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A trip to cannibal country

Aug. 29, 2006
Special to World Science  

If an un­ex­plained ill­ness over­pow­ers a Ko­ro­wai tribes­man of New Gui­nea, he may whis­per a fate­ful name with his last breaths: that of an­oth­er tribes­man, ty­pi­cal­ly a friend or re­la­tive, who he be­lieves is his killer.

The Ko­rowai oc­cu­py thou­sands of square miles in the south­east of the In­do­ne­sian prov­ince of Pap­u­a. A red square marks the ap­prox­i­mate lo­ca­tion. See im­ages of the Ko­rowai.

Fam­i­ly mem­bers at the dy­ing man’s side know in­s­tant­ly what he means. He has fin­gered a kha­khua, a sor­cer­er dis­guised as a male hu­man. The kha­khua ass­as­si­n­ates peo­ple by ea­t­ing out their guts, re­pla­c­ing them with ash, as vic­tims sleep.

The tribes­men hunt down the kha­khua. Whe
­th­er he be com­rade, kins­man or child, whe­th­er he screams his in­no­cence all the way un­to death—none of that mat­ters. 
 
He is tied up, slaugh­tered, hacked apart and cooked like a pig, ev
­e­ry mor­sel to be de­voured with pleas­ure, es­pe­cial­ly the scrump­tious brain.

The Ko­ro­wai don’t eat hu­mans. They eat kha­khua. Or so they will tell you.

This is the Ko­ro­wai cul­ture of can­ni­ba­l­ism as de­s­c­ribed by Aus­t­ra­li­an wri­t­er and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Paul Raf­faele, who ven­tured deep in­to Ko­ro­wai ter­ri­to­ry to re­port on it for the Sep­tem­ber is­sue of Smith­so­nian ma­ga­zine (www
.smithsonianmagazine.com).

Some pre­his­tor­ic peo­ples were can­ni­bals, and can­ni­bal­ism lin­gered in­to the 19th cen­tu­ry in some iso­lat­ed South Pa­cif­ic cul­tures, Raf­faele wrote. But to
­day, “the Ko­rowai are among the ver­y few tribes be­lieved to eat human flesh.” 

They live in West Papua, an Indonesian province in New Guinea, some 100 miles in­land from the Ara­fura Sea. There, Raf­faele noted, a son of then-New York gov­er­nor Nel­son Rock­e­fel­ler, Mi­chael, van­ished in 1961 as he gath­ered ar­ti­facts from an­oth­er tribe. His body was nev­er re­cov­ered.

Raf­faele de­scribed a voy­age in­to the rain­for­est and the Ko­rowai’s stone-age world. Join­ing him were a guide and a doz­en Ko­rowai porters who were ac­cus­t­omed to out­siders. Al­so on the way in­to the jun­gle he pick­ed up an­oth­er Ko­rowai who had left home two years ear­li­er, in­fu­ri­at­ing his fa­ther, and who ached to vis­it home.

Some Ko­rowai who live near the edge of their rain­for­est ter­ri­to­ry have dropped can­ni­bal­ism as they be­come used to con­tact with the mod­ern world, Raf­faele re­ported. Deeper in­side, up the snak­ing Ndeiram Kabur Riv­er, are those who have nev­er seen a white man, and live in high tree­houses, their tra­di­tion­al way.

While still in the out­er ar­eas, Raf­faele wrote, he sat by a camp­fire and met Bailom, the broth­er of a re­nowned kha­khua-kill­er. Bailom him­self had dis­patched a kha­khua about two years ear­li­er—a friend—and, by the camp­fire, hand­ed the jour­nal­ist the skull, Raf­faele re­counted. 

He added that he be­lieved the tale be­cause sev­er­al oth­er ac­counts of the in­ci­dent matched in de­tail, and an­thro­pol­o­gists have con­firmed the prac­tice.

The feel of the na­ked bone gave him a “chill,” Raf­faele wrote. “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.”

Bailom, Raf­faele wrote, ex­plained that his dy­ing cous­in had iden­t­i­fied his friend Bunop as a kha­khua, and that the soon-to-depart rel­a­tive would­n’t lie. Bailom re­counted that he and oth­ers grabbed Bunop, tied him up and took him a stream where they shot ar­rows in­to him, though he screamed for mer­cy and protested in­no­cence.

