PAPUA

dimitrastasinopoulou

DIMITRA STASINOPOULOU

PAPUA

New Guinea


PAPUA

New Guinea

PHOTOGRAPHY- TEXT

Dimitra Stasinopoulou


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CONTENTS

Dimitra Stasinopoulou was born in Athens, Greece in 1953. After

completing her studies, she worked in the banking sector for 20

years, and later on, in the family business in Romania. Her first

Book “Romania of my Heart” was awarded with the Romanian

UNESCO prize. Ever since then, her love of travelling to amazing

destinations around the globe and her desire to share the images

she brought back with her, led her to the publiction of the books

“Bhutan, Smiling Faces from the Roof of the World” in October

2008 and “India, Unity in Diversity” in March 2010. Her pictures

have been awarded in international photo-competitions and have

been displayed in Greece and abroad.

INTRODUCTION 8 - 15

THE HIGHLANDS

The Tari region and the Huli Tribe 16 - 95

THE RIVER SEPIK 96 - 139

THE HIGHLANDS

Mount Hagen Sing-Sing Annual Festival 140 - 237

PACIFIC OCEAN

Madang and the surrounding islands 238 - 276


7


It has been many years since I wanted to visit Papua New

Guinea, to experience the authenticity of its culture

and the unchanged way of life of its residents. Τhis was not,

however, a journey that one can easily decide upon. The

information available on the country is minimal, the tourism

infrastructure almost non-existent, whilst it is plagued by

malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases. Moreover, tribal

clashes are not rare; these are small-scale but particularly

violent, conflicts usually involving a local character that can

keep the visitor trapped in a dangerous region for many days.

It is not a coincidence that the country has only 40,000 foreign

visitors each year.

Yet, all this is only one side of the coin; on the other is the

discovery of a country that has been left untouched by the

passage of time, covering in just a few decades the dizzying

distance from the Neolithic period to the modern world, the

singular feeling of encountering a society that stubbornly

insists on sticking to its primeval traditions. So, in August

2009 –the best month to visit the country in order to experience

the wonderful Mt Hagen Sing-Sing, the country’s largest festival

– I was there.

It is truly very difficult for me to describe the surprise I felt

when i found myself, for the first time, in the sanctum of an

aboriginal village and an ancient civilisation, unchanged for

millennia. You have the feeling of having just travelled in time:

from the high-tech era of globalisation and communications, to

the age of tools, hunting and magic, at the dawn of human life.

However much one might try, it is impossible to “fit” such

a distinctive country into economic figures, political practices

and demographic equations. Tradition surfaces everywhere and

composes a perfectly harmonised universe of primitive farming,

ancient customs and an economic outlook that is foreign to us

and limited to necessities. Even the meaning of democracy, a

“The world only exits when it is shared”

Tasos Livaditis, Greek poet

foundation stone of modern states based on the rule of law, can

be understood only with difficulty by the different tribes of the

hinterland, which have been based for centuries now on the

power of the tribal shaman and the counsel of the elders who,

in a land where few reach an old age, are clearly considered

holders of invaluable experience and wisdom.

Until 1930, the hinterland had not been explored at all; the

Europeans considered these wild and mountainous regions as

inhospitable for living in. Only in the mid-20th century did a

couple of Australian gold diggers, who were searching for gold

deposits at higher altitudes, discovered, amazed, that around

a million people lived in these wild areas, isolated from the

fertile mountain valleys and preserving a civilisation almost

unchanged since Neolithic times. This was an astonishing

discovery for the Western world as at that time everyone

believed that the planet had been fully explored and mapped

in detail: given the sight of such a primitive society, scientists –

botanists, anthropologists and archaeologists – politicians and

journalists, proved unable to rise to the occasion and, without

prior research, debate and reflection, suddenly invaded this

foreign world, bearing the miracles of technology and their

Western culture to people completely unprepared for such a

change. Thankfully, however, even in our days, the exceptional

difficulty in accessing their hinterland and the refusal of

the inhabitants to lose their cultural identity has meant that

European influence has been relatively limited.

Today the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, as it is

officially known, is a state that is working hard to modernise

and to battle diseases, illiteracy and barbaric customs wherever

they still exist. It is transitioning from a barter economy to a

money economy, and hopes in the future to see its great natural

and mineral wealth being put to use. It is not easy however to

subdue a people that has learnt to live free, organised in small

independent social groupings comprised of a few villages; a

people that has learnt to apply a system of justice devised not

by legislators but by centuries and myths. It is thus difficult

to uproot the practice of centuries, of superstitions and selfgoverned

and autonomous local societies from the life of the

Papua overnight.

My journey to New Guinea gave me unique experiences but

above all it gave me the gift of a colourful society that is very

old and that follows the thread of its own distinctive history.

And yet I found myself unprepared – truth be told, no one can

prepare themselves for what they will see in front of them –

within these colours, dances, isolated tribes, strange languages;

I felt a foreigner – burdened with the baggage of a completely

different culture – and the great need to find an object that

was mine, something familiar and loved to have as my ally.

