Story transcripts

The last cannibals

Sunday, September 17, 2006
Reporter:Ben Fordham
Producer: Stephen Rice

A few months ago, we took you back to the Stone Age to meet the last of the cannibals. A tribe called the Korowai, who live in the jungles of West Papua, just as they did 10,000 years ago.They still believe in witchcraft, they still eat human flesh.

It was an amazing experience for reporter Ben Fordham. So too was finding a frightened child named Wa-wa. Just a boy, but the Korowai are convinced he's possessed by evil spirits. For this, tribal law says he can be killed and eaten.

No doubt, you've heard quite a bit about Wa-wa in the last week. Now's the time to go back into the jungle for the truth.


PAUL RAFFAELE: I went there 10 years ago and, because it was so dangerous, I only got to the edge of the territory. This time, I want to go deep into Korowai territory.

BEN FORDHAM: Paul Raffaele is a man with a passion for lost tribes and black magic. He's a writer for the respected Smithsonian Museum.

PAUL RAFFAELE: I'm looking for physical evidence of the cannibalism. I want to try and find the bones, the evidence they actually do eat people.

BEN FORDHAM: West Papua — just a few hundred kilometres north of Australia, but it could be a different planet.

Snowcapped mountain ranges rich in gold and copper and, for its Indonesian rulers, the greatest prize of all — timber. Down there is the largest expanse of rainforest outside the Amazon and that's where we're going.

We've arrived at the edge of Korowai territory, the start of a 10-day round-trip into the jungle.

We've hired 15 Korowai porters to help carry our equipment. As for the rest of our expedition, there's me — a ring-in reporter for 60 Minutes, thrown in the deep end — and 10-year-old Tony, a Korowai kid who heard we were coming and walked half a day to watch the plane land. Now he's decided he's coming along, whether we like it or not.

And so begins a gruelling trek into the thickest, wettest, muddiest jungle on the planet.

What are they making, a bridge? And our porters are Korowai?

PAUL RAFFAELE: And some of them are even cannibals. We have some people who've actually eaten human flesh as our porters, yes. But they enjoy the taste — they say it's pretty good.

BEN FORDHAM: Day two of our journey, and we're already among people who have turned their back against the outside world.

PAUL RAFFAELE: That stone axe epitomises, sums up, a whole epic of humankind — millions and millions of years, when people used stone axes. Now, these are one of the last people in the world who are still truly in the Stone Age.

BEN FORDHAM: Well, after two long days walking through the jungle, the track has literally come to an end and the bad news for us is it ain't over — it's a long way from it. We've got two more days worth of travelling, and the locals tell us the only way to do it is by water, heading up the river.

BEN FORDHAM: At times, the river's so shallow, everyone has to get out and push. As darkness falls, we're still on the river and our troubles are just beginning. It's an ambush. We've got a frightening situation right here on the water at the moment.

There's a tribe that's quite angry, armed with bows and arrows. They've come down to the shoreline and they're asking us to come onto the land. Do the boys think it could be a trap?

It's another Korowai clan with a reputation for murder. They want money, the equivalent of about $50, and we're happy to pay but our oarsmen are too terrified to paddle over — they think it's a trick.

Finally, it's our 10-year-old hard man, Tony, who works out a deal. Okay, well, I've got the money here if they want to come and ... And, after a tense few minutes, leaders of the angry tribe arrive by canoe to collect their ransom. And then, they're gone.

PAUL RAFFAELE: They would have killed us.

BEN FORDHAM: Day five and we're back in the forest. We come upon a Korowai with an axe made of steel and a heart made of stone. This man tells us how he killed one of his best friends.

TRANSLATION: It just normal. I don't feel sad or anything like that.

BEN FORDHAM: And this is what Korowai cannibalism is all about — when a member of the tribe dies, the Korowai believe, that person is a victim of black magic, struck down by some sort of evil spirit known as the Kakua. What follows is a frightening witch-hunt. Someone must be the Kakua, and once the clan decides who it is, he will be killed and eaten.

PAUL RAFFAELE: Remember these are Stone Age people. They don't understand about microbes and germs and so on. So if someone dies mysteriously, it must have been the source of a ... a Kakua. And so that person's relatives go out and grab that person and pretty gruesomely kill him.

