Papua is the western half of New Guinea, which is the second-largest island in the world. It stretches from warm equatorial sands to icy glacial peaks. Indonesia shares the island with the country of Papua New Guinea, which controls the eastern half of the island. It was formerly referred to as Irian Jaya.
Papua features abundant natural resources, including the second-largest tract of rainforest in the world. About 75 percent of Papua is covered by forests, which contain more than 2,500 species of orchids and 600 species of birds. Papua is also rich in culture, with as many as 800 different languages spoken among the various tribes and ethnic groups. Papua also is famous for its various art forms and its unusual flora and fauna.
Tangled swamps and rugged mountains blocked access to most of the island until the 1950s, when Christian missionaries began hiking and flying into the interior. Michael Rockefeller lost his life in the area in 1961, while conducting research and collecting art. Crocodiles or headhunters likely took his life.
The island of New Guinea has been like a lost world, where stone-age tribes practice cannibalism and where unique forms of plant life thrive like nowhere else on earth. It has a very old civilization with carbon dating suggesting human inhabitation for the last 25,000 years.
The population of Papua is estimated at approximately 1.8 million people. An estimated 800,000 migrants now live in the province. Most are landless Javanese who were encouraged to move to Papua under the government’s transmigration program. Under this resettlement program, Papua is now the largest destination for migrants from other islands such as Java, Bali, and Sulawesi.
The diversity of vegetation in Papua includes an estimated 16,000 species. It is considered to hold the richest concentration of plant life in the world. Many unique plants are of special interest such as the beautiful flame of Irian, a winding vine with large red flowers. Papua also has carnivorous pitcher plants.
Papua first made its way into Western history books in 1545, when the Spaniard Ynigo Ortiz de Retes stumbled upon the massive island. Early Western encounters with the Asmat tribe began with the explorations of Willem Jansz and Jan Carstenz, Dutch explorers of the 17th century. They described warriors who could move through the jungle with ease and attack while remaining invisible. Later, the log of Captain James Cook documented the loss of many mariners to the Asmat warriors, while searching for water on the island.
In 1883, the island of New Guinea was divided among three Western powers. The Dutch claimed the western half, while the Germans and British divided the eastern half into German New Guinea in the north and British Papua in the south.
When the Republic of Indonesia was created in 1949, the Netherlands granted independence to the colonized peoples of the former Dutch East Indies. However, they retained West New Guinea as a Dutch colony until armed conflict ensued in 1962. Under pressure from the United States, the Dutch agreed to secret negotiations with Indonesia. In August 1962, an agreement was concluded in New York between the Netherlands and Indonesia, under which the Dutch were to leave West New Guinea and transfer sovereignty to the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA), for a period of six years. West New Guinea was handed over to Indonesia in November 1969 making it the country’s largest province. Indonesia called the province Irian Jaya for many years, but bowed to local pressure and changed the name of the province to Papua.
Geology and Geography
The island’s terrain is rough, mountainous, and covered by rainforest. Papua possesses the world’s deepest natural harbor—Humboldt Harbor in Jayapura. It also features the only permanent glacier of any tropical island on the globe. Papua also holds the largest single tract of rainforest in the world outside of the Amazon, while pristine beaches frame much of the island.
Rainforests cover 85 percent of the territory. Rich deposits of copper and gold have been found in the mountains and pockets of oil were found in the lowlands. Papua has a different mixture and concentration of plant life with genetic similarities to Asia and Australia. The extreme of this contrast is found in the alpine zone with vegetation similar to both Antarctic and Himalayan vegetation. It is this transitional location between Asia and Australia that accounts for the extreme diversity of flora and fauna in Papua.
The alpine zone of Papua starts with its highest peak, Puncak Jaya, at 15,800 feet above sea level. Puncak Jaya is the highest peak between the Himalayas and the Andes. In fact, there are 10 other peaks over 13,000 feet nearby. Glaciers top three of them, making it one of only three places in the world with equatorial glacier fields. Just below the glacier the surface is similar to tundra with rocks and bogs. Vegetation consists of ground mosses, lichens, grasses, and herbs.
Sir Alfred Russel Wallace revealed Papua’s magnificent biological diversity to the rest of the world. Between 1854 and 1862, Wallace sent a total of 125,660 specimens back to England while making 60 to 70 different journeys to these islands.
