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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I ask Kembaren if he is comfortable with the idea of two cannibals accompanying us. "Most of the porters have probably eaten human flesh," he answers with a smile.

Kembaren leads me down to the Ndeiram Kabur River, where we board a long, slender pirogue. I settle in the middle, the sides pressing against my body. Two Korowai paddlers stand at the stern, two more at the bow, and we push off, steering close by the riverbank, where the water flow is slowest. Each time the boatmen maneuver the pirogue around a sandbar, the strong current in the middle of the river threatens to tip us over. Paddling upriver is tough, even for the muscular boatmen, and they frequently break into Korowai song timed to the slap of the paddles against the water, a yodeling chant that echoes along the riverbank.

High green curtains of trees woven with tangled streamers of vine shield the jungle. A siren scream of cicadas pierces the air. The day passes in a blur, and night descends quickly.

And that's when we are accosted by the screaming men on the riverbank. Kembaren refuses to come to their side of the river. "It's too dangerous," he whispers. Now the two Korowai armed with bows and arrows are paddling a pirogue toward us. I ask Kembaren if he has a gun. He shakes his head no.

As their pirogue bumps against ours, one of the men growls that laleo are forbidden to enter their sacred river, and that my presence angers the spirits. Korowai are animists, believing that powerful beings live in specific trees and parts of rivers. The tribesman demands that we give the clan a pig to absolve the sacrilege. A pig costs 350,000 rupiahs, or about $40. It's a Stone Age shakedown. I count out the money and pass it to the man, who glances at the Indonesian currency and grants us permission to pass.

What use is money to these people? I ask Kembaren as our boatmen paddle to safety upriver. "It's useless here," he answers, "but whenever they get any money, and that's rare, the clans use it to help pay bride prices for Korowai girls living closer to Yaniruma. They understand the dangers of incest, and so girls must marry into unrelated clans."

About an hour farther up the river, we pull up onto the bank, and I scramble up a muddy slope, dragging myself over the slippery rise by grasping exposed tree roots. Bailom and the porters are waiting for us and wearing worried faces. Bailom says that the tribesmen knew we were coming because they had intercepted the porters as they passed near their treehouses.

Would they really have killed us if we hadn't paid up? I ask Bailom, through Kembaren. Bailom nods: "They'd have let you pass tonight because they knew you'd have to return downriver. Then, they'd ambush you, some firing arrows from the riverbank and others attacking at close range in their pirogues."

The porters string all but one of the tarpaulins over our supplies. Our shelter for the night is four poles set in a square about four yards apart and topped by a tarp with open sides. Soon after midnight a downpour drenches us. The wind sends my teeth chattering, and I sit disconsolately hugging my knees. Seeing me shivering, Boas pulls my body against his for warmth. As I drift off, deeply fatigued, I have the strangest thought: this is the first time I've ever slept with a cannibal.

We leave at first light, still soaked. At midday our pirogue reaches our destination, a riverbank close by the treehouse, or khaim, of a Korowai clan that Kembaren says has never before seen a white person. Our porters arrived before us and have already built a rudimentary hut. "I sent a Korowai friend here a few days ago to ask the clan to let us visit them," Kembaren says. "Otherwise they'd have attacked us."

I ask why they've given permission for a laleo to enter their sacred land. "I think they're as curious to see you, the ghost-demon, as you are to see them," Kembaren answered.

At midafternoon, Kembaren and I hike 30 minutes through dense jungle and ford a deep stream. He points ahead to a treehouse that looks deserted. It perches on a decapitated banyan tree, its floor a dense latticework of boughs and strips of wood. It's about ten yards off the ground. "It belongs to the Letin clan," he says. Korowai are formed into what anthropologists call patriclans, which inhabit ancestral lands and trace ownership and genealogy through the male line.

A young cassowary prances past, perhaps a family pet. A large pig, flushed from its hiding place in the grass, dashes into the jungle. "Where are the Korowai?" I ask. Kembaren points to the treehouse. "They’re waiting for us."

I can hear voices as I climb an almost vertical pole notched with footholds. The interior of the treehouse is wreathed in a haze of smoke rent by beams of sunlight. Young men are bunched on the floor near the entrance. Smoke from hearth fires has coated the bark walls and sago-leaf ceiling, giving the hut a sooty odor. A pair of stone axes, several bows and arrows and net bags are tucked into the leafy rafters. The floor creaks as I settle cross-legged onto it.


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