Bailom then de­cap­i­tat­ed Bunop with a stone axe and hoist­ed the head in the air as the oth­ers, chant­ing, dis­mem­bered him. “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,” Raf­faele quo­ted Bunop.

In ac­cor­d­ance with tra­di­tion, the bo­dy parts were in­di­vid­u­al­ly wrapped in ba­nan­a leaves and hand­ed out to clan mem­bers; but the head went to the fam­i­ly of the kill­er, Bailom. They cooked the flesh like swine, “plac­ing palm leaves over the wrapped meat to­geth­er with burn­ing hot riv­er rocks to make steam,” Raf­faele again re­counted.

Raf­faele wrote that he even met a six-year-old child who was an ac­cused kha­khua, and was alive on­ly be­cause his un­cle had tak­en him to an­oth­er part of the rain­for­est where his fam­i­ly was stronger and could pro­tect him.

Can­ni­bal folk­lore has it that human flesh tastes like pork, but Bailom con­tended it tastes like young cas­so­war­y, an ostrich-like bird, Raf­faele re­ported. At kha­khua meals, Bailom told him, men and wom­en at­tend, but not chil­dren. Ever­ything goes down but bones, teeth, ha­ir, fin­ger­nails, toe­nails and pe­nis. “I like the taste of all the body part­s,” Bailom told the writ­er, “but the brains are my fa­vorite.”

Raf­faele next jour­neyed to Ko­rowai heart­land vi­a a ca­noe trip and a mud­dy strug­gle through steam­y, rain-drenched jun­gle, he wrote. Tribes­men al­lowed his group en­try on­ly be­cause they paid the equiv­a­lent of $40, he ex­plained. He added that, ac­cord­ing to his guide, the na­tives have just one use for mon­ey: it lets them buy brides from Ko­rowai tribes in the more mod­ernized edge­zones.

In a tree­house in Ko­rowai heart­land, Raf­faele de­scribed meet­ing a mus­cu­lar “fierce man,” or clan war­ri­or lead­er, who of­fered him grudg­ing ac­cept­ance af­ter about an hour of con­ver­sa­tion with his guide. “I knew you were com­ing and ex­pected to see a ghost, but now I see you’re just like us, a human,” Raf­faele quot­ed the fierce man Le­p­eadon say­ing through a trans­la­tor. Tra­di­tion­al Ko­rowai call out­siders la­leo, or ghost-demons.

Three days lat­er, as Raf­faele left by ca­noe, Le­p­eadon, scowl­ing, aimed a fear­some barbed ar­row at him, Raf­faele wrote. The fierce man turned out to be jok­ing. Eleswhere in Ko­rowai ter­ri­to­ry, Raf­faele and team brought Boas—the fel­low trav­el­er who had joined them af­ter leav­ing his Ko­rowai home­—to his ec­stat­ic fa­ther for a vis­it.

De­spite the ob­sti­nate per­sis­tence of prac­tices that may strike us as bar­ba­rous, Raf­faele wrote, the tra­di­tion­al Ko­rowai world is un­rav­el­ing. Young­sters in grow­ing num­bers are leav­ing the tree­houses, and their most hard-core tra­di­tions, to join set­tle­ments on the out­skirts of Ko­rowai ter­ri­to­ry.

The Ko­rowai say a pow­er­ful spir­it has warned them that the ghost-demons will one day take over Ko­rowai land. At that point, the god will an­ni­hi­late the world in a fu­ri­ous earth­quake to make way for a new world. The end of tra­di­tion­al Ko­rowai cul­ture may sound like more of a whim­per than a crash—but with­in a gen­er­a­tion, Raf­faele pre­dicted, it will come.