Papua produced significant amounts of oil for Shell and other resource companies. In 1967, a massive reserve of copper at Mount Carstenz was first exploited by Freeport McMoRan, which received mining rights from Suharto. The huge mine holds copper and gold reserves worth billions of dollars.
Arts and Crafts
Asmat art is the most famous in Papua, including distinct characteristics of shape and symbols displayed on their war shields. Art has evolved highly within Asmat society, taking on importance, mandating individual prestige, and assuming great personal value. Art touches nearly every aspect of Asmat daily life. Spiritually inspired imagery is found on most possessions ranging from deadly spears to food bowls. The wow-ipits or wood carver is a man of major importance in Asmat society. His talents are sought after and his product is prized. Fellow villagers hire the wow-ipits regularly to create objects vital to a good feast or celebration. Once hired, the employer takes care of the artist and his family, as the artist’s happiness is essential to encourage the power of the ancestral spirits to enter his work. While all villagers create objects of everyday utility with their individual creative talents, it is the wow-ipits who must create the ceremonial items of ritual importance.
Today the Asmat lead a peaceful existence. Their land continues to resist change, yet waves of outside influence persist. Just a few traders and early 20th century research expeditions witnessed this culture in its natural form. Outside forces, including Indonesia’s government, western religion, tourism, and the exploitation of natural resources in the area have caused significant change. The Asmat today are torn by a cultural evolution, which pits traditional beliefs against Western concepts of progress. This evolution is seen clearly in Asmat art.
In October, artists from Asmat country converge at the Mission and Museum in Agats to display their best work. The best in each category receives prestigious awards, while the remaining entries are sold during the subsequent auction.
People and Language
There are two basic ethnicities native to Papua—the negroid peoples and the melanesian. It is thought that the negroid people settled on the island about 30,000 years ago, and were then followed by the melanesian people. One theory is that the bulk of Papuans came from east Africa and were pushed to the interior by successive migrations.
The people of New Guinea have as many as 800 languages, which account for about one-quarter of the known languages in the world. These cultures include the Dani of the Baliem Valley in the central highlands, the Asmat of the southern, coastal region, and the Ekari of the Wissel Lakes region.
Papua’s Kombai and Korowai people build their homes up to 150 feet above the ground. They build their homes high in the trees to see the birds and the mountains and to fend off a tribe of neighboring headhunters—the Citak. These tree houses are accessible only by using a springy climbing pole, which can be pulled up to cut off dangerous threats from below. The pole also is attached to the house in such a way that the inhabitants can watch it from numerous locations. Intruders have little chance of making a successful attack. Family life takes place entirely within the tree house, which has separate areas and entrances for men and women.
Tree people live in tight-knit clans and hunt game like cassowary, which are similar to an ostrich or emu. All meat, bones, and feathers are used. Domestic pigs are prized and they are used to pay for marriage dowries. They also are used to pay off disputes among families and villages. On rare occasions, the pigs are sacrificed to appease the gods.
The Dani people live in the Baliem Valley and grow sweet potatoes. The men wear little more than penis sheaths and the women wear simple grass skirts. The Asmat people live in the swampy lowlands on the island’s southwest coasts. They are known as fierce warriors who practiced cannibalism in the past.
Many of the tribes in the swampy areas of Papua build their houses on stilts to avoid rising tides, crawling insects, scorpions, and snakes. The raised foundation also helps the homes cool off at night.
Papua’s population was 85 percent Christian before Indonesia’s annexation. This percentage of Christians has declined in the past few years, due to the influx of Muslims from Java and other islands.
The Asmat have a highly ritualized and deeply faithful society in which stability among the living is reliant upon myth and the assistance of ancestors. The Asmat transcend from three worlds. Capinbinak or Asmat-ow is the world here on earth as we know it. Capinmi or damer-ow, the world of souls and spirits and a dangerous place of fear and apprehension. The Asmat world of the ancestors located to the west horizon, called Safan or Ji-ow, is similar to the concept some people have of heaven. Serenity of existence in Asmat is sustained only with continual adjustments to the balance among these worlds. This balance is brought about only by the fulfillment of ritual obligations, which requires the presence of their art at periodic feasts.
These ritual celebrations are synonymous with Asmat art and culture. The bis pokumbu, a war feast for which the bis is prepared, represents a prelude to war and requires the blood of an enemy’s head to be spilled at its base, freeing otherwise trapped ancestral spirits to move beyond the middle world and on to Safan.
