Introducing The Asmat Region
The Asmat region is a massive, remote, low-lying area of muddy, snaking rivers, mangrove forests and tidal swamps, where many villages, including their streets, are built entirely on stilts. The Asmat people, formerly feared for their headhunting and cannibalism, are now most celebrated for their woodcarvings – the most spectacular of Papuan art. It's a fascinating area to explore but it requires time, money and patience. The one time when more than a handful of visitors appears here is during the annual Asmat Cultural Festival (Festival Budaya Asmat), five or six days of woodcarving exhibits, canoe races and traditional dance, song and dress at Agats in October.
Though Christianity has a strong hold among the Asmat today, many older beliefs and practices survive. All Asmat villages still have their jeu (men's house), a long building adorned with carvings where young men sleep from adolescence till marriage, and married men sleep some nights. These are intriguing places to visit if you can get yourself invited.
Asmat woodcarvings were originally made only for ritual use. The famous bis poles of interlocked human and animal figures are carved from mangrove trees and can be 6m or more tall. Traditionally they were carved as objects where the spirits of slain warriors could reside until they were liberated by the killing and eating of enemies. Decorated shields, used in funeral ceremonies, also represent and avenge dead relatives. Asmat people still revere their dead ancestors and may keep their skulls as sources of spiritual strength.