Meeting the Cannibal Tribes of Indonesian New Guinea
Australian journalist Paul Raffaele was the first Western man to infiltrate the flesh-eating Letin clan, and they taught him how to dine on human brains.
Korowai men. All photos courtesy of Paul Raffaele.
We all remember last month's chilling case of Matthew Williams, the guy who was caught eating the face of a girl he lured back to his hotel room. To most people, cannibalism is one of the most terrifying concepts imaginable, but for some members of the Korowai tribe from Indonesian New Guinea, human flesh is a dish central to their culture, like a Sunday roast or a kebab at the end of a night out.
In 2006, Australian journalist Paul Raffaele went on an expedition to meet the tribe in an attempt to understand the reasoning behind their ancient ritual. Paul was the first Western man to cross the pacification line that borders the territory of their clans deep in the forest. While the communities downriver have been exposed to Western culture, those further upriver still live in isolated groups and continue to practice the customs they have done for millennia.
Not even the Indonesian police or Kornelius (Paul's guide who had been living with Korowai for years) had ventured that deep into the forest in fear of the clans who threaten to kill outsiders. After a few hair-raising moments where he feared for his life, Paul finally made it into the interior.
Paul's reports of the Korowai have come under fire by experts on Papuan tribes, and his later report on Brazil's Suruwaha tribe—where he was accused of depicting the tribespeople as child murderers, "Stone Age" relics, and "one of the worst human rights violators in the world"—caused complaints of racism earlier this year.*
From meeting the great warrior chief of the Letin clan to being passed a human skull to hold by the very man who had dined on the brains, I spoke to the controversial Paul Raffaele about his time in the jungle with the Korowai people, where he spent nights sleeping inches away from some of the last cannibals on earth.
VICE: So how did you find access to the tribe?
Paul Raffaele: Through my guide, Kornelius. Originally from Sumatra, he went to visit the Korowai ten years ago intent on getting to know them. They put a test to him, to determine whether they'd allow him to stay or not. One night they gave him a pack of meat and told him it was human. If he ate it, he could stay with them and if he didn't, then they'd tell him to leave. He ate it and so he became very close to them.
What was it like to be the first white man to cross the pacification line?
Our plan was to visit the Letin clan, who had never seen an outsider before. Even Kornelius hadn't gone that far upriver for fear of being killed. We got ambushed. We were traveling up the Ndeiram Kabur River in a pirogue—a canoe hacked out of a tree trunk—when we ran into a throng of naked men brandishing bows and arrows.
Those people weren't expecting us and decided to attack. It was getting dark and they were screaming at us. I started to figure out what to do if the arrows started flying. I was going to jump into the river and try to float down to Yaniruma, which would take a couple of days if a crocodile didn't get you first.
What did you do?
Kornelius spoke Korowai and so he bargained with them by shouting across the river. They said we'd defiled the river god and had to pay the penalty. One of the warriors paddled across to us still gripping his bow and arrows. For us to pass he demanded Indonesian rupiah—about $30 worth. I paid it and they let us continue upriver.
Can you explain the reasoning behind the Korowai tribe's cannibalism?
For the Korowai, if someone falls out of a tree house or is killed in battle then the reason for their death is pretty obvious. But they don't understand microbes and germs (which the rain forests are rife with) so when somebody dies mysteriously to them (of a disease), they believe it is due to a khakhua, a witch man who comes from the netherworld.
A khakhua possesses the body of a man (it can never be a woman) and begins to magically eat their insides, according to logic of the Melanesian imperative you must pay back in kind. They must eat the khakhua as it ate the person who died. It is part of their revenge based justice system.
On this trip two of the first Korowai men you met where the brothers Kili-Kili and Bailom. Can you describe this first meeting?
It was night when we arrived in the village upriver by paddle boat. We were at an open hut overlooking the river, sitting by a small campfire. Two men approach through the gloom, one in shorts, the other naked save for a necklace of prized pigs' teeth and a leaf wrapped about the tip of his penis. "That's Kili-Kili," my guide told me, "the most notorious khakhua killer."
