New Guinea is the second largest island in the world after Greenland. It belongs to Oceania geographically, but the western half is the territory of Indonesia, an Asian country. The aboriginal people on the island are Melanesians, also known as Papuans.
The isolated rainforest environment makes this area still one of the most closed and underdeveloped areas in the world. If you search for “New Guinea Island” on the Internet, the first thing you will see is probably all kinds of strange rumors. The most fascinating among them is the legend that there are still many “cannibal” tribes on the island.
Regardless of whether the “cannibals” rumors are true or false, the island of New Guinea is indeed one of the best-preserved areas of indigenous tribal culture in the world today, and many tribal residents still wear traditional costumes daily. My friend and I made a special trip to the Baliem Valley, the hinterland of the island of New Guinea, Indonesia, hoping to take a trip deep into the tribe to uncover the mysteries in our happiness.
Wamena: a tribal town in the deep mountains
The small town of Wamena is the undoubted center of the Ballem Valley region and the starting point for all hikes. To get here, you have to take a plane from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and after flying all night, then change to a small propeller plane at Jayapura, the “transportation hub” on the island. Like most areas on the island, Wamena has no roads to connect to the outside world, so airplanes are the only way to get here, apart from walking through hundreds of kilometers of jungle.
This is by no means a popular destination. The only formal hotel in town, the conditions are probably only “comparable” to the small hotel next to the Chinese railway station, even without Wi-Fi and cell phone signals, but the price is not cheap-it costs $50 a night. Here, we met two foreign tourists who were only seen on this trip. They had just returned from the valley on foot and were about to leave. This means that it is very likely that in the next 3 days of hiking, the two of us will be the only tourists in the entire Baliem Valley.
We tried to find the difference here in the town, but apart from the people, we couldn’t find much difference. Residents wear ordinary modern clothes, while restaurants sell Padang rice that can be found everywhere in Indonesia. This implies that at least the residents of the town have already been assimilated into the modern world. If you insist on finding any difference, it is that most of the residents here believe in Protestantism instead of Islam, which most Indonesians believe in.
Theoretically, the valley hike can be completed entirely by public transportation and mobile phone maps. However, in order to ensure safety and to learn as much as possible about the local culture in places where the language is not fluent, we chose to follow the guide Jonas recommended by the “Lonely Planet” travel guide.
Even the relatively tall men’s room has a very low and gloomy interior, with the ceiling only about 1 meter high.
There is a clear difference between the women’s room (Ebeai) (left) and the men’s room (Honai)
The way to find him was very strange. The book said that he was going to a printing shop and asked the Japanese boss to help him. We did, and Jonas arrived immediately, so fast that we hadn’t even had time to figure out why a Japanese should open a print shop in the Papua rainforest? The hike for 3 days and 2 nights, including all the expenses, costs more than RMB 2,000 per person. This price is not cheap.
Dani wearing “Koteka”
After enduring the dilapidation and noise of the room all night, we finally waited for Jonas. To be precise, it was Jonas’s “team”: he himself and a porter were responsible for accompany us throughout the next three days; in addition, he brought a car and a full-time driver. We were stunned by this “VVIP luxury configuration”, the money is really worth it!
The first day is not a hike, but Jonas takes us to see the local people’s life. The first destination is a market in the suburbs. At first glance, it seems to be no different from other markets in Indonesia. One can look closely and discover that this place is completely spontaneously formed by the surrounding residents. It is a primitive trading place similar to “bartering things”. Therefore, the products sold are also dazzling and varied. Laptops and smartphones, like bananas, were randomly placed on dirty chopping boards for sale, so we had to doubt their source—in fact, just the night before, a friend’s mobile phone was almost destroyed in the town. The locals snatched it away.
The aboriginal people of the Baliem Valley are called Dani (Dani), and there are about 25,000 people today. Residents outside the cities and towns still continue the most traditional way of life: they live in a courtyard called Lima in two to three families, help each other everywhere, and lead a half-family and half-collective life. In the courtyard, every adult has his own wooden thatched house. The round house where men live is called Honai (“hon” means “man” and “ai” means “house”); while women live with their children The rectangular house, named Ebeai (“ebe” means “woman”), is usually one size smaller than Honai.