So I kept my camera; an achievement of digital technology

a worthy representative of my familiar world, searching with

its lens to find not only what separates us from these people

but also what unites us. No matter how many journeys one

might take, whichever part of the planet they may find

themselves, every time they will see the cheeky smile of a

child, the impetuous gaze of the adults and the stoic, welcome

expression of the elders demonstrating that, under the

successive layers of culture, we all have the same face, the same

voice, the same body.

After many days in this strange and wonderful land I

considered that I had by now formed a fairly complete picture

of it: I’d explored the Highlands, their wonderful mountains

and local tribes, I’d seen their greatest festival, the unique

Mount Hagen Sing-sing, I’d toured the banks of the Sepik, the

largest river, had faced the ocean at Madang beach and had

visited some of the islands. After all this wandering I once more

felt my values being shaken. No one doubts that it is imperative

that steps are taken – and immediately – for modernisation and

to fight the spread of diseases, illiteracy and the often barbaric

customs and inhumane rituals. What, however, is the correct

way to make such a violent intervention into the history of a

place more moderate, to smooth its transition to a new reality?

Do others, in this case us, the developed nations; decide on

the fate of people unable to respond in the face of the cultural

steamroller of technology? Are we to take the risk that, along

with all that is wrong in these primitive societies, their valuable

individuality will also be lost, their completely idiosyncratic

view of life, the hundreds of languages, their unique art?

How can we be sure that the society of the Papua will adjust

smoothly to a world that, to its eyes, seems to be coming from

the far future?

Yes, I was certainly delighted with the wonderful journey

that was coming to a close, for having had the good fortune to

touch for myself something so primitive and authentic. Even so,

I could not avoid a feeling of imperceptible sorrow, a nostalgia

for something that will be lost: a mud village, a beseeching

popular belief, a unique language; a pure piece of human

history, true and undefended.

THE INHABITANTS AND THEIR DAILY LIVES

Whichever part of the country I went to I encountered

people who were calm and true; people who moved about with

humility and an inherent dignity that was in complete harmony

with their natural environment and who were reconciled to

the innate difficulties it entailed. You believe that in their every

movement, in their colorful costumes and the strange steps

of their dances, you are witnessing an unending attempt to

appease the bad spirits, the wrath of nature and their vengeful

gods (despite the establishment of Christianity, the primeval

beliefs still maintain a prominent position in religious life).

A main feature, however, of their social and cultural life is the

globally unique heterogeneity of the population. The indigenous

population is divided into thousands of different communities,

most of which only number a few hundred members. With their

own customs and their own languages and traditions, many

of these groups have been in conflict with their neighboring

tribes for millennia. In some cases, because of the mountainous

landscape and the isolation it imposes, many were completely

unaware of neighboring tribes who lived only a few kilometers

away. This heterogeneity, the differences in the bosom of one

people, which can perhaps best be summed up in one of the

8 9


island’s folk sayings according to which “for each village, a

different culture”, is apparent in the number of languages and

local dialects, of which there are over 800. Of these, less than

half are related to each other whilst the others appear to be

completely independent, unrelated to any of the island’s other

languages or any larger language groups.

The inhabitants have more in common in terms of their diet,

as amongst the main foods we always find starchy vegetables,

bananas, mangoes, coconuts and other fruits. Their meat supply

comes mainly through rearing pigs and poultry as well as

hunting, whilst in the coastal areas fish and seafood are a main

element of the local diet.

Prior to the coming of the Europeans, there were no

towns anywhere in the country. During the colonial period

the scattered settlements were merged into larger villages

for the first time, making them easier to govern and provide

education and health services. The first towns grew around the

administrative centers and the missionaries and at first housed

only men, who worked mainly in construction. These towns

gradually grew into the country’s urban, political, administrative

and commercial centers.

As regards social stratification, there are no castes and social

classes only developed recently: in general, one could say that

the society is divided into the “upper class” and the “simple

citizens”. The first group includes the educated, high-income

town dwellers (the “coffee millionaires,” in the local lingo), and

the second group includes the inhabitants of the countryside

and the low-income town dwellers. In the past few years a

middle class has begun to emerge. Even so, the villagers are

not poor, or at least not in the sense that we mean poor. You

would be hard pushed to find in the microeconomic activities

of the tribes any kind of accumulation of goods and wealth, and

consumption as a way of life is completely incomprehensible.

The annual income per capita of these people may not be more

than a few dollars but in a barter economy such as there still

is to a great extent, no one lacks essential goods. Whatever

money is available is invested in the development of social and

political relations within the tribe or village, through which the

members of each local society maintain their position in the

tribal hierarchy.

Labor within the village is divided less on the basis of position

and more on the basis of gender; the men build the houses and

the dams, they hunt, they fish and they cultivate the banana,

coffee and cocoa. The women grow all the other vegetables, rear

the poultry and pigs, weave baskets and clothes and raise the

children. Any income from the sale of coffee and cocoa is taken

by the men, who are socially stigmatized in both the villages

and the towns, if they commit the “crime” of performing work

that is traditionally attributed to women. Things have changed

somewhat today and a hard-working woman is given her due

respect - she may even leave her husband for someone else

without suffering any social stigma if her husband is deemed

not to have cared for her as he should have.

