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ETHNONYMS: Asmat-ow, Samot


Identification. The Asmat are hunting, fishing, and gathering people who inhabit an area which they refer to as Asmat capinmi, the Asmat world. The term "Asmat" (or "As-amat") means "we the tree people." In anthropological usage, the term Asmat labels the people (collectively), the language, and the geographic area. A single individual is referred to as an "Asmatter."

Location. The Asmat live within the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya (previously known as West Irian), which in turn occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea. Scattered over an area of some 25,000 square kilometers, these people inhabit a tropical lowland, alluvial swamp, and rainforest zone. The geographic coordinates are approximately 6° S and 138° E. Irian Jaya is located at the periphery of the monsoon region, with the most prevalent winds in Asmat blowing from November through April. The hottest month is December, the coolest June. Rainfall regularly exceeds 450 centimeters annually.

Demography. It is estimated that there are approximately 50,000 Asmat people. Village size currently ranges from about 300 to 2,000. While extremely variable, the estimated average rate of growth has been about 1 percent during the past thirty years. There is very little migration into or out of the area. Demographic factors of importance in the pre- and early-contact eras included the practice of infanticide, papis (ritual wife exchange), intra- and intervillage adoption of children and widows of war, and deaths associated with warfare. During the contact era, diseases such as cholera, influenza, and yaws have impacted growth.

linguistic Affiliation. The determination of which Scattered groups constitute the Asmat is, in part, an artifact of outside intervention and classification processes dating to the pre-1963 era of Dutch occupation. Five dialects are spoken in the Asmat language, which is a member of the Asmat-Kamoro Family of Non-Austronesian languages. Bahasa Indonesia, the national lingua franca of the country, also is spoken by many.

>History and Cultural Relations

As an indigenous Papuan people, the Asmat are descended from groups of lowland, swamp-dwelling people whose stillearlier ancestors likely settled portions of New Guinea as far back as 30,000 years ago. Owing to accurate accounts kept by explorers and traders, virtually all of the earliest contacts made with the Asmat by Europeans are known. The first was made by the Dutch trader, Jan Carstensz, on 10 March 1623. Next to arrive, almost 150 years later on 3 September 1770, was Captain James Cook. Occasional contacts were made during the next 150 years, but it was not until 1938 that a Dutch government post called Agats was opened. Permanent contact has been maintained since the early 1950s. Agats has grown into Asmat's central administrative, trading, and mission town.


Villages (in the strictest sense of the term) have arisen during the contact era. There has been a trend toward the spatial consolidation of traditionally more disparate yew (the maximal social/kin unit, each centered around a men's house and based on principles of patriambilineal descent). Settlements usually are located either along outer perimeters of sweeping river bends, or along small tributaries near points where they join large rivers. These locations afford both strategic and resource advantages. Mission and government posts are based near some villages.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Asmat traditionally were subsistence-based, relying upon a combination of hunting, fishing, and gathering activities, which continue today. Horticultural activity first was introduced in the late 1950s. Processed stipe of the sago palm remains the dietary staple. First under Dutch and then Indonesian auspices, a partial wage-based economy has been introduced. Exportable hardwoods and crocodile hides are among the most valued items, reaching Singaporean and Japanese markets.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally the craft emphasis was upon wood carving. The wowipits, "master carver," was renowned for his technical skill and creativity. Perindustrian, the Indonesian term for "cottage industry," has been introduced to aid production and marketing activities. Asmat carvings are sought by collectors worldwide.

Trade. During the precontact era most trade was intraregional, with the primary items being of ritual value (e.g., triton shells). One exception was stone for use in axes. This was obtained through an extended network reaching to the foothills of the central highlands. Current trade patterns now include manufactured items as well and also involve merchants (primarily Indonesians of Javanese and Chinese heritage), missionaries, and the occasional tourist.

