This article is about the ethnic group in New Guinea. For the Māori cloak, see Māori traditional textiles.

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 3,000. Until the 1970s, they were unaware of the existence of any people besides themselves and some immediately neighboring villages. Only a few of them have become literate thus far. They are one of the few surviving peoples in the world that are thought to possibly still engage in cannibalism. Others dispute this, saying that these practices ended decades ago and that there have been no reported instances of cannibalism in over twenty years.


Their language belongs to the Awyu-Dumut family (southeastern Papua) and is part of the Trans-New Guinea phylum. A grammar and a dictionary have been produced by a Dutch missionary linguist.


The majority of the Korowai clans live in tree houses on their isolated territory. Since 1980 some have 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 absenteeism rate is still high, because of the relatively long distance between the settlements and the food (sago) resources.


The Korowai are hunter gatherers and horticulturalists who practice shifting cultivation. They have excellent hunting and fishing skills for gaining necessary protein. Information about Korowai trade patterns is scant. The Korowai have a few gender-specific activities, such as the preparation of sago and 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 died 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.

Contact with Westerners

In the late 1970s, a few Christian (Dutch Protestant) missionaries began to live among the Korowai. Dea Sudarman, an Indonesian anthropologist, made several documentary films on the Korowai for Japanese television in the 1980s. In 1993, a film crew documented an anthropological study in the Dayo village area by the Smithsonian Institution of Korowai treehouse construction and the practice of cannibalism as a form of criminal justice. This resulted in the film, "Lords of the Garden". In 1996 a local Christian community was established, the members of it mainly originating from the neighbouring Kombai people. For a long time the Korowai have been considered exceptionally resistant to religious conversion; however, by the end of the 1990s the first converts to Christianity were baptized. In the fall of 2003, a small team of Bible translators from Wycliffe/SIL moved to Yaniruma.

In May 2006, tour-guide Paul Raffaele led an Australian 60 Minutes crew to report on these people. After a few days' filming, the crew were allegedly approached by a man who claimed his 6-year old nephew Wa-Wa had been accused of being a Kakua (witch doctor), and was in danger of being cannibalised. The 60 Minutes crew declined to offer assistance. Paul Raffaele approached the rival Seven Network, who agreed to send a Today Tonight crew to remove Wa-Wa from the area. Before being able to gain access to them, the crew were deported by Indonesian authorities at the Papuan capital of Jayapura over visa issues.


The Korowai have been reported to practice ritual cannibalism up to the present day. Anthropologists suspect that cannibalism is no longer practiced by the Korowai clans that have had frequent contact with outsiders. Recent reports suggest that certain clans have been coaxed into encouraging tourism by perpetuating the myth that it is still an active practice.

In 2006, the television show 60 Minutes claimed that when someone in Korowai society is convicted of being a khakhua (secret witch doctor) he is tried, and if convicted he or she is tortured, executed, and eaten. Other unverified claims were made that the brain is usually eaten immediately, while still warm, and that pregnant women and children don't participate in the cannibal act.



  • 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 0-19-510551-6).
  • 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 0-02-865671-7).

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