The approximately 65,000 Asmat people of the south-central alluvial swamps of Irian Jaya Province are descended from a Papuan racial stock. They live in villages with populations that vary from 35 to 2,000. Until the 1950s, when greater numbers of outsiders arrived, warfare, headhunting, and cannibalism were constant features of their social life. Their houses were built along the bends of rivers so that an enemy attack could be seen in advance. Houses in coastal areas in the twentieth century were generally built on pilings two or more meters high, to protect residents from daily flooding by the surging tides of the brackish rivers. In the foothills of the Jayawijaya Mountains, Asmat lived in tree houses that were five to twenty-five meters off the ground. In some areas, they also built watchtowers in trees that rose thirty meters from the ground.
The Asmat are primarily hunters and gatherers who subsist by gathering and processing the starchy pulp of the sago palm, and by fishing and hunting the occasional wild pig, cassowary, grubs, and crocodile. Although the Asmat population steadily increased since contact by missionaries and government health workers, the forest continued to yield more than an adequate supply and variety of food in the early 1990s. According to anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum, "[s]ome Asmat have learned to grow small patches of vegetables, such as string beans, and a few raise the descendants of recently imported chickens. With the introduction of a limited cash economy through the sale of logs to timber companies and carvings to outsiders, many Asmat now consider as necessities such foods as rice and tinned fish; most have also become accustomed to wearing Western-style clothing and using metal tools."
Asmat believe that all deaths--except those of the very old and very young--come about through acts of malevolence, either by magic or actual physical force. Their ancestral spirits demand vengeance for these deaths. These ancestors to whom they feel obligated are represented in large, spectacular wood carvings of canoes, shields, and in ancestor poles consisting of human figurines. Until the late twentieth century, the preferred way a young man could fulfill his obligations to his kin, to his ancestors, and to prove his sexual prowess, was to take a head of an enemy, and offer the body for cannibalistic consumption by other members of the village.
Although the first Dutch colonial government post was not established in Asmat territory until 1938, and a Catholic mission began its work there only in 1958, the pace of change in this once remote region greatly increased after the 1960s. Many Asmat in the early 1990s were enrolled in Indonesian schools and were converting to Christianity. As large timber and oil companies expanded their operations in the region, the environmental conditions of these fragile, low-lying mangrove forests were threatened by industrial waste and soil erosion. Although Asmat appeared to be gaining some national and international recognition for their artwork, this fame had not resulted, by the early 1990s, in their having any significant political input into Indonesian government decisions affecting the use of land in the traditional Asmat territory.
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