A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about papua

Abelam People of the Sepik River-Tribes of Papau New Guinea

Highlighting the arts and cultural of Papua New Guinea....Ramdas Iyer


Common introduction to the blog series planned:

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has a long history when it comes to human settlement. However, it is still a relatively new nation in the eyes of the modern world. For centuries, PNG was a mystery to the outside world and, even today, there are areas of the country that Western civilization has yet to encroach upon, making PNG one of the most intriguing frontiers of the modern world.

The culture of Papua New Guinea is many-sided and complex. It is estimated that more than 700 different cultural groups exist in Papua New Guinea, and most groups have their own language. Because of this diversity, in which they take pride, many different styles of cultural expression have emerged; each group has created its own expressive forms in art, dance, weaponry, costumes, singing, music, architecture and much more. To unify the nation, the language Tok Pisin, once called Neo-Melanesian (or Pidgin English) has evolved as the lingua franca — the medium through which diverse language groups are able to communicate with one another in Parliament, in the news media, and elsewhere. People typically live in villages or dispersed hamlets which rely on the subsistence farming of yams and taro. The principal livestock in traditional Papua New Guinea is the oceanic pig (Sus papuensis).

The Sepik River Cultures:

From above, The Sepik River resembles a serpent meandering its way through lush greenery in gentle coils and curves. As one of the World’s greatest river systems and the largest unpolluted freshwater systems in PNG, the Sepik River plays an integral role in the lives of the inhabitants that live along its riverbanks. Come a little closer however, and you will witness the magic of the rich and diverse culture that is knitted along the longest river on the island of New Guinea. Each twist and bend has a story to tell, as The Sepik is the soul of Papua New Guinea (PNG) sustaining life for an abundance of flora and fauna. At 1,126km long, The Sepik is to the Papua New Guineans what the Ganges is to India.
The culture of the people along the Sepik is a reflection of their vast history, and is heavily influenced by their association with the river itself .More than just a river, The Sepik is home to more than 250 languages, woven together by means of trade and cultural interactions. Tribes are defined by ritual, genealogical and cultural knowledge but all shares a common bond in that their lives revolve around The Sepik. They are genuinely surprised to see you as they are scarcely contacted by the outside world and their remarkable lifestyle has remained virtually unscathed for thousands of years. Arguably, one of the most fascinating aspects of The Sepik are the haus tambaran or literally ‘spirit houses’ which you will find for each clan along the river, located at the centre and highest point of the village. This central location serves as a focal point for the villages’ men, where social and ceremonial acts take place. Once upon a time, it was in the haus tambaran where men prepared for war, however today you are more likely to find the men chewing betel-nut while conversing with each other, perhaps over issues regarding their clan or village. The spirit house itself is a very impressive structure with some reaching heights of 25 meters. Inside, carvings of masks, statues and various figures are held with the purpose of being inhabited by the spirits. While each tribe will vary from the next, these intricate carvings usually serve the purpose of either fending off evil spirits or to help people with specific challenges. Many of the carvings perform specific roles in important ceremonies or life stages. As each tribe has its own beliefs and connections to different spirits, the artistic style from one village to the next varies.

During my travels there not too long ago, I was able to observe both with great interest and sadness the waning of this primitive culture in the face of modernity and Christianity. In the words of the great travel writer Pico Iyer "....the fact that reality is our creation, and that we invent the places we see as much as we do the books that we read. What we find outside ourselves has to be inside ourselves for us to find it. Or, as Sir Thomas Browne sagely put it, “We carry within us the wonders we seek without us."
Having seen the Iatmul, Kwome and the Abelam during my trip there, I felt the need to write about my experiences along with the many photographs taken during my stay.

I have included maps of PNG and that of the tribal areas of the Sepik region. The novice reader not familiar with these parts will find it difficult to envisage the relative geographical areas within which they dispersed and have lived over time. Nevertheless, the traveler in me needs to identify those areas for any future travelers to the area.

