Rituals surrounding death differ from place to place and era to era, but the stories and practices behind the smoked corpses of Papua New Guinea still stand out among other mourning rituals. These corpses belong to the Kuku Kuku tribe (also called the Anga), which resides in the Aseki region of Papua New Guinea. Often placed high above their tribes to provide protection and guidance to their predecessors, Kuku Kuku corpses make for a morbid yet fascinating sight.
Through a strict process of draining and charring, the corpses manage to survive both the elements and time with remarkable resiliency, some potentially lasting centuries. The natural tools used to preserve them also turn the body a reddish hue, adding to their mystique. And like the bodies at Pompeii, the smoked corpses often appear to be in a state of action or movement, sitting upright or clutching a belonging.
The smoked bodies of Aseki hold great importance to the tribes that mummify them. The tribes even incorporate them into rituals and celebrations. But despite the corpses' importance, no one knows exactly when the mummification process came to be. In the end, it all adds to the mystery of the bodies, which, like bog bodies, continue to hold onto pieces of their living selves even to this day.
Visitors to Papua New Guinea often shudder at the site of the smoked corpses. From an outsider's perspective, the practice appears unnecessarily morbid. However, within the Anga tribe, this rite actually carries the highest possible honor.
And when you think about it, it really feels no different than the process of keeping a loved one's ashes on display in an urn.
The tribe’s most experienced embalmers make the necessary preparations for the smoked corpses. The first step requires making cuts to the knees, feet, and elbows, allowing the fat to drain out of these cuts.
Then, because, hey, nobody is using them anymore, the bodies get stabbed in the guts by hollowed out bamboo rods. This allows any remaining fluids to drain.
Living by a 'waste not, want not' mentality, some tribes allegedly use bodily oils and blood drained from the corpses for ceremonial purposes. Blood and oil get smeared onto the bodies and hair of surviving family members, supposedly to transfer the dead's power onto the living. Leftover oil is then used for cooking. None of these body parts or fluids may touch the ground, out of fear of bad luck.
However, not all tribes engage in this practice, and it may be a fabrication altogether. In a 2015 article for the BBC, one member of the Anga tribe denied tribes use oil and blood in this fashion. He claimed such accusations add up to no more than “white men’s lies.”
After bodily fluids drain, embalmers sew shut any openings in the corpses. This includes the mouths, eyes, and anus. This reduces air intake, slowing the decomposition rate of the bodies.