Do Remote Tribes Still Practice Cannibalism Today?

cannibalism (Image: via Bonhams; depiction of a cannibal feast)

Cannibalism holds a deeply unsettling place in our society, surfacing throughout the myths and folk tales of many cultures around the world and often linked to the ancient tribal rituals of Melanesia and other remote island regions. Perhaps most dark of all, cannibals have been reported feasting on the flesh of their victims in modern times, an ultimate taboo.

We also hear the chilling stories of the Donner Party, stranded in the snowy mountains, the crew of the Mignonette, lost at sea with no hope, and the lost polar expedition of Sir John Franklin. We hear dubious accounts about the heir to the Jameson Whiskey dynasty, about ancient tribes of headhunting cannibals that cooked and ate those that were foolish – or unfortunate – enough to intrude on their lands.

But does ritual cannibalism really occur today? According to the Smithsonian, it may do. In 2006 a reporter spent time with a tribe that had historically engaged in cannibalism in a bid to ward off evil, and suggested that the practice may continue in more remote regions.

west-papua-indonesia (Image: Elias Levy; islands off the coast of Indonesian New Guinea)

The Korowai tribe of West Papua, according to the article, may be among the last people to consume the flesh of others. The isolated people, who inhabit the thick jungle territories of Southeastern Papua, view outsiders with extreme suspicion, sometimes referring to pale-skinned people as laleo, or “ghost-demons”. As a result, few outsiders have got close enough to develop an understanding of Korowai culture.

It’s estimated that around 4,000 Korowai remain throughout the region, where they live in traditional tree-houses and continue to embrace ancient beliefs – including that of the khakhua, a word ascribed to witches and other supernatural creatures that cause mysterious, inexplicable deaths – and must be killed and eaten to be stopped.

korowai (Images: 710928003; Wikipedia; Korowai tribesman and treehouse)

The area inhabited by the Korowai is understood to be around 100 miles from the place where Michael Rockefeller mysteriously disappeared in 1961. Perhaps not surprisingly there has been much speculation over the years over whether he was the victim of crocodiles, drowning or even cannibals, though no hard evidence is understood to exist linking him to such a fate.

According to local lore, a khakhua slowly consumes a person in the village, eating their insides as they sleep, and replacing those devouring innards with ash from the fireplace so that the victim won’t notice that anything’s amiss. Finally, the khakhua kills its victim, and takes their place. For the Korowai, such rituals aren’t cannibalism, for they don’t believe they’re killing and eating the flesh of humans. Instead, they’re killing and eating the khakhua, and stopping the creature from devouring more innocent victims.

Tribesmen opened up to Smithsonian reporter Paul Raffaele, telling of one of the most recent occurrences of a khakhua coming to their village. It’s the story of a porter named Bunop, remembered as a cheerful man, but named as a khakhua by a dying man who claimed Bunop was eating him from the inside out.

korowai-treehouse (Image: Wikipedia; traditional Korowai treehouse in the jungles of West Papua)

As a result, Bunop was brutally killed, dismembered and eaten. Body parts were passed around the tribe and prepared for cooking in the same manner as a pig, placing palm leaves over the wrapped meat. His head, however, was retained by the family that killed him as a trophy – not taken from a human, they say, but from a khakhua.

For the Korowai, it’s viewed as a system of justice, a way of ridding their society of evil creatures that visit death on the innocent. Men and women partake in the practice (children don’t), and everything is eaten, except for the teeth, hair, bones, fingernails, toenails and penis. According to one celebrated khakhua killer, it’s the brains that taste the best. The bones are strung up around the camp, a warning to other khakhua.

How prevalent the killing and eating of khakhua is today, is up for debate. Raffaele’s article mentions increasing tribal ambivalence and police intervention – in areas the police will venture into, that is – as reasons for the practice’s decline over the years.

Proximity of some Korowai groups to more ‘developed’ areas occupied by Dutch missionaries is also said to have contributed. But the evidence suggests that cannibalism may still take place in more remote communities that endure, isolated from the modern world, amid the dense, humid jungles of Indonesian New Guinea.

Related – Visit the Mysterious Hanging Coffins of Sagada, Philippines

 
 


 
 
 

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