Marriage takes place as an agreement between two families

and very rarely as the personal choice of the couple. A girl’s

parents will hope to marry her to a wealthy man, whilst what

is sought for in a woman, is first that she is willing to work

and secondly her external appearance. Polygamy is generally

accepted for men as traditionally a well-built man always

enjoyed a greater share of the women.

There is an unheard of tolerance in the rearing of children

throughout almost the whole island, at least for the first five or

six years of their lives. This is due to the common conviction

that the spirit of a small child may abandon its body if it is

hit or frightened. The selfishness, cruelty or malevolence of

some children are ascribed to bad spirits and not to the child

themselves or their bad upbringing. In these cases the parents

often invite a priest-magician to expel the evil and restore calm

to their home. As they grow towards adulthood children are

taught by following the examples of adults, participating in

various, often inhuman, initiation rituals. All this preparation is

considered essential in order for the young adult to be able to

respond fully to their social and marital responsibilities.

Almost patriarchal societies keep women at a distance and

in clearly distinct roles. As described above, the process of

separating small boys from their mothers begins at an early age:

they start to sleep far from women, in the houses of men, whilst

in many tribes there are initiation rituals into the world of

men, so as to remove all traces of female influence and achieve

full catharsis of the pollution from the “hot” discharges of the

female body.

As for religion, approximately 96% of the population is

Christian. Of course, as often happens in many cases where

Christianity coexists alongside preceding religions, what

eventually arises is a completely new fusion, with Christian

practices being combined with primeval beliefs – prayers to

Christ in order to expel the subterranean spirits, monsters and

the invisible creatures of the forest. The traditional religions

are often animistic and include elements of ancient worship.

A prevailing belief amongst the traditional tribes is that of the

masalai, the bad spirits who have the power to provoke death

and destruction. Another common conviction is the parallel

existence of the physical and metaphysical world; in order for

the living to prosper, the interaction between the two worlds

necessitates the observation of customs and the preservation of

social ties, such as satisfying the spirits of the dead ancestors,

who continue to observe, beyond the bounds of death, the

activities of the tribe. Very few accidents, illnesses or deaths are

attributed to chances or natural causes. Almost every fatal event

is attributed to curses, angry water or forest spirits or simply to

the vengeance of the insulted ghost of an ancestor. Great store is

put upon the use of a magical substance known as “mana”, and a

large number of natives have knowledge of magic.

Much has been said about the cannibalism of the Papua; it

has even been claimed that the first Australian explorers who got

as far as the isolated regions of the hinterland in around 1930,

provided a most nutritious meal for their hosts. Nonetheless,

the truth is that cannibalism had a prominent place in the

cult practice and burial customs of many of the island’s tribes,

who believed that by eating the dead they would acquire their

positive characteristics, gaining strength and bravery. Women

often ate a part of their dead husband so as to absorb something

of his masculinity into their female nature.

The kuru disease (or “laughing sickness”, as the symptoms

include pathological outbursts of laughter) has been

demonstrated to result from the ritual practice of cannibalism,

in particular of the Fore tribe in the Eastern Highlands. This

is an incurable and fatal neurological disorder, a transmissible

spongiform encephalopathy that appeared for the first time in

the mid-20th century and spread progressively in the form of

an epidemic to the neighbouring regions. It primarily affects

women and children, due to deposits of the protein particle

prion in the human brain, which showed a preference for the

“weaker” members of the tribe: during Fore burial customs

those present had to honour the dead by eating them. Men

chose first which pieces they would eat and the rest of the body

went to the women and the children, including the infected

brain. The kuru disease was studied by the American physicians

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek and Baruch S. Blumberg, who proved

the infectious nature of this type of encephalopathy for the

first time, for which they won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in

1976. The disease gradually disappeared when cannibalism was

abolished through the implementation of Australian colonial

laws and the efforts of the local missionaries.

The majority of the inhabitants, approximately 84%, belong

to groups of the Papua tribe. The oldest is the Negrito tribe

(Pygmies), whilst amongst the autonomous Papua tribes are,

the Orokolo, known also as the “People of the Sea”, the Daudai,

the Goigala and others. Also of great interest are the huge

demographic diversity and the over 820 languages spoken on

the island, comprising one-fifth of the world’s total languages.

The official language is English, which is used in education and

by the authorities, whilst the main languages of daily speech

are the Creole Tok Pisin and, in the south, Hiri Motu. Tok Pisin

(Tok = talk, Pisin = pidgin) developed as a necessary means of

communication between the Melanesian colonists who worked

on the plantations of Queensland in northwest Australia. These

workers, who spoke countless different languages, gradually

started to develop a language structure, drawing the vocabulary

10 11


mainly from English as well as German, Portuguese, Melanesian

and their own local languages. Tok Pisin, which later spread to

New Guinea, provided an important channel of communication

between the various tribes of the island, who up until then had

been entrenched within the narrow linguistic boundaries of

their tribal group. This often created problems and conflicts as

it made it difficult for differences to be resolved. The country’s

schools play a role that is much more than educational, that of

enabling communication, as the common use of English brings

neighbouring and also distant tribes into contact with each

other.

