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Tree People   Spiritual Beliefs   Wood Carving   Ancestor Figure   Drums   Masks
Colors   Shields   "Bisj" Poles   Asmat Soul-Ship

The Asmat ("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 rituals. 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.

  

 

 

The 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 maintain contact with the ancestors who protect and impart power to the families.
The main 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 is 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 palm".



Drums: 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.


Masks:
There 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.  

 


Colors:  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 invincibility.


Asmat "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. 

"Bisj" 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.

In the 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 ceremonies.    




 

   

Reference Sources:

 Schneebaum, Tobias, Embodied Spirits: Ritual Carvings of Asmat. 1990. Peabody Museum of Salem.
The World of Asmat, Singapore Zoological Gardens, 2003, http://www.szgdocent.org/ff/f-asmat.htm
 
 

 

Design and Layout by Judith A. Wolfe and Cathy Moore-Jansen, Collection Development, Ablah Library
Wichita State University Libraries, 1845 Fairmount Wichita, KS 67260-0068 Tel: 316-978-3481
http://library.wichita.edu/
Images courtesy of Jerry Martin, Director of Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology, Dept. of Anthropology, Wichita State University