* * *

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As illness squeezes the final breaths from a Korowai tribesman, he may reveal an important name: that of another man—likely a friend or relative—who he believes is his killer. Gathered around, the expiring man’s family members understand instantly. The fingered culprit is a Khakhua: a witch who takes the guise of a man, then exterminates others by slowly replacing their guts with ash. The tribesmen hunt down the Khakhua. Whether he be friend, relative or child, whether he screams his innocence unto death—all is irrelevant. He is tied up, slaughtered, butchered and cooked like a pig, every morsel to be devoured with pleasure, most memorably the scrumptious brain. You must understand, the Korowai will explain. They don’t eat people. Just Khakua. Writer and photographer Paul Raffaele ventured deep into Korowai territory to produce an in-depth report on their ways for the September issue of Smithsonian magazine. Along with terrifying practices, he also found a people who can exhibit unexpected humanity and humor. Some prehistoric peoples were cannibals, and cannibalism lingered lingered into the 19th century in some isolated South Pacific cultures, Raffaele wrote, “but today the Korowai are among the very few tribes believed to eat human flesh.” They live in Papua some 100 miles inland from the Arafura Sea, he added. There, a son of then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, Michael, vanished in 1961 as he gathered artifacts from another tribe, his body never to be recovered. Raffaele described a voyage into the rainforest and the stone-age world of the Korowai. Joining him were a guide and a dozen Korowai porters who were partly habituated with modern ways. Also on the way into the jungle he picked up another Korowai who had left home two years earlier, infuriating his father, and who ached to visit home. Some Korowai who live near the edge of their rainforest territory have dropped cannibalism as they become accustomed to contact with the modern world, Raffaele reported. Deeper inside, up the snaking Ndeiram Kabur River, are those who have never seen a white man, and live in high treehouses, their traditional way. While still in the outer areas, Raffaele wrote, he sat by a campfire and met Bailom, the brother of a renowned Khakhua-killer. Bailom himself had dispatched a Khakhua about two years earlier—a friend—and, by the campfire, handed the journalist the skull, Raffaele recounted. He added that he believed the tale because several other accounts of the incident matched in detail, and anthropologists have confirmed the practice. The feel of the naked bone gave him a “chill,” Raffaele wrote. “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.” Bailom, Raffaele wrote, explained that his dying cousin had fingered his friend Bunop as the khakhua, and that the soon-to-depart relative wouldn’t lie. Bailom recounted that he and others grabbed Bunop, tied him up and took him a stream where they shot arrows into him, though he screamed for mercy and protested innocence. Bailom then decapitated Bunop with a stone axe and held it in the air as others, chanting, dismembered the friend. “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,” as Raffaele recounted Bunop’s words. The body parts were individually wrapped in banana leaves and distributed among the clan members, but the head, in accordance with tradition, went to the family of the killer, Bailom. They cooked the flesh like pig, “placing palm leaves over the wrapped meat together with burning hot river rocks to make steam,” Raffaele again recounted. Raffaele wrote that he even met a six-year-old child who was an accused Khakhua, and was alive only because his uncle had taken him to another part of the rainforest where his family was stronger and could protect him. Cannibal folklore has it that human flesh tastes like pork, but Bailom contended it tastes like young cassowary, an ostrich-like bird, Raffaele reported. At khakhua meals, Bailom told him, men and women attend, but not children. Everything goes down but bones, teeth, hair, fingernails, toenails and penis. “I like the taste of all the body parts,” Bailom told the writer, “but the brains are my favorite.” Raffaele next journeyed to Korowai heartland via a canoe trip and a muddy struggle through steamy, rain-drenched jungle, he wrote. Tribesmen allowed his group entry only because they paid the equivalent of $40, he explained. He added that, according to his guide, the natives had just one use for money: it lets them buy brides from Korowai tribes in the more modernized edgezones. In a treehouse in Korowai heartland, Raffaele described meeting a muscular “fierce man,” or clan warrior leader, who offered him grudging acceptance after about an hour of conversation with his guide. “I knew you were coming and expected to see a ghost, but now I see you’re just like us, a human,” Raffaele quoted the fierce man Lepeadon saying through a translator. Traditional Korowai call outsiders laleo, or ghost-demons. Three days later, as Raffaele left by canoe, Lepeadon, scowling, aimed a fearsome barbed arrow at him, Raffaele wrote. It turned out to be a joke. Eleswhere in Korowai territory, Raffaele and team brought Boas—the fellow traveler who had joined them after leaving his Korowai home—to his ecstatic father for a visit. Despite the obstinate persistence of practices that may strike us as barbarous, Raffaele wrote, the traditional Korowai world is unraveling. Youngsters in growing numbers are leaving the treehouses, and their most hard-core traditions, to join settlements on the outskirts of Korowai territory. The Korowai say a powerful spirit has warned them that the ghost-demons will one day take over Korowai land, at which point the god will annihilate the world in a furious earthquake to make way for a new one. The end of traditional Korowai culture may come with more of a whimper than a crash—but within a generation, Raffaele predicted, it will come.