Korowai & Kombai – Papua Tree people

Korowai & Kombai – Papua Tree people


The tree people, Korowai and Kombai, live in the basin of the Brazza River in the vast lowland jungles. This is situated in the foothills of the Jayawijaya mountain range, which is in the southwest part of the New Guinea Island in the Indonesian province Papua (Irian Jaya). Mosquitoes and age-old rivalry forced these tribes to build houses in the tops of trees. Some of them are placed as high as 40 m.

Papua-Kombai-tree people tribePapua-Kombai-tree people tribe

Kombai – tree peoplePhoto©Josef Bojanovsky (Czech) &Kombai – tree peoplePhoto©Ivo Franz Pindur (Germany)http://www.papuatrekking.com

Papua-Kombai-tree people tribe

Kombai – tree peoplePhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com (Czech Papua Guide)

Papua-Korowai-tree people tribe

Korowai – tree peoplePhoto©Mrs.Bibiana Stefania Fair (Canada)

Papua-Kombai-tree people tribe

Kombai collecting sago (food) – just after cutting sago palm with a stone axePhoto©Luděk Uzel (Czech)

Papua-Kombai-tree people tribe

Kombai – We help them with sago processingPhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com (Czech Papua Guide)

Korowai & Kombai – friendly cannibals?

Korowai and Kombai used to be cannibalistic tribes. We are convinced that they still practice ritually cannibalism, but considerably less frequently. Korowai and Kombi are two of the wildest tribes on Papua. Despite that, as we gradually found out during our expeditions to this area, one can get along with them reasonably well. We have been visiting the area of these tribes for more than 10 years now. We even have some of “our friends” among the tribesmen.

Papua-Kombai-tree people tribe. Jaromír Giecek, profesional cameraman and photograf. He do six chapter TV film serial about Papua tribe life

On the above-side photo: Jaromir Giecek, professional photograpfer and cameraman of Czech TV playing music for Kombai childern and women. Jaromir Giecek shot a six part series about Papua tribe life. (Kombai – tree people tribe)

On the below-site photo: Tree house of Korowai tribe, in Indonesian language called „rumah thingi“.

Papua-Korowai – tree people tribe

Korowai & Kombai – men dressed in bones– West

Korowai are one of the few Papuan tribes who do not wear kotekas. The men of this tribe have their penises “pushed” into the scrotum, and on the skin which sticks out, they have tightly tied a green leaf. Korowai Batu use nutshells instead of leaves, and the women wear short skirts made of sago palm phloem, which is also their main food.

Papua-Korwai-tree people tribe

Korowai – tree housePhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com

Kombais are the most beautiful tribe people of the west Papua of which we know. The men wear a beak from big bird instead of a koteka on their penises. Their menacing look is intensified by long necklaces made of dog teeth, and they rarely lay their bows and arrows aside. The heads of the arrows are often made of bones. “We use these bone-headed arrows only for people” Kombais would say to us. The women walk half naked, only in short skirts made of sago. There, it seems time stopped only a short while after the dinosaurs died out. I don’t know of a more beautiful tribe …

Papua-Kombai-tree people tribe

Kombai climbing up to a tree house*Photo©Luděk Uzel (Czech)*

Korowai & Kombai – Main tribal chief – West Papua

New Guinea, more specifically west Papua, has many surprises in store. The Kombai tribe is, gently put, a problematic tribe. Despite that, we have experienced from them the greatest expressions of friendship whatsoever. Several times, we met the main tribal chief of all Kombais. This rarely happens during expeditions.

First, he “greeted us” by pointing his bow at us, it took about an hour-long negotiation till we were allowed to enter the village. Today we even have his assurance of safety on the whole Kombai territory. That’s something unexpected from the chief of such a troublemaking tri­be.

