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Korowai Tree Bark Fibre Bag Ainop

Korowai Tree Bark Fibre Bag Ainop

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Korowai people, mid. 20th century, Southeastern Papua, Indonesia

Fascinating, large hand knotted net bag ainop (called noken or bilum in West Papua region) made from tree bark fibre, decorated with horizonal bands in different colors. Noken is traditionally used to carry plantation produce, catch from rivers or lake, firewood and other various goods, and also children. The women usually hang the noken from their forehead and drape it behind their backs. The men carry them differently, and hang noken around their neck. The method of making tree bark fiber varies between communities, but in general, branches, stems or bark of certain small trees or shrubs are cut, heated over a fire and soaked in water. The remaining wood fibre is dried, then spun to make a strong thread or string, which is sometimes colored using natural dyes. The string is knotted by hand to make net bags of various sizes and patterns. The process requires great manual skill and takes several months to master. Noken is considered a symbol of life, peace, and fertility. In addition, the noken is also a symbol of maturity for women in Papua. The level of maturity of a Papuan woman is measured by her mastery of noken crafting. 

The Korowai (called also Kolufo) people live in the inaccessible jungle in the southeast of the Indonesian province of Papua, about 150 kilometres inland from the Arafura Sea. The population are around 3,000 or so people, most of whom live in isolated family homesteads in traditional tree houses. Little is known about the Korowai prior to 1978. The Korowai were unaware of western civilization until 1974 when anthropologists embarked on a journey to study them. The Korowai and neighbouring Kombai tribe are typical hunter gatherers. They have excellent hunting and fishing skills. The men hunt a wide range of pray including cassowary, wild boar and marsupials in the forest using their bows and arrows with their dogs as trackers. For fishing, the Korowai use their bows and arrows, poison and basket-like traps which they place in artificial dams. The staple food is strach harvested from sago palms. 

Korowai and Kombai people live in a tree houses (khaim) on ancestral territories (bolüp) that belong to clans (yanogun). To defend themselves against attacks from neighbouring clans, such as the Asmat from the south, they built their houses high in the trees, and so became known as "tree peoples". Some houses can even reach a height of 35 meters above the ground, but most are between 8 and 12 meters high. To reach the house, a long stairs (yafin) are made from thin poles with notches in which to place the feet. 

The Korowai believe that the universe is filled with dangerous spiritual beings. The spirits of their ancestors play a special role in this regard. The jungle is divided into clan territories. To Korowai there are also territories of the spirits (laléo-bolüp) where no clans live. There are sacred parts or sacred places (wotop) on most territories, connected with the spirits of the ancestors (mbolombolop). Both the Korowai and Kombai have been reported to practise ritual cannibalism up the present day. The ritual of cannibalism took place as a form of retaliation and punishment for evil shamans (khakhua-kumu), or men who practise witchcraft. After being tortured and killed, a person's body parts will be divided between the clan. Body parts are wrapped individually in banana leaves and then eaten. The Kombai believe that the khakhua-kumu eat the souls of their victims, and they must be killed and eaten in return. As the soul is thought to lie in the brain and the stomach, retribution comes by eating those organs of the khakhua-kumu, to bring their terror to end.

Good condition. Age-related wear and signs of use. Lovely patina. Loose threads. Stains. Faded colours. Size approx. 85,0cm x 29,0cm.

Provenance: Dutch private collection. According to information, originally from the collections of a closed ethnographic museum & foundation in the Netherlands.

References and further reading:

The Korowai of Irian Jaya: Their Language in Its Cultural Context, Oxford University Press, Gerrit J. van Enk & Lourens de Vries, 1994.

Spirits and friends: expletive nouns in Korowai of Irian Jaya, Lourens de Vries, Tales of a concave world: Liber Amicorum Bert Voorhoeve, 1995, 178-188.

Korowai people: Papua's pint-size, treehouse-living cannibals, Jeffrey Hays, (

Sleeping with Cannibals, Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006.(

Life up in a Korowai tree house, Stichting Papua Erfgoed, 2001-2021. (

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