The economy is agrarian and the majority of the inhabitants

farm with, literally, primitive means. The Highlanders were

amongst the first farmers in history and the social structure

of their settlements is based on a particular form of equality,

most likely even older than most Western democracies. Much

has remained unchanged in their lives: cultivation of the sweet

potato has been the basis of their economy for the past 300

years. Prior to this they had grown primarily taro but the sweet

potato, which had been imported from Indonesia, could grow

on almost all grounds and provide two to four harvests a year.

Its cultivation thus led to greater productivity and, consequently,

to greater wealth: with the production surplus the Highlanders

bought pigs, which they then used to marry a hard-working

wife who would help them grow even more sweet potatoes.

The entire economic activity thus acquired another dynamic as

commercial exchange now became a part of daily life: pigs and

sweet potatoes were often exchanged for salt, blades, animal

skins, etc. Furthermore, jewellery, weapons and ritual objects

were often exchanged, thus bringing closer together tribes that

were enemies but yet still shared common ritual practices, and

maintaining – on rare occasions – a fragile peace to the region.

THE COUNTRY

The island state of Papua New Guinea is located to the north

of Australia and includes the east section of the island of New

Guinea, with the west section, the region of Irian Jaya, belonging

to Indonesia. Papua New Guinea includes numerous islands

and coral islands in the Pacific Ocean, as well as the island

groups of New Ireland, New Britain, the Admiralty Islands, the

Solomon Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago. Many of these

are volcanic.

The country covers an area of 462,840 square kilometres and,

along with the east section, is the world’s second largest island

after Greenland and perhaps also the highest, with mountain

ranges over 5,000 metres in altitude. The island was created

by the crashing together of the tectonic plates of Eurasia and

Australia. Approximately 80% of the hinterland is covered by

tropical forests, with equatorial vegetation. In the country’s

almost virgin natural environment countless species of flora

and fauna find a refuge, both Asian and Australian in origin as

well as endemic species, the catalogue of which is constantly

growing as there are many regions that are still being explored

or remain completely unexplored. The island also has the

world’s richest bird fauna, with over 700 species and almost all

the known species of birds of paradise (of the 42 species in the

world, the island has 38), as well as the largest variety of orchids

in the world.

Both the climate and the particular geology of New Guinea as

well as the minimal human intervention into the environment –

the industrial revolution never arrived here – have contributed

to the development of one of the world’s most important

ecosystems, with a huge biodiversity: almost 19% of the world’s

species of flora and fauna find refuge on the island. As might

be expected, the country remains unexplored to a great extent,

both from a natural and a cultural perspective. It is considered

a paradise for botanists, zoologists and anthropologists. Every

so often a new species of plant or animal is discovered in the

depths of the New Guinea jungle, or a new social structure

thousands of years old is located in some unexplored mountain

settlement, transporting researchers into the past, literally into

the object of their study.

We could say that the New Guinea hinterland is divided by

steep mountain ranges which cannot be reached by road, aside

from a few ad hoc footpaths created during the Second World

War. Only by flying, sailing or hiking can one approach these

parts. Despite the isolation, the broader area of the Highlands,

as they are known, and the central mountain valleys in

particular are the most fertile and densely-populated parts of

the country, aside, of course, from the few urban centres.

The country is crossed by a dense network of rivers, which

flow from the central mountain regions and discharge into

the Pacific coasts. The largest rivers are the Sepik in the north,

which crosses the country flowing in the direction of the

Bismarck Sea, the Fly in the south, which discharges in the Gulf

of Papua, and the Ramu. These rivers are for their greater parts

navigable, offering an important alternative route for accessing

the most central regions of the hinterland.

The climate is tropical, humid and warm, with an average

temperature of 28 degrees Celsius. At the higher altitudes the

climate is almost equatorial mountain, whilst rainfall is heavy

and frequent everywhere.

The country has a population of approximately 6,000,000,

with only 17% of the total residing in the urban centres. Port

Moresby, the capital, is the most densely populated town in

Papua New Guinea, with over 270,000 inhabitants, and the

country’s largest port and its international airport. Other large

urban centres are Lae, with approximately 115,000 inhabitants,

and Madang, with 33,000 inhabitants on the northeast coasts.

Demographically, it has a rapidly rising population, relatively

short life expectancy and high birth rate.

There are low levels of production, serving primarily the

subsistence needs of the inhabitants and leaving little margin

for even limited exports. The main crops are coffee, cocoa,

papaya, coconuts, rubber, etc. Even so, despite the country’s

very low GDP and its minimal per capita income (only 1,294

US dollars), Papua New Guinea has an incredibly rich subsoil

with significant deposits of resources, such as gold, natural

gas, cobalt, oil, silver, copper, etc. Of these, gold and silver are

exported to neighbouring countries. The country is a member

of the British Commonwealth and the head of state is Queen

Elizabeth II, her role being purely symbolic. Executive power is

in the hands of the prime minister, whilst legislative power lies

with the National Parliament, which has 109 elected members.

