By Alex Jones
FASCINATING photographs of a reclusive cannibalistic tribe that would use the decapitated heads of their enemies as pillows and allegedly committed the gruesome murder of the Rockefeller heir fifty years ago have emerged.
Intense photo portraits show the men, women and children of the Asmat people who live on the coast of New Guinea – including tribal elders sitting behind their sacred masks of wood; the hard stare of an older man sporting a feathered headdress; and a handsome teenager who seems far more at ease in the front of the camera.
Other striking shots include the tribe gathering for a community meeting in a rudimentary hut and a collection of the controversial tribe heading across the coastal waters of Papua, Indonesia on their own hand-hewn canoes.
But the stunning photographs, captured by photographer and explorer, Gianluca Chiodini (41) from Rome, Italy, only hint to the New Guinea tribe’s dark, violent history.
Apart from a reputation for sublime wood carving, the Asmat people have spent centuries hunting down their enemies and removing their heads, sometimes transforming their decapitated skulls into pillows and other times using them as macabre bowls to eat the flesh of their opposing tribes.
“I have always really wanted to go to Papua, in particular the Asmat area,” admitted Chiodini, who also works as a manager for an energy company.
“I discarded several expeditions to the area because they didn’t include Asmat and chose a tour based on the recommendation of a local expert.
“Asmat handicraft is legendary of course and a big reason for my visit. Another was the beautiful body and facial decorations on display but most of all I yearned to explore a tribe which is close to ‘world limits’.
“But you really need to want to go to Asmat, because it takes several days to get there, you need to sleep in tents in their longhouse, to navigate in narrow rivers and they are not that friendly.
“I knew the Rockefeller story before I got there, I was also a little bit scared because you cannot know what you will face when you arrive in the area.
“Officially headhunting ceased in nineties. What I can say is that Asmat are relatively isolated and their most important cultural traditions are still strong – you can feel it as you explore the area.”
Asmat did not only hunt for skulls, they also worshipped them. The skulls of the deceased were stripped of the brain and the eyes and nasal parts were closed up in order to prevent evil spirits to enter or exit the body. Skulls that were modified and decorated were displayed by the Asmat in an honourable place in their homes.
Although the practice is said to have waned since the 1990s, the Asmat people have long believed that when they killed a man and ate him, they take his power and become him. Every person was named after someone deceased, or after a killed enemy.
Without doubt their biggest alleged scalp was Michael C Rockefeller – the great-grandson of the Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, once the richest man on Earth, and Nelson Rockefeller, who became Gerald Ford’s vice president.
Michael was exploring New Guinea in 1961 in search of treasures to bring home and put on display in his hometown of New York City. He visited Asmat – where he declared the region as, ‘wild and somehow more remote country than what I have ever seen before’ – where he had a pragmatic, if not overly friendly, relationship with the local tribes.
As his boat approached what is now Papua New Guineas on November 19, a sudden squall churned the water and capsized Rockefeller’s boat. Despite being 10 miles from dry land, he attempted to swim to shore.
In 2014, Carl Hoffman, a reporter for National Geographic, revealed in his book Savage Harvest, that he believed Rockefeller was murdered and eaten by the Asmat people. According to years of research, the Oil Standard heir had managed to make it back to the island but was confronted by a bank of Asmat tribespeople who were fishing the waters.
For Gianluca, the Rockefeller murder was no reason not to visit one of the most unspoilt areas on Earth. He remembers speaking to the tribal elders, old enough to have partaken in their tribe’s history of cannibalism and headhunting, and being distracted by the notion as he asked the ancient warriors to pose for a photo.
“Being able to capture people in their environment and show what life is like in these places is a big part of what I enjoy about travel photography,” he said.
“In other worlds, connecting with locals, even if sometimes just with non-verbal language. This is when I take my best shots.”
For more of Gianluca Chiodini’s work, please visit his Facebook page.