Living in the Trees – The Korowai People


A life of contentment in the rainforest. The Korowai People of West Papua in Melanesia.

Irian Jaya's Kombai and Korowai people live in houses built in the treetops.
Irian Jaya’s Kombai and Korowai people live in houses built in the treetops.

Living in the trees is natural for the Korowai and Kombai people in  the southern eastern Papua. These tribal Melanesians are one of the last people on the planet who survive purely on their natural environment. The Korowai’s are also referred to as the Kolufo and have become known to the world through pictures and documentaries as one of the most amazing architects of tree houses.

The tree house builders survive in the basin of the Brazzan River in large areas of deep rainforest and swampy lowland. They are hunter-gatherers and horticulturists who practice shift-cultivation and have a very rich and an extraordinary oral tradition. They live together in small communities.

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Image: BBC Documentary

The higher they built a house, the more prestigious it is. The reason behind this amazing architecture which often reaches up to 100 metres or more off the ground is to avoid floods, insects and diseases. It was also a way to spot tribal enemies as the Korowai themselves had practiced cannibalism in the past.

Sowayen climbing down a “yambim” or ironwood tree after knocking loose a nest of black ants that he uses for fish bait. The Korowai are superb climbers, and get up thick trees like this by gripping vines with their hands and splayed toes. It took him about a minute to get up this tree, and it took Neeld Messler, a rope expert, over an hour to rig this tree with ropes so the photographer could climb it safely. In the lower left corner Sayah is watching. One of their fishing methods is to put a piece of an ant nest in the water and wait for the fish to come and eat the drowning ants. The fisherman hides behind foliage on the river bank, and shoots the fish with a four-pointed arrow. This picture was taken as part of an expedition for GEO Magazine and National Geographic Magazine to document the way of life of the Korowai tribe. Most of the Korowai in these photos had never had prior contact with anyone outside of their language group, and have no material goods from the outside world. They live in tree houses built above the forest floor to protect themselves from outsiders. The Korowai believe that contact with outsiders will bring an end to their culture. Cannibalism has been part of their traditional system of criminal justice to avenge the death of their clansmen, but the practice is dying out and is outlawed by the Indonesian government. The Korowai believe that most natural deaths are caused by sorcery, and must be avenged by the death (and consumption) of the person responsible.
Sowayen climbing down a “yambim” or ironwood tree after knocking loose a nest of black ants that he uses for fish bait. The Korowai are superb climbers, and get up thick trees like this by gripping vines with their hands and splayed toes. This picture was taken as part of an expedition for GEO Magazine and National Geographic Magazine to document the way of life of the Korowai tribe.

The Korowai people build their houses high above the forest floor, and deep in the swampy lowland jungles of Papua.

In the BBC documentary below, you can watch from start to finish, how a Korowai tree house is built.

20 thoughts on “Living in the Trees – The Korowai People”

  1. Wow, you’ve looked at it – for real. Must be interesting to watch. I enjoyed the video. Still can’t think that there are people living a content life without much or are we living content with so much on our side. Thanks for sharing this Joycelin. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are very welcome Norma. I am so glad you enjoyed this post. I somehow don’t think we are better off, but I guess, it is what we know that counts and what and where we find that contentment in. I hope that makes sense. 🙂

      Like

  2. It looks like a hard life but probably one much less stressful than life in cities with its rat-race attitude. And all the physical work keeps them all so fit. I imagine there will be some kind of pulley system to ge old and invalided people up to the tree houses.

    Liked by 1 person

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