THE HISTORY

The island state of Papua New Guinea is located to the north

of Australia and includes the east section of the island of New

Guinea, with the west section, the region of Irian Jaya, belonging

to Indonesia. Papua New Guinea includes numerous islands

and coral islands in the Pacific Ocean, as well as the island

groups of New Ireland, New Britain, the Admiralty Islands, the

Solomon Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago. Many of these

are volcanic.

The country covers an area of 462,840 square kilometres and,

along with the east section, is the world’s second largest island

after Greenland and perhaps also the highest, with mountain

ranges over 5,000 metres in altitude. The island was created

by the crashing together of the tectonic plates of Eurasia and

Australia. Approximately 80% of the hinterland is covered by

tropical forests, with equatorial vegetation. In the country’s

almost virgin natural environment countless species of flora

and fauna find a refuge, both Asian and Australian in origin as

well as endemic species, the catalogue of which is constantly

growing as there are many regions that are still being explored

or remain completely unexplored. The island also has the

world’s richest bird fauna, with over 700 species and almost all

the known species of birds of paradise (of the 42 species in the

world, the island has 38), as well as the largest variety of orchids

in the world.

The climate and the particular geology of New Guinea as

well as the minimal human intervention into the environment

have contributed to the development of one of the world’s most

important ecosystems, with a huge biodiversity: almost 19%

of the world’s species of flora and fauna find refuge on the

island. As might be expected, the country remains unexplored

to a great extent, both from a natural and a cultural perspective.

It is considered a paradise for botanists, zoologists and

12 13


anthropologists. Every so, often a new species of plant or animal

is discovered in the depths of the New Guinea jungle, or a

new social structure thousands of years old is located in some

unexplored mountain settlement, transporting researchers into

the past, literally into the object of their study.

We could say that the New Guinea hinterland is divided by

steep mountain ranges which cannot be reached by road, aside

from a few ad hoc footpaths created during the Second World

War. Only by flying, sailing or hiking can one approach these

parts. Despite the isolation, the broader area of the Highlands,

as they are known, and the central mountain valleys in

particular are the most fertile and densely-populated parts of

the country, aside, of course, from the few urban centres.

The country is crossed by a dense network of rivers, which

flow from the central mountain regions and discharge into

the Pacific coasts. The largest rivers are the Sepik in the north,

which crosses the country flowing in the direction of the

Bismarck Sea, the Fly in the south, which discharges in the Gulf

of Papua, and the Ramu. These rivers are for their greater parts

navigable, offering an important alternative route for accessing

the most central regions of the hinterland.

The climate is tropical, humid and warm, with an average

temperature of 28 degrees Celsius. At the higher altitudes the

climate is almost Equatorial Mountain, whilst rainfalls are heavy

and frequent everywhere.

The country has a population of approximately 6,000,000,

with only 17% of the total residing in the urban centres. Port

Moresby, the capital, is the most densely populated town, with

over 270,000 inhabitants, and the country’s largest port and its

international airport. Other large urban centres are Lae, with

approximately 115,000 inhabitants, and Madang, with 33,000

inhabitants on the northeast coasts. Demographically, it has a

rapidly rising population, relatively short life expectancy and

high birth rate.

There are low levels of production, serving primarily the

subsistence needs of the inhabitants and leaving little margin

for even limited exports. The main crops are coffee, cocoa,

papaya, coconuts, rubber, etc. Even so, despite the country’s

very low GDP and its minimal per capita income (only 1,294

US dollars), Papua New Guinea has an incredibly rich subsoil

with significant deposits of resources, such as gold, natural

gas, cobalt, oil, silver, copper, etc. Of these, gold and silver are

exported to neighbouring countries.

The country is a member of the British Commonwealth and

the head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, her role being purely

symbolic. Executive power is in the hands of the prime minister,

whilst legislative power lies with the National Parliament, which

has 109 elected members.

Dimitra Stasinopoulou

Athens, September 2011

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Asia Transpacific Journeys, information leaflet, 2009

Beck, Howard. Papua New Guinea, Tales from a Wild Island, London: Robert

Hale, 2009

Busse, Mark, Susan Turner and Nick Araho, The People of Lake Kutubu and

Kikori, Changing Meanings of Daily Life, New Guinea: National Museum of

Papua New Guinea, 1993

Corazza, Iago and Greta Ropa, The Last Men, Journey among the tribes of New

Guinea, Vercelli: Whitestar Publishers, 2008

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel, New York: Norton Press, 1997

Gascoigne, Ingrid. Papua New Guinea, Cultures of the World, New York:

Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2010

Gewertz, Deborah. Sepik River Societies, New Haven: Yale University

Press, 1983

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning, U.K., Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978

McKinnon, Rowan, Jean-Bernard Carillet and Dean Starnes, Papua New Guinea

& Solomon Islands, Lonely Planet, 2008

Noakes, Suzanne (ed.), Island in the Clouds, collection of articles

on New Guinea

Sullivan, Nancy. A Brief Introduction to the History, Culture and Ecology of

Papua New Guinea, information leaflet by Trans Niugini Tours

14 15


THE HIGHLANDS

The Tari region and the Huli tribe

The best-known of the Highland tribes is the Huli, in the region of Tari, which is surrounded

by verdant valleys squeezed into limestone peaks with scattered rushing waterfalls and dense

forests, where one can meet most of the species of the birds of paradise. The Huli tribe

numbers approximately 80,000 members. They are usually short and muscular with a strong

and proud personality, and they often act altruistically for the common good, despite their

individualism. They have a clear awareness of both their history and culture, as can be seen

in their knowledge of their genealogical trees and of their traditions. They believe that they

descend from an ancient ancestor known as Huli, The Son of the Forest Spirits and the first,

according to tradition, farmer in the region.

