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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

More Possible Pterosaurs From New Guinea

Back when I was writing to Ivan Sanderson and Bernard Heuvelmans, I mentioned a certain sort of wood-carving I had found in a book about the Asmat of Irian Jaya (Indonesian New Guinea) called an Ambirak, which I thought might represent some sort of a surviving Pterosaur. In this case, the proportions and posture were right: the figures were shown hunched over on all-fours on the ground with an outsized head and a prolonged beak in front, large forelimbs and small crooked or kneeling hind legs.

It seemed to correspond to certain designs on shields, which could depict winged creatures larger and of a different design to flying fox bat.

On this shield there seems to be a recurring pattern of the sort: a creature with a very large head, widespread wings curled up at the ends and with very abbreviated legs and hindquarters. I did also learn that the S-shapes were meant to represent sea serpents or the local version of the Australian rainbow serpents. The design was akin to some of the long-necked sea serpent (Plesiosaurian?) Taniwhas of New Zealand. I learned later that they were named Okom (possibly related to the name Moko or Mo'o for the Polynesian dragons known in Hawaii and in Tahiti). The regular alternation between the two has some sort of symbolic reference to the spirits of the dead going to the Land of the dead, on special sorts of ritual canoes. Below is a map of Asmat territory. There are also carved wooden representations of giant Komodo-dragon-like lizards in this area, but that shall have to await another discussion. I have already mentioned those separately and the discussion will refer back to the earlier mention instead.

As far as the Ambiraks go, I find their depictions interesting but they seem to be entirely mythological at present and invoked only for ritual reasons. If they actually were based on Pterosaurs (which most experts would say was a doubtful premise) they could be entirely extinct by now.

This map illustrates the Asmat territories in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian section of the Island of New Guinea. The Asmat are a populous and prosperous people, and the menfolk are known for wearing long gourds to accentuate their manhood.

The Ambiraks are rather odd little figures, hunched over with massive arms and elongated claw-like fingers but little hind limbs sometimes looking as if the feet were turned backwards. The ritual canoes they are carved on are called Wuramon, and it seems that the Ambiraks are spoken of as harpy-like creatures that haunt the rivers, thought of as being all-female, hostile and prone to fouling foodstuffs.

The row of Ambiraks in this representation even have bits of fur stuck on them, thus possibly meant to indicate the originals are furry. On the other hand, this also tends to make them look more like conventional vultures.

The centre of the Wuramon canoe carvings is always occupied by a fertility-figure giant softshell turtle named Bu or mBu. The Ambiraks sit in the canoe both before and behind the turtle

This is from another site in the Dutch language and it is called a 'Dangerous Female Ancestor figure' but said to be comparable to the Ambirak. The position with the bent elbows and knees is said to connect to myths of the ancestors, but in this case it might be meaningful if the Ambirak is a Pterosaur and sits that way on the ground. This would be like the view-from-below of an Ambirak, and it is notable that the hands and feet of the Ambirak would be curled-up claws; the arms are also elongated with a separate ridge or blade along the outside of the forearm and I mentioned that ridge in my reports to both Sanderson and Heuvelmans. On this representation, I made the eye redder so that its position would be more obvious. Ambirak is supposed to have a bird-like or snake-like head, according to this source site.

Another canoe with a clearer mBu turtle and below, some of the Ambiraks from that carving.

Here is a link to another site, which gives a clearer explanation of the Wuramon canoes:

Asmat Soul-Ship ("Wuramon"): Soul-ships are bottomless wooden dugout canoes used to hold a variety of spirits. The spirit passengers represent recently deceased ancestors while the bird-like figures, "ambirak", are dangerous female spirits that live in rivers. A carved turtle, "mBu", symbolizing fertility is always found in the center.
In the past, soul-ships were used in a ceremony to promise vengeance for the dead. Today, they are mainly used to honor the ancestors during male initiation ceremonies.

Reference Sources:
Schneebaum, Tobias, Embodied Spirits: Ritual Carvings of Asmat. 1990. Peabody Museum of Salem.
The World of Asmat, Singapore Zoological Gardens, 2003,

Some Wuramon carvings

This is an example for sale on Ebay

When there are enough boys in a village of the appropriate age, an initiation ceremony
is begun. At this time, a special temporary house, called an Emaktsjim, is constructed so
that the initiates will be isolated from the rest of the village. Here they stay for several
days as the final preparations are made. They are not allowed to eat during their wait.
Traditionally, the head of a slain victim of battle was placed in each boy’s lap, and he
would remain sitting with it for the duration of the ceremony. The boy would take on the
name and character of the victim as a part of himself. In the future, when visiting the
victim’s family in another village, he would be called by the victim’s name and
welcomed by the victim’s family. It is unknown what substitutes for the head now that
headhunting is no longer practiced.
During the boys’ isolation, a wuramon (soul ship) is constructed to aid in the ceremony, as well as to help the spirits of recently deceased ancestors pass to Safan – the Asmat afterworld. A wuramon is a hollow-bottomed canoe with many carved figures. It is carved behind the temporary house during the day, and hidden by sago leaves at night. In the middle is a turtle figure, called a bu [mBu], which is a symbol of fertility because of the large number of eggs it lays. Next to the turtle is a Z-shaped figure called okom. It represents a sea monster, which is the most evil of all spirits. The remainder of the canoe is filled with figures called ambirak. They represent the spirits of the ancestors who have recently died.
They may be in human or bird form. Then the outside of the wuramon is painted white with red stripes – the coloring of their working canoes. Lastly, the figures are painted and adorned with braided sago leaves, seed beads or feathers. It is then taken into the temporary house until the ceremony.
On the day of the initiation ceremony, villagers go out to the jungle to collect sago
grubs and other foods to share. When they return, two women decorated with feathers in
their hair and red ochre paint on their faces, enter the temporary house. They represent
the ancestral mothers of each clan of the jeu (upriver and downriver). They unwrap the
wuramon and unseal the main door of the initiates’ house. The men then lift the wuramon
and poke the prow in and out of the door twice. The third time it is taken out to the river
and symbolically launched to take the spirits of the dead to Safan, as their families weep
for them. It is brought back up to the porch of the temporary house, and a boy of the
village who is too young to be initiated is taken in the house and held up by his ankles.
Village men pretend to shoot him with arrows and poke him with spears.
Next, the chief drummer comes out and puts his foot on the okom as the women hiss in
disgust and disapproval of the sea monster. The initiates then emerge single-file and put
each of their feet in turn on the okom as well. The boys are laid down on the porch with
their heads facing the wuramon and their uncles paint their bodies red, black and white,
and decorate them with feathers. The boys are struck with banana stalks to encourage
physical growth, and then all go home to eat, coming back together to drum, sing and
dance all night.

The next morning, the initiates are taken out on the river by canoe. As their elders row,
the boys mimic growing old and dying – symbolic of the death of their former selves.
Each boy’s uncle then immerses him in the river, and he is reborn. On the way back
home, they go through the actions of being infants, toddlers and young children, as their
elders instruct them in all they need to know about life as an Asmat. By the time they
return home, the boys are back to their true age. They gather food, then go home and feed
their families to symbolically show they can provide for the village. They are now
considered men. The wuramon is taken to the jungle and left to decay to fertilize the sago trees the Asmat will someday eat of.

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