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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 [email protected]
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)

Crocodile initiation ceremony, Sepik River, Papua New Guinea

Bloody scarring ceremony of initiated men, Yenchan Village, Middle Sepik River.....................Ramdas A. Iyer


The Sepik River

With a fascination for primitive cultures and as a collector of primitive art, Papua New Guinea was a country I had always wanted to explore. In 2010 I made a brief foray into Irian Jaya or West Papua ( part of Indonesia) to live among the Dani tribes. I had barely scratched the surface of this island with over 1100 cultures and 850 unique languages; the most diverse human population in the world. In 2017 I gave myself three weeks to experience river, oceanic and mountain cultures of this independent nation of only 6 million people. I chose the magnificent Sepik River province for my first article on PNG in this publication . I so thoroughly enjoyed myself that it resulted in my coming home with malaria contracted perhaps in the swampy areas where most people are always afflicted with the dreaded malaise.

The Sepik River at 1126 km in length and covering an area of 7.7 million hectares is one of the world's greatest river systems. The Sepik River is one of the least developed areas in PNG and home to approximately 430,000 people who depend almost entirely on products from the rivers and forests for their livelihoods. This is perhaps the most linguistically and culturally diverse area in the planet with over 300 languages in an area the size of France. The area is famed for the gabled spirit houses or "haus tambarans", one of the most dramatic examples of indigenous Melanesian architecture, and a very rich ceremonial carving and music tradition. Sepik peoples maintain their cultural integrity proudly and have influenced styles across the nation. Vegetation types, at altitudes from 0 to 3800 meters mean sea level include mangrove forest, herb swamps, tall lowland rainforest, cloud forest, and alpine heaths . Important water bird and crocodile populations are supported by the 1500 lakes and other wetlands associated with the basin.

Winding down from the timeless cloud forests of New Guinea’s Central Range, the Sepik River is most intact freshwater basins in the Asia Pacific region. The soul of Papua New Guinea, the Sepik is often compared with the Amazon and the Nile, and it sustains an amazing variety of flora and fauna — much of it endemic — along with a wellspring of human cultural expression. In particular, many of the region’s people are economically, culturally and spiritually tied to the crocodiles of the river. Along the banks of the river and its many tributaries live sparsely scattered, remote villages, scarcely contacted by the outside world, where people live a lifestyle that has changed little for thousands of years.

Revering the crocodiles that inhabit the rivers, the people of the Sepik have traditions and customs that can be found nowhere else, building large and elaborate twin level spirit houses (haus tambaran) in their villages to house the good spirits while producing intricate wood carvings to ward off the evil spirits. The top level is normally reserved for initiation ceremonies and a place holder for war shields, weaponry and skull racks containing decorated skulls of ancestors and enemies. This practise was stopped by missionaries in the 1950s. A dugout canoe journey through the Sepik Basin is both a cultural discovery of National Geographic proportions, and a retreat to a world where mankind survives at the mercy of nature. Ritual, genealogical and historical knowledge defines one group from another and maintains the distinctions that facilitate trade. The Sepik is a gallery of tribal art, where each village boasts a unique style and every villager an artisan.

Small wonder that the Sepik River area was declared a world heritage culture by UNESCO in 2006.


Head hunting was a river culture practice in the Sepik area. The fact that young men could only come of age in these regions by taking a head, suggests how incessant warfare must have been. The Iatmul people of the Sepik would take the heads in battle, boil away the flesh and hang the painted and decorated skulls as trophies in the men's houses. The head hunters were not necessarily cannibals, but many were. Human flesh was eaten until fairly recently and some of the older men from villages remember tasting it as children.

