Raffaele Among the Korowai- page 4 | People & Places | Smithsonian
Lepeadon, the "fierce man" of the Letin clan. (Paul Raffaele)

Raffaele Among the Korowai

Paul Raffaele describes his adventures (and misadventures) in Indonesian New Guinea, reporting on the Korowai

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(Continued from page 3)

For days I have been slogging through a remote rain-soaked jungle in Indonesian New Guinea, on a quest to visit the last cannibal tribe on earth, the feared Korowai, a stone age people who perch in high treehouses and enjoy eating human flesh. That morning I boarded a pirogue, a big canoe hacked out of a tree trunk, for the last and most dangerous stage of the journey, along the twisting Ndeiram Kabur river. Now, at mid-evening, the four paddlers bend their backs with vigor, knowing we will soon make camp for the night.

My guide, Kornelius Sembering, knows the Korowai well, but even he has never been this far up river, aware that some clans up here threaten to kill outsiders who dare enter their territory. They especially fear and hate those of us with pale skins, even though none have ever seen white people. They call us, ‘laleo’ or ‘ghost-demon,’ warned of our presence beyond their jungles by age-old prophetic campfire tales.

Suddenly, from around the bend a terrifying sound erupts, frenzied screaming and yelling. Moments later, through the gloom I see a throng of naked men on the river bank brandishing bows and arrows at us. Kornelius murmurs to the boatmen to stop paddling. “They¹re ordering us to come to their side of the river,” he whispers to me. “It looks bad, but we can’t escape, they’d quickly catch us if we tried.”

My heart thuds as I peer at the shadowy tribesmen, their uproar banging at my ears now they see us. Our pirogue nudges the far side of the river as Kornelius tries to reason with them, shouting across the water. Then, a pair of tribesmen slip into a pirogue and paddle towards us. As they near I see they carry bows and barbed arrows. “Keep calm,” Kornelius says softly. “If we panic or make a false move, we’ll be in serious trouble. Our boatmen say they¹d kill us.”

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May 4, 2006

Carey: I’ll say it whets my appetite! What happens next? Do you survive? Excuse me while I go get some popcorn.

May 4, 2006

Paul: The question whether I survive or not is still open. We should know by this time next week, next episode.

I’m off to bed, it’s 0600.

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