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Sleeping with Cannibals

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

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For days I've been slogging through a rain-soaked jungle in Indonesian New Guinea, on a quest to visit members of the Korowai tribe, among the last people on earth to practice cannibalism. Soon after first light this morning I boarded a pirogue, a canoe hacked out of a tree trunk, for the last stage of the journey, along the twisting Ndeiram Kabur River. Now the four paddlers bend their backs with vigor, knowing we will soon make camp for the night.

My guide, Kornelius Kembaren, has traveled among the Korowai for 13 years. But even he has never been this far upriver, because, he says, some Korowai threaten to kill outsiders who enter their territory. Some clans are said to fear those of us with pale skin, and Kembaren says many Korowai have never laid eyes on a white person. They call outsiders laleo ("ghost-demons").

Suddenly, screams erupt from around the bend. Moments later, I see a throng of naked men brandishing bows and arrows on the riverbank. Kembaren murmurs to the boatmen to stop paddling. "They're 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."

As the tribesmen's uproar bangs at my ears, our pirogue glides toward the far side of the river. "We don't want to hurt you," Kembaren shouts in Bahasa Indonesia, which one of our boatmen translates into Korowai. "We come in peace." Then two tribesmen slip into a pirogue and start paddling toward us. As they near, I see that their arrows are barbed. "Keep calm," Kembaren says softly.

Cannibalism was practiced among prehistoric human beings, and it lingered into the 19th century in some isolated South Pacific cultures, notably in Fiji. But today the Korowai are among the very few tribes believed to eat human flesh. They live about 100 miles inland from the Arafura Sea, which is where Michael Rockefeller, a son of then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared in 1961 while collecting artifacts from another Papuan tribe; his body was never found. Most Korowai still live with little knowledge of the world beyond their homelands and frequently feud with one another. Some are said to kill and eat male witches they call khakhua.

The island of New Guinea, the second largest in the world after Greenland, is a mountainous, sparsely populated tropical landmass divided between two countries: the independent nation of Papua New Guinea in the east, and the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Irian Jaya in the west. The Korowai live in southeastern Papua.

My journey begins at Bali, where I catch a flight across the Banda Sea to the Papuan town of Timika; an American mining company's subsidiary, PT Freeport Indonesia, operates the world's largest copper and gold mine nearby. The Free Papua Movement, which consists of a few hundred rebels equipped with bows and arrows, has been fighting for independence from Indonesia since 1964. Because Indonesia has banned foreign journalists from visiting the province, I entered as a tourist.

After a stopover in Timika, our jet climbs above a swampy marsh past the airport and heads toward a high mountain. Beyond the coast, the sheer slopes rise as high as 16,500 feet above sea level and stretch for 400 miles. Waiting for me at Jayapura, a city of 200,000 on the northern coast near the border with Papua New Guinea, is Kembaren, 46, a Sumatran who came to Papua seeking adventure 16 years ago. He first visited the Korowai in 1993, and has come to know much about their culture, including some of their language. He is clad in khaki shorts and trekking boots, and his unflinching gaze and rock-hard jaw give him the look of a drill sergeant.

The best estimate is that there are some 4,000 Korowai. Traditionally, they have lived in treehouses, in groups of a dozen or so people in scattered clearings in the jungle; their attachment to their treehouses and surrounding land lies at the core of their identity, Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Paul Taylor noted in his 1994 documentary film about them, Lords of the Garden. Over the past few decades, however, some Korowai have moved to settlements established by Dutch missionaries, and in more recent years, some tourists have ventured into Korowai lands. But the deeper into the rain forest one goes, the less exposure the Korowai have had to cultures alien to their own.

After we fly from Jayapura southwest to Wamena, a jumping-off point in the Papuan highlands, a wiry young Korowai approaches us. In Bahasa Indonesia, he says that his name is Boas and that two years ago, eager to see life beyond his treehouse, he hitched a ride on a charter flight from Yaniruma, a settlement at the edge of Korowai territory. He has tried to return home, he says, but no one will take him. Boas says a returning guide has told him that his father was so upset by his son's absence that he has twice burned down his own treehouse. We tell him he can come with us.

The next morning eight of us board a chartered Twin Otter, a workhorse whose short takeoff and landing ability will get us to Yaniruma. Once we're airborne, Kembaren shows me a map: spidery lines marking lowland rivers and thousands of square miles of green jungle. Dutch missionaries who came to convert the Korowai in the late 1970s called it "the hell in the south."

After 90 minutes we come in low, following the snaking Ndeiram Kabur River. In the jungle below, Boas spots his father’s treehouse, which seems impossibly high off the ground, like the nest of a giant bird. Boas, who wears a daisy-yellow bonnet, a souvenir of “civilization,” hugs me in gratitude, and tears trickle down his cheeks.

At Yaniruma, a line of stilt huts that Dutch missionaries established in 1979, we thump down on a dirt strip carved out of the jungle. Now, to my surprise, Boas says he will postpone his homecoming to continue with us, lured by the promise of adventure with a laleo, and he cheerfully lifts a sack of foodstuffs onto his shoulders. As the pilot hurls the Twin Otter back into the sky, a dozen Korowai men hoist our packs and supplies and trudge toward the jungle in single file bound for the river. Most carry bows and arrows.

The Rev. Johannes Veldhuizen, a Dutch missionary with the Mission of the Reformed Churches, first made contact with the Korowai in 1978 and dropped plans to convert them to Christianity. "A very powerful mountain god warned the Korowai that their world would be destroyed by an earthquake if outsiders came into their land to change their customs," he told me by phone from the Netherlands a few years ago. "So we went as guests, rather than as conquerors, and never put any pressure on the Korowai to change their ways." The Rev. Gerrit van Enk, another Dutch missionary and co-author of The Korowai of Irian Jaya, coined the term "pacification line" for the imaginary border separating Korowai clans accustomed to outsiders from those farther north. In a separate phone interview from the Netherlands, he told me that he had never gone beyond the pacification line because of possible danger from Korowai clans there hostile to the presence of laleo in their territory.

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