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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

As we pass through Yaniruma, I’m surprised that no Indonesian police officer demands to see the government permit issued to me allowing me to proceed. "The nearest police post is at Senggo, several days back along the river," Kembaren explains. "Occasionally a medical worker or official comes here for a few days, but they're too frightened to go deep into Korowai territory."

Entering the Korowai rain forest is like stepping into a giant watery cave. With the bright sun overhead I breathe easily, but as the porters push through the undergrowth, the tree canopy's dense weave plunges the world into a verdant gloom. The heat is stifling and the air drips with humidity. This is the haunt of giant spiders, killer snakes and lethal microbes. High in the canopy, parrots screech as I follow the porters along a barely visible track winding around rain-soaked trees and primeval palms. My shirt clings to my back, and I take frequent swigs at my water bottle. The annual rainfall here is around 200 inches, making it one of the wettest places on earth. A sudden downpour sends raindrops spearing through gaps in the canopy, but we keep walking.

The local Korowai have laid logs on the mud, and the barefoot porters cross these with ease. But, desperately trying to balance as I edge along each log, time and again I slip, stumble and fall into the sometimes waist-deep mud, bruising and scratching my legs and arms. Slippery logs as long as ten yards bridge the many dips in the land. Inching across like a tightrope walker, I wonder how the porters would get me out of the jungle were I to fall and break a leg. "What the hell am I doing here?" I keep muttering, though I know the answer: I want to encounter a people who are said to still practice cannibalism.

Hour melts into hour as we push on, stopping briefly now and then to rest. With night near, my heart surges with relief when shafts of silvery light slip through the trees ahead: a clearing. "It's Manggel," Kembaren says—another village set up by Dutch missionaries. "We'll stay the night here."

Korowai children with beads about their necks come running to point and giggle as I stagger into the village—several straw huts perched on stilts and overlooking the river. I notice there are no old people here. "The Korowai have hardly any medicine to combat the jungle diseases or cure battle wounds, and so the death rate is high," Kembaren explains. "People rarely live to middle age." As van Enk writes, Korowai routinely fall to interclan conflicts; diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, elephantiasis and anemia, and what he calls "the khakhua complex." The Korowai have no knowledge of the deadly germs that infest their jungles, and so believe that mysterious deaths must be caused by khakhua, or witches who take on the form of men.

After we eat a dinner of river fish and rice, Boas joins me in a hut and sits cross-legged on the thatched floor, his dark eyes reflecting the gleam from my flashlight, our only source of light. Using Kembaren as translator, he explains why the Korowai kill and eat their fellow tribesmen. It's because of the khakhua, which comes disguised as a relative or friend of a person he wants to kill. "The khakhua eats the victim's insides while he sleeps," Boas explains, "replacing them with fireplace ash so the victim does not know he's being eaten. The khakhua finally kills the person by shooting a magical arrow into his heart." When a clan member dies, his or her male relatives and friends seize and kill the khakhua. "Usually, the [dying] victim whispers to his relatives the name of the man he knows is the khakhua," Boas says. "He may be from the same or another treehouse."

I ask Boas whether the Korowai eat people for any other reason or eat the bodies of enemies they've killed in battle. "Of course not," he replies, giving me a funny look. "We don't eat humans, we only eat khakhua."

The killing and eating of khakhua has reportedly declined among tribespeople in and near the settlements. Rupert Stasch, an anthropologist at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, who has lived among the Korowai for 16 months and studied their culture, writes in the journal Oceania that Korowai say they have "given up" killing witches partly because they were growing ambivalent about the practice and partly in reaction to several incidents with police. In one in the early '90s, Stasch writes, a Yaniruma man killed his sister's husband for being a khakhua. The police arrested the killer, an accomplice and a village head. "The police rolled them around in barrels, made them stand overnight in a leech-infested pond, and forced them to eat tobacco, chili peppers, animal feces, and unripe papaya," he writes. Word of such treatment, combined with Korowais' own ambivalence, prompted some to limit witch-killing even in places where police do not venture.

Still, the eating of khakhua persists, according to my guide, Kembaren. "Many khakhua are murdered and eaten each year," he says, citing information he says he has gained from talking to Korowai who still live in treehouses.

On our third day of trekking, after hiking from soon after sunrise to dusk, we reach Yafufla, another line of stilt huts set up by Dutch missionaries. That night, Kembaren takes me to an open hut overlooking the river, and we sit 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 Kilikili," Kembaren whispers, "the most notorious khakhua killer." Kilikili carries a bow and barbed arrows. His eyes are empty of expression, his lips are drawn in a grimace and he walks as soundlessly as a shadow.

The other man, who turns out to be Kilikili's brother Bailom, pulls a human skull from a bag. A jagged hole mars the forehead. "It's Bunop, the most recent khakhua he killed," Kembaren says of the skull. "Bailom used a stone ax to split the skull open to get at the brains." The guide's eyes dim. "He was one of my best porters, a cheerful young man," he says.

Bailom passes the skull to me. I don't want to touch it, but neither do I want to offend him. My blood chills at the feel of naked bone. I have read stories and watched documentaries about the Korowai, but as far as I know none of the reporters and filmmakers had ever gone as far upriver as we're about to go, and none I know of had ever seen a khakhua's skull.

The fire's reflection flickers on the brothers' faces as Bailom tells me how he killed the khakhua, who lived in Yafufla, two years ago. "Just before my cousin died he told me that Bunop was a khakhua and was eating him from the inside," he says, with Kembaren translating. "So we caught him, tied him up and took him to a stream, where we shot arrows into him."

Bailom says that Bunop screamed for mercy all the way, protesting that he was not a khakhua. But Bailom was unswayed. "My cousin was close to death when he told me and would not lie," Bailom says.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus