The culture of Papua New Guinea is certainly diverse - there are as many as 1000 localised languages spoken in PNG and, so, that many cultures. This is not to say that there are not many cultural consistencies - there are - and these are what shall be focused on here. Later in the piece a few interesting peoples and their cultures will be examined, including the peoples of the Sepik River, the Asaro and Huli peoples of the Highlands and their Sing-Sing festivals, as well as the Kula Ring tradition of the islander people.
The Village Culture
It should immediately be pointed out that Papua New Guinea is basically a nation of villages, and therefore - villagers. Though there are some big cities; Lae, Rabaul, Mt. Hagen, and the capital, Port Moresby as well as a few others - only a small fraction of the population lives in them. Consequently, the average Papua New Guinean is a villager. Most live in small villages occupied by a single clan or family group, inhabiting little more than a few huts, though there are a few complex communities of a thousand people or more.
The average PNG villager is a subsistence farmer, who supplements his diet by hunting. Food has a wider significance in PNG culture than it does in the West, where food is merely a means of nourishing the body. Consequently, much of the respect and esteem a person may be held in relates to his skill and success at gardening, hunting or fishing. The distribution of food and feasting occupies every significant event in a villager’s life - birth, death, marriage, manhood and so on. Consequently, more food than is required for bodily needs is needed to advance personal status. Yams are a staple food that stores well for long periods and so represent a form of cultural currency. The Abelam people of the Sepik River are noted for their ceremonial gardens that are planted with no more than 30 yam plants. The men carefully cultivate the tubers to lengths of up to 3.5 metres (12 feet) that are carefully cleaned and stores in special storing houses until needed for eating or cultivation - 4 to 6 months later. In many parts of PNG, yams have taken on a special spiritual significance; for example, a couple eats a yam together to announce their engagement.
Until quite recently, most villagers would virtually never leave their village, apart from perhaps on a trading expedition or to war with another tribe or clan at a village or valley nearby. It was kill or be killed and all strangers were seen as enemies. Western culture and its technology - particularly communications, as well as the declaration of independence for the nation, have somewhat drawn the people of PNG together, but it can still be a relatively hostile place in some parts for outsiders. The isolated nature of PNG has probably been one of the factors in their being so many different languages.
The disassociated nature of the peoples was also probably one of the factors that resulted in there being no formal religion in Papua New Guinea before missionaries brought Christianity to the land. Christianity has had a profound effect on the people, their customs and their cultures, and now about 80 per cent of the people of PNG claim to be Christian. Overzealous missionaries, it must be said, have sometime caused the neglect of traditional cultures and in some cases actively encouraged its destruction, for example burning great “tambaran” (spirit houses) in various western parts of the nation. Generally, though, the average Papua New Guinean is a pantheist - or have a belief able to encompass more than one religion. The result is that, though most PNG residents believe in God, they also supplement this belief with their traditional beliefs. Most notably, belief in magic and sorcery is still very strong in PNG. These beliefs are usually exercised through rituals and ceremonies.
Ritual and ceremonies accompany almost every significant event in the life of a Papua New Guinean villager - planting, tending, harvesting, gathering, trading, dancing, birth, death, marriage, sickness, war and so on. Certain villagers, Sangumamen (in Pidgin), are feared for their reputation as sorcerers and are believed to be able to bring down death or injury upon enemies. There have been cases documented where healthy people have stopped eating and eventually dying after being cursed by a Sangumamen, such is the strength of popular belief in their powers.
Traditionally, Papua New Guinean people knew nothing of metal, the wheel or the loom. They tamed no beast of burden and had no recorded history or written language. Despite this, they did manipulate their environment to their needs through tools of stone, wood, shell and bone. These days, metal tools have all but replaced the traditional ones. Still, village women continue to till their gardens with a simple digging stick and everywhere the string billum, woven by women-folk from coarse string spun from the vines of the forest, are used to carry everything from rocks to produce. Clay pots, bows and arrows, nets, snares and traps are still commonly employed by Papua New Guineans all over the nation.
Arts, Customs and Traditions
Given the primitive nature of the tools available to them, it is rather astonishing that the people of PNG are able to produce such an outpouring of visual arts. The Sepik is known as the ‘river of art’ - the people who live in the Sepik River area are famous worldwide for their art, particularly their spectacular wood carvings. In parts of the Sepik, virtually every household object and utensil is lavishly carved, painted, or trimmed with shell, fur, bone, teeth or feathers. The people believe they are descended from animals or plants, so carvings of their particular spiritual ancestors predominate. In one area, it is told that men had been swallowed by crocodiles and reborn as crocodile men. Carvings of these huge beasts are seen everywhere.
The Highlands are also an interesting place to visit for its culture. The famous ‘sing-sings’ of the highlands people are popular for visitors because of their sheer colour, variety and excitement. Sing-Sings are festivals used to celebrate rituals - such as seasonal feasts, initiation rites, etc - and are usually the re-enactment of some dramatic event, such as a legendary battle. Thousands of painted highlanders transform themselves into trees, birds, animals or mountain spirits using such things as bird of paradise plumes, mother of pearl shells, the feathers of mountain parrots, cassowaries, or black cockatoos, or animal pelts. The Asaro Mud-men of the Asaro Valley wear pumpkin size clay masks and coat themselves in pale mud to signify death, while the Huli Wig-men weave the hair of their ancestors with the fur of the cuscus, daisies and grass to form enormous headpieces. They all leap and chant together, clash black palm bows against bundles of pit pit arrows, advance and retreat in serried rows and bang on skin tympanums for hours.
Another interesting tradition is that of the Kula Ring. This is an unusual trading practice whereby islanders, who might otherwise have spent their days feuding, make twice-yearly voyages from island to island to exchange shell necklaces, or ‘bagi’, and shell arm-bands (‘muali’) with a formal commitment of friendship. The shells come from the waters around Rossel Island and the women grind the red-edged shells into matching circles. Centre holes are drilled and the shells are strung in lengths of two metres or more. These are for display and are not to be worn. Sometimes new gifts are added, but generally the same gifts circulate for generations. Within 5 years the gifts make the entire island circuit - the necklaces moving clockwise island to island, the armbands in the opposite direction. Elaborate ceremonies have evolved around this trade.
It is interesting to note that until 1933, sea-shells were the main form of currency. Even today a bride price is usually counted in PNG by the size and number of great golden-edged clam shells the groom must produce.
Anyone interested in finding out more about the fascinating and multifarious cultures of the nation of Papua New Guinea should explore the point and click map of the nation, where many of the particular peoples cultures and customs are explained in more detail.
DGD Feb 1997