The Kombai tribal chief is a muscular man with a harsh face. Two strips of dog teeth with about 200 total teeth run across his chest. His nose is decorated by horns of a big beetle, and by boar tusks, which are grinded into a thin plate. The top of his head is ornamented with an intricate decoration made of bamboo fibers finely coiled around his hair. His penis is covered by a koteka made of a beak of five or seven years old zoboroh, which is fixed in place by a strip knitted from ropes that were in turn woven from orchid fibers. The thong around his waist has been decorated with small teeth – dog grinding teeth.

Papua-Kombai-tree people tribe

Kombai – tree peoplePhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com

Our first meeting was conducted with an air of distrust and thus warlike mood. After three or four visits we eventually became friends. Last year the tribal chief gave us his personal assurance of safety on the territory of the Kombai tribe, this is hard to believe considering they are one of the Papua’s wildest tribes. That time we were in his village for the seventh time. Obtaining Kombai friendship is not an easy task.

Korowai & Kombai – West Papua lowland Trekking

Papua-Kombai-tree people tribe

Trekking through the forest is difficult and „wet“ – Miss Eva filming her friend with tree people – Kombai teritory – PapuaPhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com

Trekking on the territory of Kombai and Korowai tree people is a very different kind of trekking than you might be used to, to say the least. This area of lowland rain forest is in a close proximity of mountains, and not far from the sea. This drives the amount of yearly precipitation to the max. In 2003 and 2005, we experienced there several “dry” expeditions, but during other years it rained more than enough.

Papua-Kombai-tree people tribeKombai – Family photo before departurePhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com (Czech Papua Guide)

For example, in 2005 it was extremely wet. In that year we undertook three expeditions which passed over the Kombai territory and it was raining during all three. Most importantly the level of water in the rivers increased. We ended up wading through long parts of the flooded jungle, sometimes more than even knee-deep in the water. Many of the bridges were underwater, and time from time someone fell in. At that moment our waterproof GEMMA backpacks proved very helpful. These backpacks are designed as racks for waterman sacks.

Papua-Kombai-tree people tribeKombai-Last view of the Kombai teritory*Photo©Ja­hodaPetr.com (photo from the „airport“)*

After this “wet” part, comes trekking in a “dry” forest. We take narrow footpaths which are often disrupted by sago peat bogs. On this type of terrain it is not uncommon that we sink into the mud ankle-deep or sometimes even up to our calves. Clearings offer another challenge – we have to balance on the logs of cut-down trees.

Kombai tree people tribe – Papua lowlands – Irian Jaya

Chief of the Kombai tribe – most primitive tree people on Papua – Irian Jaya. A tribeman repairing a stone axe)Photo©JahodaPe­tr.com (Papua guide)

Generally it can be said that trekking in the Korowai and Kombai territory is some of the more difficult kind, but it can be coped with by anyone, who is used to physical activity. We chose such a pace that everyone can keep up, and as a rule we don’t walk for more than 4–6 hours. Therefore, it is possible to reach the target destination safely, and cautiously, even while covering such strenuous terrain. This trekking should not be underestimated, but you needn’t be too afraid of it. After all, we experienced the two “dry” years…

Kombai tree people tribe – Papua lowlands – Irian Jaya

Mrs. Jitka in the Tree people territory – Kombai tribe – most primitive tree people on Papua – Irian JayaPhoto©Roman Heř­man

Papua Kombai – Tree people

Papua Kombai tribe – tree housePhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com

Papua Kombai – Tree people

Papua Kombai tribe – children of cannibals?Photo©Luděk Uzel

Papua Kombai – Tree people – reparation of stone axe

Papua Kombai tribe – new stone axePhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com

Papua Korowai Batu – Tree people

Papua Korowai Batu – tree peoplePhoto©Luděk Uzel

Papua Kombai – Tree people

Papua Kombai tribePhoto©Luděk Uzel

Papua Korowai – Tree people

Papua Korowai – tree people tribePhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com (Papua guide)

Kombai-Papua canibals

Kombai man – warriorPhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com (Papua guide)

Kombai-Papua canibals

Papua Kombai – Papua tree people, Kombai still practice ritual cannibalismPhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com (Papua guide)

