Deep within the inaccessible jungle of the southeast Indonesian province of Papua, about 150 kilometres inland from the Arafura Sea, lives the Korowai tribe – a clan totally isolated from the rest of the world. They are hunter-gatherers living in a small society of traditional family ties who need to share all they have in order to survive. Until their discovery by a Dutch missionary in 1974, the Korowai had hardly any contact with the outside world.
Korowai people live in tree houses ranging in height from 6 to 12
meters, but some are as high as 35 meters above the ground. Usually the
houses are built on a single tree but frequently the base of the house
consists of several living trees, and additional support is derived from
wooden poles. These tree houses protect families not only against
swarms of mosquitoes below, but also ward off annoying neighbours and
build a tree house, a sturdy Banyan tree is selected to function as the
central pole. The top of the tree is then removed. The floor frame,
made of branches, is constructed first and then covered with sago palm.
The walls and roof is made with the same leaves the frame of the house
consists of branches fastened with rattan bindings. The flooring must be
quite strong as the tree houses often accommodate as many as a dozen
people. A dry tree trunk with notches is hung from the bottom of the
tree house in order to get up to the house. This ladder shakes with each
step and warns the inhabitants that a visitor is on his way up.
Korowai are excellent hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists who
practice shifting cultivation. Since the early 1990s some of them got
involved with tour companies selling tours into the Korowai region and
generating moderate cash income this way. To consider, they are same
people who, less than two decades ago, never knew a world existed
outside their jungle.
During the 90s outsiders started
exploiting the Korowai region in search of the valuable gaharu
(Agarwood). In 1997, 1 kg of gaharu collected by a local Papuan would
have a value of about $4.00 when sold to a trader; the gaharu was
eventually sold to Middle Eastern and European market for about $1000 a
kilo. Gaharu also fuelled a rapid trade in prostitution into the jungles
of Papua which has helped contribute to the current AIDS epidemic
throughout Papua. Eventually this trade came to an end in 1999.
documentaries have been made about the Korowai people and countless
articles written. In 1993, a film crew documented the Korowai tree house
construction and the practice of cannibalism as a form of criminal
justice. In 2011, the Korowai tribe was shown in the BBC documentary Human Planet.
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