The Asmat tribes have inhabited the swampy mangrove forests along the south coast of Papua province for thousands of years. Their villages lay hidden deep in the labyrinth of rivers, mangrove islands and muddy river delta’s, sometimes tens of kilometres from the coast. Each village consisted of a stilted longhouse called a yeus, 2 metres or more off the ground and up to 28 metres long. The entire community shared the yeus, although each family has their own fireplace.
Unlike their highland cousins, the Asmat’s natural environment made farming impossible. Instead, they subsisted on whatever they could gather or hunt from the forests and ocean around them such as starch from the sago palm, sago grubs, crustaceans, fish, bush meat and the occasional enemy.
Even among Papua’s headhunting tribes, the cannibalistic Asmat tribes were regarded as especially fearsome. The Asmat believed that the death of a tribe member, even from illness or disease was caused by an enemy and could only be avenged through the taking of the enemy’s head. The deed was usually followed by ritualistic celebrations and cannibalistic feasting which sometimes involved eating the brain mixed with sago grubs straight from the skull. Afterwards, skulls were decorated put on display and even used as pillows.
Aside from this rather gruesome aspect of their culture, the Asmat are also famed for their elaborate, stylised woodcarvings. It’s a pursuit that has evolved over thousands of years and stems from their belief that they arose from wood. Often decorated with sago leaf fibre strands and natural paints derived from lime, red ochre and charcoal, Asmat carved drums, figurines, crocodiles, shields and bisj (totem) poles are highly distinctive and grace the walls of many museums and galleries around the world. The continuing high demand from art collectors has provided the Asmat with an important income stream although they still live a substantially traditional lifestyle.
These days there are a number of liveaboard boats and tour companies offering visits to Asmat communities, particularly around the Brazza River where they can be combined with a trip to the nearby Korowai tree house dwelling tribes. Given the difficult logistics of reaching the tribes, an organised tour is certainly the easiest option but with prices starting at around US$3,000 they’re prohibitively expensive for most travellers.
However, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort you can reach the Asmat villages independently and for decidedly less money. The town of Agats on the central south coast is the gateway to the Asmat villages and it’s a curiosity in its own right. Situated on the Aswet estuary, the entire town is literally a stilted community connected by raised boardwalks and roads. During high tide, the town goes from being waterfront to above water.
From Agats it’s quite easy to find a guide and charter a motorised dug-out canoe to take you into the nearby maze of rivers where you’ll find many of the Asmat villages. The villagers are well used to seeing tour groups and art dealers and will more than likely put you up overnight but you should be self-sufficient with food, water and a tent just in case. The mangrove swamps are teeming with mosquitoes so be sure to bring plenty of insect repellent and wearing long sleeves and trousers is recommended.
Agats has a decent hotel (the government run Hotel Assedu) and local standard restaurants but getting there isn’t easy. Susi Air flies a semi-regular perintis flight between Agats (Ewer airport) and Merauke via Kimam but you need to contact them well in advance as the services are quite often full. Alternatively, you could talk to them about chartering a flight which sounds expensive but can be surprisingly affordable if you can get a group together and split the costs.
Pelni ships call in fortnightly and monthly heading northbound to Timika or southbound to Merauke but they’re not practical unless you have loads of time to wait around. Alternatively you could try catching a local ferry from Timika or Merauke but again, these are irregular and therefore fairly unreliable.