Division of Labor. This largely is based on gender. Women are responsible for net fishing, gathering (assisted by children), the transport of firewood, and most domestic tasks. Men are responsible for line and weir fishing, hunting, most horticultural activities, the felling of trees, and Construction projects. Both sexes assist with sago processing.

Land Tenure. Local, autonomous sociopolitical aggregates of equal status are associated with more or less defined tracts of land. Rivers and river junctions constitute key points of demarcation. Boundaries are not rigid, changing as intervillage alliances and resources fluctuate. Sago palm groves, as well as individual hardwood trees, constitute inheritable and rigidly controlled resources. In recent decades major disputes have arisen with the government owing to differing conceptions of land tenure.


Kin Groupe and Descent. The yew is the nexus of Asmat kin and social/ritual organization. It is complemented by a complex yet flexible patriambilineal descent system (i.e., one wherein male lines predominate but female lines also are traced and actively recognized). Strong residential/spatial and dual organizational features are found. The tracing of actual and putative genealogical relationships beyond the greatgrandfather is perceived to be superfluous and rather dysfunctional. Being a member of a domiciled core constitutes sufficient proof of being a relative.

Kinship Terminology. Each yew is divided into named halves or moieties, termed aypim. These moieties are reflected in the positioning of fireplaces within the men's houses. The kinship system is classificatory, with certain terms Crosscutting generational lines. What the authors have termed "residential override" is operative, in that (despite an essentially bilateral recognition and naming of kin) once a young man enters the men's house he progressively has less to do with his mother and her consanguineal relatives. The terms cemen (literally, "penis") and cen (literally, "vagina") are used to clarify certain male and female kin relations, respectively.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In principle, marriage is yew-endogamous and aypim-exogamous. Strict incest prohibitions only cover the nuclear family. Bride-price, provided by the groom in installments, traditionally consisted of such items as stone axes, bird of paradise feathers, and triton shells. Tobacco and small Western goods now are being included. Polygamy continues to be practiced by a few of the most prestigious males, although governmental and mission pressure against it has been intense. Similar pressure has been exerted against the practice of papis. While not a common occurrence, divorce does take place. Occasionally it is precipitated (in Polygamous households) by interwife tensions, but more often it is caused (in monogamous as well as polygamous households) by problems between husband and wife. Some wives cite physical abuse as the primary cause. Some husbands cite inadequate cooking skills. A woman's return to her original yew and aypim signifies divorce; there is no formal ritual.

Domestic Unit. At marriage a woman becomes more closely affiliated with her husband's aypim, and takes up Residence there. Individual houses are built, occupied, and maintained by extended families in the vicinity of the men's house. The informal adoption of children, even those whose parents remain viable members of the same village, is relatively Common. This is perceived to be a means of maintaining "yew balance."

Inheritance. Certain important ritual items, such as bipane "shell nosepieces," are heritable. Principles of primogeniture do not pertain. Of primary importance are songs and song cycles, which can be inherited by a soarmacipits a "male song leader," a soarmacuwut, a "female song leader," or other yew leaders. Leadership positions per se are not heritable, but they tend to run in families.

Socialization. The primary responsibility for child rearing rests with female members of the extended family. Apart from socialization occurring through government- or mission-run school programs, most takes place through informal extended family and yew contexts.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, social organization (often involving ritual) revolved around activities of the yew and its associated men's house. The yew was the largest stable unit of social organization. Since the 1950s this focus has diminished somewhat. Some men's houses have been replaced by community houses, open to all.

Political Organization. For this traditionally egalitarian society, political organization was based upon the interplay of yew-prescribed activity (including warfare and ritual) and the dictates of the tesmaypits, ascribed charismatic leaders. Ascribed leadership, based on a combination of skill, generosity, and charisma (tes), is still important today; but the government's appointment of an Asmatter who does not possess tes to a local post can create a great deal of friction. The ability of tesmaypits to develop flexible intersettlement alliances and confederations, once so important to the waging of war and peace, has been curtailed.

