Sleeping with Cannibals

Our intrepid reporter gets up close and personal with New Guinea natives who say they still eat their fellow tribesmen.

(Paul Raffaele)
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(Continued from page 4)

Four women and two children sit at the rear of the treehouse, the women fashioning bags from vines and studiously ignoring me. "Men and women stay on different sides of the treehouse and have their own hearths," says Kembaren. Each hearth is made from strips of clay-coated rattan suspended over a hole in the floor so that it can be quickly hacked loose, to fall to the ground, if a fire starts to burn out of control.

A middle-aged man with a hard-muscled body and a bulldog face straddles the gender dividing line. Speaking through Boas, Kembaren makes small talk about crops, the weather and past feasts. The man grips his bow and arrows and avoids my gaze. But now and then I catch him stealing glances in my direction. "That's Lepeadon, the clan's khen-mengga-abül, or 'fierce man,'" Kembaren says. The fierce man leads the clan in fights. Lepeadon looks up to the task.

"A clan of six men, four women, three boys and two girls live here," Kembaren says. "The others have come from nearby treehouses to see their first laleo."

After an hour of talk, the fierce man moves closer to me and, still unsmiling, speaks. "I knew you were coming and expected to see a ghost, but now I see you're just like us, a human," he says, as Boas translates to Kembaren and Kembaren translates to me.

A youngster tries to yank my pants off, and he almost succeeds amid a gale of laughter. I join in the laughing but keep a tight grip on my modesty. The Rev. Johannes Veldhuizen had told me that Korowai he’d met had thought him a ghost-demon until they spied him bathing in a stream and saw that he came equipped with all the requisite parts of a yanop, or human being. Korowai seemed to have a hard time understanding clothing. They call it laleo-khal, "ghost-demon skin," and Veldhuizen told me they believed his shirt and pants to be a magical epidermis that he could don or remove at will.

"We shouldn't push the first meeting too long," Kembaren now tells me as he rises to leave. Lepeadon follows us to the ground and grabs both my hands. He begins bouncing up and down and chanting, "nemayokh" ("friend"). I keep up with him in what seems a ritual farewell, and he swiftly increases the pace until it is frenzied, before he suddenly stops, leaving me breathless.

"I've never seen that before," Kembaren says. "We've just experienced something very special." It was certainly special to me. In four decades of journeying among remote tribes, this is the first time I've encountered a clan that has evidently never seen anyone as light-skinned as me. Enthralled, I find my eyes tearing up as we return to our hut.

The next morning four Korowai women arrive at our hut carrying a squawking green frog, several locusts and a spider they say they just caught in the jungle. "They've brought your breakfast," Boas says, smiling as his gibe is translated. Two years in a Papuan town has taught him that we laleo wrinkle our noses at Korowai delicacies. The young women have circular scars the size of large coins running the length of their arms, around the stomach and across their breasts. "The marks make them look more beautiful," Boas says.

He explains how they are made, saying circular pieces of bark embers are placed on the skin. It seems an odd way to add beauty to the female form, but no more bizarre than tattoos, stiletto-heel shoes, Botox injections or the not-so-ancient Chinese custom of slowly crushing infant girls' foot bones to make their feet as small as possible.

Kembaren and I spend the morning talking to Lepeadon and the young men about Korowai religion. Seeing spirits in nature, they find belief in a single god puzzling. But they too recognize a powerful spirit, named Ginol, who created the present world after having destroyed the previous four. For as long as the tribal memory reaches back, elders sitting around fires have told the younger ones that white-skinned ghost-demons will one day invade Korowai land. Once the laleo arrive, Ginol will obliterate this fifth world. The land will split apart, there will be fire and thunder, and mountains will drop from the sky. This world will shatter, and a new one will take its place. The prophecy is, in a way, bound to be fulfilled as more young Korowai move between their treehouses and downriver settlements, which saddens me as I return to our hut for the night.

The Korowai, believing that evil spirits are most active at night, usually don’t venture out of their treehouses after the sun sets. They divide the day into seven distinct periods—dawn, sunrise, midmorning, noon, midafternoon, dusk and night. They use their bodies to count numbers. Lepeadon shows me how, ticking off the fingers of his left hand, then touching his wrist, forearm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder, neck, ear and the crown of the head, and moving down the other arm. The tally comes to 25. For anything greater than that, the Korowai start over and add the word laifu, meaning “turn around.”

In the afternoon I go with the clan to the sago palm fields to harvest their staple food. Two men hack down a sago palm, each with a hand ax made from a fist-size chunk of hard, dark stone sharpened at one end and lashed with vine to a slim wooden handle. The men then pummel the sago pith to a pulp, which the women sluice with water to produce a dough they mold into bite-size pieces and grill.

A snake that falls from the toppling palm is swiftly killed. Lepeadon then loops a length of rattan about a stick and rapidly pulls it to and fro next to some shavings on the ground, producing tiny sparks that start a fire. Blowing hard to fuel the growing flame, he places the snake under a pile of burning wood. When the meat is charred, I'm offered a piece of it. It tastes like chicken.

On our return to the treehouse, we pass banyan trees, with their dramatic, aboveground root flares. The men slam their heels against these appendages, producing a thumping sound that travels across the jungle. "That lets the people at the treehouse know they're coming home, and how far away they are," Kembaren tells me.


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