November 13, 2023 | Sammy Tran

The Korowai Tribe

Treehouse Cannibals: The Korowai Tribe

Korowai Tribal people TravelPapua, Authentic Indonesia

Nestled in the remote rainforests of Papua, Indonesia, the Korowai tribe is one of the last societies in the world to live almost completely isolated from the outside world.

Known for living in treehouses and using cannibalism as a form of consequence, the Korowai have maintained a very unique cultural identity, closely tied to the dense jungles of Papua.

Where do they live?

TreehouseAdventureCarstensz, Authentic Indonesia

The Korowai people inhabit the dense, swampy rainforests in the southeastern part of the Papua province of Indonesia.

Their homeland is characterized by its inaccessibility, with rivers and thick canopies forming natural barriers. This isolation has played a crucial role in preserving their traditional way of life.

How big is their tribe?

Korowai Tribe PeopleCruisingIndonesia, Authentic Indonesia

Estimating the population of the Korowai is challenging due to their remote location and nomadic lifestyle.

Current estimates suggest that there are about 3,000 to 4,000 Korowai people. However, this number is subject to change as their lifestyle makes accurate census-taking difficult.

What language do they speak?

Korowai Tribe womanPapua Explorer

The Korowai speak their own language, which belongs to the Papuan language group. This language is a crucial element of their cultural identity but is at risk as external influences grow.

Preserving their language is essential for maintaining the tribe's cultural heritage.


What do they live in?

Korowai Tribe tree houseSmithsonian Magazine

One of the most striking aspects of Korowai culture is their tree houses, built high above the ground, sometimes as high as 30 meters.

The construction of a Korowai tree house is a remarkable feat of traditional engineering, utilizing only the materials sourced directly from the forest, such as timber, bamboo, and sago palm leaves.

Their houses are partitioned into two or three separate rooms. Each of these rooms is equipped with its own fireplace. Men and women reside in different areas of the house.

These incredible structures are crafted over the course of several weeks, entirely by hand and without the aid of any modern tools like hammers, measuring tapes, or nails. Remarkably, when properly maintained, these houses can endure for many years.

Why do they live in tree houses?

Korowai Tribe tree houseMyTrip, Authentic Indonesia

The Korowai tribe's preference for building their homes high up in the trees stems from multiple practical and spiritual considerations.

Firstly, the altitude offers a respite from the swarms of mosquitoes and a reduced risk of encounters with snakes.

Additionally, these lofty abodes provide a strategic advantage, safeguarding them from potential enemy attacks.

But paramount among their reasons is the deep-rooted belief in forest spirits that are said to wander the forest floor at night, a belief that significantly influences their architectural choices.

What are their cultural beliefs?

Korowai Tribe menSmithsonian Magazine

The Korowai have a rich array of cultural practices and beliefs.

They believe in a form of animism, where spirits are thought to inhabit the natural world around them. Rituals, ceremonies, and traditional lore play a significant role in their daily life, reflecting a profound connection with the environment.

What are their cultural beliefs? Cont'd

Korowai Tribe houseJayapura, Indonesia, Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned previously, A captivating element of Korowai spiritual beliefs centers around the concept of “khakhua,” malicious spirits thought to assume human forms and inflict harm upon the tribe.

To defend themselves against these sinister entities, the Korowai engage in intricate rituals and practices, incorporating traditional medicinal knowledge and magical rites.

In their worldview, any instance of illness or demise is often attributed to the malevolent influence of a khakhua, sometimes linked to a sorcerer believed to have deliberately caused the affliction.

These spirits are thought to dwell within the same forest as the Korowai, inhabiting specific zones deemed sacred or forbidden.

These areas are strictly off-limits, as they are considered the realms of these spirits and entering them could invite danger and misfortune.

How do they settle conflict?

Korowai Tribe man with skullSmithsonian Magazine

Historically, inter-group conflicts among the Korowai were often sparked by issues such as adultery, theft, taking someone's life, or accusations of malevolent sorcery.

