The Amazing Homes of The Korowai Tribe

  • GPS location: 4° 21' 58.76"S 141° -31' -18.25"E
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The semi-nomadic Korowai Tribe has a detailed history that dates back centuries.

However, there are even more reasons why this tribe, which historically inhabitants the jungle of Papau, garners so much attention. For hundreds of years, this tribe has lived a truly self-sufficient existence, however, the tribe may be on the precipice of major change.  As the impact of our modern culture creeps in, and the Indonesian government expands their reach, the Korowai Tribe may face changes that completely uproot their existence. For now, the Korowai Tribe and other tribes that live deep in the jungle are left alone under Indonesian law, although recent changes have threatened that peace. For the time being, the tribes continue to live the way they have for centuries—high up in the trees. 

A lower house around 8-12 meters high
A lower house around 8-12 meters high. These are used by all of the families and can host 5 to 6 fireplaces. Surrounding this lower house there is a wooden barrier intended to protect the young children. Images by © Martin Gros

These houses are sometimes built over water or the jungle floor, and have different types of ladders that allow for easy access to the structurer above. You will typically find these individual settlements far away and completely isolated even from other members of the tribe. Experiencing the sky-high Korowai Tribe homes is truly something that must be seen to be believed, but why does this Indonesian tribe choose to live only in tree houses?

According to some clan chiefs, the idea started out of a commitment to protection. This tribe believes that evil spirits live on the ground, and that staying in these tree homes can help protect people from these evil spirits. These tree houses have other practical benefits as well. They are located well above flood-water levels and have defensive benefits. They can keep rival clans at bay and prevent them from capturing members of the Korowai Tribe. Many of the tribes feel as thought their women and children are at risk for being stolen for slavery or by cannibal tribes. 

The Design Behind the Korowai Tribe Homes 

Most Korowai settlements have a mix of lower and higher tree houses. The low homes are built around Wanbom Trees, or Banyan Trees, which aren’t as high but have a thick “main pole” in the middle for support. This trunk will go through the middle of the home. Some of the higher tree houses are actually built on top of living trees in the settlement. These houses are actually placed on top of the canopy of the tree.

One of the five high tree houses built by this clan.
One of the five high tree houses built by this clan. Image by © Martin Gros
Image by © Martin Gros
Image by © Martin Gros
An elder laughing at me as I try to climb a tree.
An elder laughing at me as I try to climb a tree. Image by © Martin Gros

No matter where on the tree these homes are built, they are constructed entirely from materials that come from around the jungle. Tribe members are able to build sturdy frames from the branches from surrounding trees and typically use Sago Palm bark to make the walls and floor boards inside the home. As for the roof? Tribe members will actually weave together large leaves and rattan bindings to create a durable roof that keeps these homes well protected. 

When you are physically inside the homes, you can actually feel them moving, similar to the feeling of a boat out on water. Even slight breezes through the jungle can sway the structure, but overall  these high-flying tree houses are extremely durable and weather resistant. 

How Long Do These Homes Last?

What is most impressive is that these homes can be built in as little as one to two days. After these homes are built, they typically last anywhere from three to five years, with the occasional repair needed. Typically, when its time to build a new house, the tribe will determine whether or not they can build a house in the same clearing, or if the clan needs to move to an area with better resources and hunting territories. 

A young boy listening to the men speaking.
A young boy listening to the men speaking. Image by © Martin Gros

Hunting is a very important part of choosing a location for these homes. The tribe primarily hunts pigs with bows and arrows, cassowaries with ropes or they will fish using handmade basket-traps, bows or poison. They also use dogs for hunting as well. Every so often, the tribe will make a decision to move for the betterment of their clan as they continue to value and hold true to their unique way of life.  While you may never have the opportunity to experience life up among the trees like the Korowai Tribe, you can take in the beauty of photos of these stunning homes and see the magnificent design that goes into these houses up in the trees. 

Oni, the chief of the clan we met.
Oni, the chief of the clan we met, during a scouting outing inside his territory. Photo by Martin Gros Image by © Martin Gros

The Korowai Tribe is made up of a close-knit society (approximately 3,000) and strong family bonds, as the entire community is forced to work together in order to survive. One of the ways they are able to survive in this thrive in this sense jungle is by living in their truly awe-inspiring tree houses. Located high up in the tree canopies of this jungle, the Korowai Tribe has mastered the art of relying on their environment in order to live off their land and stay protected while they do it. These tree-bound homes are some of the most unique and historically-significant homes in the world. They are also piece of architecture that the average person will never have the opportunity to see in person. However, a better understanding of these home and the tribes that inhabit them can open you up to a world that is truly unlike any other village in the world. 

Inside the Korowai Tribe Settlement 

In most situations, the Korowai Tribe will live small, isolated groups or settlements. Typically, each of these settlements has approximately five individual tree houses. Depending on the area of the jungle and the potential risks and environment in the area, the homes can range in height from 8 to 12 meters to as high as 45 meters.

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