They said, "Would you like to see the skull of the latest man we killed? We knew him well, he was a good friend.' I said yes and they brought it out. They handed it to me and I didn't want to touch it but I didn't have much choice.
How did it feel?
Scary. The light was eerie and the skull was cold and I really didn't want to touch it but I had to otherwise they wouldn't have trusted me. Kili-Kili is kind of a crazy name isn't it, for a man who has killed 23 men and eaten them. They had chopped off the top of the skull to get at the brains—their favorite.
Do they cook people or do they just eat them raw?
They steam everything with an oven made from leaves and rocks. They treat it like they would the flesh of a pig. They cut off the legs separately and wrap them in banana leaves. They cut off the head and that goes to the person who found the khakhua. That's why Kili-Kili had the skull. They cut off the right arm and the right ribs as one piece and the left as another. I asked them what it tasted like, and although you always get this common misconception that it tastes like pig they say the flesh tastes more like Cassowary—a New Guinea and Northern Australian bird that resembles an ostrich or an emu.
Do they eat everything?
Everything except the hair, nails, and the penis. Children under 13 are not allowed to eat it, because they believe that as they are eating the khakhua it is very dangerous—there are evil spirits all around and the children are too vulnerable.
Cannibalism is, perhaps other than incest, the idea that fills the majority of humanity with the strongest sense horror. Is this something that has been learned rather than a trait innate to our species? Why don't the Korowai share that sense of disgust?
I asked them why they eat people and they said, "We don't, we eat khakhua." They don't consider khuakhua as people, even though it could be their brother or their uncle or their cousin.
Can you tell me a little bit about Wa Wa?
We were in Kili-Kili's village and Kornelius came to me and said, "There's a little boy here who's an outcast and his name is Wa Wa. After the death of his mother and father, the clan suspected that he had killed them using black magic as a khahkua. They won't do anything until he's about 14." You only had to look at him to understand that deep horror and fear in the little boy's eyes.
I talked over it long one night with Kornelius. I can't go into too much detail as I've been promised not to say where he is, but he has been rescued. I wouldn't normally agree to inaugurate something like that because I think children should stay within their own cultures, but this case was different because his family had told me that his life was under threat.
Where you ever nervous that they would decide that you were a khakhua?
No it cannot be. A khakhua can only be a Korowai. I actually didn't know that at the time but I wasn't scared. Fear clouds your mind. In these kinds of situations you have to have total clarity of mind. You must pick up signals and body language in case there is a problem.
Even though these people are so far away from Western culture did you feel a bit connected to them?
I mean we're all human aren't we? There's this one story for example—in their tree houses the men live on one side and the women on the other. So I asked Agoos, my guide on my fist trip, "Where do you have sex?" He replied, 'When we feel like it we just go out to the jungle. No one can see us there.' They're naked, remember. so I said, "Well isn't it kind of bothersome because there are so many mosquitos?" And he said, "No, you're enjoying it so much you don't care!" These were precious moments. We were just two humans talking to each other.
Just because people are living in the Stone Age (some have criticized me for using that term but it's accurate terminology) doesn't mean that they are any less intelligent. They are 90 percent like us; they love, they hate, they lust, they get angry, they're ambitious, one man will rise above the others because he has leadership qualities, etc. No one is less intelligent than me just because my ancestors managed to invent the wheel. Big deal.
These people haven't had the advantage of cross-cultural fertilization that our civilizations have had. We had all this innovation like silk coming across on the silk road from China to Europe. We knew nothing about Mathematics until the Arabs brought it to us.
Had we been isolated in clans in rain forests we'd be the same. The human brain is the human brain.
So do the Korowai still practice cannibalism today?
I can't answer that because I haven't been back in years. I have spoken to Kornelius who says yes, in the far regions. He says that the Letin clan and the clans further upriver from them are still practicing khakhua.
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UPDATE 12/8: The introduction to this interview has been edited to reflect the criticism that Raffaele's work has received.