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Deep inside Yali, Dani and Lani territories, Papua,Indonesia

A fascinating trek amongst a unique people..... Author Ramdas Iyer

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The third and fourth days of trekking took us to greater heights and deeper into Dani territory. It was an exciting time for a photographer with the land and its unique people offering many opportunities around every corner. The climb was very vertiginous slowing down our pace considerably. We crossed many mountain waterfalls tumbling towards the white water Rivers below, traversed several vine built bridges and saw some magnificent flora.
The Baliem valley consists of three main tribes; The Dani, the Yali and the Lani. The Lani are – like their neighbors, the Dani - experienced farmers and use a highly sophisticated irrigation system to produce mainly Sweet Potatoes, Tobacco, Beans, Taro, Spinach, Sugar Cane and Bananas. 
Their villages in a beautiful surrounding southeast of Wamena are larger than the small compounds of the Dani and the Yali.
The Lani men, who are stubbier than the Dani, wear thick kotekas (penis gourds), which also serve as a “handbag”, a case for tobacco and valuables. Men sometimes wear hairnets, but the Lani extensively use bird feathers as decoration. Quite often a feather crown is worn even when the men are dressed in western clothes. The women wear short grass skirts, but like everywhere in the valley tend to wear western clothes more and more today.
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Like their Dani and Yali neighbors, the women carry everything – like vegetables, small pigs and even their small children – in net-bags across their backs.The Yalis on the other hand resided on the steeper slopes at higher elevations. As a result they were not discovered until 1976. They were the fiercest cannibals in Western Papua. They not only ate the bodies of their enemies, they also ground the bones and scattered them in the mountains to totally annihilate them.. Though very tiny in stature (Average make height was 5 feet or less), they were the most feared. They wore their penis gourds parallel to the ground in a pointed manner, but of a relatively smaller size.
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As a photographer, I hate to see these magnificent tribesman wearing jeans and T-shirts saying “Jesus Saves”. While not a big fan of proselytization, I must admit that the Christian missionaries have done yeoman’s work in this harsh land trying to bring modern comforts and education to these people. Like many before them these cultures will be relegated to the history books and I count my blessings to have witnessed them prior to extinction.
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As a traveler the Dani and Lani can be distinguished by the relative sizes of the Kotekas (Penis gourds or more scientifically called Phallocrypts) and the Yali by their height. The Lani live 3-4 day trek from Wamena while the Yali live 5-6 days trek from Wamena. Since more Papuans are adapting to western clothing it gets harder to identify them. I was fortunate to meet a Yali man about 4 days trek into the mountains, but unfortunately he was wearing western clothes (See Photograph)
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Upon arrival at the village for nightfall around 3:00PM, the heaviest downpour ever witnessed by me continued straight for 8 hours trapping me with my porters and the occasional naked villager straggling into our kitchen hut. I took this opportunity to explain life in the USA to the porters through Scorpio to a fascinated audience. They asked me if I had sat in one of those flying buses that are seen from the mountains. We also discussed their individual lives, their farming techniques, relationships with women, ancestral stories etc, etc. Our cook was making the same noodles with cabbage and eggs every day that I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized that I had not eaten anything tangy in 4 days but I noticed a lemon plant in the fringe of the village. I grabbed a few lemons and offered to cook them all noodles my way, much to everyone’s satisfaction except perhaps the stunned cook.
There was a time inside the hut when 5 naked villagers were sitting around the fire with us, just watching. The highlands after rain cools down to about 60degrees F and the men, instead of wearing an outer garment rely on the warmth of a hearth. They live in such perfect harmony with nature that I fear any changes in global climate would adversely affect them.
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The next morning we spent 3 hours walking around the village and studying their homes, farms, pigs and enjoying the mountaintop vista. Here is where I met a Yali member. He was passing through the village, along the trail that would eventually take him to his destination in higher terrain. He was no taller than 4 feet 6inches, with an elf like ear. In the 2is century we still live with homo erectus who have not closed the gap with the civilizations from the fertile crescent.
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I met a woman who was constantly waving both her hands with open palms. It struck me as odd for her to continue to do it for an extended period of time. Scorpio explained that she was proudly showing all her 10 fingers, since none had perished in her family: a sign of a very brave and successful warrior family See photograph). An elderly gentleman actually took the time to demonstrate the art of septum piercing and nasal decoration (see Photos). This was our turn around point and to head towards Wamena for 2 days in a very different trail along the ridge of the mountain.
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia dani papua jayapura cannibals lani wamena

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