The Abelam:
Why have I chosen to write about the Abelam? Two things immediately come to mind. First they may well be the world’s most accomplished yam growers, specializing in the display and exchange of “long yams” Two species of yams are commonly grown: waapi, and ka (jaambe). Ka yams are raised for food, but a few varieties of waapi are grown to gigantic size in special gardens tended by Abelam men. These yams, which have great symbolic and ritual significance for the Abelam people, are exchanged in competitions with trade partners from rival groups. Specimens of the premier waapi variety, the maambutap, can attain lengths of ten feet or more.
Secondly, I was quite blown by the ceremonial haus tambaran and their initiation ceremonies. The ceremonial houses of the Abelam people , in the writings of anthropologist Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin of the University of Gottingen, rank as architectural masterpieces. "The impressive buildings, built on a triangular ground plan, often reached heights of up to 30 meters, towering above even the tallest coconut palms. One of their hallmarks was the richly painted façade. They were constructed completely without nails, all elements being held together with the aid of vines and liana ropes. During initiations they became the place of stupendous ritual installations. The novices entered the house through a low, tunnel-like entrance before they were confronted with dramatically staged cult images inside. Following this revelation they were led out through a narrow exit at the back on to small, hidden ceremonial ground where they remained in seclusion for several weeks".
In my time spent along the Sepik, I spent more time on the river than on the mountainous hinterland where the Abelam moved to avoid wars with the more powerful Iatmul, a few hundred years ago. From fish eaters they became Yam cultivators.

A recent blog by Steve golan shares many of my sentiments;'As we delve deeper into the unknown we lose ourselves. Every kilometre, every hour everything changes. What were once paved roads become bumpy dirt tracks, manicured forests grow wild like a scene from the prehistoric era. Even the looks the locals give us when they notice a truck full of foreigners driving into the unknown are unnerving. Papua New Guinea’s Sepik region is not for the faint of heart, it is a raw, lawless, tribal land that explorers dream of. As the jungle gets thicker, and the sun begins to set you can almost hear the beat of the tribal drums along the Sepik River. Welcome to Papua New Guinea and the Sepik River."


The Abelam people” today number around 250,000. Their traditional territory extends from the grass plains of the Sepik River to the foothills of the Prince Alexander Mountains in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. According to the 2000 census, over half of the people are below the age of 25. There are three distinct dialects of the Abelam; language, kamukundi, mamukundi and samukundi, but the language actually varies from village to village. The Abelam people” today number around 250,000. Their traditional territory extends from the grass plains of the Sepik River to the foothills of the Prince Alexander Mountains in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. According to the 2000 census, over half of the people are below the age of 25. There are three distinct dialects of the Abelam language, kamukundi, mamukundi and samukundi, but the language actually varies from village to village.

In my time spent along the Sepik, I spent more time on the river than on the mountainous hinterland where the Abelam moved to avoid wars with the more powerful Iatmul, a few hundred years ago. From fish eaters they became Yam cultivators and their ultimate unique identity.
The administrative center of Abelam territory is Maprik, roughly 30 feet above sea-level and about 70 km inland from Wewak, the coastal provincial headquarters which is where the airport is located.

I was given a complete tour of the ceremonial house along with an elaborate performance by all the elders of Maprik Abelam community, who are trying to instill in their youth the value of the spirit house culture.
Arts: Abelam art is rich, with the emphasis on painting. Paint is seen as a magical substance that gives life to a piece of wood (carving). Only then do the figures become powerful and active. Paint is a metaphor for a magical substance used in sorcery, which in this case is not life-giving but life-taking. Throughout Abelam territory different art styles can be recognized, although there are also many commonalities. Since it was my last part of my Sepik visit and it was late in the day I had no time to visit the area to collect artifacts.

Money: Many things for an adventurer came true in PNG. It is the first time I have seen shell money used for local transactions. I myself bought and used shell money to buy warm beer in a coastal village. While not a major tender, shell money is recognized within villages for small transactions.

The Abelam, since moving inland primarily use rings (yua) fashioned from the hard, marble-like shell of the giant clam. They were, and to some extent remain, the primary form of wealth among the Abelam people. Ceremonial valuables, yua were displayed or exchanged as part of most major rituals and rites of passage. At birth, a ring is presented to the child’s maternal uncle, who later will help guide him through the complex male initiation all offerings to their spirits Ngwalandu, is made with shell discs ( You can see in my photographs where the large statues are worshipped)
At marriage, the groom presents yua to the bride’s parents, the number he is able to give becoming a lifelong source of pride. At death, gifts of yua to maternal relatives help ease the passage of the spirit to the afterlife. Shell rings also play an integral role in ceremonial life. They are displayed during male initiation, the dedication of men's ceremonial houses, and other occasions, as symbols of the strength and wealth of the community. The rings are so prized that a man, wishing to emphasize another man’s status or his affection for him, will address him as wuna yua (my ring).