The men's house ( haus tambaran in pidgin) is the place where important decisions regarding the village are made, where boys are initiated and become men and ceremonies to please the spirits are performed. Here the crocodile is worshiped as the water spirit. In excruciatingly painful ceremonies young men have their backs cut to resemble the markings of the crocodile, which is a symbol of strength and power.
My itinerary took me from Pagwi, where the road from the coastal town of Weewak ends, in the middle Sepik area to Tonganjamb in the upper Sepik region. My trip also allowed me to navigate the large Chambri and Wagu lake areas and their associated cultures. On the first evening I arrived at a riverside hamlet attached to the ancient Palembei village of the Iatmul people. The Iatmul numbering around 10,000 inhabitants are the original crocodile worshippers and their clan and sub clans inhabit villages such as Kanganamun, Palimbe, Korogo, Tanbanom, Pagwi, Kamanibit, Yenchen,Chambri and many others. My host who was the son of the chief of Palembe, mentioned that at Yenchan village across the mile wide river an initiation for 5 youths was underway.

I immediately seized the opportunity and reached the village before sundown. Yenchan has a small spirit house by the river bank and as I arrived along the river I could see the entire structure fenced off with palm leaves to create a curtain for the secret affairs taking take place inside. Local women and the uninitiated are forbidden to see the rituals but an exception is made to travelers as they are not considered one of their own.
The Yenchan boys who undergo the ritual can be anywhere from 12-35 years of age. This is an expensive ritual, which takes the parents and families a long time to save money for their sons to undergo the skin cutting ceremonies. The age gap is also wide because these rituals only occur every 4-5 years. During this time, the boys reside in the Spirit House for 1-3 months, where they receive training, from the elders, on how to be a man and how to embody the manly identity. They are submitted to the scarification rituals, which may take days to weeks to finish. Once the scarring is done, the boys’ cuts are filled with medicinal mud and herbs to aid in the healing of the scars. The place where the cutting takes place resembles that of a bloody war ground. This is done on purpose, to symbolize strength and survival. It is of Iatmul belief that men should reside in Spirit Houses for a major part of their day after they have undergone initiation rituals, because it is there where they discuss village matters, where they bond with other men, and where they ultimately prepare for war, if needed. It is also important that men travel in groups and undergo scarification rituals in groups to strengthen their bonds and relationships.

For these young men, not only does it signify strength, masculinity and dedication to the tribe, but it is an exclusively male practice that emphasizes the importance of brotherhood. These rituals symbolize the expelling of the mother’s post-partum blood. This is why there are hundreds of small cuts made in the torso area, to expel blood from the mother and to allow the crocodile spirits of manhood to enter the male body. This symbolizes the divorce of young men from their mothers, and it prepares them for a symbolic transition into being “as strong as the crocodiles of the Sepik.” These rituals emphasize the importance of a “male-centered” community and symbolize the idea that “men come from other men.” According to their myths, it was initially women who resided in the Spirit House, but the men stole the right and became the “bearers of man.” This is evident in the fact that women are not allowed anywhere near the Spirit House.
I proceeded to discuss the details of this process inside the spirit houses where several senior members were keeping an eye on the young initiates.
Myth of the Crocodile

According to their verbal history, an ancestor was hunting in a canoe and saw something in the water so he dived deep into the water where he spotted a spirit house and within it lived a crocodile. The man remained
with the crocodile for months learning its secrets and power. When the man returned to his village, he taught his people how to build spirit houses as well as how to cut their skin to
resemble a crocodile. The Iatmul rely on the power and knowledge of the crocodile spirit ever since ( source: Tattoo Hunter, 2011).

The initiation ceremony
The young boys are secluded for 2 months upstairs in the Spirit House where they learn carefully guarded secrets of tribal knowledge from elders. The initiates are only allowed outside briefly but only if they are covered in a shroud. As part of the preparation, the village men sing in the spirit house teaching the initiates sacred chants and mythologies which will help them become men. This education also allows them to train for their future roles in society. Sacrifice plays a major role in their coming of age ritual. First off, the men sacrifice eight weeks of their lives, separated from society and every family member in their village, for this brutal rite to occur. During this time, they are put under strict regulations and are forced to meditate for around 6 hours each day. They are also not allowed to eat or take actions that may please their desires. The offering of each man’s body for the brutal ritual of skin cutting is the most intense sacrifice in this ritual. The pain these men must endure is incredibly severe. Even though it is rare, there have been cases of men dying during this ritual. The offering of their bodies to this suffereing shows their dedication to their tribe and is taken seriously by one and all.

