men expected to marry the widows of their male relatives to provide continued financial support, housing and protection to the women and her children. Interestingly, while Asmats with albinism are accepted, they are not permitted to marry, considered a taboo in Asmat culture. 

 

Sharing of wives has also been reported among tribe members, along with Asmat men having long-term sexual relationships (mbai) with other men. Missionary influence has also reduced these behaviors within tribes. 

 

Religious tensions 

Asmat on boat

 

The Asmat’s initial encounters with the Western world heightened during the mid-20th century when Dutch explorers, anthropologists, and missionaries began to document and influence their way of life. This exposure brought both opportunities and challenges, as the Asmat faced changes to their economic structures and the introduction of new belief systems.

 

The Asmats are now predominantly Catholic, following conversion by missionaries, however the Indonesian transmigration programme — moving landless people from the crowded central islands of Java and Bali to less crowded areas — brought new immigrants to their region who are primarily Muslim. Religious tension has been observed between these two disparate religious groups.  

 

Despite many external influences and the call of modern life, the Asmat people have preserved much of their unique cultural heritage, a testament to their resilience and strong community in a rapidly changing world. 

 

Aqua Expeditions offers a rare opportunity to discover more about this ancient indigenous tribe on our Asmat & New Guinea Cruises. Visit traditional Asmat villages and gain deeper insight into their captivating history, artwork, customs and rituals.