The Korowai people live in 50-metre tree houses as an officially recognized community of ‘tree-dwellers’


Deep in the dense forests of Ndeiram Kabur River, among 500 centimeters of annual rainfall, deadly microbes and glistening eyes in the night, remains a slice of the world relatively unsullied by the groping western gaze.

Korowai people have lived here completely isolated from the developed world.

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Photo By: George Steinmetz

Korowai people have lived here completely isolated from the developed world, even 40 years after their first contact with American anthropologist Peter Van Arsdale. Despite this fact, large portions of their approximately 3,000 members still have never seen a white person, or laleo (meaning “ghost-demon”), as they are called.

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The Korowai people are some of the most skilled architects in regards to the use of their own environment. Known for their towering tree houses – sometimes up to 50 metres in length – the Korowai people’s structures are as ingenious as they are structurally practical. From the thick ironwood stilts designed to defend against burning to the clay-coated palm leaf floor covering that can quickly be hacked away and thrown through a hole in the event of a fire, the hardwood fortresses are as aesthetically pleasing as they are structurally effective.

The Korowai people are some of the most skilled architects in regards to the use of their own environment.

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But the Korowai people are infamous for another reason, and it’s slightly grimmer than their Ewok-esque proclivity towards giant tree houses. The Korowai people are reported to still practice modern-day cannibalism in very rare circumstances. In a 2006 documentary for Smithsonian Magazine, reporter Paul Raffaele got up close and personal with the Korowai people, venturing deep into their territory of West Papua in Indonesia. After they came across Boas, a member of the Korowai people trying to get back home, they asked him about the Korowai’s cannibalism practice, or the killing of khakhua – male witches.

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Boas explained through a translator. Khakhua are thought to disguise themselves as a relative or friend of someone they want to kill. “The khakhua eats the victim’s insides while he sleeps,” Boas explains, “replacing them with fireplace ash so the victim does not know he’s being eaten. The khakhua finally kills the person by shooting a magical arrow into his heart.”

“Usually, the [dying] victim whispers to his relatives the name of the man he knows is the khakhua,” Boas told Raffaele. “He may be from the same or another tree house.” Once a khakhua has been indicated, Boas says they are killed and eaten by the affected tribe, and possibly some neighbouring ones if there is extra meat.

Later, while at an intermittent hut set up by Dutch missionaries for travellers, Raffaele’s guide, Kornelius Kembaren, introduces him to Kilikili, a member of the Korowai notorious for killing khakhua. Later Kilikili’s brother Bailom, produces a human skull from a bag. “It’s Bunop, the most recent khakhua he killed,” Kembaren told Raffaele. “Bailom used a stone ax to split the skull open to get at the brains.” Later, the group discusses how the food is divvied up. “I like the taste of all the body parts,” Bailom says, “but the brains are my favourite.” Kilikili nods in silent agreement.

Following tradition, the family of the person who was killed always gets to keep the head.

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As dusk falls, a Korowai tribe member expertly climbs a wooden pole, notched with stubby footholds, to his tree house. A peculiar culture, one at odds with many western values, the Korowai people’s culture is slowly deteriorating through outside marriages and a large aging population.

One wonders just how long we will be able to see these astonishing people, able to accomplish so much despite so little outside contact, and their incredible wooden palaces.

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Photo By: George Steinmetz

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