Religious Beliefs. Ceremonial houses (korambo) and Ceremonial grounds (amei) are the focus of most rituals connected with the life-cycle events for men and women. For girl parts of the first-menstruation ritual as well as the presentation of shell rings as marriage payments take place in front of the korambo. During the death ritual, the corpse is left there for one night. The korambo is also important for its mere presence and does not really serve as a meeting place. It is mainly for housing those spirits ( ngwalndu ) who visit the living temporarily before going back to another world. In a ceremonial building the huge carved ngwalndu figures may be stored until they are used for an initiation. The large painted facade of a korambo is visually dominated by big faces associated with ngwalndu spirits. The soul of a man is thought to live after death with an ngwalndu.
Ceremonies. Initiations of boys and men into the secrets of Abelam religion are divided into many stages, the first taking place when the boy is 5 or 6 years old, the last between 30 and 50. In each initiation boys are acquainted with one category of spiritual beings. This begins at an early age with the least important, and as adults they learn, after they have seen ngwalndu, the last secret beyond which there is only a boundless void.
Important parts of initiation ceremonies take place in the ceremonial house where artists arrange elaborate compositions of carved, painted, or plaited figures, decorated with shell rings, feathers, flowers, and leaves. No explanation is given to the initiates. The aim of these rituals is to show them the secrets rather than to verbalize a meaning. For each display of artifacts in a ceremonial house there is an associated dance. In these dances men are painted and decorated all over—thus they are transformed into beings from another world.

Death and Afterlife. There is almost no "natural" death recognized, apart from those old people who had been sitting already for a long time "at the ashes of a fire." All other deaths are attributed to magic and sorcery mostly performed in other villages. Symbols of people's life souls are kept in specialized villages. As soon as a lethal illness is suspected these are checked in order to find the cause and origin of the Sorcery performed. After death the corpse is displayed in front of the haus tambaran.

This belief in sorcery still pervades the entire island. Everyone's illnesses are attributed to their rivals doing, through sorcery. So the next act in the cycle of revenge is violence through murder. This cycle of revenge killings progresses into a tribal warfare with rampant killing and maiming until both parties are satisfied.

As a result of the endless cycle of wars, war art; weopanry, make-up and dances have had a major cultural impact. Today such wars are limited but the violence continues with guns and modern weaponry. It is unfortunately a land of violence with many troubled spots and many tenuous journeys for travelers.

Contact between Abelam and Europeans began in the 1920s and 30s, but it was not until after WWII, in the 1960s, that colonialism began to have a considerable impact on Abelam culture. Government influence increased, and Christian churches, including the Roman Catholics, AOG (Assemblies of God) and SDA (Seventh-day Adventist), began to attract converts. The 1970s-80s also saw an increase in business and commerce with the Maprik District becoming one of the country’s largest rice producing centers. Conversion to Christianity increased dramatically during the 1980s, and traditional culture went into a decline. One of the purposes of this article is to increase knowledge and understanding of traditional Abelam culture and beliefs.

Ramdas iyer ...riyerr@aol.com
Ramdasiyerphotography. com
Richard Scaglion-UCIS Research Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Brigitta Hauser-Schaublin- University of Gottingen- Architecture of Abelam
http://www.gudmundurfridriksson.com- Blogs
Brittanica Encylopedia

Photo Gallery;


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:23 Archived in Papua New Guinea Tagged river new png guinea yam tribes papua haus initiation tambaran sepik abelam culturem maprik Comments (0)

Travels in Papua in Dani Tribal Lands, Papua, Indonesia

Down the Mountain to a Mummy, The final segment of the Dani Experience.................Ramdas Iyer, Author

The "Baliem Highway" as I call it, is a network of small trails issuing out of hundreds of villages sequestered in the lush mountains of Papua. I was amazed to discover that the trail distances are measured in "days of walking" to Wamena, the only town in all of the Papuan Highlands. These trails descend from 6000 feet down to the valley floor, at about 1000 ft. above MSL If the fearsome Yali wanted to purchase some batteries, or aspirin or even simple comforts like candy or cigarettes, they have to walk a minimum of 8 days on the "Baliem Highway". On the last day of my stay in the highlands I enjoyed walking the highway, which is nothing more than 5 feet wide hugging the crest of the mountains. There was a steady flow of people in either direction, and to give you an idea of human density, contact was made every 30 minutes or so. From space it would almost look like ants walking a forest floor.

