Click on an image for a closer view
Spiritual Beliefs Wood Carving
("we the tree people")
The Asmat peopleís life blood is directly related to
wood of the sago palm tree, mulberry tree, and the mangroves
of the swamps in which they live. The 60 villages,
ranging from 300 to 2000 in size and accounting for
approximately 65,000 natives, are located in the
muddy rain forests on the southwest coast of New Guinea.
They still live a
very complex ceremonial life controlled by the need to
maintain harmony between the world of the living and the
spirit world of the dead. Until the 1960s, the Asmat practiced
headhunting and cannibalism and the motifs carved in the
drums, canoes, and shields are ancestral and symbolic of
The main source of travel for the Asmat is the dugout
canoe. Smaller canoes are undecorated or have only
a simple prow decoration made by the owner of the canoe.
Asmatís spiritual beliefs center around the use of
woodcarvings in the form of: ancestor poles, shields,
canoes, drums, masks, and ancestor figures. Fumeripitsj,
"one of the mythological culture bringers" or creator, is
strongly associated with the carving of wooden figures. Fumeripitsj brings the
carved wooden figures to life through the betting of drums.
These figures are the spirits of the ancient ancestors of the Asmat
people. It is through the shield feast, canoe
feast, mask feast, and the new bachelor feast that the
Asmat celebrate and practice the ancient rituals. The
rituals are used to maintain worldly balance and
contact with the ancestors who protect and impart power
to the families.
food source of the Asmat, an indigenous, hunting, and gathering people,
is the sago palm which is eaten along with fish
and vegetables. The death of children under 5 and the
elderly is considered natural. However, a tribal member
who is killed in an untimely death either physically
or by black magic needs their spirit exhumed from
limbo. The spirits inhabits trees, earth, and water.
Through the use of wooden
carvings that represent the dead, that spirit
released into the spirit world.
Wood carving is a trade of
prestige within the Asmat
village, and the artist is referred as ďa clever manĒ.
The process of becoming a wood carver is instinctual.
Children sit and watch and are invited to create selected
motifs within a larger carving.
Ancestor Figure: Ancestor figures in the tradition
of the myth of Fumeripitsj (the creator) are created to
keep the memory of the ancestors alive. The figures
connected at the knees and elbows could not stand until
the they were brought to life during the creation
ceremony. The figure captures the spirit of the
ancestor and is placed near a sago palm. As the figure
deteriorates the spirit is "transferred to the sago
The drums are made to resemble the drums used by Fumeripitsj (the creator). The center is scraped
out, and an hourglass-shape is carved in a single piece of wood,
using a series of burning and chipping steps. Then the handle is carved and made
ornate with headhunting symbols. Covered with lizard
skin that is glued to the base with a mixture of human blood and
lime, the drum is extremely durable and beautiful.
Drum tuning is a process of holding the drum near the
fire to shrink the skin and create the right amount of
tension. The pitch of a drum is the product of the height
and width of the drum.
are two types of masks: the body mask and the conical mask. The body
mask is made from inner bark of the sacred mulberry tree and covers
the head and most of the upper body with a skirt of sago fronds.
Mask wearers assume the responsibilities of the deceased
for whom the mask is created. The mask is a cone-shaped rattan skirt that covers the body
but exposes the legs.The conical mask is a symbol of fertility.
White is made from crushed and burned mussel shells and is the
symbol for the upper world. Red is made from the earths
mud and is the symbol for "middle world where man lives". Black
symbolizing the underworld and
body hair and is made from crushed charcoal.
Shields: Shields represent ancestors and were used
in headhunting rituals to avenge the death of the
ancestors for whom the shield were named. Shields
are created from a
flat half-inch thick buttress root from a mangrove and
are decorated with powerful symbols. At the feast
of "yamas pokumbu", the spirit of the ancestor enters the
shield to impart its forces of power, fierceness, and
"Bisj" Ancestor Poles: The carving of a "bisj"
(ancestor) pole was part of a large ritual cycle
connecting warfare, death, youth initiation and
headhunting. The human figures represent specific
ancestors whom their descendents call back from the
spirit world so they can observe that the deaths of
family members have been revenged. After a
headhunting raid and many ceremonies, balance is
re-established and the souls of the dead can move to
Safan, the spirit world. Headhunting ended in
the 1970's, but the ceremonies are still held to help
maintain harmony with the spirit world.
are carved from an inverted mangrove tree with the supporting root carved in an openwork pattern.
Figures of animals, fertility symbols and canoes are
often found carved on the ancestor poles.
Asmat Soul-Ship ("Wuramon"):
Soul-ships are bottomless wooden dugout canoes used to
hold a variety of spirits. The spirit passengers
represent recently deceased ancestors while the
bird-like figures, "ambirak", are dangerous female
spirits that live in rivers. A carved turtle, "mbu",
symbolizing fertility is always found in the center.
past, soul-ships were used in a ceremony to promise
vengeance for the dead. Today, they are mainly
used to honor the ancestors during male initiation