BEN FORDHAM: This man you killed, did you know him before you killed him?

TRANSLATION: Yes, he was my friend and he was part of my family.

BEN FORDHAM: That night, he arrives at our camp. He's carrying a black bag. Oh, God. What do you think of that?

PAUL RAFFAELE: This is a man who was eaten by other humans, in fact, by the man who's sitting next to us.

BEN FORDHAM: Take a look at that. He has come good on his promise. He's come to our village and shown us his greatest trophy — the skull of a human being. Twelve months ago his cousin died, but just before he died, he told him this man was a sorcerer, a witchman, so he saw it as his duty to track him down and to kill him, to kill the Kakua.

TRANSLATION: First, we cut off the head and then we start to slice open the stomach. We take out the intestines and then cut the ribs out of the side. Then we cut off arms and legs.

PAUL RAFFAELE: They eat everything except the teeth, the hair and the nails — everything.

BEN FORDHAM: It's now day seven. We're in completely unknown territory. We stumble upon a hunting party of Korowai men who insist we come to their village. Looking around these astonished faces, it's clear they've never seen anything like us.

PAUL RAFFAELE: Have you ever seen white people before? Like us, with white skin?

TRANSLATION: No, I've never seen a white people before. When we heard you were coming, I was thinking you were a ghost. The people were afraid. But when I met you, you are a human.

PAUL RAFFAELE: It's the quest of a lifetime and I've finally done it. I've finally made that first contact with … first contact with a clan that hasn't changed for 10,000 years. You know, we could be in a time machine … you know those science fiction movies? You get in the machine, you press 10,000 years, you press a button, zap! One moment later, you open the door, and here we are in a cannibal tribe in remote New Guinea 10,000 years ago. Imagine the enormity of that, huh? That's this moment we've got now and that's why I've got tears in my eyes. I'm sorry, I must look like a wimp.

BEN FORDHAM: This was an unforgettable encounter. For us, a taste of what life was like at the dawn of humankind. He's holding on for dear life. For them, a visit from the future. They're as fascinated by us as we are by them. It's, it's so hard to comprehend because these people are so generous, so open, so child-like in their innocence. Yet they can turn so suddenly on their uncle, their brother, their father — anyone who they believe is evil, is a Kakua and, in a split second, they can kill them and then eat them. And then the most chilling moment of our journey. We find a little boy looking scared and confused. Wa-Wa is six years old and he has been condemned to death all because his mum and dad died suddenly. And the people in his village think that he is a sorcerer, he's evil?

CORNELIUS: Yeah, they're suspicious, starting suspicious, that this kid's become as a sorcerer.

BEN FORDHAM: But Wa-Wa's family and friends are determined to protect him. He has been brought here to safety, to this village, a long way from the Kakua killers, and our guide, Cornelius, has taken him under his wing. How old do the villagers wait until they would kill this boy?

CORNELIUS: It could be between starting from 15 years old, 16 years old.

BEN FORDHAM: So at least he's safe for now. The villagers assured us this was the best place for him, that Wa-Wa would never be able to cope if he was suddenly taken out of the Stone Age and dropped into the 21st century. When he's a bit older, he can decide for himself whether to leave his people.

CORNELIUS: I think as long as he's staying with the family, as the family is strong enough to protect him, he will be safe, I think.

BEN FORDHAM: It wasn't easy saying goodbye to Wa-Wa. But then, who are we to impose our ways, our ideas of what's right and what's wrong on the ancient Korowai? What about this poor little boy, Wa-Wa?

PAUL RAFFAELE: He's being protected in this village here by a powerful section of his family. This is the toughest question I've ever faced and I've been thinking about it for many years. I mean, what do we do? Okay, we don't understand that they kill and eat each other, but to them, that's very important, at the very soul of their being, so my feeling, my desperate feeling is let them be as they are, because within 20 or 30 years, it'll be all over anyway.

PETER OVERTON: And just to let you know, we managed to get through to Cornelius this weekend and he assures us young Wa-Wa is well and thriving with his extended family.
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