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At Tambanum village, about 65 km south of Wewak, more than 1,000 people from the Iatmul tribe live along the banks of the Sepik, and on the tiny creeks and tributaries that carve up the district. They know the power of the skulls. One of their people, they believe, paid a terrible price for selling a head. The man, Toni Kawa, "went into the bush and when he came back he started vomiting; and just from vomiting he died," says a fellow villager who preferred not to be named. "Then his wife died. The only way (to stop the bad luck) is for Toni's clan to die." Another villager believes the reason Toni died was "because he took an old head to sell, and he was supposed to replace it with a new one that he made, but he never made the new one." From beneath another carver's hut, a man emerges, offering to sell Time a skull for 12,000 kina (about $3,000). He stops the conversation when an elder arrives and insists that no such artifact is for sale.
On the other side of the river's broad reach, Kawa's mother sits in mourning under his house, while relatives deny the allegations that he sold skulls. But finally one admits that some of Kawa's kinfolk are nervous, fearing not illness but criminal prosecution and the stigma of being involved in a trade that has already led to two deaths. "Everybody who shared the money out of the skulls is losing their life, too,'' says one of the villagers.
It's an uncomfortable message for the illegal collectors and dealers. The skulls may have been smuggled out of reach of the p.n.g. authorities, but locals believe their protective spirits travel with them. In their new resting places, looking out at comfortable Western living rooms from expensive display cases, ancient malevolent magic may yet be brewing.
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