Since pain is crucial for transforming a boy into a man it is believed that after the ritual they are capable of conquering any problems in life. It is a test of strength and discipline The initiates lay down and are cradled by their uncles while the professional cutter cuts open onto the initiate’s body ( Borrowed pictures from the web). Traditionally, the tool used for the ritual is a bamboo sliver, today razors are used. The ritual takes over an hour where they will receive over 1000 severed cuts. They are given a leaf to chew their teeth with during the cutting. Their backs, buttocks, and chest all receive multiple lacerations with bamboo slivers, creating scars that when healed form keloid scars. For days they rest and recuperate in order for the crocodile’s power to seep into their bodies. A special paste made from clay is put into their cuts with a feather to become infected. In many cases death has been reported from these infections.

The more infected the cuts, the more larger and raised the scars become. A week after the scarring, the elders prepare the new men for the graduation ceremony where they are presented to the rest of the tribe and honored for their strength and bravery. Usually a crocodile masked dance is organized while the mothers and family of the new initiates welcome them with happiness and tears. This scarring ceremony is considered one of the most painful and agonizing of rites of passage ceremonies among tribal tradition watchers around the world. As an example in nearby Vaanatu, these Melanesian islanders have their youth jump on bungee chords over land from towers erected for initiation often breaking their fall a few inches from ground. ( Bungee tradition started there).

As you can see from the photos attached, I was not there for the cutting ceremony but caught up with the boys during the healing process. The spirit house, the center of which sits the orator's stool where myths, legends and preparation for war are all discussed by the elders. Like most tribes the Iatmul were a warring tribe and planned ritual wars against their traditional enemies that resulted in head hunting. I cannot but thank my stars for actually witnessing one of these ancient rituals which may not stand the test of a few more years. The boys were in apparent pain especially with coal embers scorching their already maimed skin. Yet they found it interesting to talk to me briefly as some of them spoke a bit of English having worked in bigger cities. They are normally naked and cover themselves when women are present. My travelling companion from Wiesbaden, Tanja Rothermel, with whom I shared the costs of the river journey, was with me so they covered themselves with leaves during her time inside the spirit house.
For people interested in seeing the entire ritual this You tube video from National Geographic offers a good visual.( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJDOh3VSoxQ).

Author's conclusive remarks:

Initiation ceremonies such as baptism, upanayana, confirmation and Bar or Bat Mitzvah are considered important rites of passage in their respective religions. Initiation rites are seen as fundamental to human growth and development as well as socialization in many communities.
Initiation rites are a natural and necessary part of a community. These rites are paramount to the development of an individual as well as the community.
Most of the ancient rites of passage can be separated and classified into five groups. Birth as a rite of passage, rite of passage into adulthood, marriage rite, riteof household leadership and rite to becoming stellar ancestors. This fascination with primitive cultures and their attention to detail to the various stages in one's life makes it a fascinating observation for me. I am fortunate to have an Indian upbringing that allowed me to enjoy this path but occasionally lament their loss for my own progeny who were raised in the USA.


Onnit Academy- Rites of Passage
UNESCO website
From Boys to Men: Suzanna Carranza
Scarification Rituals of PNG: Jessica Gray
Alamy Photo web images ( non profit use)



Questions and Comments: [email protected]

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 05:21 Archived in Papua New Guinea Tagged river new crocodile guinea spirit cult haus initiation tambaran housepapua iatmul palembe yenchan sepik Comments (4)

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