After my host villagers wished me good-bye, some of them walked alongside this pedestrian highway and set themselves up in various stations along the way trying to sell sweet potatoes, sugarcane, tobacco and taro roots for the hungry travellers. I met a young man with a rooster in his hand. He will be walking 2 days down and two days up to sell his rooster in the market and pick up some essentials on the way back (See Photo). One of the most interesting observations was that of one of my porters carrying a two-gallon can of petrol amongst our supplies. I initially thought that it was fuel for our trip. Instead he sold the can at our farthest point thereby garnering a good price for its supply to the interior. Unfortunately this fuel is also used for chain saws to cut trees.

People were carrying piglets, walking adult pigs like one would walk Dalmatians, holding hemp baskets for sale and in one case one of them had a collection of fine boar's tusk for sale in the market. What does not qualify to make it into the nostrils end up as necklaces used for ceremonial purposes; one such artifact was acquired there for my New Jersey home along with penis gourds and bead necklaces. With a keen eye on statistics, I purchased 5 and as expected two made it back whole.

We paused at several points as my porters were purchasing and consuming sweet potatoes from select vendors. I was given to understand that the ones grown in steeper slopes had a better taste than the ones found in the valley. I would imagine that the tuber had to grab every ounce of tumbling water to put out its fine sugars. It brought back memories of buying Malbec wine in Mendoza, Argentina a few years ago, when the same grog was available back home perhaps even cheaper. I am glad that restricted baggage in air travel has put an end to my trans- national appellation transfer. I have made it a point not to buy duty-free since the $10 saved is lower than the $20 copay my chiropractor charges, along with the question “Did you carry something heavy?”
We came upon some spectacular springs were water from the ground caused rivulets, resulting in waterfalls just a mile down hill. The porters and I had our last group picture together in the highlands and thereafter the trail dropped steeply towards Wamena.



If you remember, I had mentioned that Wamena had only five miles of paved roadway. Alongside this roadway, there are many stops were minivans picked up these tribal coming down the hill and transported them into town. We took one such conveyance and reached Wamena. After leaving our luggage and saying sad good byes to my porters (The silent one gave me a gift-a necklace with a single round rock in the middle) It felt as though the boomerang throwing kid in “The Road Runner” movie had grown up and was saying his good byes to me. (Mr. Gibson!)
We crossed a flimsy steel rope bridge secured by weighted steel drums over some scary waters. Since it was fairly sturdy, I would imagine that the builders loaded the steel drum pylons with concrete.(see picture)

The next morning, Scorpio and I trekked a couple of miles to see the famous mummy of Jwicka village

Indonesia has some of the most fascinating death cults. The cremations in Bali, the cave and rock burials of Sulawesi, the sea-burials of the Bugis people of Makassar and lastly the mummification of the Dani. Traditionally the Dani, after the death of a leader or chief used to drain the body fluids of the chieftains and smoked them for preservation.( It almost seems thath the enemy would be vanquished in the digestive tract while the leaders will be preserved for eternity;Ying and Yang!) These mummies were kept in the chief’s hut and were used as a talisman for war successes.
Upon arrival, we were shown the long houses of these people and finally the famous 300-year-old mummy. This today has become a touristy pursuit and did not have the real excitement of being with the villagers; nevertheless it was an unusual sight and a great experience since I was the only tourist there at that time of the year. There were several mummies scattered around Papua just a few years ago. Collectors and museums decamped with most while the remaining ones were badly damaged due to age and poor preservation.

After final good byes were exchanged Scorpio walked me to the airport, only to be interrupted by a motorcycle carrying two drums of fuel for our aircraft! (see picture)

This trip had been like a dream come true. With no one interested in sharing my costs, I tried to do it very economically using frequent flyer mileage. The biggest cost was the hopper flights from Jakarta to Jayapura.
I am very keen on visiting the coastal Papuans; The Asmat who live in spectacular villages with totems akin to the the British Columbian Haidas and the Tlingits, The plains Papuans namely the Korowai, who live in gigantic tree houses and eat grubs and worms as delicacies. These trips involve many porters and travellers to subsidize the boats and planes to reach the interior. If any reader is interested in pursuing this trip please contact me.

