Sleeping With Cannibals

A writer from the Smithsonian Magazine makes a trip to New Guinea:

For days I’ve been slogging through a rain-soaked jungle in Indonesian New Guinea, on a quest to visit members of the Korowai tribe, among the last people on earth to practice cannibalism. Soon after first light this morning I boarded a pirogue, a canoe hacked out of a tree trunk, for the last stage of the journey, along the twisting Ndeiram Kabur River. Now the four paddlers bend their backs with vigor, knowing we will soon make camp for the night.

My guide, Kornelius Kembaren, has traveled among the Korowai for 13 years. But even he has never been this far upriver, because, he says, some Korowai threaten to kill outsiders who enter their territory. Some clans are said to fear those of us with pale skin, and Kembaren says many Korowai have never laid eyes on a white person. They call outsiders laleo (“ghost-demons”).

Suddenly, screams erupt from around the bend. Moments later, I see a throng of naked men brandishing bows and arrows on the riverbank. Kembaren murmurs to the boatmen to stop paddling. “They’re ordering us to come to their side of the river,” he whispers to me. “It looks bad, but we can’t escape. They’d quickly catch us if we tried.”