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The tree house dwellers of Papua


The Korowai people, inhabitants of Guinea, have become famous for three reasons. First, there are no records of the group having contact with Westeners until 1974, when anthropologist Peter Van Arsdale and a group of researchers led and expedition to the south bank of the Upper Eilanden River. Second, the Korowai have been reported to practice ritual cannibalism, although there are suspicions this is nowadays not more than a way of encouraging tourism. And third, the Korowai live up in the air. Up to 35 meters up. 

Their tree houses are built well above flood-water levels, mainly for defensive purposes: The height and girth of the ironwood stilts protect them from arson attacks (nuts set alight and inhabitants smoked out – not a nice way to go), and disrupting rival clans from kidnapping women and children. They are also an excellent protection against mosquitos and evil spirits.

The architecture of the Korowai houses is unique. They are built using existing Banyan or Wanbom trees, that become the main pole as well as a ladder to gain access. Small poles are later added to the corners of the house for additional support. The floor is built first (each house is normally inhabited by around twelve people plus pets), and then everything is binded together with raffia. Once finished, the house is blessed by smearing animal fat, and small holes are cut into the roof to symbolically give access to tasty animals like pigs. The houses are so well planned that not even fire is a threat to them, because the floors have cut away sections.

Despite being  historically isolationist, the Korowai are a small group (3.000 to 4.000 tribe members), and more and more people are moving to nearby towns. It’s possible there will be just one more generation of tree-house dwellers, before they get integrated with the rest of the island.

Image credit: My Modern Met


UX Designer and Anthropologist, hardcore gamer, obsessive reader and improvised artificer of crafts. I cheated on population genetics with graphic design and since that the three of us have been living happily ever after. I enjoy writing little pieces on practically anything that catches my eye, but I lean towards those occasions when art overlaps with science.

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