Before writing about the Korowai,
I have to say this:

The Korowai are one of the most endangered tribes that I know. They need help urgently. Their traditional culture, which developed over thousands of years and has allowed them to survive in the harsh environment of the rainforest, is right now disappearing day by day.

The Korowai territory is basically surrounded by missionary villages, whose purpose has been and still is to destroy this unique culture and the Korowai identity, changing them into uprooted beggers. The missionaries themselves, with one exception, are now gone from the area, but have been replaced by ’trained’ natives.

Apart from that, the greatest current threat for the Korowai are the tourists. I do not mean ethnographers or photographers who are trying to capture and document the last fragments of these beautiful cultures in an educated and sensitive way. These are rare.

Korowai warriors

In recent years, the Korowai and Kombai have become the targets of reckless, unscrupulous, arrogant and sensation-hungry tourists who have no respect for anything. It is shocking that it's now possible to pay for a trip to visit the Korowai or Kombai on a two-week holiday! And so is the existence of the guides, people who probably used to go to the Korowai with respect in the past themselves, to learn something from them, who sadly today have no problem taking tourists there for their profit, well aware of the damage it will cause. The problem is that in these fragile communities even just a few tourist groups a year can have (and will have) very destructive effects and will cause irreparable damage to the culture and thinking of these people.

Lately, whenever it comes to this subject, I am often confronted: ”But you also go to them, you change them too!” What can I say to the people who have become used to recklessly ’consuming’ everything, even the Korowai culture? After all, mass tourism is a product of consumerism (it is not enough to have everything, now is necessary to go everywhere), and spending the holidays looking for ’primitive’ tribes is the culmination of this trend, the latest fashion.

There is a huge difference between going to the Korowai (or anywhere else) because of a lifelong interest and study of these cultures, and paying for an organised tour to see the ’tourist attraction’ - that is wrong. The Korowai and their culture are not an attraction for tourist's enjoyment! It would also be a mistake to believe that the two weeks with a travel operator result in the same knowledge as that acquired during many years in the forests, although that is exactly what most tourists like to think.

Those of you who have been there already - how much did you learn? Has the experience changed you anyhow? What have you documented? And most importantly, why did you go there?

One extreme example for all: I saw with my own eyes a Belgian family with two children (about 12 and 15 years old) getting on a small plane in Wamena, headed to the Kombai with an American tour guide. They were proud that they were taking 600 kilos of rice and plenty of clothes to those poor, primitive and backward people ..... They have totally and irretrievably damaged the system and thinking of the entire clan.

The Korowai and Kombai Tribes
West Papua (Irian Jaya) - 2009

The Korowai and Kombai are neighbouring tribes who have been enemies as long as they can remember. They inhabit a small area in the vast lowland-rainforests of southern Papua. They live in small family clans and are hunter-gatherers, dependent entirely on their forest, where they find everything they need for living.

Making of sago

Perhaps surprisingly, the tropical rainforests of New Guinea are poor in mammals or any other large animals. Apart from bats and tree kangaroos - the only really native mammals on this second-largest island in the world - there is also the Southern Cassowary, a large ostrich-like bird, and wild pigs which probably arrived in New Guinea only relatively recently from the ships visiting the coast. From there they spread into the interior where they became an important part of life and culture for the people throughout the island.

Domesticated pigs are kept by every clan, and the wild ones are hunted in the jungle. However, the success rate isn't very high and domestic pigs are so valuable that they are usually only killed and eaten at tribal ceremonies, or when other food is hard to get. This can happen when hunting is not possible due to the lasting torrential rains.

Traditionally (un)dressed Korowai

But the staple food of Korowai and Kombai is sago - a kind of flour obtained by a very laborious method from the pulp of the sago palm. Stone axes are often used to cut the palm's wood, even today, although in recent years modern machetes, brought by Indonesians, are becoming more common. Also, a great delicacy are ’sago worms’, larvae of a large weevil beetle feeding on rotting
sago palm remains.

Until very recently, both tribes were much-feared warriors and traditionally ritual cannibals. To defend themselves against attacks from neighbouring clans, they built their houses high in the trees, and so became known as ’tree people’. Tall tree houses (rumah tinggi in Indonesian) also help against malarial mosquitoes which mostly stay closer to the ground.

The traditional way how both tribes ’dress’ is unique and very interesting. The Korowai push their penises inside and wrap the rest with a leaf, or cover it using hard shell of forest fruit. On the other hand the Kombai prefer to use a hornbill's beak, or sometimes even wear a ’koteka’ (penis gourd), like people do in the Jayawijaya mountains, only shorter; possibly because a long one would be in the way when hunting in the dense jungle ...

