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The Asmats
 
The Asmat are a coastal people occupying a low-lying swampy region. Their homeland covers approximately 9,652 square miles (25,000 square kilometers) in southwestern Irian Jaya. The swamps include sago palms, mangroves, and patches of tropical rain forest. The Asmat population is estimated at about 65,000 people, living in villages with populations of up to 2,000.

The Asmat are a Melanesian people who live within the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. They are widely known for the quality of their wood sculptures. They are also notorious for their traditional practices of headhunting and cannibalism. These Asmat practices have been linked to the unsolved 1961 disappearance of the twenty-three-year-old son of former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was touring the region to collect native artwork.

 The Asmat languages belong to the Papuan language family known as Asmat-Kamoro, which has over 50,000 speakers. Due to missionary work in the region, the central Asmat now have a written form of their spoken language. A form of Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of the Republic of Indonesia, is spoken by many Asmat men.
 
Many Asmat myths are about their head-hunting tradition. According to one myth, two brothers were the original inhabitants of the Asmat region. The older brother convinced the younger brother to cut off the older brother's head. Then the decapitated head of the older brother instructed the younger one about headhunting, including how to use decapitated heads in initiation rituals for young males.
 
Before Christianity was introduced to their region, the Asmat practiced a native religion involving spirit worship and fear of the ghosts of the dead. It was believed that most deaths were deliberately caused by evil forces. The ancestral spirits were said to demand that wrongful deaths be avenged by killing and decapitating an enemy. The person's body was then offered to the community for cannibalistic consumption. Missionary activity has introduced Christianity into the Asmat area.
 
Male initiation, although still practiced, has lost much of the significance it held in pre-colonial Asmat society. Traditionally, each initiate was given a decapitated head so that he could absorb the power of the deceased warrior to whom the head had belonged. After being plunged into the sea by the older men, the initiates were symbolically reborn as warriors. Male initiation rites among the Asmat no longer involve decapitation.

When a death occurs, family and friends of the deceased roll in the mud of the riverbanks to hide their scent from the ghost of the deceased. Ceremonies ensure that the ghost passes to the land of the dead, referred to as "the other side." The skull of a person's mother is often used as a pillow.
 
The Asmat traditionally have worn little or no clothing. Footwear is not often owned. Due to missionaries and other outside influences, many Asmat today wear Western-style clothing.   Men may have their noses pierced and wear wild pig or boar tusks. Both men and women paint their bodies on ceremonial occasions.
 
CULTURAL HERITAGE
Asmat drums have an hourglass shape and a single, lizard-skin-covered head that is struck with the palm of the hand. The other hand is used to hold the drum by a carved handle. Although the Asmat regard drums as sacred objects, they do not define instrumental sounds as music. Only singing is classified as music in Asmat culture. Love songs and epic songs, which often take several days to perform, are still important forms of expression.

Traditionally, dance was an important part of Asmat ceremonial life. However, missionaries have discouraged it. The Asmat have a great deal of oral literature, but no written tradition.
The Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress is collecting artifacts from all areas of Asmat culture. It produces catalogues and other publications on Asmat culture, mythology, and history.
 
CRAFTS 

Asmat art is highly valued by European and American art collectors. Much of the Asmat artistic tradition is tied to the practice of headhunting. Thus, since the prohibition of headhunting, the production of Asmat artifacts has declined.

The central and coastal Asmat traditionally produced decorated shields, spears, digging sticks, canoes, bows and arrows, and a wide range of elaborate carvings. The most famous ritual carving of these groups is the ancestor pole, or bis. These elaborate carved objects commemorate the deaths of those killed in battle or by sorcery. They were erected during the feasts that preceded headhunting raids to avenge those deaths.
 
 
 
 
 

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