Regarded as the last cannibals on earth, the Korowai tribe of south eastern West Papua have fascinated the world since contact was made the first Korowai in 1974. It’s the same sense of morbid curiosity, tinged with no small amount of nervous excitement, that prompts intrepid travellers to spend a lot of time, money and discomfort to visit a tribe who still profess to practising cannibalism.
Whether or not this is true, or a myth perpetuated by tour operators, is hotly debated but there’s no doubt that even those outsiders “laleo” (which translates as “ghost-demons”) who have regular contact with the Korowai regard the deep reaches of the Korowai territory as no go zones. Locals say even the police and government officials are too scared to travel there. In 2006 when a 60 minutes crew and a journalist from the Smithsonian Magazine probe pushed further into Korowai territory than most people dared to go, they became the first laleo some Korowai had ever seen, although they’d heard rumours of the “ghost-demons”.
The Korowai culture is as complex and contrary as it is fascinating. They live in tree-houses 10-75m off the ground, in small scattered communities of a dozen or so, deep in the rainforest clad lowlands at least 150km from the Arafura Sea. It’s the tiny communities and remoteness that hid them from the rest of the world for so long. Hunter gatherers and horticulturalists who practice shifting cultivation, they have a deep connection with and derive their spirits from nature and their ancestral lands. Their mythology and belief systems are so powerful that missionaries concluded that they were the most resistant to Christian teachings of all the world’s indigenous tribes.
Yet despite their own fearsome reputation, the Korowai are surprisingly fearful of the night when they believe evil spirits are most active. For this reason they retreat to the safety of their tree houses before sunset and remain there until first light. But the tree houses cannot protect the Korowai from the khakhua, males witches that cause the deaths of all fellow tribesmen. Disguised as a friend or relative of the person he wants to kill, the khakhua eats the victims insides whilst he sleeps, replacing them with ash so that the victim doesn’t even realise he is being eaten until the khakhua shoots a magic arrow into his heart. Sometimes, the victim has time to whisper the khakhua’s name before dying; other times the clan members need to figure it out for themselves. Either way, revenge is taken and the khakhua is seized, killed and himself eaten in retaliation. In the Korowai’s mind they don’t eat humans, only khakhua.
If you’re still keen on visiting the Korowai tribes, the good news is it can be done. The bad news is it’s virtually impossible to do it independently. Korowai territory is remote and far from government control. Many Korowai are still suspicious of outsiders, are known to be easily upset and not adverse to divesting visitors of their property. There are several tour operators running Korowai tours but they stick to certain “safe” regions where they have developed relationships with tribe members over a long period of time. They also use porters and local guides drawn from Korowai tribes people who have drifted away from their villages to more “civilised” communities.
Unfortunately, the cost of charter flights and boats needed to access the remote Korowai communities, a minimum duration of 7-8 days and limited competition among tour operators makes the tours prohibitively expensive for most travellers. But if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford it, you can find some of the operators online.
The disappearance of Michael C. Rockefeller
In November 1961, 23 year old Michael C. Rockefeller, son of the New York governor and scion of one of the world’s richest families, disappeared whilst on a primitive art buying expedition in the Asmat region of West Papua. Having spent the previous 24 hours drifting offshore on his disabled catamaran, Rockefeller made the fateful decision to swim the 10 miles to shore for help. Tying two empty fuel cans to his belt, he waved goodbye to his companion and slipped into the water and was never seen again.
In the weeks following, the Dutch administration launched an extensive air, sea and land search. Members of the Rockefeller family travelled from the US to help but when no trace of him was found, he was officially listed as drowned. Not an unreasonable assumption given the circumstances. That was until a Dutch Catholic priest who had moved among the Asmat for years was approached by four Korowai tribesmen, who described in detail how they had found the young man exhausted on the beach and proceeded to kill and then eat him.
An apparent reprisal death for the recent killing of five Asmat tribesmen by Dutch authorities, it seems Rockefeller was in the wrong place at the wrong time. News of the young man’s fate was reported to the Dutch authorities but was apparently hushed up. At the time, the Dutch were struggling against the newly independent Indonesian government and the UN to hold onto their West Papua holdings. Having one of the world’s richest young heirs eaten by cannibals on their watch wasn’t a good look.
It’s certainly an intriguing story and one that veteran travel writer Carl Hoffman digs into in his book “Savage Harvest.”