Anthropology: Art of Tribal Renewal

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Before his tragic death on an expedition to Netherlands New Guinea last year, young Michael C. Rockefeller, 23, managed to collect much of what he was searching for in the far Pacific: the religious art of the Asmat, a little-known Papuan people who live on the waterlogged Casuarinen Coast. Last week Rockefeller's extraordinary collection of Asmat carvings was on exhibition by New York's Museum of Primitive Art, and Dutch Anthropologist Adrian A. Gerbrands, who accompanied Rockefeller to New Guinea, was on hand to explain the intricate symbolism.

Art in New Guinea, said Dr. Gerbrands, is intensely religious, tangled in the mysteries of life and death. Among the Asmat, he explained, death is always the work of an enemy, who may kill a man in battle or sicken him by long-distance magic. Every death weakens the close-knit tribe, and if the dead man was an important personage, the tribe's loss of strength is considered so serious that something must be done about it. A successful head-hunting raid against guilty neighbors restores the injured tribe's prestige and self-respect, but such expeditions are not undertaken lightly. They require an enormous amount of preliminary ceremonial.

Sacred Grubs. Among the ceremonials may be the re-enacting of their legend of creation. In olden times, the Asmat believe, a great magician wandered through their country. He was alone, and when he began to long for company, he carved wooden figures and set them up in a forest glade. Then he beat on a drum, and the statues came to life to keep him cornpany. Even today, the Asmat carve figures, as the old magician did, and drum them to new "life."

Next step is to select two especially fine sago trees, which are the Asmat's principal source of food. The warriors stalk the trees as if they were human enemies and attack them with their deadliest weapons. After being ''killed,'' the trees are partially stripped of bark and dressed in leaf skirts like women. Six weeks later, the trunks are split open to collect and eat the finger-size beetle grubs that have grown inside them. Without these grubs, which are full of fat and considered delicious, no Asmat religious operation can hope to be successful.

Well fortified with sacred grubs, the Asmat then pick out several unusually beautiful mangrove trees and attack them.

When the bark is stripped off, the wood bleeds blood-red sap that enforces the symbolism. The felled trunks, each with a wide buttress root attached, are carried into the village, where the women greet them with rejoicing as if they were enemy corpses. The women, says Dr. Gerbrands, are more deeply religious than the men.

The mangrove trunks are taken to carvers who shape them into fantastic "ancestor poles." Each pole generally has two male figures, one standing on the other's head. The buttress root serves the upper figure as a gigantic, openwork phallic symbol. In a final climactic ceremony, the ancestor poles are set up near the men's house, and the warriors stage a fierce mock battle followed by a wild dance in which the women attack the men.

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