Papuan tribe cares for 250-year-old mummy to preserve ancient rite

Looking after the blackened body of their dead ancestor, Agat Mamete Mabel, is a year-round task for members of a remote village in Indonesian Papua.

Tribe chief Eli Mabel poses with the mummified remains of his ancestor, Agat Mamete Mabel, outside a traditional house in the village of Wogi in Wamena, the long-isolated home of the Dani tribe high in the Papuan central highlands. Adek Berry/AFP
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WAMENA, Indonesia // Cradling the centuries-old mummy of his ancestor, tribe leader Eli Mabel lays bare an ancient tradition that has all but vanished among the Dani people in the Papuan central highlands.

The shrunken, blackened figure he carries was Agat Mamete Mabel, a chieftain who ruled over this remote village in Indonesian Papua about 250 years ago.

He was embalmed and preserved with smoke and animal oil after his death, an honour reserved only for important elders and local heroes among the Dani.

Nine generations on and his descendent Eli Mabel is the chieftain in Wogi village – an isolated hamlet outside Wamena that can be reached only by hiking and canoe.

He said the exact age of Agat Mamete Mabel was not known, but he was the last of the village to receive such a funeral. Once common among his forebears, the ritual method of smoke embalming is no longer practised.

Christian missionaries and Muslim preachers encouraged the tribespeople to bury the corpses, and the tradition faded as the centuries passed.

But Mr Mabel wants to retain the ancient rites and rituals for future generations.

“We must protect our culture, including the ceremonies for the mummy, the way we treat it, and maintain and fire for it,” he said.

The mummy, decorated with pig tusks slung around the torso, a feathered headpiece and traditional penis gourd, rests in a hut known as a “honai”.

This wide domed thatched hut is tended year round by a select few villagers who keep a fire burning to ensure the corpse remains dry and preserved.

Mr Mabel said the duty of caring for the mummy often falls to him. He has spent many nights sleeping alone in the honai, ensuring no harm befalls his ancestor.

Eventually, the duty of caring for the mummy will be passed to others. Mr Mabel hopes his four children will bear some responsibility for keeping their customs alive, but some of them live in far-off provinces in Indonesia’s more populated centres.

“I have told them they must take care of the mummy at some point in their lives,” he said.

The ancient Dani tribes in Indonesia’s half of the island of New Guinea were cut off from the outside world until well into the 20th century. Their homeland in the Baliem Valley was isolated by steep, rugged valleys and dense highland forest.

Today, the region remains one of the poorest in Indonesia. Many tribes rely on tourism, attracting visitors to their remote villages with their unique customs, traditional dress and rituals.

* Agence France-Presse