Korowai-Papua cannibals

Korowai tribe – Papua tree people, still in a war with the neighbouring tree people tribe KombaiPhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com (Papua guide)

Kombai-papua cannibalsPapua Kombai – Kombai as well as Korowai still practice ritual canibalism in the time of warPhoto©JahodaPe­tr.com (Papua guide)The last cases of cannibalism were only recently recorded. In 1968 two missionaries (Australian Stan Dole and American Phil Masters) were chopped and eaten. During Christmas 1974, four Dutch families were killed and eaten by aborigines in the Jayawijaya Mountains. The last known case was a killing of a priest and his twelve companions. It allegedly happened because they tried to ban the aborigines from hunting for skulls and they burnt their fetishes. This tragic event happened in 1976 almost in the end of the twentieth century. This is a very recent history of the West Guinea Island.


11 thoughts on “Korowai & Kombai – Papua Tree people

  1. Thank you for this fascinating document. I just learned about the existence of these people from a recent TV series, “Going to More Extremes”.


  2. This post reminds me so much of reading National Geographic as a kid. I was always fascinated with indigenous cultures, particularly those of the Native American and South Pacific groups.

    Currently, I am studying Neo-Shamanism, under a Foundation for Shamanic Studies sponsored course. There is a yearning for experiential spirituality across the Western World. The Earth-centered practices of the so-called primal faiths, as theologian Huston Smith labeled the brands of shamanism and Neo-Paganism, are making a huge comeback in suburban homes, among academics, artists, and other ‘ordinary’ people.

    In the academic study of shamanism, there are references to religious and initiation practices that incorporated eating human flesh — despite what academic William Arens claimed in the 1970s, cannibalism was a widely accepted practice in all human cultures, prior to agricultural and industrial societies. Nonetheless, European royalty employed ‘medicinal cannibalism’ prior to the modern age of medicine. Historical cannibals included British royalty like King Charles II.

    So, man-eating is not such an exotic practice at all, even to self-righteous European peoples, who used the cultural libel of “cannibal” to enslave South American Indians, and other groups throughout the world.

    Recently, the National G Channel ran a program about the Papua New Guinea natives that once practiced cannibalism, “Dinner with Cannibals”. The accounts given by tribal elders were matter of fact, and expressed a dark humor. Evidently, tribal members were eaten when they allegedly put a hex on someone to induce death, and the tribal shamans often made the decision on who would, and would not, be consumed in a ceremonial feast.

    Several years ago, Bruce Parry, the wannbe tribesman of BBC Television, visited with primitive tribes on every continent, “going native”. Parry visited with practicing New Guinea cannibal tribes, and stated that they were kind and considerate to him.

    Interestingly, Parry, a self-professed atheist, recently said that he would partake in a cannibalistic meal with an indigenous tribe, only if it were part of their culture, and the victim was not killed on his behalf, to provide a meal — there is an ethical parallel here of the taboo surrounding the banned trade in shrunken heads from Ecuador.

    Of course, Western literature is engrossed in stories depicting ‘primitive cannibals’ — “Robinson Crusoe” and “Moby Dick” are among the most prominent, and contain an element of racism against indigenous peoples as a result of this practice.

    A former girlfriend of mine, an Ivy League educated linguist, visited tribes in the Amazon and in New Guinea to study their language development, in the 1980s. She came back with a newfound respect for indigenous people, and, although cannibal practices had been stamped out by governmental or church-affiliated agencies, many tribal elders remembered eating human beings in their youth.

    She even participated in a number of rituals with tribal groups in South America, marking lunar cycles and the passage of life (initiation into adulthood, a girl’s first period, et al). On several occasions, she was comfortable enough to doff her clothes, and be body painted, wearing only necklaces and feathers — thus, participating in ritual, she understood the connection between Nature and human life, and how we are all truly animals, before being humans.

    From these incredible experiences, she finally concluded that cannibals were not evil, and their was a degree of moral relativism involved if the ritual held religious implications. Eventually, she said that there was a much greater risk of dying from malaria than being eaten by cannibals during her jungle treks with anthropologists.