Even the relatively tall men’s room, the interior is very low and gloomy, the ceiling is only about 1 meter high, and normal adults can’t stand at all. However, this uncomfortable shape provides a unique feature on the earthquake-prone New Guinea Good stability. Honai, located in the center of the courtyard, is the house of the patriarch. He is the most prestigious person in the entire courtyard. The Dani still practice polygamy, so there are often more rooms for women than for men.
Men in the tribe in traditional costumes. The two men with white cloth hanging on their chests are recognized as the most prestigious leaders in the tribe.
Piggy in the courtyard
Traditional earthen stove. The guide Jonas and the chef are preparing dinner for us
The largest and most spacious house in the courtyard is a dining room for everyone and also serves as a “children’s classroom”. In the Dani culture, everyone must sleep separately (even husband and wife), but everyone must eat together. There are also thatched huts that are used to store sweet potatoes and other food-sweet potatoes are the most important staple food of the Dani.
Pigs have an irreplaceable position in the Dani culture. They even live in the same courtyard as people. Even the pig pen has its own name—Wamai (“wam” means “pig”). In the eyes of the Dani, pigs can be described as “full of treasure”: pork is edible, pig blood is used for sacrifice, and pig bones and pig tails are excellent decorations. In conflicts between tribes, the pig can also act as the best “peace messenger”. The marriage of the Dani is also inseparable from pigs. It is said that 4 to 5 pigs can be “traded” for a wife.
What is more peculiar than the house is the clothes of the Dani. They do not regard female breasts as taboo, so women only have a grass skirt to cover their bodies, and men even “do not wear clothes” at all, and only use a long sleeve called “Koteka” to cover their penis. Many ethnic groups in New Guinea have the custom of wearing Koteka, and their style can even serve as a basis for identifying different ethnic groups. But most ethnic groups have one thing in common: the longer the Koteka, the higher the status of the person. Don’t think that they only wear this in front of tourists. On the back of the hike, I saw men (mostly old people) wearing traditional headdresses and Koteka walking casually in front of our group.
There is no cell phone signal, no grid coverage, not to mention tap water and gas.
In the 1970s, the Indonesian government tried to get rid of this “bad habit” in their eyes. They airdropped colorful modern costumes into the tribe by plane. Although the move successfully “brought over” some young people, the vast majority of old people still go their own way and stick to tradition. Later, the government had to use administrative means to stipulate that people must “wear normally” when entering government agencies and schools. Therefore, fewer and fewer young people still retain the original custom, and this unique tradition may soon disappear.
Do cannibals really eat people?
Every time they visit a courtyard, the residents will silently move out a blanket of handicrafts, ranging from headdresses and pig bone carvings to Koteka. But no one has ever tried to sell to us, just silently there, like a mysterious ritual, even if we know that there are only two of us as tourists.
Although most children here have access to basic school education, many adults (especially the elderly and women) still lack the most basic literacy skills. But this seems to vary from person to person-we even met a tribal woman who complained to us in English about her husband’s neglect of her and children. I really want to know, where did she learn English?
But we did ask where the guide Jonas learned English from. He said that 30 years ago, he accidentally received a western tourist who came here for an “expedition”. At that time, he only spoke a few words of English. Later, Jonas learned that the man was actually the author of “Lonely Planet” back then. As he was written into the world’s most famous travel guide, more and more tourists came here. In the receptions, Jonas not only mastered fluent English, he even built a house in Wamena City, with a peacock in the backyard as a pet! When he met us, his biggest worry was that his young son was addicted to smartphone games. “That’s too bad for his eyes!” he said angrily.
The biggest highlight of the day was a “war show” that could be fake. When a dozen men in traditional costumes stood in front of us, I thought it was just another “tribal fashion show.” But then they were divided into two teams and practiced with real swords and guns-even if the audience was only the two of us.
The conflicts between the Dani tribes were usually not for the purpose of conquering the city, but for humiliating the enemy, so killing the opponent was not their main purpose. But in the performance, I did see the “dead” enemy being carried out of the battlefield by the victor. I asked Jonas, will they be eaten? Jonas smiled and said that at least in the last few decades, he had never heard of such a thing.