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 09:29 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia trek dani tribes tribal papua jayapura cannibals aboriginals tribals yali lani Comments (0)

Deep inside Yali, Dani and Lani territories, Papua,Indonesia

A fascinating trek amongst a unique people..... Author Ramdas Iyer



The third and fourth days of trekking took us to greater heights and deeper into Dani territory. It was an exciting time for a photographer with the land and its unique people offering many opportunities around every corner. The climb was very vertiginous slowing down our pace considerably. We crossed many mountain waterfalls tumbling towards the white water Rivers below, traversed several vine built bridges and saw some magnificent flora.
The Baliem valley consists of three main tribes; The Dani, the Yali and the Lani. The Lani are – like their neighbors, the Dani - experienced farmers and use a highly sophisticated irrigation system to produce mainly Sweet Potatoes, Tobacco, Beans, Taro, Spinach, Sugar Cane and Bananas. 
Their villages in a beautiful surrounding southeast of Wamena are larger than the small compounds of the Dani and the Yali.
The Lani men, who are stubbier than the Dani, wear thick kotekas (penis gourds), which also serve as a “handbag”, a case for tobacco and valuables. Men sometimes wear hairnets, but the Lani extensively use bird feathers as decoration. Quite often a feather crown is worn even when the men are dressed in western clothes. The women wear short grass skirts, but like everywhere in the valley tend to wear western clothes more and more today.

Like their Dani and Yali neighbors, the women carry everything – like vegetables, small pigs and even their small children – in net-bags across their backs.The Yalis on the other hand resided on the steeper slopes at higher elevations. As a result they were not discovered until 1976. They were the fiercest cannibals in Western Papua. They not only ate the bodies of their enemies, they also ground the bones and scattered them in the mountains to totally annihilate them.. Though very tiny in stature (Average make height was 5 feet or less), they were the most feared. They wore their penis gourds parallel to the ground in a pointed manner, but of a relatively smaller size.
As a photographer, I hate to see these magnificent tribesman wearing jeans and T-shirts saying “Jesus Saves”. While not a big fan of proselytization, I must admit that the Christian missionaries have done yeoman’s work in this harsh land trying to bring modern comforts and education to these people. Like many before them these cultures will be relegated to the history books and I count my blessings to have witnessed them prior to extinction.

As a traveler the Dani and Lani can be distinguished by the relative sizes of the Kotekas (Penis gourds or more scientifically called Phallocrypts) and the Yali by their height. The Lani live 3-4 day trek from Wamena while the Yali live 5-6 days trek from Wamena. Since more Papuans are adapting to western clothing it gets harder to identify them. I was fortunate to meet a Yali man about 4 days trek into the mountains, but unfortunately he was wearing western clothes (See Photograph)

Upon arrival at the village for nightfall around 3:00PM, the heaviest downpour ever witnessed by me continued straight for 8 hours trapping me with my porters and the occasional naked villager straggling into our kitchen hut. I took this opportunity to explain life in the USA to the porters through Scorpio to a fascinated audience. They asked me if I had sat in one of those flying buses that are seen from the mountains. We also discussed their individual lives, their farming techniques, relationships with women, ancestral stories etc, etc. Our cook was making the same noodles with cabbage and eggs every day that I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized that I had not eaten anything tangy in 4 days but I noticed a lemon plant in the fringe of the village. I grabbed a few lemons and offered to cook them all noodles my way, much to everyone’s satisfaction except perhaps the stunned cook.
There was a time inside the hut when 5 naked villagers were sitting around the fire with us, just watching. The highlands after rain cools down to about 60degrees F and the men, instead of wearing an outer garment rely on the warmth of a hearth. They live in such perfect harmony with nature that I fear any changes in global climate would adversely affect them.

The next morning we spent 3 hours walking around the village and studying their homes, farms, pigs and enjoying the mountaintop vista. Here is where I met a Yali member. He was passing through the village, along the trail that would eventually take him to his destination in higher terrain. He was no taller than 4 feet 6inches, with an elf like ear. In the 2is century we still live with homo erectus who have not closed the gap with the civilizations from the fertile crescent.

I met a woman who was constantly waving both her hands with open palms. It struck me as odd for her to continue to do it for an extended period of time. Scorpio explained that she was proudly showing all her 10 fingers, since none had perished in her family: a sign of a very brave and successful warrior family See photograph). An elderly gentleman actually took the time to demonstrate the art of septum piercing and nasal decoration (see Photos). This was our turn around point and to head towards Wamena for 2 days in a very different trail along the ridge of the mountain.

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia dani papua jayapura cannibals lani wamena Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 3 of 3) Page [1]