Lost Knowledge: Village tech in West Papua, Indonesia

Energy & Sustainability
Lost Knowledge: Village tech in West Papua, Indonesia

The weekly Lost Knowledge column explores the possible technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past (and those slightly off to the side). Each Tuesday, we look at retro-tech, “lost” technology, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” is also the theme of MAKE Volume 17 (due on newsstands March 10, 2009)

Tim Anderson, who does the awesome Heirloom Technology column in MAKE, has a zillion great Instructables covering all manner of indigenous tech, shop tips, tool hacks, and other flaky golden biscuits of makery goodness. Here are some excerpts from a piece he did after visiting a town on the western tip of Papua, a place called Tempat Garam (meaning “salt making place”). It’s a sweet maker portrait of the Mombrasars, a family of blacksmiths that have a shop there. The family build boats, forges tools for the village, and invents their own cool gadgets. I never get tired of seeing the great inventiveness of village technicians, as the sago grinder, tool items they make and sell, and the forge bellows can attest below.


The inventive blacksmiths of Sorong, West Papua, Indonesia


Chainsaw Powered Sago Grinder Yohanis Mombrasar shows me one of their inventions, a chainsaw powered sago grinder. The local staple is sago palm starch. The sago palm grows in dense stands in fresh water swamps just behind a barrier beach. The whole trunk is composed of starch and fibers.

Big chainsaws are plentiful here because of the timber industry. The area has valuable hardwoods sought by Malaysian Chinese traders.

The traditional method of making sago starch is to fell a sago log and pound the insides with wooden hammers until the starch grains are separated from the fibers. I’ve read that even that way, it’s 1/10th as much labor as rice cultivation. With a power tool like this, it would take very little time to produce large quantities.


The Product Line Here are some of the things they are ready to make at any time.

The local stores carry mass produced machetes and sickles like we have but no one wants them. The local people appreciate a finely crafted steel tool made to exactly suit the work they do.


The Forge It was their day off, but Elisabet and Andreas kindly offered to show me how their forge works. It’s a very sociable operation. Elisabet sits on the throne and works the bellows.

The piston pump is made from two sections of water pipe and some wooden piston plungers. The gasket material is very soft and hangs down on the upstroke, allowing air to pass around it. It looks like these gaskets are made of soft foam. I’ve also seen them made from many layers of woven plastic bags.

Maker Portrait: Inventive Blacksmiths of Sorong, West Papua, Indonesia


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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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