A Smithsonian Magazine journalist was on dispatch to Indonesian side of Papua to cover Korowai people, an isolated ethnic group of no more than 10,000 people which remains reliant on cannibalism to ‘wipe out curses’.
Read the full article, dating back to September 2006, here.
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.