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Asmat Ceremonial Human Skull in a Tree Bark Fibre Net Bag

Asmat Ceremonial Human Skull in a Tree Bark Fibre Net Bag

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Asmat people, early to mid. 20th century, Irian Jaya, New Guinea, Indonesia

Absolutely gorgeous, aged human skull fragment in a hand knitted  tree bark fibre net bag (bilum/noken), embellished with shell bead strands, vegetal fibre and rodent tails. The Asmat are a coastal people occupying a low-lying swampy region intersected by many rivers in Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. Asmat may be thought as an umbrella term for twelve different ethnic sub-groups with shared linguistic and cultural affinities and sense of shared identity. The Asmat build houses (tsyem) from abudant timber in the area. In addition there is at least one men's house jeu (called also jewdjeu or yeu) in each village. Mud, water, and trees are the basic elements of Asmat material culture, the daily diet consisting of sago (strach harvested from sago palms), forest game, fish, and other items gathered from their forests and waters. 

Asmat people are widely known for the quality of their wood sculptures, and they are also notorious for their traditional practises of headhunting and cannibalism, which were linked to the unsolved disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, 23 year old son of former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, in 1961 while touring the region to collect indigenous artwork. After graduating from Yale with a degree in ethnology, Michael went on an expedition to the Asmat area of New Guinea, where he traded tobacco and steel fishing hooks for carved Asmat ancestor bis-poles (bisj) to add to the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His disappearence, followed by an intensive and ultimately unsuccessful search by the Dutch authorities, was the source of much speculation as to Mr. Rockefeller's fate. Recently, author Carl Hoffman in his book "Savage Harvest", presented evidence that Rockefeller was killed and eaten by people from Ostjanep village.

The Asmat have traditionally been animists who believed in a pantheon of spirits that dwelled trees, rivers or natural objects or were spirits of deceased ancestors. The goal of religion was to bring about harmony and balance with the cosmos. This was achieved through a variety rituals and practises interwoven with daily life that traditionally included things like headhunting, warfare, and woodcarving. Headhunting raids were an important element of Asmat culture until missionaries suppressed the practise, which, according to some accounts, persisted into the 1990's. Heads were thought necessary for the rituals in which boys were initiated into manhood. Cannibalism was a subsidiary feature of the rituals that followed the taking of heads.

The Asmat had a distinctive skull cult. They had two types of ritually venerated skulls. The skulls of important and honoured ancestors would be decorated and kept within the clan, to be venerated and publicly presented during special ceremonies. Occasionally these skulls were also used as a pillow for sleeping or as a neck rest by the reigning family head. These skulls were called ‘ndambirkus’. The second group are the skulls of enemies who had been killed, however, were kept in the central mens' house as trophies, as proof of the bravery and skill of a warrior, proudly displayed and decorated similarly to become a ‘ndambirkus’, were called ‘ndaokus’, they have two features that make them easily recognisable, so called war trophies always have a hole in one of the skull’s temples. Through this hole, the brain of the enemy was removed. In addition, ‘ndaokus’ skulls generally lack a lower jaw. This is because the jaw bone was removed and given to the women as a pendant for their necklaces, as a final, humiliating insult toward the defeated enemy. 

Fascinating ceremonial war trophy human skull fragment (occipital & parietal bones) are in excellent condition. Age-related wear and signs of use and handling over many years. Gorgeous patina. Size approx. 17,5cm x 17,0cm x 13,2cm. Modern stand included.

Provenance: Dutch private collection. 

References and further reading:

The Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress, Tobias Schneebaum, Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, December 1982.

Oceania, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Peter and Kathleen Van Arsdale, ed. by Terence Hays, G.K. Hall & Company, 1991.

Asmat Art: Seventy years of Asmat woodcarving, Simon Kooijman, Pacific Arts Newsletter No.4, January 1977, pp. 9-11.

Art and Culture of the Asmat, Holmes Museum of Anthropology, Wichita States University, 2021.

Headhunting Practises of the Asmat of Netherlands New Guinea, Gerard A. Zegwaard, American Anthropologist New Series, Vol.61, No.6, December 1959, pp. 1020-1041.

"The Asmat", In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Emily Caglayan, Ph.D., Department of Art History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-, October 2004.

Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, Carl Hoffman, Publisher William Morrow, 2014.

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