    But, she felt that if a tribe had chosen to cook and eat her, should could accept that destiny, as a person of Christian faith. In effect, in the belief systems of many tribes, you “become” part of the cannibal that eats your body, in spirit and flesh — i.e., it’s a form of communion, and at the root of everything from Aztec blood sacrifices to the Christian Eucharist, controversial conclusions not comfortably discussed by Western intellectuals.

    Certainly, in our culture, cannibalism is taboo, the perversion of serial killers. It’s only permitted in survival situations, as in the Andes plane crash survivors, or Vietnamese boat people of the 1980s.

    Nonetheless, we should preserve the culture of indigenous societies, and, if that includes cannibalism and human sacrifice as part of their religious or shamanistic traditions, then it is our duty to simply stand away, and not interfere.

    Of course, New Guinea has long been the focus of cannibal folklore and tabloid publicity. The legend of 1960s missing person and American heir Michael Rockefeller centered on the theory that he washed ashore after a boat accident, and became a victim of New Guinea cannibals.

    Too often, Westerners see cannibals as sub-human, or fodder for cartoons depicting ‘darker’ peoples eating pith helmet-wearing explorers and missionaries. Nothing could be farther than the truth.

    Visionaries like da Vinci, Gandhi, and Edison all said that we, as a species, will be considered savages as long as we eat the meat of fellow mammals. So, in a greater ethical argument, we are all cannibals of sorts.


  3. i still dont understand what a koteka is? how do the males push their penis’ back into their scrotums? what purpose does that serve? how do they do that? not sexual. just wondering..


    1. The koteka, horim, penis gourd or penis sheath is a phallocrypt or phallocarp traditionally worn by native male inhabitants of some (mainly highland) ethnic groups in New Guinea to cover their genitals. They are normally made from a dried out gourd, Lagenaria siceraria, although other species, such as Nepenthes mirabilis, are also used. They are held in place by a small loop of fiber attached to the base of the koteka and placed around the scrotum. There is a secondary loop placed around the chest or abdomen and attached to the main body of the koteka. Men choose kotekas similar to ones worn by other men in their cultural group. For example, Yali men favour a long, thin koteka, which helps hold up the multiple rattan hoops worn around their waist. Men from Tiom wear a double gourd, held up with a strip of cloth, and use the space between the two gourds for carrying small items such as money and tobacco.
      It is traditional clothing in certain New Guinea highlands societies including in the Grand Baliem Valley of Western New Guinea and the Ok Tedi and Telefomin regions of Papua New Guinea. It is worn without other clothing, tied in upward position

      Different identification :
      Many tribes can be identified by the way they wear their koteka. Some wear them pointed straight out, straight up, at an angle, or in other directions. The diameter of the koteka can also be a clue. Contrary to popular belief, there is little correlation between the size or length of the koteka and the social status of the wearer. Kotekas of different sizes serve different purposes: very short kotekas are worn when working and longer and more elaborate kotekas are worn on festive occasions. The koteka is made of a specially grown gourd. Stone weights are tied to the bottom of the gourd to stretch it out as it grows. Curves can be made in it by the use of string to restrain its growth in whatever direction the grower wishes. They can be quite elaborately shaped in this manner. When harvested, the gourd is emptied and dried. It is sometimes waxed with beeswax or native resins. It can be painted, and/or have shells, feathers and other decorations attached to it.
      Sociolinguistically and politically today, the term koteka is used as a name of tribal groups across the highlands of New Guinea; both West Papua and Papua New Guinea. For example, in West Papua today, there is an Assembly of Koteka Tribes. The term koteka was never used to identify a society or ethnic group before, but it is now commonly known for a tribal group within Melanesia across the highlands of New Guinea.

      Sexuality :
      It is commonly assumed that there is a sexual display element to wearing the koteka; however, according to the locals, kotekas are worn only to cover themselves. Campaigns by the Indonesian government to suppress the koteka in Papua occurred in the 1970s. The campaigns have been largely unsuccessful in areas such as the Baliem Valley.


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