Ancestor Figure

Date: early to mid-20th century

Geography: Indonesia, Papua Province (Irian Jaya), Munu village, Unir River

Culture: Asmat people

Medium: Wood, paint, fiber, pig tusk, cassowary quills

Dimensions: H. 49 1/2 x W. 16 1/2 x D. 10 1/2 in. (125.7 x 41.9 x 26.7 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

Accession Number: 1979.206.1589


Humans, trees, and wood sculpture are inseparably linked in the cosmology of the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea. The human body is equated both metaphorically and metaphysically with a tree: the legs and feet being the roots, the torso the trunk, the arms and hands the branches, and the head the fruit. In some origin traditions, humanity was born from wood figures carved by a primordial being named Fumeripits. Fumeripits built the first men's ceremonial house. However, he became lonesome living alone so he cut down trees and carved them into human figures, which he kept with him in the house for company. The lifeless figures did not relieve his loneliness so he made a drum. As he began to play the drum, the figures, whose elbows and knees were initially joined together, slowly came to life, becoming the first Asmat.

Almost all human images in Asmat art depict recent ancestors, whose names they bear. Freestanding ancestor figures, such as this one, were created in some areas for ceremonies celebrating the inauguration of a new men's ceremonial house. During the rites, performers reenacted the origin of humanity, dancing with intentional awkwardness to simulate the movements of the first humans, whose elbows and knees had just become separated. Although it represents a recent ancestor, the imagery of this figure, its elbows and knees joined by tabs of wood, likely refers to this episode from the origin of humanity. The form and posture of the figure also resemble a praying mantis, a creature that was viewed by the Asmat as a symbol of the former practice of headhunting since the female at times beheads the male during mating.