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The aboriginal Negroid Papuans, who occupied most of New Guinea, differ from the modified Melanesians of its eastern shores in many aspects of social customs, arts and crafts. The Papuans are more individualistic and democratic; they live in small, independent village communities, whose leader or headman does not submit to an hereditary territorial chieftain. They lack a comprehensive understanding of a universe and its controlling gods, and thus have no priesthood; tapu, too, is of little importance to them.

Examples of Papua New Guinea art.

Social status is of much greater significance to the Melanesians. Both in New Guinea and the islands, there are large organised men's clubs, with grades of membership acquired partly by definite accomplishments such as head-hunting, and partly by initiation fees in the form of pigs or other food for the accompanying feast.

Huge club houses, adorned with all the resources of native art, are erected, and become repositories of sacred images and trophies of war. As might be expected, women and children are rigorously excluded from them.   

The young men, on qualifying for membership, are allocated a compartment in the house and given a recognized place in feasts and dances; they will also be permitted to wear some distinguishing badge, such as a feather crest or an elaborately carved bark belt. A duty of membership would have been to adorn their compartments, or the special rack at the front of the club house, with skulls taken from other tribes - headhunting, therefore, and general fighting and cannibalism were rife among them.

The characteristic weapon of the Papuan warrior is the stone-headed club, the head itself being in the form of a disc, a ball, or star-shaped. Bows and arrows are also universally used, and, accordingly, shields are frequently carried. The head hunter has, or had, for the practice is suppressed, his own special equipment, which included a cane loop enclosing a spear point, a cassowary bone dagger, a bamboo beheading knife, and a carrier for his grizzly prize.

Not every preserved head is a trophy; the Melanesians also preserved the skulls of relations to accord them the honour due to forebears; but these usually have the features carefully modelled over the bone, and suitably painted or tattooed.

The return of a successful raiding party would be only one of many opportunities for festival, dancing and parade. These are the occasions when fearsome masks would be donned to frighten women and children, and curiously-fashioned stave and decorated weapons brought out for display. Figures of the gods and other religious carvings might also be exhibited in the men's secret rituals.

Examples of Papua New Guinea art.

A rich and active community life, exuberating in ceremonial dance, also express itself in an eloquent art, and the artistic achievements of the Papuo-Melanesian is rivalled in Oceania only by that of the Maori. Apart from face masks and single figures of men and animals, which corresponds to the statues of our own public places, their art also takes the form of intricate designs on canoes, houses, weapons and utensils.

Decorative patterns may be of two kinds: they may be purely geometric in origin - that is to say, they may be merely a combination of straight lines, circles, squares, triangles or other geometric forms. In decorative art, therefore, the figures which comprise the pattern are represented in a kind of formal outline, or silhouette as these stylised forms are found to be much more acceptable than natural forms in patterns and designs.

A close examination of designs in New Guinea shows that they are based on different animals or human figures. In one district the crocodile is chosen; its head and long jaws were so apt for cylindrical objects, such as arrows, or drums; elsewhere, human faces are spread over a flat shield, and most intricate and beautiful patterns from birds are produced, especially in the south-east island area.

Here are some examples of women's work: skirts of dyed grass fibre or of curiously decorated, beaten bark; plaited fibre bags and net-work carryalls; and large earthenware bowls made without the aid of a potter's wheel, but, instead, by coiling a long, plastic clay "sausage" into the required shape.

Among men's work were house carpentry and the fashioning of implements and weapons or large wooden food bowl. They were always well made, not withstanding the crude, rough stone adzes and drills and the shark's skin rasps and polishers which seem ill-assorted with the aesthetic feeling which could charm from sober wood the delicate grace of a carved head-dress or an ornament.

Drums, harps, nut-rattles and panpipes made music of a sort, and string games and top-spinning were popular past times, while the pendants, rest plates, coronets and necklaces of teeth, feathers and shell were not all ceremonial regalia; many of them were just the everyday ornaments of village folk.       

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By Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 6th March 2003)