In my separate review of the JK McCarthy Museum in Goroka I introduced the reader to the Anga (also called Kuka Kuka) tribe and its rather peculiar and macabre custom of wearing human finger necklaces. Dear Reader, that’s tame when you consider the tribe’s burial rituals for its warriors.
The Anga tribe, while comprising some of the smallest people in the country, was one of the most ferocious and feared of Papua New Guinea tribes and one of the last known to give up cannibalism.
As late as 1974 the organisers of the Goroka Show (which showcases tribal cultures, costumes, dances and other rituals) flew in around 130 Anga tribe members for the show. They had to walk home! So fearful were the organisers and other show participants of the Anga, that tribe members were locked into their compound at night for the safety of others. Incidentally, tribe members won an archery competition at the show, the prize for which was a live cow intended for breeding purposes. The tribe butchered the cow and ate it in camp on the night they won it. I imagine not many people would have knowingly ventured into their camp area. Some fifteen years later I visited their village, not without some trepidation.
Aseki village, home to the Anga people, is in one of the most remote parts of PNG, in the Morebe Province highlands, close to Gulf Province. While it does have an airstrip, one of over 500 in PNG, I and two PNG friends (one of whom had important contacts within the village) drove in from Lae, over-nighting in the former gold mining town of Bulolo en route. So bad were the roads (we had a large 4wd – impossible in anything less) that the return trip, less than 200kms, from Bulolo took a full day.
There is only one reason for a tourist to visit Aseki and that is to see the smoked red corpses of former Aseki warriors. My regular reader will be aware that I am a big fan of visiting old graveyards but this one is something else.
The Anga is the only tribe within PNG to perform ‘mummification’ which here involves smoking their dead (an honour reserved for warriors). Unlike most other forms of mummification around the world, the smoked bodies are not interred in a coffin or other form of sealed tomb but are rather mounted in wooden frames and placed on the cliff as depicted in my attached pictures*. From this vantage position the former warriors watch over, guard and protect the present day villagers, some 300 metres below. Being mobile, the bodies are sometimes brought down to the village for important ceremonies and returned to their guard positions at the conclusion of the ceremony.
(*in my research for this review I read that some smoked bodies, of lesser warriors, are placed in caves – I hadn’t heard this before).
The mummification process is long and complicated, as such processes are everywhere.
Those of a squeamish disposition may wish to omit reading the next four paragraphs, which briefly describe the mummification process, and move on to the ‘practicalities section’ below.
Embalmers start the mummification by slicing open knees, elbows, ankles and other joints and inserting bamboo poles into these and into the stomach. These hollow poles drain the body fat from the deceased. Living warriors (sons of former warriors) smear the fat, and the guts (also removed), of the deceased over their faces thus drawing the strength of the deceased into themselves.
After this the embalmer sews up every orifice of the body effectively sealing it to prevent the flesh rotting prior to further processing. Parts of the body, such as the tongue and palms, are often removed from the body at this stage and presented to the spouse of the deceased as a keepsake. Rather charming, don’t you think?
Once prepared, the corpse is smoked in a fire pit and after this coated in red clay to protect it from scavengers and to preserve the body.
While not as sophisticated a process, and certainly more grisly, than that used by the Egyptians for example, the Anga process does work and some of the mummies ‘on display’ are over 200 years old though they certainly show signs of decay from being exposed to the elements.
Aseki, when I visited in 1989, was not the sort of place you just rocked up to. My visit was facilitated by a PNG friend who knew the village elders. While I left a small donation (clearly expected) for the village there was no official entrance fee at that time.
Today (2015) I understand visits are arranged by inquiring at the Provincial Office in Menyamya (the main village in the area). I should warn you that there is now a hefty entrance fee, equivalent to around US$25 plus an additional and exorbitant $US150 fee should you wish to take photographs. Such is the current state of corruption throughout PNG, I further suspect that this fee could, at the whim of the elders, be significantly increased or entry refused when you arrive. You are at their mercy and disappointing a tourist would not phase them in the slightest. Perhaps the best advise I can give is to make inquiries before you go or go on a tour.
On trips like this you should travel fully self sufficient with food and water. I understand that to hire a car and driver for the day currently costs around $US1,100!
The bodies I saw (there are other groups) are on the face of a cliff 300m above the village and a reasonably strenuous walk up was required (no rock climbing) so you need to be able to cope with this.
Visiting the Aseki smoked bodies is an experience you will never forget, expensive though that experience now seems to be.
Lest the reader think that more modern burial arrangements are absent from PNG, do have a look at my lighter review on acquiring a regular coffin in Goroka!
Directions: Morebe Province – about 200kms from Lae and 100kms from Bulolo
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on a couple of years living and working in Papua New Guinea. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Tok Tok Pisin (Speak Tok Pisin) – or to start this loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – Papua New Guinea – Personal Memories.