The yamas pokumbu is a feast of the war shields, wherein ancestors are honored and called upon to enter the war shields, providing protection for the owner. The ci pokumbu is the feast associated with the production of war canoes, and the bi pokumbu is where elaborate jipae body masks are woven to help free the souls of the dead who have returned to the earthly world.
Tours inland are possible from Jayapura, but they require a police permit. Jayapura, the capital of this province, is a five-hour flight from Bali. Daily flights connect the two islands via Ujungpandang or Biak. Intra-island flights also are common to most cities. Live-aboard boats and riverboats are the best way to navigate the outer islands and the coastal areas.
Marsupials dominate the list of mammals indigenous to the island. Wallabies and tree kangaroos, found in the lower mountain regions, are the largest of native, land dwelling mammals. Other marsupials include bandicoots, possums and cuscus. Unfortunately for the cuscus, local people like its fur for clothing and they also eat its meat. Some cuscus are said to be so docile that capturing one requires nothing more than finding it and picking it up. Huge bats roam the forest at night seeking fruit and insects. One of the most unusual mammals in Papua is the spiny anteater or echidna. Along with the Australian duck-billed platypus, it is an egg-laying mammal.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Two species of saltwater crocodile frequent the coastal swamps and estuaries of Papua and both are giants. An crocodile that terrorized the Asmat village of Piramat was finally killed in 1970. This specimen was more than 22 feet long and it was known to have killed at least 55 people.
Crocodile skins were an important export, but over-hunting almost wiped them out completely in some areas. Hunting crocodiles is now illegal, but the law is difficult to enforce.
A great variety of snakes and lizards are found in Papua. The emerald tree monitor grows up to 10 feet long. It is shy and does not pose a threat to humans. The same cannot be said for the death adder or the taipan. These two are extremely venomous, but rarely encountered. The green tree python is one of the most beautiful snakes in Papua. It’s a harmless creature with striking green colors and jewel-like markings.
The only amphibians native to the island are frogs, but there are more frogs on New Guinea than anywhere else. More than 200 species of frogs populate this island and some are found as high as 12,500 feet above sea level.
Rare Fish and Butterflies
The swampy south coast of Papua is too unstable to grow coral, but some of the finest coral reefs in the world are near the northwestern coasts. Areas around Triton Bay, the Raja Empat islands, and the islands of the Cendrawasih Bay are among the most-prized dive locations in the world. New Guinea’s coral reefs have about 3,000 species of fish.
Papua’s freshwater lakes and streams feature aquatic diversity of their own. At least 158 species of the rainbow fish are found on this island. They only inhabit New Guinea and Australian waters. The archerfish is a small inhabitant of some of Papua’s lakes, slow rivers, and swamps. It spits water with amazing accuracy and power to knock insects down from leaves above and into the water.
Some of Papua’s freshwater species are giants. The sawfish prowls the large rivers and Papua’s lakes, including Lake Sentani. These creatures can reach 15 feet long and can weigh almost half a metric ton. The people living around Sentani believe their ancestral spirits live in these sawfish, so they refuse to eat them. Lake Yamur is said to have freshwater sharks.
The colorful prize of Papua is the bird wing butterfly. It is found across New Guinea, but is most concentrated in the Arfak Mountains, just inland from Manokwari. These butterflies are covered with glowing colors.
Birds Of Papua
There are more than 650 different species of birds on New Guinea. At least 454 of these species are indigenous and 36 are endemic only to this island. These include 36 species of the bird of paradise, bowerbirds, crowned pigeons (the largest pigeon in the world), and cassowary, one of the most famous of Papua’s birds. It is a large, flightless bird with powerful claws. They are capable of killing humans. Hunters seek these birds for their hair-like feathers, which are a common decoration on hats and other items.
Papua also has the pitohui, which is the only poisonous bird in the world.
Distribution of the birds in the various habitats through Irian Jaya also makes an interesting study and points to the geological developments that contribute heavily to all this diversity. The field guide Birds of New Guinea identifies 15 distinct bird regions characterized by the species found, topography, and climate.
Parrots, cockatoos, and lories brighten up the forests with red, yellow and purple. Papua is home to megapods, or brush turkeys, which bury their eggs in sand or piles of vegetation. Bowerbirds are industrious local birds that decorate their large nests with flowers and berries.