We walked to the Korowai over the main Jayawijaya mountains from Wamena in the Baliem Valley. We'd attempted this crossing twice already in recent years – but unsuccessfully. The third time we succeeded, but it took us over five weeks of continuous march through the jungles and incredibly difficult mountains.

In a Korowai home

But even this far into the jungle things change very quickly. The Korowai long resisted missionaries, and even today there still are clans that don´t let anyone into their territory. But most others put on T-shirts and are lured to come out of the jungle into the newly built villages. Forest around such villages is quickly exhausted because it is unable to feed so many people - traditionally they would live in small family clans spread over a large area. People in the villages are thus becoming dependent on food brought in by missionary planes.

Here is an unbelievable story one Dutch missionary who lives there told us. His father worked with the Kombai years ago; after some time the Kombai chiefs came to him and said: ”We did everything as you told us, we dress up, go to church, we stopped our rituals .....
So when are you going to give us your magic? Where are all those planes full of food and nice things which we don't understand or even know what they are for?”

How do you explain that there is no such magic, when all they can see is that their missionary is obviously not working very much and everything he needs is magically flown to him? These people have no idea that outside their beautiful jungle there is another world full of people, noise, pollution and rubbish, a world where nothing is shared.

The idea of high-rise buildings, cars, mobile phones and computers is as abstract for the Korowai and Kombai people as an invasion from another galaxy might be for us ...

An interesting thought came to me when I was photographing those beautiful Korowai warriors: What would happen if the oil dried out suddenly? Our Western world would collapse, while the Korowai wouldn't even notice .....


Korowai - Expedition 2011

We returned to the Korowai for the fourth time in November 2011. Initially, we considered crossing the mountains again, but in the end we decided not to do so because the chances of ’not making it’ were high. Our Papuan friends told us: ”Your main goal is to reach the Korowai? Then don't go over the mountains!” Given our previous experience this seemed as a very good advice, and so we trekked into the lowland rain-forests. However, this is not easy either because there are some major rivers in the way which we had to cross. It often rains and the rivers flood regularly.

When we arrived to the edge of the Korowai territory, we set off in search of a clan we visited two years ago. Surprisingly, we found them in a different place than the last time because the clan had moved. It was a truly amazing encounter, after more than two years. They were still beautiful and proud people, some of the last ones keeping the tradition ...

Then we walked across the Korowai territory and, for the first time, we also entered the region which is occasionaly visited by the tourists. On our previous expeditions we were avoiding it, but now we wanted to get an idea of the whole area. The last time we arrived to the Korowai territory from the Kombai. That was where we met the aforementioned Dutch missionary. This time he was not there, as he went with his family on vacation. But the forest across the river, from which we emerged two years ago, was gone. Also in the Korowai itself, large pieces of forest had disappeared and bananas and plantains were planted instead. When I saw it I felt very sad. I asked our Korowai guides: ”It seems as if you, Korowai, don't like your forest anymore.” Their response shocked me: ”No, we don't.” ”But what are you going to eat?” ”Bananas”, was their concise reply.

Korowai hunters

What happened to the, once proud, hunters of the forest, who lived there in complete harmony with nature for thousands of years, totally independent of the outside world? In such a long time they hadn't exterminated a single creature, hadn't destroyed their environment, their forest.

This year it was for the very first time that we have seen not only big sections of Korowai rain-forest disappearing but also many abandoned tree houses. We were explained that many people went to the missionary or tourist villages. About the affect of tourism I already spoke in the introduction. In the area where the tourists arrive most often we have seen that the Korowai even started to build boardwalks over the muddy sections, shelters with chairs and tables; and also exceptionally tall houses - those were used before mainly as a protection against enemies during tribal wars and are not normally built anymore.

Moreover, the Indonesian goverment is building cities right in the middle of the rain-forest and recently, they have even begun to build a road towards the Korowai. It will open entire area and the Korowai with their rain-forest will have to disappear forever from the path of the ’development’ .....

Photogallery Korowai

Photogallery Kombai


From my archives


Strange but true


Thanks to

Many thanks to our good friend Yelius from Wamena for all his hard work and for being always on our side while on our expedition to the Korowai and Kombai in the lowland rainforests of Papua.
Also to Peter Van Vries for his invaluable advice.

Terima Kasih

Yelius, terima kasih banyak, teman kami, untuk semua. Jalan jalan ke Korowai bagus sekali. Terima Kasih.