The status of leader is not handed down; one becomes socially powerful through their

military qualities, the wealth they have collected and their skills as a mediator in solving

tribal differences. The Huli are certainly not a peaceful tribe. They live constantly at war, with

many small local disputes that are often unrelated, as the causes are almost always personal

disagreements and not some traditional enmity with another tribe. They fight primarily for

three reasons: land, pigs and women, and in that order. Other main characteristics of the Huli

are the unusual relationship between the two sexes and the extensive practice of magic in

religious life. As for the women, because of their great power to create life, they are considered

by the men of the tribe to be a permanent threat to their masculinity. The use of magic is

particularly widespread as the Huli religion is clearly animistic, being founded on the belief

in the existence of spirits that animate every manifestation of the natural world. For the Huli,

everything has a soul: the forest, the mountain, the river, the sun and the animals, and all are

potential spiritual entities that require supplication, worship and appeasement.

Youths are separated from their mothers and gradually from every woman for a period of

isolation that lasts from one-and-a half to three years. During this period they live isolated

from female company, purging themselves of every female “essence” and growing their hair.

At the end of this purging period they cut their long and well-cared hair and make their

famous wigs, for which the Huli have become known as the “Wigmen”. During this period

it is forbidden to sleep with their heads touching the ground and they are obliged to drizzle

magic water over their heads every day, expelling the bad spirits. These wigs are adorned

with the plumes of birds of paradise and signify self-denial and catharsis as characteristics of

masculinity. After this purging the young man is ready to handle the “threat” of coupling and

the responsibilities of marriage.

Nonetheless, the Huli, despite their superstitious beliefs, do not hesitate in resorting to

western medicine when suffering from a serious illness. In the Tari region I had the opportunity

to visit a Doctors without Borders clinic: dozens of helpless and seriously ill people were

patiently waiting their turn to receive medical care in one of the ad hoc clinics that had been

set up, without losing the smile from their faces. Malaria, Aids and tuberculosis can count

many victims here, and the doctors work truly selflessly against these illnesses, in absolutely

primitive conditions.

Drizzling ‘magic’ water Wig maker Tari School Inside a school class The tribe doctor

Working in the fields

Basket weaving, Tari Naive paintings Hunter in Mt Hagen Medecins Sans Frontieres


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THE RIVER SEPIK

No one knows with any certainty what the meaning of the word Sepik is, although it is claimed that it

means “Large River”, something that is certainly believable when you first set eyes on this imposing river

with its length of 1,125 kilometres. The country’s most stunning natural landscape unfolds around this

huge mass of water, which flows from the Victor Emmanuel mountain range in the central Highlands.

Tropical forests, cultivable mountain ranges, verdant mountains and marshy wetlands alternate along

the length of the Sepik, home to the island’s greatest variety of flora and fauna as well as some of its most

interesting tribes. The most isolated settlements remain almost untouched by Western influence.

The Sepik is the island’s largest river and one of the largest river systems in the world. Like the Amazon,

it is serpentine in shape, and discharges into the Bismarck Sea without forming a delta. The river is

navigable for the greatest part and serves the travel and transport needs of its people. It is, however, a

hydrological system that is ceaselessly adapting, changing its flow and creating new basins; the tribes that

live along its banks are often forced to relocate so as to follow its new direction.

Over 250 different linguistic groups live in this region. Each settlement also comprises an autonomous

“ethnic” group, even though many of the villages are linked either by tribal or trade relations. It is perhaps

to these extensive transactions between the Sepik tribes – aided by navigation along the river – that we

can ascribe the increased need of the people here to preserve their cultural independence, their particular

history, language, folk art and mythology. All these tribes consider their oral traditions, which have been

handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, to be of the utmost importance. The

first contact that these tribes had with Europeans was in 1885, during German exploration of this region

when it was a part of German New Guinea.

Although many settlements are self-sufficient, trade is a basic part of economic life. Each tribe has a

unique product that it exchanges for the unique products of the other tribes (I should mention here that

women are also among the “goods” that are exchanged between the villages). The diet is based on saksak,

a type of flour that is produced by the pith of the sago palm tree that flourishes in the region. Although

flour is an exclusively starchy food, for the inhabitants of the area, it provides a dependable nutritional

solution and without requiring any farming. Their diet is occasionally supplemented with fish, game and

some garden vegetables which they grow during the dry season as the heavy rainfall throughout the rest

of the year prohibits almost all other types of crops. This stability in the supply of living necessities is

considered by many to be a main factor in the noteworthy development of arts in the Sepik region. The

famous sculptures are indissolubly linked with life along the Sepik. With tradition a powerful factor in

their understanding of the world and, by extension, their aesthetics, the tribes of the Sepik incorporate

new elements into tradition, adapting their daily life to new needs that may arise.

