The Culture That Still Practices Cannibalism

“Everything in this room is eatable. Even I’m eatable. But that is called cannibalism, my dear children, and is in fact frowned upon in most societies.” —Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

In A Nutshell

The Korowai are a tribe of about 4,000 individuals living in the jungle of New Guinea, and they are the last confirmed group to practice cannibalism. To them, however, it’s not exactly cannibalism—it’s the revenge consumption of a demon that has taken the skin of a human and eaten another. The tribe has only recently begun to let outsiders close enough to get a look at their customs.

The Whole Bushel

The Korowai live in the jungles of Indonesian New Guinea, along the Ndeiram Kabur River. With the rather reluctant admittance of outsiders into their homes and villages, they’ve become poster children for sustainable living (which is bizarre, considering their rather taboo revenge ritual). They live in tree houses high up in the jungle canopy, a shining example of re-purposing naturally available materials and making the most of their hot, humid environment. It’s a great lifestyle—if you can overlook the cannibalism.

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s rather complete. The victim is almost entirely consumed by the tribe’s adults, save for bones, teeth, hair, genitals, fingernails, and toenails. Bones are left outside as a warning, but the man who killed the victim gets to keep the skull.

To the Korowai, the cannibalism they practice is part of a ritual crucial to keeping the members of their tribe safe from a demon called the khakhua. 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. That named person is now no longer seen as a person, but as a demon. The khakhua is killed with a magical bone arrow, made from the bones of a large native bird and carved with deep barbs along each side of the arrowhead.

Once killed, the khakhua is dismembered and cooked in much the same way they cook pigs, a dietary staple.

It’s important to distinguish that to the Korowai, they do not believe they’re eating a person—they are eating the khakhua. To a culture that holds revenge in very high regard, they are doing to the witch what that witch did to one of their human tribesmen. To them, this cannibalism is justice, and will be served no matter who the person was.

Even children can become khakhua, but they are traditionally not killed and eaten until puberty. Children do not, however, take part in the eating of a khakhua.

The ritual isn’t a common one, either, and it’s slowly becoming more and more rare as the Korowai are further exposed to the outside world. In some areas, law enforcement has cracked down on the practice of the ritual killings. Light-skinned individuals are still not widely known in the area, and are still referred to as “laleo” (“ghost demons”).

The Korowai lack modern medicines, and their jungle environment means they are commonly exposed to diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. The average life span is not high, and the frequency of illness and early death is sometimes explained by the presence of a khakhua—especially if tragedy strikes the same family in a short period of time.

Notably, the area of Indonesian New Guinea that the Korowai call home is the same place that Michael Rockefeller (of the Standard Oil Rockefeller family) disappeared as he was searching for native art to bring back for the Museum of Primitive Art in New York City. His fate is officially unknown, but it’s been speculated that he was a victim of cannibals.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: Sleeping with Cannibals
60 Minutes: The Last Cannibals
Who Was Michael C. Rockefeller?
BBC: Sustainable living — Korowai tribe and tree houses