Social Control. Traditionally, social control largely was exerted by the various tesmaypits and was tied to allegiances that they had developed over time. While attenuated, this practice continues. Strong processes of peer sanction are operative, including gossip and the open berating of husbands by their wives. Wife beating occurs and is implicitly condoned.

Conflict. Ritualized warfare, head-hunting, and cannibalism were distinctive features of Asmat life through the early 1950s. Strikes, ambushes, and skirmishes still occur occasionally, andas with ritual warfare in the pastthey are aimed at revenge. The latent function is seen to be the rectification of cosmic and also population balance.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally an animistic society, the Asmat have developed an intricate pattern of rituals that pervades village life. Various Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, and government programs (introduced since 1953) have attenuated but not erased beliefs in a complex spiritual system based on the conception of a dualistic, balanced cosmos. Spirit entities are thought to inhabit trees, earth, and water. The spirits of deceased ancestors mingle among the living, at times aiding or hindering activities and bringing sickness. Cyclical ritualssuch as those involving the carving of elaborate ancestor (bis ) polesand rituals that accompanied headhunting raids, the death of great warriors, and ceremonies of peace and reconciliation can be related to the appeasement of the ancestral spirits.

Practitioners. Sorcerers and shamans (namer-o ) mediate between humans and the spirit world. These statuses represent visionary callings requiring long apprenticeships. Practitioners perform magic, exorcisms, and healing. Tesmaypits organize and supervise rituals, employing head singers and providing food for ceremonies. In recent years, cargo-cult leaders also have emerged.

Ceremonies. Villages celebrate major rituals on a two-to four-year cycle. Ritual warfare (and the activities that preceded and followed each battle) traditionally was understood as integral to the cosmology of dualism, reciprocity, and checks and balances. Feasting, dancing, the carving of artworks, and lengthy song cycles continue to reflect this Perspective. Mythological, legendary, and historical heroes are extolled in epic song-poems lasting several days. Initiation, papis, adult adoption, and men's house construction are also accompanied by ceremonies.

Arts. Asmat art, music, and oral literature are closely bound to ceremonial and socioeconomic cycles. The master carvers (wowipits) have been recognized as among the best of the preliterate world. Exuberance of form, shape, and color characterize ancestor (bis) poles, war shields, and canoe prows. Drums and head-hunting horns are considered to be sacred objects, although only singing is viewed as "music." Music serves as a vehicle of possession, social bonding, Political oratory, therapy, cultural transmission, and recreation.

Medicine. Most curers also are religious practitioners. They employ herbal remedies (including tobacco), sorcery, and magic. The introduction of Western medicine has been systematically promoted by missionaries but only erratically promoted by the Indonesian government. Earlier Dutch programs were deemed superior.

Death and Afterlife. Virtually all sickness and death is attributed to spiritual intervention or cosmic imbalance. Such imbalance leads to vulnerability. Upon death, family and close friends grieve openly and intensively for several hours, flinging themselves down and rolling in the mud of the river-bank. Mud is believed to mask the scent of the living from the capricious spirit of the dead. The body traditionally was bound in pandanus leaves, placed on a platform, and left to decay. Relatives retrieved certain bones; the skull of one's mother often was worn on a string around the neck or used as a pillow. The spirits of the dead enter safan, "the other side." Most Asmat now rely upon burial, with some deaths accompanied by Christian funerals.

See also Mimika


Amelsvoort, V. F. P. M. (1964). Culture, Stone Age, and Modern Medicine. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum.

Van Arsdale, Kathleen O. (1981). Music and Culture of the Bismam Asmat of New Guinea: a Preliminary Investigation. Hastings, Nebr.: Crosier Press, Asmat Museum.

Van Arsdale, Peter W., and Carol L. Radetsky (1983-1984). "Life and Death in New Guinea." Omega 14:155-169.

Voorhoeve, C. L. (1965). The Flamingo Bay Dialect of the Asmat Language. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.