Each village has a ritual space – the Haus Tambaran or Spirit House (House of the Ancestors Spirits) –

which is adorned with a plethora of masks, reliefs, sculptures of female figures with exaggerated fertility

symbols and paintings of local myths, oral traditions and religious customs. Many rituals are held in the

Spirit House and the preparations prior to their performance are sacred for the inhabitants. The building

itself is imposing: it is usually made from bamboo with a straw roof and often reaches a height of 25

metres, dominating the whole region around the hamlet and the surrounding forest. Traditionally only

Sepik warriors were permitted to step over the threshold of such a sacred space, and the punishment for

violating this rule was death. This is where the coming-of-age rites for young men are held, during which

the form of a crocodile is cut into their skin as a symbol of their masculine strength. The wounds are then

covered in mud to avoid any infections.

The celebrated art of the Sepik is believed by specialist scholars to be of particular importance, not

simply because of its intricate style and great beauty but also for its cultural meaning. Primarily religious

in its significance, this art still today has a leading position in the religious life of the river tribes. In their

belief system, the spirits of the dead ancestors continue to participate in the social life of the community.

And as living entities, they get angry, are satisfied, give help and seek revenge. The priest-magicians are

often required to perform sacrifices in order to appease them or to attain their assistance for a successful

harvest, fishing trip or battle.

Christian church, Sepik Protective sheats for men’s House interior, Sepik Spirit House Preparing saksak flour

Women of a Sepik tribe

Rainforest, Sepik Initiation procedure Sepik river Wooden masks, Sepik

genital organs


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THE HIGHLANDS

Mount Hagen Sing-sing Annual Cultural Festival

Arriving at the capital of Port Moresby I then travelled by air to Mount Hagen, the commercial

and administrative capital of the Western Highlands. Here, at an altitude of approximately 1,500

metres in the beautiful Waghi valley, is the first settlement that came into contact with the Western

world and which was incorporated into the international community in 1930. I should note here

that all my journeys within New Guinea were done by sea or in small aircrafts, as there is as yet no

decent road network. The country’s capital is not connected by road to any other town or village;

all roads end at its outskirts thus creating a profound feeling of exclusion as well as anticipation for

what exists out there.

The small single-engine plane had only eight places and the seats of an old bus. It flew over

the dense vegetation of New Guinea at a low altitude, offering an impressive view of the jungle

and the never-ending mountain ranges. But, some strange sounds that could be heard from all

around, the age of the pilot, who was no older than twenty five and the news that a similar aircraft

had fallen a few hours earlier with the loss of twelve lives, made me fell unsafe, especially when

the young pilot attempted to assure me that I had nothing to be frightened of as our plane was

“very strong” and had not had any serious breakdowns since 1970! I thought to myself that since

this festival is considered one of the 1000 places to see before you die then it was worth the risk. In

the end everything went fine, on this flight and on the many subsequent flights. I really did enjoy

the unique experience of the small airports, the conversations with the pilots without any barrier

between us as well as the landings on the small muddy airstrips where the natives welcomed us

enthusiastically. Because technology is unfamiliar to them they are still impressed by aeroplanes

and helicopters, and treat them with a sense of awe and wonder, representing them as birds or fish

with a marvellous colourful polyphony. One cannot but be moved by the way in which they paint

them in their folk art, by the unbelievable innocence and childish surprise that impregnate their

every colourful image.

It is very difficult for one to describe the intensity of the great annual festival: Thousands of

representatives from over 150 tribes from every corner of the island gather for a stunning event

in which intense colour, flamboyant costumes, esoteric dances and their percussion music play

the lead roles. The tickets for entering the festival site are exorbitant, unattainable for most of the

population, which is obliged to remain on the other side of the event walls. Only tourists and a

few important members of the local society are permitted to watch the Sing-sing, this multiethnic

carnival, this impressive display, from up close. The warriors pay particular attention to how they

paint their faces in the special colours and motifs of each tribe. Delicate, precise lines are drawn on

the skin with thin sticks of wood which they use like a painter’s brush. Every action here takes on a

ritual character and is performed slowly and very carefully. The colours are made from plant pollen

mixed with water or saliva and each warrior paints his own face except for the final brushstrokes,

which are done by a fellow warrior.

Finally, the insertion of colourful plumes into their caps is for the residents of the Highlands

a true art form. Each tribe associates qualities such as bravery, dedication, perceptiveness, etc.

with specific birds, the plumes of which are used as decoration, thus extolling and, to a degree,

appropriating these qualities. All these colourful masses, adorned with the plumes of birds of

paradise and shells from the Pacific Ocean, the faces painted in yellow or red, the pagan masks, the

weapons that clank threateningly and the war cries, fill the festival space so suffocating, right to the

edges, that you imagine there will be an explosion of civilisation and history.

