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Jungle diary: I set out in search of Papua’s cannibals.

Where is it, why do you want to go there, and why couldn’t I have had normal children, my mother asks.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2008

The Brazza River on the island of New Guinea as it appeared to the author on a trip to seek out the primitive Korowai tribe of Papua.

Danna Harman

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Dekai, Indonesia

Part 1 of a four-part series.  Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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Why Papua? My mom asks me. And where is it, anyway? I have no immediate answers. But a week later I have not only found it on a map and purchased all forms of cool camping paraphernalia (think quick-dry towels and waterproof socks) but also come up with a philosophy to explain the importance of voyaging across the world to this tropical land. My mom closes her eyes, raises her eyebrows, and wishes she had normal children.

The sparsely populated island of New Guinea, the second-largest island in the world after Greenland, is divided between two countries: the independent nation of Papua New Guinea in the east, and the Indonesian Papua in the west – formally known as Irian Jaya. More than 75 percent of Papua is covered by impenetrable jungle, and is home to a wide diversity of plant and animal life, as well as an array of indigenous, so-called “primitive” tribes – many of whom have little or no contact with the world outside.

Believed to number some 3,000 to 4,000 people, the Korowai of southeastern Papua are one such tribe. They were “discovered” in the 1970s but remain isolated. They hunt with bows and arrows, subsist for weeks on roots and beetle larvae, are illiterate, and don’t wear clothing. They practice polygamy, believe in witchcraft, and live in scattered treehouses some 25 feet off the ground. They are also thought to be among the last people in the world to practice cannibalism.

Thoughts of traipsing into the jungle to meet Korowai begin to fill my imagination. “Are there actually tribes with no knowledge of modern life?” I wonder. “Is cannibalism still practiced?” “Is the jungle really so dense you can’t get through it?” “Might such a trip be a good way to lose weight?” And beside all this: “Why is all this ‘otherness’ so inherently compelling to me?”
That last is a good question to chew on. The answer probably has much to do with trying to understand myself. Perhaps seeing how others make sense of the world around them will give me some insight into my own. “Good luck,” says my brother.

I set out with Adam, a TV producer and fellow searching soul, who has a three-week vacation. He packs unread New Yorkers in a special watertight pouch, buys a spear gun (“for fishing, idiot,” he explains when he sees my face), and we set off, stopping for lattes and mini-­ginger muffins at our favorite hip Tel Aviv cafe en route out of the country.