Papua Plant Life
Papua has the richest concentration of plant life in all of Indonesia, and perhaps in the world. Scientists estimate that New Guinea has 16,000 species of plants, including hundreds of medicinal ones. So far, 2,770 species of orchids have been recorded in Papua. Most are growing in the rich lowland forest, but some can be found in the sub-alpine meadows of the highlands.
Roasted or steamed, the sweet potato, called hepere, constitutes 90 percent of the Dani diet. More than 70 varieties are cultivated, but four or five are commonly used. Taro and yams, as well as bananas, various vegetables, ginger, tobacco, and cucumbers also are grown.
Towns, Villages, and Nearby Islands
Baliem Valley (BAH-lee-EHM): This is the land of the Dani tribe, one of the last indigenous tribes of Papua. Westerners entered this valley for the first time in 1938. World War II interrupted further exploration until 1945, when a plane crashed in the valley and drew attention to the region again.
Several small towns line the valley, including Wamena. The Dani are farmers who wear very little clothing if any. The men wear penis sheaths made of gourds and unmarried women wear grass skirts. The markets are great opportunities to observe the local culture. Each village has its morning market on a different day. It’s best to visit during the dry months—between March and August. Travelers can fly in and out of Wamena and make it a base camp for local treks.
Pulau Biak (POO-low BEE-ahk): This is a quiet little island on the northern coast of Papua. Kota Biak is the largest town. It sits one degree south of the equator. It serves as a good base for trekking to places such as the North Biak Reserve, and for diving. Flights to Biak are available from numerous cities in central and northern Papua.
Fak-Fak (FAHK-FAHK): This former Dutch settlement overlooks several bays. Go north to Kokas to see Japanese cannons, tunnels, and shipwrecks from World War II. Ancient rock paintings can be seen by boat near Goras. The Madedred Waterfalls and Ugar Islands are in the vicinity. These islands are good for diving and snorkeling. Flights are available from Biak and Sorong.
Jayapura/Sentani (JYE-ah POOR-rah, SEHN-than-EE): This is the largest city in Papua, with more than 190,000 people. Travelers often must stay here while obtaining government approval to travel in this part of Indonesia. While there, see the Museum Loka Budaya, which displays a broad range of artifacts from Papua, including some very good examples of Asmat art. The town of Sentani is just 36 kilometers away near Lake Sentani, which offers a quieter and cooler alternative to Jayapura. Flights are available to and from cities throughout the island and the country.
Merauke (MEHR-ahk): This is the most convenient town for accessing Asmat country and Wasur National Park. Indigenous tribes live in a valley north of the city along Sungai Bian. A thick rainforest covers the area. Tours can be arranged in Merauke. This is Indonesia’s eastern-most settlement. Most of the available flights are to and from Jayapura.
Sorong (SOHR-rohng): This oil and logging town serves as a hub for divers, trekkers, and bird watchers. Other than that, it’s a place to make transit by plane or boat. Cassowary Beach (Pantai Casuari) is a nice place to swim and snorkel.
Cenderwasih Bay Marine National Park (CHEHN-dehr-WAH-see): This beautiful reserve holds 18 islands that are framed by 500 kilometers of coastline, home to giant clams, turtles, and some of the best diving in Indonesia. These islands are a short boat ride from Biak.
Wasur National Park (WAH-soor): This is a joint project of the World Wildlife Fund, Directorate of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation, and the local indigenous people. The area features anthills, wetlands, traditional villages, and 27 species of kangaroos, just to name a few of the highlights. This Park is located in extreme southeast Papua, on the Papua New Guinea border.
Raja Empat (RAH-jah EHM-paht): This remote area has emerged as one of the most exotic and fascinating dive sites in the world. It is located off the coast of Sorong near Wai Island, which serves as a base camp for many divers. The only way to experience this area is by live-aboard boat. Raja Empat means the “four kings” in Bahasa Indonesia. It often is misspelled by visitors as “Ampat,” so travelers may see it written both ways.
Experience more of Indonesia than the average traveler by speaking the local language. Simple courtesies and greetings will make your trip more productive and rewarding. Our phonetic style makes it impossible to mispronounce important words. Order your hard copy.
The locals will sparkle with delight when you speak just a few words in bahasa Indonesia.