Papua: Korowai - Una, the path of the ax stones - Azimuth Adventure Travel Ltd
Papua: Korowai - Una, the path of the ax stones

Papua: Korowai - Una, the path of the ax stones

Mar 14 2024

It is late when Neemiya and his two adventure companions arrive in sight of Lukun, this village high up in the Una territory in the Jayawijaya mountains, in Indonesian Papua. The Yamin peak and its 4581 m dominates the deep gorges with tumultuous torrents; in good weather you can see fresh traces of snow there. Neemiya is tired, he is cold but in Lukun he knows he can count on a shelter and some sweet potatoes. The hospitality of his clan brothers the Balyo is legendary.


Lukun is the last bastion of the Una territory of the mountains, a true eagle's nest before plunging inexorably following the torrents towards the Kopka territory, the plain of the Eilanden river and the mysterious Korowai, Kombai and Kowoyap. There he knows that after several days of an exhausting walk he will be able to exchange his ax stones and adzes (the pride of the Una people) for sago, rattan and one of the most important instruments of the Papuan people, the bow and arrows.


Village of Larye. 300 inhabitants, the Yowa and Dibah (community houses) are placed like mushrooms on a thin ridge of clayey earth with surrounding peaks of more than 300m. Neemiya Balyo represents the young generation of these last stonemasons from West Papua, from the rest of the world even.


2 clans share this power inherited from the ancestors, the Balyo clan and the Malyo clan. Neemiya Balyo learned everything from her father the great Dimane Balyo, the man with 8 wives and infinite knowledge...And with Ngis Malyo, Eba Deyal, Kirip Kirip Malyo they go down the steep terrain every day to get to the edge of the Hei river in search of stones that a learned glance (on the part of these notables) allows us to judge, that the night was good, that the spirits went under the large Manmandala tree, that the ancestors all near the enormous rock Gulungbun offered their students these basalt quarters to make the ax stones which are worth more in these countries than gold and silver.


With several polished stones and adzes, we can boast here in Larye of buying the most beautiful women and the biggest pigs, which considerably increases the power and presence of the cutting master towards the entire clan.


Latent wars which often have as a pretext the theft of a pig, a tree, a sweet potato or a woman still rage in the Unas mountains and the stone adze plays an important role.


Neemiya is with her father Dimane on the banks of the Heiye. The Heiya (axe stones) are found at the edge of the clear water. Both examine a rock, study its shape, its size, its texture. He selects another one nearby because Dimane, with an expert eye, has detected a vein in the rock, which is promising. We have to rough up the rock, open its insides. Either it is split with other rocks of harder texture, or the fire method is used and this is the case here because the rock is too bulky. Preparing and heating the rock will take 1 to 2 hours before the stone whitens and cracks. If the rock resists, we build a fire again in the cracks until it bursts.


All day Neemiya, her father and the members of the clan (women are forbidden) cut up the stone, we cut it down to bring back ten of them to the village, all nicely wrapped in a pandanus leaf and carried in a noken . The climb is terrible, you have to cross an old rickety liana bridge and Dimane no longer has all his youth, his son helps him. Arriving at the village, thunder rumbles in the mountain, there towards the terrible “oranje pass” at almost 4000m where the expedition of the Frenchman Pierre Gaisseau in 1960 left some porters dead of cold.


Neemiya and the others are quickly surrounded by a crowd of naked toddlers, snot on their noses, the women stay back for fear of insults. The polishing begins, from cut stone the block becomes polished stone and before us 10,000 years of history unfold. Only the sound of the impacts of 2 stones resonates in the village and the last cutting masters from all of Papua are there in front of me, gathered in this small village of Larye. The youngest have already gone into the forest to look for this famous Telye wood, a hard wood which will serve as handles for adzes.


This tradition of cutting Heime stones aims at real trade, exchange of goods with the other tribes of the East and West of the Una territory. To the west, polished stones are exchanged with the people of Nalca who are responsible for trade in the important villages of Kosarek and Angguruk for pigs, nokens (bags of plant fiber) and sometimes women.


In the east the trade extends to Oksibil and on the other side of the border of Papua New Guinea, in the south with the Momina, Brazza, Citak, Korowai tribes for sago, salt, rattan, bows and arrows .


Neemiya and 2 of her friends have known for some time that it will be their turn to go down to the territory of the plains, to the land of heat and malaria. A long trip of almost 8 days if the weather is good and lots of adventure. Neemiya still listens to the words of the elders, those who have made the journey more than 10 times at the risk of their lives, the cannibals, the mosquitoes, the flooded torrents, the cold, the heat, the hunger... He is ready Neemiya, he knows that when he returns home to Larye a young woman will be promised to him, he will be considered a hero, a man without fear. Secretly before departure he goes to meditate in a crevice of rock under the village in front of the remains of the bones of his ancestors, he asks them to help him in this new ordeal.


This morning, in the village of Lukun, Neemiya gets up in a good mood, the sun is bright and his dream from the day before saw him return to the village triumphant. He is ready to go down to the land of the “naked men”, those who live in the trees.