In fact, some tribes on the island of New Guinea did have the custom of eating human corpses, and even the “Kuru disease,” which once caused prion infections, spread widely. But it only exists as a traditional ritual, and the objects of food are usually either dead relatives or the corpses of enemies found on the battlefield. There has never been evidence that they will hunt and kill other humans specifically for the sake of food (after all, killing people and eating meat is much cheaper than raising pigs).
After discovering that “cannibalism” was the main culprit of Kuru disease in the 1950s, most of the tribes that remained this custom gradually abandoned this tradition.
Although the Dani have long ceased to eat people, another traditional custom has been retained-making mummies. When Jonas said to see “Mummy” (mummy), I thought he meant to talk about some sacred woman in the family (Mummy?). After all, how can there be mummies in such a hot and humid environment?
Jonas delivered a delicious breakfast in time
However, the Dani who worshiped their ancestors left their remains in a clever way—smoke. Perhaps they got inspiration from the preservation of pork: when the sacred old man in the family died, they would smoke it in a special house until the body was completely dehydrated. Although this custom is no longer prevalent, there are indeed some “smoked mummies” with a history of hundreds of years in the village, which is amazing.
Indulge in the original ecology of the Baliem Valley
For the next two days, we walked through the breathtaking scenery of the Baliem Valley. This is not a difficult hike, but Jonas’s carefully designed route can just connect the scenery and humanities along the way. Whenever we go to a high place, we can have a panoramic view of the magnificent valley; and when we are at the bottom of the valley, we often need to cross the thrilling single-plank bridge or suspension bridge, which makes people really feel the rush of the tropical river valley. The villages passing by along the way allow us to meet the locals at close range.
The government has built modern schools in the valley, but the infrastructure in the village is still extremely lacking. There is no cell phone signal, no grid coverage, not to mention tap water and gas. Villagers living in traditional huts can only use solar panels and batteries to meet night lighting.
The Dani’s kitchen still continues the tradition of earthen stove and firewood. Every time the sun sets, you can see the smoke rising from the villages all over the valley. The caring Jonas even arranged a “earth stove cooking experience” for us. Setting up a stove and lighting the firewood, this seemingly simple process, in fact requires great experience. The protagonist of the cuisine is naturally the sweet potato and pork that the locals love most. Jonas did not use mountain pork that the locals eat, but instead used a box of canned luncheon meat. He explained apologetically that the local wild pork has not been quarantined, and there may be germs and parasites that foreign tourists cannot resist.
That night, we lived in one of the most traditional huts. Two mattresses and a mosquito net are all of them. Throughout the whole night, the mountain breeze slapped the open wooden door, making a screaming cry. With the mosquito nets, the giant flying insects were always buzzing, and I didn’t fall asleep for almost a minute. I want to swipe my phone, but I don’t have the slightest signal. I can only silently miss the comfort of modern society.
But for the villagers here, as well as all those living in the tribes of New Guinea, this is the daily routine. As tourists, we can walk into (or even sleep in) their huts and cook a meal in the most primitive way, but can we really understand their hearts?
We who traveled in the Dani village seemed to be very close to them, but in fact they were too far apart. However, how long can this state of “independence from the world be maintained”? Their children have put on modern clothes and have entered modern schools. Perhaps in just a few decades, we will only see Koteka in museums and tourist attractions.
Since we couldn’t sleep, we simply got up early and climbed to the top of the mountain behind the village. From the beginning of the morning mist, we waited until the sea of clouds drifted away, which also let the “crazy thinking” of the previous night disappear.
On the way back, I asked Jonas, what do I want my children to do in the future? He smiled: “Of course it’s going to a big city for development!”
Even the most traditional Dani parents understand that allowing their children to accept a more advanced modern culture and allowing them to develop in towns or even big cities in the future is undoubtedly a “better” option for them. But how can the Dani people and even the various aboriginal tribes pass on the traditions that have lasted for thousands of years? Allowing them to “die” and then moving into the museum as a whole is a practice in many places, but it is obviously not the best option. But is it better to let the children continue to live in huts where there is no electricity, no internet, and no benefits for human social development?