The Dani and Lani Tribes
West Papua (Irian Jaya)

Wild and rugged ridges of Jayawijaya mountains, forming the central massif of western Papua, were long considered to be uninhabited. Only in 1938 a pilot accidentally flying over saw beneath him large Baliem Valley dotted with fields and circular huts. Some time later the first plane landed on the lake Habema and the first contact with the Dani people was made. But it was only during the 1950s that the Baliem Valley started to open up to the outside world and the first missionaries arrived, since 1969 followed by the Indonesian ’transmigrasi’. That was the beginning of their end.

Two Dani men selling wood

The Dani at that time didn't know metals, used only stone or bone tools, grew sweet potatoes in the fertile Baliem Valley soil and kept pigs. They were feared warriors and ritual cannibals. The first missionaries learned about that the hard way.

Now, some 50 years later, the Baliem Valley and the whole west Papua is ruled by Indonesia. The most fertile land has been taken by the migrants from Java and Sulawesi, and also the sprawling Indonesian administrative town of Wamena has been build there. All resistance was brutally suppressed - what could the Dani do with their bows and arrows against a modern army? These days most of them succumbed to the pressure from the government and missionaries, and had became ’civilized’. They are allowed to display their culture to the tourists once a year during the Baliem Festival. Only the older Dani still keep the tradition and they are disappearing fast. Once proud warriors now offer souvenirs in the tourist hotels and allow themselves to be photographed for money, while the value of it they don't really understand.

Dani warrior mummy

It is worth mentioning that the only ’dress’ of the Dani and Lani men is a ’horim’, better known under the Indonesian name ’koteka’ - a penis gourd which is held in place by two loops of fibre, one around the scrotum and the other one around the chest or abdomen. Dani koteka is usually narrow, long and pointed, while Lani prefer shorter but very broad koteka which is open at the end and can be used to store tobacco or money inside it ...

The Lani are close neighbours of the Dani. Their territory stretches from the north-west corner of the Baliem Valley towards the west over several mountain ridges. Lani are traditionally more peaceful and were therefore more open to the missionaries' efforts than the more fierce Dani and Yali. We didn't expect to find much of their tradition still there on our expedition into their territory. But we were pleasantly surprised when we met several younger men wearing proudly their koteka. We also experienced their friendliness and hospitality. They often offered us their food expecting nothing in return, sometimes it was an excellent local pineapple, on another occasion expensive - flown in - rice, once they even killed and fried a chicken for us (before we could stop them ... not only because we are vegetarians ...).

Dani and I are heading to Wamena

On our trek over the high ridge to Ilaga we had an unexpected but unforgettable experience. We went on our own, without a guide or porters who demanded ten times more money than is usual, because they are used to wealthy expeditions coming to climb Carstenzs Pyramid. On the second day we met a Lani family in the forest going in the same direction. They had a few pigs with them as a dowry to pay for the bride. Climbing the steep ridge over slippery rocks or through deep mud was very exhausting and our new Papuan friends were helping us to find the best way. They themselves are extremely strong and accustomed to the difficult mountain terrain but their pigs were struggling a bit and were slowing them down.

The evening caught us all still high up on the mountain. The night was going to be rainy and very cold at the altitude of around 3000 meters. We had our tent and sleeping bags but the Lani only had the same tattered wet T-shirts they wore all day. They collected a huge pile of wet wood under and found an overhanging rock where they lit the fire with amazing proficiency (the night before we couldn't get the fire going even after three hours), then huddled around it. They baked some sweet potatoes, laughed happily and then began to sing. They invited us to spend the night with them near the fire and we quite liked the idea – their good spirits and carelessness with which they take the challenges of the harsh Papuan mountains were letting us to forget our weariness. Their singing, and the glow of the flames on their faces under the rock, were creating an incredibly magical feeling. If it wasn't for their T-shirts, the scene could have easily happened hundreds
or maybe thousands of years ago .....

There we once again felt how our over-civilized lives are distant from this true and original form of humanity.

Photogallery Dani and Lani


From my archives


Strange but true


Thanks to

I would like to thank all the Dani and Lani who still keep their tradition, despite the presure of the modern world, for being who
they are.