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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At the stream, Bailom says, he used a stone ax to chop off the khakhua's head. As he held it in the air and turned it away from the body, the others chanted and dismembered Bunop's body. Bailom, making chopping movements with his hand, explains: "We cut out his intestines and broke open the rib cage, chopped off the right arm attached to the right rib cage, the left arm and left rib cage, and then both legs."

The body parts, he says, were individually wrapped in banana leaves and distributed among the clan members. "But I kept the head because it belongs to the family that killed the khakhua," he says. "We cook the flesh like we cook pig, placing palm leaves over the wrapped meat together with burning hot river rocks to make steam."

Some readers may believe that these two are having me on—that they are just telling a visitor what he wants to hear—and that the skull came from someone who died from some other cause. But I believe they were telling the truth. I spent eight days with Bailom, and everything else he told me proved factual. I also checked with four other Yafufla men who said they had joined in the killing, dismembering and eating of Bunop, and the details of their accounts mirrored reports of khakhua cannibalism by Dutch missionaries who lived among the Korowai for several years. Kembaren clearly accepted Bailom’s story as fact.

Around our campfire, Bailom tells me he feels no remorse. "Revenge is part of our culture, so when the khakhua eats a person, the people eat the khakhua," he says. (Taylor, the Smithsonian Institution anthropologist, has described khakhua-eating as "part of a system of justice.") "It's normal," Bailom says. "I don't feel sad I killed Bunop, even though he was a friend."

In cannibal folklore, told in numerous books and articles, human flesh is said to be known as "long pig" because of its similar taste. When I mention this, Bailom shakes his head. "Human flesh tastes like young cassowary," he says, referring to a local ostrich-like bird. At a khakhua meal, he says, both men and women—children do not attend—eat everything but bones, teeth, hair, fingernails and toenails and the penis. "I like the taste of all the body parts," Bailom says, "but the brains are my favorite." Kilikili nods in agreement, his first response since he arrived.

When the khakhua is a member of the same clan, he is bound with rattan and taken up to a day's march away to a stream near the treehouse of a friendly clan. "When they find a khakhua too closely related for them to eat, they bring him to us so we can kill and eat him," Bailom says.

He says he has personally killed four khakhua. And Kilikili? Bailom laughs. "He says he'll tell you now the names of 8 khakhua he's killed," he replies, "and if you come to his treehouse upriver, he'll tell you the names of the other 22."

I ask what they do with the bones.

"We place them by the tracks leading into the treehouse clearing, to warn our enemies," Bailom says. "But the killer gets to keep the skull. After we eat the khakhua, we beat loudly on our treehouse walls all night with sticks" to warn other khakhua to stay away.

As we walk back to our hut, Kembaren confides that "years ago, when I was making friends with the Korowai, a man here at Yafufla told me I'd have to eat human flesh if they were to trust me. He gave me a chunk," he says. "It was a bit tough but tasted good."

That night it takes me a long time to get to sleep.

The next morning Kembaren brings to the hut a 6-year-old boy named Wawa, who is naked except for a necklace of beads. Unlike the other village children, boisterous and smiling, Wawa is withdrawn and his eyes seem deeply sad. Kembaren wraps an arm around him. "When Wawa's mother died last November—I think she had TB, she was very sick, coughing and aching—people at his treehouse suspected him of being a khakhua," he says. "His father died a few months earlier, and they believed [Wawa] used sorcery to kill them both. His family was not powerful enough to protect him at the treehouse, and so this January his uncle escaped with Wawa, bringing him here, where the family is stronger." Does Wawa know the threat he is facing? "He's heard about it from his relatives, but I don't think he fully understands that people at his treehouse want to kill and eat him, though they'll probably wait until he's older, about 14 or 15, before they try. But while he stays at Yafufla, he should be safe."

Soon the porters heft our equipment and head toward the jungle. "We're taking the easy way, by pirogue," Kembaren tells me. Bailom and Kilikili, each gripping a bow and arrows, have joined the porters. "They know the clans upriver better than our Yaniruma men," Kembaren explains.

Bailom shows me his arrows, each a yard-long shaft bound with vine to an arrowhead designed for a specific prey. Pig arrowheads, he says, are broad-bladed; those for birds, long and narrow. Fish arrowheads are pronged, while the arrowheads for humans are each a hand's span of cassowary bone with six or more barbs carved on each side—to ensure terrible damage when cut away from the victim's flesh. Dark bloodstains coat these arrowheads.


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