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IRIAN JAYA

TRADITIONAL MELANESIAN CULTURE

Ignored for centuries, the island of New Guinea was like a lost world, where stone age tribes once practised cannibalism and where plant life is found like nothing else on earth. It is a very old civilisation with carbon dating of remnants found on camp sites suggesting human habitation for the last 40,000 years.    

           

In 2005, a group of international scientists discovered a number of new species in the Foja mountain range of Papua. It was an area so remote that even the local people had never ventured into this trackless area of 3000 square kilometres. The species found included a long-beaked echidna, a new type of honeyeater bird and more than 20 new species of frog, four new species of butterfly, and plants including five new palms. They also took the first photograph of Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise, which appears in the nineteenth century collections but whose home had been previously unknown. The expedition also found a rare tree kangaroo which had previously been unsighted in this area.

A smoky honeyeater

A long-beaked echidna

A frog of an un-described species

A horned toad of an un-described species

A female Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise

A male Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise

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In 1963, the then Dutch New Guinea was taken over by Indonesia making it the country's 26th and largest province. The raising of the national flag climaxed the long struggle of Indonesia to oust the Dutch from the last of their East Indies colonies.

 

Examples of the traditional tribal art of Irian Jaya

For the Indonesians, it seems to matter little that the people of New Guinea belonged to the Melanesian culture of the South Seas - that they had animist beliefs, a pig-based economy, a tradition of head hunting and cannibalism, and hardly anything in common with the Asian, predominantly Muslim culture that prevailed throughout the rest of Indonesia. 

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The world beyond the mountains is largely unknown to a
Yali village in the Central Highlands. Tangled swamps and
cloud-covered mountains locked away much of the land until the
1950s, when Christian missionaries began hiking and flying into the interior.

Today, Indonesia exerts iron control of Irian Jaya. Nevertheless, a deep-seated cultural conflict exists. While the Melanesian people believed that they were descendants from the forests, most Indonesians believed that devils live in the forests and that the forests must be destroyed.

Logging settlement, Irian Jaya

Indonesia sees the province not as one of the world's last sanctuaries of biodiversity but as a huge depot of natural resources. Rainforests, with their valuable timber, cover 85 per cent of the territory. Rich deposits of copper and gold have been found in the mountains and pockets of oil in the lowlands. One of the world's most crowded places, Java had experienced the relocation of people into Irian Jaya. There is little doubt that Indonesia would be most reluctant to forgo this province. 

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A stilt village off Yapen Island probably looks little
different from when Portuguese explorers sailed the north coast
in the 1500s. Javanese traders preceded them, swapping porcelain
and cloth for pearls, bird of paradise plumes and slaves.

This Web site is intended to provide a window through which people may be able to get a glimpse of the traditional Melanesian people of Irian Jaya. There is little doubt that the Melanesian people of Irian Jaya had their culture under threat. It is the culture that is unquestionably Melanesian yet with its own distinct features that are found nowhere else in Melanesia.

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The houses of Irian Jaya's Kombai and Korowai people
are built as high as 150 feet to see the birds and the mountains
and to stop sorcerers from climbing the stairs. The house above is now
abandoned. Tree people live in tight-knit clans and hunt game like cassowary,
whose meat, bones, and feathers will all be put to good use.

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Three brothers relocated their families from the tall house
they shared to separate lower ones. They considered the move safe
because tensions between them and rival clans had recently been reduced. Roughly
cleared land around the new houses is planted in taro, tobacco, sweet potatoes and bananas.
 
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A Korowai hunter armed with specialised arrows for killing birds, fish, reptiles - and humans - searches for the day's food. As the environment is short on sizeable game, success is unlikely, and insects are more commonly eaten than cassowaries. Domestic pigs are reserved for dowries or settling disputes. The lives of the Korowai are hard and their view of the world spare: Humans live in the inner zone; the dead inhabit an outer zone. Beyond lies the great sea where all will perish as the world ends.

Entertaining guests, Irian Jaya

Irian Jaya warriors of the Arfak tribe

There is no doubt that Irian Jaya had been brought from the stone age to the present in a very short time. Road works are under construction and it is expected that dozens of transmigration settlements will be open shortly. Most dramatic of all, the Indonesian government even as it signs over large areas to development has carved out an enormous nature reserve system that covered one-sixth of the province - at least on paper.  It can only be hoped that under these circumstances some form of resolution of the cultural differences that are apparent in Irian Jaya can be achieved.

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 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 7th December 2010)
      
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