In reality, the event was begun by the first Australian colonialists in their attempt to limit the

permanent conflicts between the tribes, giving them the opportunity to meet within a peaceful

context of rivalry and gentle competition. Soon thousands of participants began to compete

annually for cash prizes. Until recently, and despite the wishful thinking of the organisers, the

Member of the Huli tribe

Sing-sing festival Women of Asamuga tribe Head decoration with one leaf

Face painting

Mud men dancing

Local airport

Αναπαράσταση κηδείας


THE HIGHLANDS

Mount Hagen Sing-sing Annual Cultural Festival

event functioned less as a peaceful intervention and more as an opportunity for further conflict as

the representatives of the Huli, with their ornamental costumes, colourful faces and dramatic war

dance almost always won the competition’s cash prize, outraging the other tribes. This problem

was resolved a few years ago when the organisers decided that the prize would be equally shared

amongst all the participants. Nonetheless, the winners continue to enjoy the respect of all and an

increase in the esteem of their tribe.

During the festival I saw almost all the tribes of the Papua in their official costumes, their disguises

or their war dress. It would be impossible for me to describe them all here. Among them, I surely

admired the Asaro, or Mudmen with their frightening “mud” masks who had once, according to

the myth, by chance covered their bodies with mud from the River Asaro during a battle and in

this way frightened their enemies so much that, thinking them to be forest spirits, they fled. They

later made these frightening masks so that they would not need to cover their faces with river mud,

which they believed to be poisonous. Solely a warrior tribe, all their dances represent battles.

Moreover, the women of the Asamuga tribe are among the most impressive figures at the sing-sing.

The large shells, the so-called kina, are believed to protect them from danger, whilst the wonderful

feathers in their hair declare their social status and their husband’s power. All these tribes and many

more, groups of people dressed uniformly in their tribal costumes, were singing, dancing and also

performing ritual reconstructions: I shall never forget the gruesome reconstruction of a funeral during

which the women covered their bodies with clay as a sign of mourning whilst the coffin contained the

dead body of a small boy, wrapped in moss.

The spectacle is difficult to describe – wherever I turned my head there was something new to

see. And it was truly a unique feeling to know that what was happening in front of my eyes was not a

museum piece, nor was it the revival of some forgotten tradition, a picturesque recreation to entertain

tourists; the Papua often dress in this way even today and many tribes continue to perform the same

mystery rituals prior to battle. They even wear their shells to indicate their wealth and social class, and

bequeath some of their jewellery as leadership emblems or markers of supernatural powers.

I was also impressed by the Skeleton Men of the Bugamo tribe, who paint the human skeleton

onto their bodies. This is still a daily practice, before a hunt or the battle that is today waged with

arrows and javelins. I enjoyed the impressive colourful Huli warriors, the tribe with the strange

wigs, the plumes of birds of paradise and the peculiar appearance, as well as the tribes of the River

Sepik and the various magical healers. Unique were the representatives of the Rakapos tribe, with

their large black hats which, in combination with their black painted faces, aiming at terrifying

into the enemy during the hour of battle. These hats are supported by a frame that the Rakapos

construct with grass, moss and tufts of their hair.

Mud men

Skeleton Μen Rakapos tribe Tribe head, Mt Hagen


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PACIFIC OCEAN

Madang and the surrounding islands

Madang is a province on the country’s north coast, with a length that reaches

approximately 300 kilometres and a width of 160 kilometres, one side facing onto

the Bismarck Sea, whilst in the hinterland are some of the island’s tallest peaks,

with tropical forests and verdant valleys. Many of the Bismarck Archipelago’s

smaller islands belong to this province, some of which are volcanic. The last

volcanic eruption was only in 2010.

Over its great territory the province is home to a significant number of Papua

tribes and for this reason a large linguistic diversity can also be found – over

200 languages are spoken here. The province’s capital is also called Madang, and

it is built around a picturesque port surrounded by imposing and inaccessible

mountains – “the most beautiful town of the Pacific Ocean,” according to many of

its visitors. Madang’s coastline, its tropical vegetation and its many parks certainly

distinguish it from the country’s other towns.

obliging the inhabitants even today to adorn their formal traditional costumes

with parrot plumes.

The first contact that the people of Madang had with the Western world came

in 1871. Certain areas, however, remained isolated and relatively untouched by

European influence. It is precisely for this reason, the distinctive terrain, that

there are great cultural differences between the various tribes. Even so, great

similarities can be seen with a tribe in another of the country’s provinces, namely

the riverside culture of the Ramu, which has developed along the river of the same

name, and the culture of the Sepik, as they have very similar art techniques and

relief sculpture styles.

For 6,000 years now sailors, primarily from the Taiwan region, have crossed the

Bismarck Sea and come ashore on the coasts of Madang, leaving their traces on the

Austronesian languages that are encountered in some of the coastal villages, dotted

in amongst the villages that speak the dialects of Papua New Guinea. This contact

with other people helped the coastal tribes of this region at least to develop trade

from ancient times: the goods they exchanged were pots, salt, stone axe blades,

shells, plumes from birds of paradise and carved wooden vessels. The plumes in

particular were thought to be of great value as they are quite rare in Madang, thus

Cocoa pod

Madang port Cassowary bird Small Pacific island Playing in the ocean

Coast in the Pacific

Tropical forest Madang village Port Moresby museum Islands in the Pacific


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