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The Korowai, also called the Kolufo, are a people of southeastern Papua (i.e. the southeastern part of the western part of New Guinea). Their numbers are very roughly estimated at about 3000. Until the 1970s, they were unaware of the existence of any people besides themselves and some immediately neighbouring tribes. Only a few of them have become literate thus far. They are one of the last surviving tribes in the world to engage in cannibalism.



Their language belongs to the Awyu(-Ndumut) family (southeastern Papua) and is part of the Trans-New Guinea phylum.


The majority of the Korowai clans live in treehouses on their isolated territory. Since 1980 some moved into the, then recently opened, villages of Yaniruma at the Becking River banks (Kombai-Korowai area), Mu, and Mbasman (Korowai-Citak area). In 1987 a village was opened in Manggél, in Yafufla (1988), Mabül at the banks of the Eilanden River (1989), and Khaiflambolüp (1998). The village absenteism rate is still high, because of the relative long distance between the settlements and the food (sago) resources.


Originally, the Korowai are horticulturalists who practice shifting cultivation. They also developed skills in hunting and fishing for gaining necessary protein supplies. There is no relevant information about Korowai trade patterns. The Korowai know a few gender-specific activities, such as the performance of religious ceremonies in which only the male adults are involved.


The patriclan is the central unit with respect to social, economic, and political organization. Kinship terminology follows the Omaha I pattern (Lounsbury), knowing a central opposition between cross and parallel relationships. In Korowai society the forms of institutional levirate and predominance of avuncular relationships are found, as well as a kind of affinal avoidance relationships. Marriage is exogamous and polygynous. Preference is given to a conjugal relationship with the (classificatory) mother's mother's brother's daughter.

Social life

Leadership structures are based on personal qualities of strong men rather than on institution. Interclan warfare occurs mainly because of witchcraft and sorcery related conflicts. Within the framework of punishing those who committed witchcraft a certain type of cannibal justice is found.

Religious life

The Korowai universe is filled with all kinds of spirits, some more personal of character than others. Reverence is paid especially to the (spirits of the) ancestors. To Ginol Silamtena, the creator spirit, the Korowai do not ascribe an important role in their daily life. Once in a lifetime a Korowai clan must organize a sago grub festival in order to stimulate prosperity and fertility in a ritual fashion. In times of trouble they sacrifice domesticated pigs to the spirits of the ancestors. The Korowai have an extraordinary and rich oral tradition: myths, folktales, (magical) sayings and charms, and totem traditions. With respect to death and afterlife the Korowai believe in the existence of a reciprocal type of reincarnation: those who passed away can be sent back at any time to the land of the living, by their kinsmen in the land of the dead, in order to reincarnate in a newly born infant of their own clan.

Culture contact

In the late 1970s a few Christian (Dutch Protestant ) missionaries began to live among them. It is worthwhile to mention the name of Johannes Veldhuizen and Henk Venema as pioneers in this enterprise. In 1996 a local christian community was established, the members of it mainly originating from the neighbouring Kombai tribe. For a long time the Korowai have had the distinction of being considered the people most resistant to religious conversion, however by the end of the nineties the first converts were baptized. In the Fall of 2003 a small team of bible translators (from Wycliffe/SIL) moved to Yaniruma.


The Korowai of Irian Jaya: Their Language in Its Cultural Context (Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics, 9) by Gerrit J. Van Enk, Lourens De Vries, & Enk De Vries Van ISBN 0195105516

Korowai: in Encyclopedia of World Cultures - Supplement (Editors: Melvin Ember, Carol R.Ember, and Ian Skoggard) pp.183-187 by Gerrit J.van Enk. Macmillan Reference USA / Gale Group ISBN 0028656717

Figures of alterity among Korowai of Irian Jaya: Kinship, mourning, and festivity in a dispersed society (Indonesia). PhD Dissertation, by Rupert Stasch, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago (Unpublished)

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45