A long journey in the forest, days in the rain and encountering humid heat in the lowlands, bleak plains without relief, the green hell because unlike the Unas mountains, there is no panorama and Neemiya has the “blues”. The 3 men must pass the small inhospitable town of Seradala, follow the Eilanden river on the east coast so as not to have the surprise of finding themselves facing the formidable “kowoyap” to finally arrive at the meeting place fixed for many generations, by the ancestors.


They are there, men from another world, they scare Neemiya a little because they are bigger, naked, their genitals hidden by a simple tree leaf, bows and arrows and long pandanus thorns stuck in their noses, horizontally.. The exchange will not take place until the next day because the “korowai batu” are very suspicious and belligerent at the slightest sign. They ask for tobacco and the little Neemiya has in her noken is shared. The lodge for the night is located up there, right next to the tall trees of the primary forest, a “rumah tinggih” more than 35m high.


Perplexed Neemiya... is he going to go with his 2 companions to the summit, it may be a trap and then, to do his business... and if he has to go back down at night, it's dangerous with all these crawling creatures. Neemiya remembers the advice of her uncle, the wise Amtan who when he had to sleep in the trees always took with him a talisman, a carved shin. Placed under the head, the man no longer risked anything.


I have been with them for almost 3 weeks, ran the mountains and deep valleys for even longer coming from Wamena, on foot. I crossed the Dani, Wali, Yale, Yali, Manggona, Eipo and Una territories, crossed this fantastic Oranje pass, 4000m and very impressive height differences, chasms; landscapes of rare beauty, dwarf palm trees, black orchids, limestone cliffs, spongy valleys and waterfalls, slept in crevices of rocks in the cold and rain, mists, broke the ice to collect water in the early morning , slept in smoky huts, fleas… Before arriving in Larye like a “zombie” from another world and accompanied by a single porter from the village of Eipomeik. A great adventure!


Neemiya trusts me completely, we have known each other for several years and he knows that I know the Korowai territory, having spent long days in Mabul, Dajjiaw, Yapupla Atas and during local clan festivals, having rubbed shoulders with the “korowai batu” and “kowoyap” the man-eaters of upper Eilanden. I am a bit at home in Bilantop, Domai the chief has a son who has disappeared and during a TV reconnaissance by helicopter in 1997, I brought him news of Wombai meeting some time earlier in the vicinity of the Protestant mission MAF from Jayapura… (How did he, the child of the woods, perfectly imitate the sound of each bird in his jungle?).


5 tree houses quite close to each other in a small clearing, which is a record. The lowest is 15m high, the highest 35/40m placed at the height of the branches. A precarious ladder goes to the top using a nearby tree and zigzag to better balance everything. Precarious and dangerous for those who are afraid of heights, but the korowai have contempt for the void or at least have tamed it, as evidenced by the last son of Domai, 6 years old, who goes up and down the upper house alone. I imagine for a moment my own son at this age going down in this way...


Domai lives naked like the others, his genitals hidden by a tree leaf delicately held against his lower abdomen. He killed a man 3 years ago for a theft problem from his wife who has since died, having fallen from the top of a tree, onto another high house because the worm-eaten wooden ladder collapsed under her weight .


He welcomes us with a noticeable smile because he recognizes me but wonders what I'm doing with the Unas. Smoking is required and my companions are adopted even if none of us speak the same language. After a good night's rest and waking up to the sound of birds, the exchange takes place. In the meantime other people have arrived at the upper house, coming from who knows where, one has large and long sago thorns stuck in his nose giving him a “wild” appearance and he constantly turns his back on us . Domai says: “kowoyap”!


The women look at us with fear, the children hide behind their parents. Neemiya, Kol and his brother Sirep are not having a great time at this moment. Another clan, other customs and here they are nothing, foreigners like me.


Swap of ax stones for rattan and bows, my tobacco in addition, everything was quick for once (I'm too used to these palavers which last for hours and where everyone pretends to be angry and then agrees to anyway), few words exchanges but halfway between peace and war that this exchange of goods, proof is that in Indonesian Papua still live men and women at odds with our daily realities but where trade is bet.


Neemiya tells me that he wants to go back to the mountain straight away and he asks me to accompany him. I am too tired from running through the jungles, the hours of walking in the mud on unstable terrain have worn down my willpower, my legs are sore, my back is “broken” and I need a lot of rest. I don't feel like I have the strength to go back up to 2500m and the week of walking, not to mention the rain...They will leave without me.


I stayed 4 days in the Domai clan in Bilantop, fished and tasted river shrimp with sago flour, tried to bow hunt with some young people from the clan, bathed with the children in a water crystal clear and left promising to bring back his son once and for all to Chief Domai, who had gone looking for another adventure…. Yaniroma being only 3 days of walking, the trip was rather “cool” and I waited patiently for the missionaries’ plane to return to Jayapura.


Unas, Brazzas, Korowai… people from another world, from another planet. The white spots on the missionaries' maps attest that there are still peoples of whom we know nothing, that primitive men devote a boundless passion to animist worship as at the very beginning of creation.


From the snowy mountains to the Casuarina coast, there in Indonesian Papua the adventure is beautiful like nowhere else in this world.


Based on the texts of Thierry Robinet, adventurer & guide in Indonesia since 1977.


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