Treehouse Heroes: Korowai People

This week’s treehouse inspiration: We look at the Korowai Tribe’s authentic treehouses.

If any of you haven’t watched BBC’s Human Planet series then we strongly recommend that you spend the next bank holiday investing some time in this extraordinary series. One of the episodes features a tribe in New Guinea known as the Korowai; a tribe that is presumed to have never made contact with Westerners or any other outsiders prior to the missionaries of the 1970s.

This tribe, also regarded as one of the last tribes in the world to still practice ritual cannibalism, are potentially the most authentic or traditional of our featured tree house heroes to date.

For obvious reasons, painfully little is actually known about these people. They live in the thick rainforest in homemade treehouses, in a subsistence farming (if you can call it that) and bartering culture.  In an article for Smithsonian.com, Paul Raffaele talks of his 3 days with the Korowai sleeping with a cannibal and experiencing their treehouses first hand. It is feared that the Korowai will continue to follow their traditional practices for only another generation due to the development of settlements down river.

Paul paints an image of Korowai treehouses inhabited solely by an elderly population, with the younger generation never coming back. Regardless of the state of their culture and the ramifications of development in New Guinea, the Korowai people also happen to be rather good at building treehouses!

The Korowai use materials taken straight from the forest including local bark, rattan and leaves to make their extraordinary treehouses. They also fell their trees using incredibly rudimentary stone age tools, literally a piece of jagged stone strapped to a piece of wood. No doubt this makes for very hard work. No wonder all of the men in pictures are muscly!  No safety harnesses are used and scaffolding is made on a seeming ad hoc basis – but rather than a chaotic building site, everybody seems to know their roles. Even the fire, which may seem a bit haphazard in a treehouse made of flammable materials, is suspended above a hole so that it can be quickly discarded to the forest floor, were it to get out of hand.

The treehouses themselves might not have the same dazzling aesthetics as say Takashi Kobayashi’s classroom treehouse, but there is something very special about an indigenous people using stone-age tools to create shelter in the canopy of a rainforest. A lot of treehouse designers look to use locally sourced materials where possible, but for the Korowai EVERYTHING is locally sourced. They have no choice in the matter.

The rainforest provides the wood for their scaffolding, the tree in which the house is set, the rattan or bark for fittings and the food to fuel the workers. It is a look back to how treehouses are much more than just a woodland retreat from the big city or an architectural showpiece. It is a necessary way of life, and the Korowai are experts in living in their environment. Let us hope that they are allowed to continue creating such incredibly authentic treehouses.