Ceremonial container

Date: mid-20th century

Geography: Indonesia, Papua Province (Irian Jaya)

Culture: Asmat

Medium: Wood, paint

Dimensions: H. 36 x Diam. 16 in. (91.4 x 40.64 cm)

Classification: Wood-Containers

Credit Line: From the Tobias Schneebaum collection, Gift of Cary Schneebaum, Jeff Schneebaum and Randy Slakter, 2009

Accession Number: 2009.502.1


Religious life among the Asmat people of southwestern New Guinea centers on an elaborate series of rituals accompanied by ceremonial feasts. Feast foods are often collected and served in ordinary wood food bowls or simpler vessels made from the bases of sago palm fronds. Some Asmat groups, however, create ornate ceremonial containers like this one to hold grubs (the larvae of the capricorn beetle), an indispensable element of all feasts. To ensure an adequate supply of this prized food, at least six weeks in advance of a feast the Asmat cut down a large quantity of sago palm trees, the trunks of which contain a starchy pith. Holes are drilled into the fallen trunks to allow adult beetles to lay their eggs in the pith, and the people return six weeks later to harvest the fully grown grubs. This container has carved brackets and fiber straps on the reverse that allow it to be carried like a backpack. It was likely used both to collect grubs at the harvest site and to transport them to and present them at the feast. The human figure almost certainly represents a recently deceased ancestor, and the spear he carries suggests he was a warrior.