Life

The Truth About “Cannibals”

  New Guinea is the second largest island in the world after Greenland. There are all kinds of strange rumors on the island, the most mysterious of which is the legend about the “cannibal” tribe. So, do cannibals really eat people? What kind of life do they live? A hiking trip that unraveled mysteries.
  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 the Asian country Indonesia (Indonesia for short). The island’s isolated rainforest environment makes it one of the most isolated and underdeveloped areas in the world.
   There are all kinds of strange rumors in the island of New Guinea, the most mysterious of which is the legend about the “cannibal” tribe. For this reason, my friend (Zhang Kan) and I made a special trip to the hinterland of New Guinea – the Baliem Valley in Indonesia, hoping to unravel various mysteries with a trip deep into the tribe.
  The Dani people with peculiar customs
   In order to ensure safety and to learn as much as possible about the local culture in places where the language is difficult, we chose to follow the local guide Jonas (transliteration). We headed to Baliem Valley. The aborigines here are called the Dani people, with about 25,000 people. They still continue the most traditional way of life: they live in a courtyard named Lima in units of 2 to 3 families, living a half-family and half-collective life.
   In the courtyard, each adult has his own wooden thatched hut. The round house for men is called Honai (meaning man’s room), while the rectangular house for women and children is called Ebeai (meaning woman’s room). One size smaller than Honai. In fact, the interior of Honai is very low, the ceiling is only about 1 meter high, and normal adults cannot stand at all. However, this structure provides excellent stability to the earthquake-prone island of New Guinea.
   The man’s room in the middle of the courtyard is the house of the patriarch, who is the most prestigious person in the entire courtyard. The Dani people still practice polygamy, so the number of women’s rooms is often more than that of men. The largest and most spacious house in the courtyard is a dining room for everyone, and it is also used as a “children’s classroom”. In Dani culture, everyone sleeps separately (even couples), but eats together. In addition, there are thatched huts used to store sweet potatoes (the most important staple of the Dani) and other foods.
   Pigs have an irreplaceable position in Dani culture. They even live in the same courtyard as humans, and even the pigsty has its own name—Wamai. In the eyes of the Dani people, pigs are treasures: pork can be eaten, pig blood is used for sacrifices, and pig bones and pig tails are excellent decorations. Pigs can also act as “peace messengers” in times of conflict between tribes. Marriage of the Dani people is also inseparable from pigs. It is said that 4 to 5 pigs can be “exchanged” for a wife.
   Stranger than the houses are the clothes of the Dani. Here, women only have a grass skirt to cover their bodies, and men only use a long sleeve called “Koteka” to cover their penis. In fact, many ethnic groups have the custom of wearing Koteka, and their styles can even become the basis for identifying different ethnic groups. In addition, different nationalities have one thing in common: the longer the Koteka, the higher the status of the person.
   In the 1970s, the Indonesian government tried to get rid of this “bad habit” and used airplanes to drop modern clothes into the Dani tribe. Although this move successfully “brought” some young people, the vast majority of old people still adhere to the tradition. Later, the government had to use administrative means to stipulate that Dani people must wear normal clothes when entering government agencies and schools.
  Do “cannibals” really eat people?
   During the visit to the tribe, the biggest highlight is watching a “war show” that can be fake and real. We saw more than a dozen men in traditional costumes standing in front of us, and then they were divided into two teams and practiced with real knives and guns. It is reported that conflicts between Dani tribes are usually not for the purpose of capturing a city, but just to humiliate the enemy.
   In the performance, I saw the “dead” enemy being carried out of the field by the victor. I asked Jonas, “Are they going to be eaten?” Jonas laughed and said he hadn’t heard of such a thing, at least in recent decades.
   In fact, some tribes on the island of New Guinea did have the custom of eating human corpses, usually the dead relatives or the corpses of enemies found on the battlefield. However, there has never been evidence that they specifically hunted humans for food. Since the discovery in the 1950s that cannibals can be infected with prions, which cause kuru, the tribe has gradually abandoned the tradition.
   Although the Dani have long since ceased cannibalism, another traditional practice has survived – mummification. When the elders of the family die, they will smoke them in a special house until the remains are completely dehydrated. Although the practice is no longer in vogue, some tribes still have some amazing “smoke mummies” that have been around for hundreds of years.
  Indulge in the original ecology of the Baliem Valley
   After that , we walked through the Baliem Valley to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Whenever we go to a high place, we can have a panoramic view of the magnificent valley. When we are at the bottom of the valley, we often need to cross the thrilling single-plank bridge or suspension bridge, so that people can really feel the rapid water flow.
   The government has built modern schools in the valley, but the infrastructure in the tribe is still extremely lacking. The Dani people living in traditional huts can only use solar panels and batteries for night lighting. The Dani people’s kitchen still continues the tradition of clay stove and firewood. Every time the sun goes down, you can see the curling smoke rising from the tribes all over the valley. As tourists, we can walk into (and even sleep in) their huts and cook a meal in the most primitive way.
  Although most children in the tribe have received basic school education, many adults (especially the elderly and women) still lack the most basic reading and writing skills.
   On the way back, I asked Jonas: “What do you want your children to do in the future?” He smiled and said, “Of course, go to a big city to develop!” It can be seen that letting children go to a big city to accept more advanced modern culture, It is undoubtedly the choice that parents want most. But in the various aboriginal tribes, how should the traditions that have lasted for thousands of years be passed on? It is the practice in many places to let them “die” and then move them into the museum as a whole, but this is obviously not the best choice. Hopefully, one day in the future, we can find a solution that has the best of both worlds.

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