The Korowai Tribe live deep within the thick jungle of New Guinea, two weeks walking distance from any signs of civilization. Their isolation is so extreme that they believed that they were the only people on earth until the 1970s, when scientists stumbled upon them.
While most clans within the tribe have adjusted to the idea of civilization and interacting with it, some Korowai still threaten to kill outsiders who enter their territory. Some clans are said to fear those with pale skin, and it’s claimed that to this day some Korowai have never laid eyes on a white person. They call outsiders laleo, which translates to “ghost-demons”.
Their treehouse homes sit high in the jungle ceiling, perched upon stilts that appear almost as if they aren’t capable of supporting the weight. The houses are typically around 30 to 40 feet high, but some are up to 115 feet above the ground. This puts them well above flood-water levels, and serves as a form of defensive fortification against rival clans. The height and girth of the common ironwood stilts also serves to protect the house from arson attacks.
The total tribe consists of somewhere around 4,000 members, none of whom clothe themselves. When asked why, they have their reasons.
They state that an earthquake will destroy the earth if they “ever put on pants”. This claim dates back to 1978, when the Rev. Johannes Veldhuizen, a Dutch missionary with the Mission of the Reformed Churches, visited the tribe. He abandoned attempts at conversion after the Korowai told him that “A very powerful mountain god warned the Korowai that their world would be destroyed by an earthquake if outsiders came into their land to change their customs.”
They also have a custom that’s not so affable – the Korowai also eat their own. In May 2006, tour-guide and reporter Paul Raffaele led an Australian TV crew to meet the tribe. Raffaele said ‘Korowai are among the very few tribes believed to eat human flesh. Some are said to kill and eat male witches they call “khakhua”.’ They were reportedly approached by a man whose six-year old nephew was in danger of being cannibalised. They stated they would assist, but before they could authorities found them and deported them for visa issues.
The reason for their cannibalism is based in their ignorance of medicine. It’s not surprising that very few members make it to middle age. Korowai routinely fall to diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, elephantiasis, and anemia. The Korowai do not understand the deadly germs that infest their jungles, so they believe that the seemingly mysterious deaths must be caused by what they call ‘khakhua’, or witches who take on the form of men.
They believe that the khakhua comes into the village disguised as a relative or friend of the person he wants to kill.
As a tribesman explained, “The khakhua eats the victim’s insides while he sleeps, 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.”
When a clan member dies of a disease or infection, it is understood by friends and family that they have been killed by a khakhua. The male relatives and friends seize and kill the khakhua. He is then dismembered, wrapped in palm leaves, cooked, and eaten.
“Usually, the [dying] victim whispers to his relatives the name of the man he knows is the khakhua. He may be from the same or another treehouse.” says a clansman.
When a tribesmen was asked by Smithsonian Magazine if they eat people for any other reason, he said “Of course not,” with a funny look. “We don’t eat humans, we only eat khakhua.”
Anthropologists believe that the practice of killing and eating khakhua may be diminishing in the clans that have frequent exposure to outsiders. But deep in the jungle, its assumed that that papery whispers from the lips of dying men will still send killers out in search of the khakhua that have taken over the bodies of innocent men.