In their culture, acts of cannibalism were ritualistically performed as a form of retribution, specifically targeting those believed to be evil shamans, or "khakhua."

When someone was identified as a khakhua, they would be executed, and their body parts divided and consumed by clan members.

In these rituals, pregnant women and children were traditionally excluded from participating in cannibalistic acts. The cycle of brutality within clans often perpetuated a need for revenge, leading to longstanding hostilities between groups.

Marriages could also be sources of conflict; persecution of a woman within a family often resulted in retaliatory actions. Cases of adultery were typically resolved through the exchange of goods between the families involved. 

In situations where a man eloped with a woman, the resolution often involved the man's family paying a dowry to the woman’s family as compensation.

What do they eat?

Korowai Tribe Woman eating larvaeMari, Wikimedia Commons

The Korowai are primarily hunter-gatherers, relying on the forest for sustenance. They hunt various animals, including pigs, cassowaries, and small mammals. Insects and larvae are also a common nutritional source.

Gathering wild food, fishing, and small-scale cultivation of crops like sago palm also form crucial parts of their diet.

In the Korowai society, pigs and dogs hold the unique status of being the only animals kept as pets. Pigs, in particular, are highly valued within their social structure and are typically slaughtered only during ritualistic ceremonies or special events, underlining their cultural significance.

Dogs, on the other hand, play a crucial role in hunting activities, assisting in tracking and capturing game.

For fishing, the Korowai skillfully utilize bows and arrows, showcasing their adeptness in traditional hunting methods.

Historically, they also hunted crocodiles as a source of food, although this practice has diminished over time.


What is their family structure like?

Korowai TribePapua Explorer

The social and cultural fabric of the Korowai tribe is intricately woven, adhering to a well-defined hierarchy influenced by age and gender.

At the helm of their societal structure is a chief, a pivotal figure tasked with the responsibility of making critical decisions, ensuring the well-being of the community, and upholding peace and harmony among the tribe members.

Additionally, the Korowai abide by a set of traditional laws and customs, which dictate their day-to-day activities and interactions, both within their community and with neighboring tribes.

What are their marriage rituals?

Korowai Tribe kidSmithsonian Magazine

Generally, Korowai men marry at a relatively mature age, often around or after 20 years old. In contrast, women typically enter into marriage soon after their first menstrual cycle.

The typical household structure comprises the family patriarch, his wife or wives, and their unmarried children.

In the event of the father's demise, unmarried mothers and their children are customarily taken under the care of the father's extended family, ensuring their continued welfare and support within the tribal community.

In Korowai culture, the passing of an individual results in the transfer of land rights to their descendants, reflecting the importance of land and lineage. In cases where a man loses his brother, he inherits his brother's wife, a practice stemming from the dowry system prevalent in their society.

What is life like for them today?

Korowai Tribe tree houseJayapura Indonesia, Wikimedia Commons

The Korowai people, once living in complete isolation in the dense rainforests of Papua, Indonesia, now find themselves at a crossroads between tradition and the encroaching modern world.

While they continue to uphold many of their ancestral practices, such as living in distinctive tree houses and relying on hunting, gathering, and rudimentary agriculture, the influence of external contacts is gradually seeping into their lifestyle. This includes the adoption of metal tools, clothing, and even processed foods.

Is their way of life at risk?

Korowai Tribe treehousesOutdoor Revival

Despite the influx of modern items and ideas, the Korowai's core lifestyle remains largely traditional. Their spiritual beliefs and rituals, though now exposed to external influences, still play a central role in their community.

However, this increasing contact with the outside world brings significant challenges, notably the threats of deforestation and mining to their homeland, as well as the dangers posed by diseases brought by outsiders.

Final Thoughts

Korowai Tribe tree houseOutdoor Revival

The Korowai tribe's existence is a testament to the diversity and resilience of human cultures. Their way of life, deeply intertwined with the rainforest, offers invaluable insights into a way of living that is in harmony with nature.

As the world grapples with issues of environmental sustainability and cultural preservation, the story of the Korowai stands as a poignant reminder of what is at stake.