Asmat People and Culture

The Asmat people inhabit the vast coastal plain on the southwest coast of the island of New Guinea in the southwestern Pacific. Geopolitically, their homelands lie within the modern-day nation of Indonesia. With a population of approximately 95,000, the Asmat constitute one of New Guinea's largest ethnic groups. Both now and in the past, the majority of Asmat practice a subsistence economy, harvesting sago (a starchy food obtained from the pith of the sago palm tree) as well as hunting, fishing, and gathering other wild plant and animal foods. However, the sale of art and natural commodities, such as fish, as well as occasional work for government agencies, religious organizations, and extractive industries provides some cash income.

Ranging in size from a few dozen to a few thousand individuals, Asmat villages are situated along the banks of the numerous rivers that meander through the dense rainforests of the flat, muddy coastal plain. Even today, the region remains essentially roadless, nearly all transportation being by water along the rivers or coast in traditional dugout canoes or, more rarely, motorized vessels. As the ground in many coastal Asmat villages is submerged at high tide, houses in the coastal region are built on pilings and connected by raised boardwalks, allowing people to walk around the village at any time. Villages consist of lines of houses, typically consisting of the members of an extended family although single family dwellings are increasingly common. In the past and, to some extent, today each village had one or more ceremonial houses (yeu), which are the major focus of ceremonial activity.

Traditional Asmat cosmology and religious life centered in the belief in spiritual forces, which animated humans, animals, plants, as well as natural phenomena and inanimate objects. Among the most important were the spirits of recently deceased ancestors, which needed to be properly treated in order to maintain their good will and could also be called into manufactured objects, such as shields and bis (ancestor) poles. In the past, and to a large extent today, the vast majority of human images that appear in Asmat art represent, and are named for, specific individual ancestors. Although nearly all Asmat today are Catholics, belief in the existence, and powers, of ancestral spirits continues.