Object: Dagger

E/2004/6/41
Asmat: Cassowary bone dagger
Indonesia, Irian Jaya
Date Unknown
Materials: Bone, grasses, feathers

This dagger was made from the long bone of a cassowary. The handle of the dagger has been covered with woven grass and cassowary feathers hang from either side.

This particular style of bone dagger is associated with the Asmat. The Asmat people live in the western half of New Guinea formerly known as Irian Jaya. Their tribal lands are on the west coast of the mainland and share some overlap with the Lorentz National Park.

A cassowary is a bird found in the rainforests of Australia and New Guinea. It is a large, flightless bird and is just slightly smaller than an emu. Cassowaries are revered by many groups in Indonesia because they can be extremely aggressive animals. In many cases, cassowaries are seen as supernatural creatures. The oral tradition of the Asmat contains origin stories in which the cassowary is portrayed as the mother of all human beings. Perhaps because of this myth, the cassowary is always thought to be female. Despite this, the cassowary is a symbol of masculinity and male strength among the Asmat and is associated with warfare and rites to manhood.

According to the Asmat, no death is accidental. Deaths occur either due to murder or sorcery. For this reason, each death must be avenged. The Asmat believe that the souls of their dead dwell inside of the trees. In order to pay homage to their dead, the Asmat carve ancestor bis poles (also known as bisj or beech poles). These poles also serve as a reminder that the death must be avenged.

When a member of the Asmat dies, the bis pole carving begins. This also sets off a series of feasts and celebrations. This ongoing process eventually culminates in a headhunting raid of the neighboring enemy group believed to be the source of the death. While headhunting occurs only occasionally among the Asmat today, mock battles are still held. Taking the head of an enemy was essential to restoring the cosmic balance. So it is through this cycle of warfare that the Asmat continually restore order.

[Kelsey Barrow]

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