carl_hoffman16 karma2014-03-25 17:59:35 UTC
Yes, cannibalism was practiced throughout Asmat, though it was a by product of head hunting and was a sacred ritual, not just grabbing a bite to eat. It began to disappear with the arrival of Dutch and then American missionaries in the late 1950s and early 1960s; today the Asmat are mostly Catholics and it is no longer practiced. I was never concerned for my safety and had a great time there, though it can be a difficult place.
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carl_hoffman13 karma2014-03-25 18:21:38 UTC
It is a long accretion of many details and many layers that begins with detailed reports from missionaries on the ground who had lived in the villages for years and spoke Asmat, one of whom remains alive. Then the reports from the Dutch patrol officer sent by the Dutch government to investigate, who remains alive (and who saw the men from Otsjanep on November 19 in Pirimapun as they left to return to Otsjanep). Then the reports from later missionaries who were in the same villages. Then my own time spent in the village, listening to the sons of the men named in the original reports, understanding the village structure, who had been killed by Max Lepre in 1958, what their positions were, how they were related by family and village structure to the men named as having killed Michael, all within efforts to understand the Asmat world. Then, with the help of an anthropologist, we looked at other scenarios, tried to figure out some alternative explanations, and there is none. The Asmat say they did it. Proof is a strong word; there is no smoking gun, no body and there never will be. But I feel certain that's what happened. Others may disagree, but you have to jump through a lot more hoops and create a much more convoluted and complex argument to say he wasn't killed than that he was. Not to mention, of course, all the word with tide tables and locations concerning where the boat was when he overturned.
carl_hoffman11 karma2014-03-25 18:03:04 UTC
It's a long, complex story that begins with a Dutch government raid on the village of Otsjanep in 1958 that killed five people, four of them the most important men in the village. That made the world unbalanced, in the Asmat cosmos, and ultimately the men who took their places as the heads of the jeu, or longhouses - think of them as clans - were there when Michael swam up exhausted and vulnerable and alone. They killed him.
carl_hoffman10 karma2014-03-25 22:47:09 UTC
The place, being there? So many different ways. Physically: hot, muddy, not much to eat, no power, plumbing, stores. But also other ways. Hard to never be alone, never have solitude or personal space, to be always under the constant watch of large numbers of people (I lived in a tiny house with 20). To only speak Indonesian. And the Asmat are shy and have a complex culture that's full of secrets. Plus I was there to find things out, things they didn't want to talk about - murder and cannibalism. But many joys, too and a great experience.
carl_hoffman9 karma2014-03-25 18:28:02 UTC
He was young, 23, just out of Harvard. Earnest, deeply interested in so called primitive art - his father had created the Museum of Primitive Art in Manhattan, which opened in 1957. He first went to work on a film in the highlands with a Harvard Peabody expedition; that film, Dead Birds, is worth watching. Later he went to the coast to collect the art of the Asmat and on a second expedition there the boat he was on capsized and he swam away from it, never to be seen again. His companion on the boat stayed on the boat and was rescued that afternoon.
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