Asmat War Shield


The War Shield of the Cannibalistic Asmat Tribe of Papua














The war shield is wood curving that was used by the Asmat group of people. These are people who live on a small Island in rugged and isolated mangrove vegetation, on the southwest side of the New Guinea Island of the Indonesian province of Papua. This shield was used during the war and traditional hunting for prey or food. The shield was curved from light weight, plank of the prop root of the mangrove trees and measured about 5 to 6 feet (170-200cm). It had protrusion on one side while the front side was curved in a high relief with incised non-figural symbols of wild boar tusks, bones, and flying foxes sand tails of tree kangaroos among other symbols.

The war shields deferred in features with substantial differences being shape, decoration and ornamentation. The war shield can be divided into two types; type A and type B on the basis of particularities of expertise and decoration. The type A was more rectangular, rectilinear form with projection of the ancestor symbol (phallic, figure head) from the upper head and large motif of ornamentation. The grip of the shield comprised of two finger holes which extended over the whole length of the shield and arching at the center with the end of the crosspiece forming a hand. In terms of the ornamentation, the shield had large symbols, which covered the entire surface of the shield in pairs, lying opposite to one another either vertically or horizontally. The reverse side was smoothed and painted with zigzag lines on both sides of the handle. It also had large holes at regular intervals on the long border with bunches of sago fronds knotted on and free falling from the knots (Konrad and Bohning,1974). Type B shield was oval with appointed top, wider and more rounded at the bottom, and the surface was covered with small motifs and had many fill-in decorations besides the main ornamental motif. The grip showed u-shaped bow ending directly at the plank of the shield or running out the plank within a short distance. The reversed side was unpainted or sometimes painted half red and half white with the upper head region being white. It had fine holes on the border on which tuft of sago frond on one long braided, cord hanged.

Until recently, Asmat is a word that long scared people. Asmat is a tribe whose members embraced warfare and head hunting as their culture. During the war, they ate the brain of their enemies in the territory of the asmatic tribe. They then used the human skull as a pillow. The war shield had immense significance in their livelihood. It always represented ancestors and the ancestor’s spirits believed to be present in the shield making the owner fierce, powerful and invincible.

The shield was used to protect them from the physical and spirituals powers of the enemies. It is believed that the shield gave the owner the power, making him fierce, lethal and invincible. The shield was curved prior to headhunting reprisal raid. This was organized to avenge the death of ancestors for whom the shield was named(Rockefeller,1967).According to the journal Rear vision in the article “A Miracle in the Indian Ocean” describes the shield as being so powerful that it could control the owner and the symbols engraved would scare off the enemies. The enemies on seeing the symbols would free in terror or become immobilized in fear.

The shield had a crucial role in providing spiritual help to the owner when hunting for the regular prey and food. The power was derived from a special feast, ‘yamas pokumbu’ which was held to call upon the ancestor’s spirit to enter the war shield. The Ancestors spirit was properly treated or otherwise would cause disease or doom hunting efforts. During the feasts, the shield were decorated with tassive on sago leaves and placed near each other so that the spirit may interact.

The shield protected the homes of the Asmat people from the evil spirits and human intruders. The shields were placed near the doorways of the houses where every family had its own reserved house.

The shield was also used for ‘hunting for names’ by the unnamed persons. Every person in Asmat native was named after someone deceased or after killed enemy. A child was given a name only after 10 years after birth and after setting out to kill a man from enemy village nearby. The child had to learn the name of the man it killed and brings his skull to the village thus getting a name.

In conclusion, in the art of the Asmat, the shield through its arousing decoration, acquires a special significance as “comrades in arms” and a medium between the living and the dead (Konrad and Bohning, 1974).The shield played a significance role in honoring the ancestors. Despite the rich variation in design and decoration on the war shield, there is a wide area in which the characteristics elements of the both shield are overlapping. There is no strict borderline between the two types.






Konrad,G.,& Bohning,W.(1974).Asmat shield from the Brazza river; Weapons and Ancestors,Sandoz Bulletin 34

Rockefeller,M.(1967). The Asmat of New Guinea.The journal of Michael Rockefeller.New York Museum of Primitive Art.

RN-Rear vision-23 November 2008-A Miracle in the Indian Ocean(n.d).Retrieved from

Tobias,S.(1988).Where the spirit dwell; an odyssey in New Guinea jungle.Grove press





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