Kombai people

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Kombai people
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Indonesia (Papua (province))
Kombai language, Indonesian language
Christianity (predominantly), Totemism
Related ethnic groups
Korowai people

The Kombai are a Papuan people of Melanesia living in the Indonesian province of Papua in Western New Guinea.

Way of life

A Korowai treehouse, identical to Kombai treehouses. They are built high to offer protection against raids by enemy tribes.

The Kombai have become prominent to the outside world primarily because of their traditional tree house dwellings, which often reach heights of over 20 meters. They live adjacent to the Korowai people, who also live in tree houses, and have some similar cultural practices, but speak a different language.

Pigs are equivalent to currency to the Kombai. For example, if the wife of a Kombai man were to die, the family of the woman may demand pigs as compensation. For Kombai men to marry, they first have to buy the woman from her family with necklaces made from dog's teeth.

Kombai also host parties (although very rarely), in which they invite people of other tribes, often to repay the other tribes for parties they held, or to clear their names after a Suangi attack on another family or tribe. In these parties the Kombai would feed their guest sago, and grubs from the sago tree, which are a delicacy to the Kombai. The leader of the family will hang brush from the ceiling of where the party was housed, and if the party was a success, the other tribesmen burn the brush.

The subsistence patterns of the Kombai people are somewhat related to those of the Asmat people on the southwest coast of Papua, although the Kombai are linguistically very distinct.

The Kombai generally live in huts, with each clan living in a large treehouse, although most activities are done outside. Each clan guards its treehouse and territory with bows and arrows. In certain areas of the forest, no clans build treehouses or occupy, as these places are reserved for the spirits. The Kombai tradition of building treehouses comes from the fact that treehouses are easier to defend in times of war with neighboring tribes, or headhunting tribes which used to terrorize Kombai lands.[2]

For food, the Kombai hunt pigs and other forest animals, fish, eat the larvae of beetles and plants and eat sago from sago palms. The Kombai often use small dogs to help track down and kill animals. The Kombai cook meat by heating stones under a fire, wrapping the meat in large leaves, and placing the hot stones on top, until the meat is cooked. Fishing is done by building a small dam on a stream, beating the poison out of toxic roots into the stream, forcing the fish up. The fish are then easily captured. As food is abundant in the forest, none is stored.[3] The tribe are also known to have practiced cannibalism.

The Kombai also make cigars out of bamboo.

According to Kombai tradition, all strangers approaching a treehouse, including invited guests, are stopped by armed men and forced to prove that they mean no harm before they are allowed through.

A small number of Kombai have integrated into modern society and converted to Christianity.


Occasionally, the Kombai may sacrifice a pig - a most sacred animal, only usually used to settle disputes between tribes and family. The sacrifice begins by tying the pig's legs together and taking it to a river side. It is then shot with arrows - taking care to ensure a quick death - before mentioning the three elements; Fire, Water and Air.

The animal is then skinned and has the fat scraped off and offered to their god, Refafu. No women are allowed to watch this procedure; otherwise it will render the sacrifice ineffective. After the sacrifice, no one is allowed to bathe in the river for the next two days, as Refafu will be drinking the spilt blood of the pig - it is believed he absorbs the passion it produces.

The Kombai also believe in evil spirits called Suangi. Suangis are said to eat the blood and/or internal organs of their victims and then stuff the bodies with leaves and grass. They are also believed to devour the person's soul. After being attacked, the victim is then said to return home where they seem to have fallen mysteriously ill.

If a victim is able to name the Suangi that has attacked him, they are often killed and eaten by the victim's family in the belief that it will free the person's spirit. The Kombai also believe in Khakhua-Kumu, evil men who consume the souls of their victims, and must be killed or eaten in return. The Kombai also believe that some sections of the forest are inhabited by spirits, and no clan may build a treehouse or occupy land there.


British adventurer and TV presenter Bruce Parry lived with the Kombai in season 1, episode 3 of his documentary series, Tribe (2005).

A television series on The Discovery Channel entitled "Living with the Kombai" in the US, and on both the National Geographic Channel and The Discovery Channel, called "World's Lost Tribes" in the UK, was shown in January 2007. In the series, two men travelled to Papua and spent several months living with an extended Kombai family. Their adventures included hunting for a large lizard and wild pig (not a captive pig, see religion section) and fishing by constructing a rudimentary dam on a stream. They also helped chop down large trees with a stone axe, made sago from the Sago Palm tree, and used its fibres to build a treehouse nearly 80 feet off the ground.

The Kombai were also featured in the 2007 season of the series Mark & Olly: Living with the Tribes.

The Kombai were also featured in "Going to Extremes" series 2: 'Surviving Extremes' (2003) in the Swamp episode. The host "Nick Middleton" stays with the tribe and climbs the treehouses.

Finnish TV-show Madventures has done an episode involving Kombai and Korowai tribes in West-Papua at season 2 episode 6.


  1. ^ "Kombai in Indonesia". Joshua Project. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
  2. ^ See ref #2
  3. ^ BBC Documentary

External links

  • World's Lost Tribes website
  • BBC: Kombai Tribe
  • Kombai language research, VU University Amsterdam
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