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Reformed "Head-Hunters" of Baliem Valley, Papua, Indonesia

Over the Jungle and into the Land of the Dani People......................Ramdas Iyer

Approaching the age of 50 one wonders if the time for hard adventure becomes limited. So I decided to embark to places not easily accessible or to have perceived difficulties. Papua has always been on my scope: an isolated Eden with amazing anthropological treasures. My frequent visits to the Met in New York especially to enjoy its ethnographic art and particularly the Michael Rockefeller collection from Papua, has often left me yearning to visit the place. As a young man, I had read about how Michael Rockefeller, the son of VP Nelson Rockefeller a Peace Corps worker and a collector of artifacts for the Peabody Museum at Yale university was attacked and cannibalized by the Asmat people of Papua.


So in December of 2006 I flew into Jayapura on a hopper flight from Jakarta to Sulawesi, Timor, Biak Island and finally Jayapura. On this flight I met a young and rather scared Indian engineer who was on his way from Bangalore to Biak. He was to spend 6 months in a trailer with 2 other Indians working for ISRO, the Indian Space agency that uses that location for geo-tracking its satellites. The thought of a Hindu boy, religious and a sworn vegetarian in the wilds of the south pacific in the midst of newly reformed cannibals was indeed a testimony to globalization.
The last leg from Biak into Jayapura consisted of a visual explosion of verdant forest canopy for miles on end. Being home to the second largest rainforest after Brazil, my fantasy of naked cannibals ( not necassarily)in Penis gourds, slithery vipers and constrictors of every size, color and maiming ability was coming close to reality. However Jaypura was a disappointment. It was modernizing fast with Internet access, slow traffic, commercialization but also thankfully the telephone exchange from where I had an opportunity to call home from, where my wife was wondering if I was having my tryst with spear tips.

Unlike New Guinea its ethnic cousin, Papua is still wild and exciting. Until WWII it was a Dutch colony. The Dutch having given Indonesia to its people wanted to maintain Irian Jaya ( Western Papua) as its territory. Finally after a hard fought UN resolution in 1962 it became a state under Indonesia. The locals are still fighting for independence often leading to foreigners being restrained from visiting several parts of this island, the world’s second largest. New Guinea on the other hand was under Australian protection until 1975.

Japanese forces occupied Jayapura known as Hollandia, a very tiny Dutch Indies town at that time, in 1942, only to be driven away by Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops. He established Hollandia as his HQ until the conquest of Philippines in1945. Over 500,000 US troops had made amphibious landings in its shores during WWII.

The first peril of travelling had already hit me. My local agent was bitter with the main agent based out of Bali because he was short changed for this trip. He was supposed to pack all our cooking material and supplies for a our 5 day trek and escort me by hopper flight to the Baliem Valley, home of the stone-age Dani people. Instead he bought lots of noodles, biscuits, oil, salt etc. and packed me off alone to the land of the infamous cannibals. Like most interior flights this flight was operated by Dutch missionaries and as guessed a Fokker propeller aircraft. The tiny airport had no tourists but consisted of different ethnic Indonesians trying to get a foothold into this mysterious land. One of the passengers seemed to have a brief case that was moving periodically. It turned out to be a gagged piglet slung on a rope like a brief case.

Until 1961 cannibalism was rampant in Papua. The Dani were only discovered in 1938 only after the advent of flight.
They did not come in contact with other people on account of the fact that the highlands had 150 miles of virtually impassable territory and there was no available food for explorers to eat on the way. They were discovered
Their history is one of violence for the sake of violence. Every one of the hundreds of villages that dot the mountainous country embarks on ritual pitched battles on a regular basis with the sole intention of insulting their enemy by either maiming or killing them. The main reason for cannibalism was not for dietary purposes but for the capture of their spirits. This enmity over the centuries led to isolated village groups with slightly different customs, language and body decorations; an anthropologist’s laboratory. My Dani guide Scorpio, was orphaned at a tender age when his father was gored during such a fight with a spear.
The last cases of cannibalism were only recently recorded. In 1968 two missionaries (Australian Stan Dole and American Phil Masters) were chopped and eaten. During Christmas 1974, four Dutch families were killed and eaten by aborigines in the Jayawijaya Mountains near Wamena. The last known case was a killing of a priest and his twelve companions. It allegedly happened because they tried to ban the aborigines from hunting for skulls and they burnt their fetishes. This tragic event happened in 1976.

Upon arrival at this tiny airport into a town set in a green valley, I was received by a stocky aboriginal man with a red feather hair dress- I believe it was jungle rooster, and a large toothy grin and broad aboriginal nose; I had delivered myself to the Dani. My worries quickly evaporated upon meeting Scorpio, dressed like a Texas Ranger ready for a mission in Helmund Province. I was pleased.

A glimpse of the market at Wamena was enough to keep my interest peeked for the next one week I would spend on this Island. Every man over the age of 40 was naked, with a headdress and penis gourd ranging from a curled 6” specimen to a vine teased 14” long lance. The younger ones were all in modern but dirty t-shirts given by missionaries. Yes, Christianity is very big here. I am sure they imagined Jesus on the cross with a penis gourd! The women were all dressed and seemed to do the bulk of physical labor. They were selling tobacco leaves, vegetables, roots and some conveniences like flashlights from China, Aspirin etc. Of course Papuans did not use currency until recently and maintained their wealth in pigs. I witnessed a massive pig pulled out of the earth from an underground hearth and the local abbotoir cum chef was selling pieces from a walk in pit.
We walked to the hotel, a small arboreal retreat from where we prepared to assault the Highlands of the Dani with 4 porters, guide and a chef who took cooking lessons from me, periodically. It was different from his usual cuisine I wondered: cilantro and spleen, lettuce with liver and some basil for the brains. The rest I will continue in my next volume.

Ramdas IyerZ

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia

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