Among the horrors that exist in our world (rape, torture, murder) there seems to be one act above all that most of us can't fathom- it's too heinous, too revolting to comprehend: cannibalism. The Korowai are one of the few cultures left in the world who practice this, although they don't consider themselves to be cannibals. They believe they are eating a male witch/demon who has taken over the body of one of their fellow tribesmen. They call this witch the khakhua.
The Korowai Cannibals
One of the last known cultures to practice cannibalism, the Korowai tribe is native to New Guinea and ritualistically partake in eating human flesh.
The Korowai People
Deep in the jungles of Indonesia lives a tribe of seemingly peaceful natives. They live entirely off of the land and are masters in hunting and fishing. Unique to many present-day tribes, they build extraordinary tree houses in the canopies high above the jungle floor. There are around 4,000 Korowai individuals, the tree houses are home to about a dozen each. They are so isolated that many of the Korowai people were unaware that other people in the world existed until within the last 50 years.
They are reluctant to let outsiders in but on occasion, they will allow it, which is how we've come to know so much about the Korowai. They are so unfamiliar with light skinned individuals that they refer to them as “laleo," meaning “ghost demons."
in 2006, journalist and "laleo," Paul Raffaele, was someone the Korowai tribe cautiously welcomed. With their hospitality, he learned all about their cannibalistic customs.
Paul Raffaele's Journey
Venturing deep into Korowai territory, where very few (if any) outsiders had traveled before, Paul Raffaele got to know the Korowai people with the help of his guide, Kembaren. Raffaele explains that khakua killings have declined over time but Kembaren states, "many khakhua are murdered and eaten each year."
What are khakhuas? "The khakhua is a male witch, a creature that disguises itself as a close friend or family member of its chosen victim. Once the victim is asleep, the creature begins to devour his innards and slowly kill that person. If the tribesman whispers a name on his dying breath, he’s telling those he leaves behind the name of the khakhua who devoured him." (knowledgenuts.com)
Then, the tribe go after and kill the named "khakhua." They eat him out of revenge, since they believe he ate one of their people from the inside out. Only males are named as khakhuas but even children are capable of being named, though they aren't eaten until puberty. Only small children and pregnant women don't take part in cannibalism.(jpdutilleux.com)
Paul Raffaele noticed on his journey that there were no elderly tribesmen. Kembaren told him that people rarely live to middle age because of how susceptible they are to diseases. These diseases are also responsible for what Kembaren describes as "the khakhua complex: the Korowai have no knowledge of the deadly germs that infest their jungles, and so believe that mysterious deaths must be caused by khakhua." (smithsonianmag.com)
Raffaele spoke to a tribesman named Boas about the khakhua killings. He asked him if they ate people for any other reasons. "Of course not," he replies, giving me a funny look. "We don't eat humans, we only eat khakhua." (smithsonianmag.com) This gives us a deep look into the mind of the Korowai people; they truly don't believe they are eating people, they believe they are eating a khakhua.
Along this remarkable voyage, he meets another member of the tribe named Bailom. He hands a khakhua skull to Raffaele and tells him the story. 2 years prior, Bailom's cousin lay dying, presumably of a disease they aren't equipped to fight. On his death bed, he gives Bailom the name of one of their people, who he claims is eating him from the inside. Bunop, the alleged khakhua, pleaded for his life and told the others he was not a khakhua, but they did not believe a dying man to be a liar. They shot Bunop with arrows until he was dead. Bailom explained how they dismembered him and then, in true khakhua tradition, they cooked him and ate him.
Bailom explaines, "revenge is part of our culture, so when the khakhua eats a person, the people eat the khakhua."
Crime or Culture?
It's hard to look at cannibalism as anything other than a crime. When serial killers and sociopaths to do it, it's the stuff of nightmares. It warrants them the death penalty in most cases. But do the same rules apply in cultures such as the Korowai? They don't believe they are eating a human being and they certainly don't feel that they are hurting an innocent person. It's been part of their culture forever and passed down through generations. Does tradition overrule contemporary law? Should the Korowai people be allowed to take innocent lives and eat them like cattle to preserve the foundation and authenticity of their customs? Or should the authorities step in and demand justice for the "khakhua" slaughters?
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