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LOCATION: Indonesia (province of Irian Jaya on the island of New Guinea)


LANGUAGE: Asmat-Kamoro language family; Bahasa Indonesia (national language of Indonesia)

RELIGION: Christianity; Asmat religion based on spirit worship


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's first European contact was with the Dutch in 1623. For many years the group had few outside visitors due to their fearsome reputation. The Dutch began to settle the Asmat area in the 1920s, bringing in the first Catholic missionaries. Contact with the West has expanded steadily since the 1950s, and traditional Asmat warfare and cannibalistic practices have declined.


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 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.


In traditional Asmat societies, there were elaborate cycles of ceremonial feasting throughout the year. Feasts that celebrate deceased kinfolk are still very important celebrations. In the past, most feasting events were associated with raiding and headhunting.

Asmat who have embraced Christianity celebrate the major Christian holidays. Although Islam is the major religion of Indonesia, it not practiced among the Asmat population.


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.


Little is known about everyday Asmat life. Currently Indonesia limits the amount of time researchers may spend in Asmat country. Missionary and government influence have effected social customs such as greetings and other forms of etiquette.


Asmat houses are elevated on stilts to prevent them from flooding during the rainy season. Ordinary Asmat dwellings do not have running water or electricity. Most houses have an outside porch area where people can gather to gossip, smoke, or just watch their neighbors.


Asmat society is divided into two halves called "moieties" by anthropologists. Within a given village, a person is supposed to marry someone who belongs to the opposite moiety. After the marriage, the bride moves in with her husband's family. Extended families occupy large houses built of bamboo, sago bark, and sago frond thatching. Men sleep apart from their wives in the men's longhouse (yew). Ceremonial activities that take place inside the men's house are prohibited to women.

Wife beating was an accepted practice in the past. Unmarried women and girls are still beaten by their fathers or brothers if their behavior is considered unacceptable. A woman's property is transferred to her husband at the time of marriage, and she loses control over it.


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. The most popular attire is rugby shorts for men and floral cotton dresses for women. Men may have their noses pierced and wear wild pig or boar tusks. Both men and women paint their bodies on ceremonial occasions.


Fish and the sago palm are the staple foods of all Asmat groups. Canned meats and fish, as well as flour, tea, and sugar, have become important food items as well. A butterfly larva often found in rotting tree carcasses is an important ritual food considered a delicacy among the Asmat.


Missionaries and colonial administrations have set up various schools in the Asmat region. Schoolhouses have been built in the coastal Asmat area.


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.


The Asmat are hunters and gatherers. They hunt crocodiles and other animals, and they gather and process the pulp of the sago palm. Some also grow vegetables or raise chickens. There is a traditional division of labor along gender lines. Women are responsible for net fishing, gathering, and other domestic tasks. Men are responsible for line and weir (enclosure) fishing, hunting, gardening, and the felling of trees. The sale of woodcarvings to outsiders represents an additional source of income.


Traditionally, male competition among the Asmat was intense. This competition centered on the demonstration of male prowess through success in headhunting, acquiring fishing grounds and sago palm stands, and gathering a number of feasting partners. Males still compete in these areas, except headhunting which is now prohibited.


The Asmat region of Irian Jaya is still very isolated. Western forms of entertainment and recreation are not available.


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.


The Asmat are fighting to retain their traditional ways of life in the face of pressure by Indonesian administrators. Many Asmat have converted to Christianity and are being educated in Western-run schools. However, they have been able to exercise some influence over government policy regarding the use of their land.


Knauft, Bruce. South Coast New Guinea Cultures. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Muller, Kal. New Guinea: Journey into the Stone Age. Lincolnwood, Ill.: NTC Publishing Group, 1990.

Schneebaum, Tobias. Asmat Images: From the Collection of the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress. Minneapolis, Minn.: Crosier Missions, 1985.


Indonesian Embassy in Canada. [Online] Available, 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available, 1998.

University of Oregon. Asmat. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Indonesia. [Online] Available, 1998.

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