The forest-dwelling Korowai, a Papuan tribe in the southeast of Irian Jaya (the former Dutch New Guinea), were forced to adapt their lifestyle to cope with the danger posed by a tribe of neighbouring head-hunters, the Citak. They did this by building their houses at the tops of 40-metre high trees. A recent book about these tree-dwellers by two Dutch researchers, linguist Prof. Lourens J. de Vries and clergyman Gerrit J. van Enk, is the first published study of the Korowai.* It was a Dutch missionary, Johannes Veldhuizen, who made the initial contact with the tribe during the 1980s. Their language and lifestyle are now being studied as part of a special research programme under the auspices of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).
Many of the tribes in the swampy areas of Irian Jaya build their houses on stilts because that means less trouble from crawling insects, scorpions and snakes. However, the Korowai build their homes much higher up, right up in the tree tops; they are accessible only by means of a springy climbing pole which can be pulled up if danger threatens. The pole is also attached to the house in such a way that the inhabitants can keep an eye on it from wherever they happen to be. All this means that intruders have little chance of making a successful attack. Family life takes place entirely within the tree house, which has separate areas for men and women, each with their own entrances.
The fear of cannibals is expressed in the language of the Korowai and in the related languages of other tribes in the region. It includes the word khakhua, which means something like 'male witch' . Khakhuas are demonic individuals with an inner urge which makes them become cannibals. They therefore have to be pursued, tried, tortured and finally eaten. This type of cannibalism, which the Korowai consider justified, is the only occurrence of this practice in their culture.
* The Korowai of Irian Jaya: Their Language in Its Cultural Context, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0 19 510551 6.
Materials provided by Netherlands Organization For Scientific Research. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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