Culture & customs in Papua New Guinea

Physically remote and still very isolated, Papua New Guinea is one of the least explored countries in the world, both culturally and geographically. This means its cultural life and customs have been allowed to flourish untainted by outside influence for centuries. And, due to the huge number of tribes living here – an estimated 750 – it has more than just well preserved culture; it has a glorious abundance of it, with hundreds of diverse tribal traditions and ceremonies that are very local and utterly unique.

Although much of PNG remains unexplored and unexplained, it is possible to meet and learn about some of the tribes both on New Guinea itself and the surrounding islands. The Highland regions are a great place for tribal encounters, and home to some of the most resilient culture anywhere in PNG. You might join a traditional mumu feast, for which food is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked under hot stones, and witness a sing sing, a performance devised as a way for neighbouring villages to peacefully share traditions.
Another superb way to delve into the culture and customs of Papua New Guinea is to attend one of its colourful festivals, such as the Goroka Show held in September. Tribes from across the Highlands come wearing their own unique traditional dress, which might include elaborate feather headdresses, grass or bead skirts, shell and horn necklaces and very colourful face and body paint, plus traditional weapons. Traditional tribal dress often features feathers from the birds of paradise that live in PNG, a bird much venerated by local people. Fortunately, few birds die for these costumes nowadays. Tribal headdresses are handed down through generations, and although local people are permitted to hunt birds of paradise, they generally target older males with full plumage, leaving younger males to continue breeding.
While tourism barely exists in PNG, some tribes have cottoned on to the revenue potential of enacting ceremonies for paying visitors, even if they are not traditional to their tribal group or being performed at the traditional time of year. Ask questions of the tour operator, to find out more about the integrity of any scheduled tribal encounters.

Papua New Guinea cultural highlights

Asaro ‘Mudmen’

The term ‘Mudmen’ applies to the men of the Asaro tribe, after their practice of coating their skin in mud and wearing ghoulish clay masks adorned with pigs’ teeth and shells. There are various origin myths around this tradition, but they all centre on the mud and mask combination making the men look like spirits or ghosts, which terrified their enemies and gave the Asaro a fearsome advantage. The mud mask tradition originates with the Asaro people, but many tribes in the Eastern Highlands have now plagiarised it for commercial gain.

Baining Fire Dance

The Fire Dance is a rite of passage performed by adolescent male members of the Baining tribe of New Britain. They compete wearing massive headdresses, shaped like animals’ heads, and run through and kick the fire, sending up showers of sparks, accompanied by chanting and singing from village elders.

Goroka Show

This is the longest running tribal gathering and cultural festival in Papua New Guinea hosted in Goroka, capital of the Eastern Highlands Province, in September. It’s an annual event conceived in the 1950s by Australian patrol officers and designed to provide an opportunity for isolated and historically warring tribes to interact in a peaceful environment. More than 100 tribes participate now, performing displays of sing sings – traditional songs, dances and ritual performances – and wearing extraordinary and colourful tribal dress.

Madang

Madang is a thriving community renowned for its traditional artists (it has a good local market) and it also has an interesting museum, where you can see a number of ceremonial headdresses, as well as a range of local jewellery, weapons and musical instruments.

Our top Papua New Guinea Holiday

Papua New Guinea holiday, Tribes & Traditions

Papua New Guinea holiday, Tribes & Traditions

Unique small-group cultural tour to Papua New Guinea

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2019: 23 Oct
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Meeting local people

There’s no question that meeting the local people of Papua New Guinea and learning about their ancient traditions and customs is a not to be missed highlight of travelling here. On some tours, you can spend a day or even a few days in a village, to learn about the resients’ lives. You may be able to witness a ceremony or dance, such as a traditional courting ceremony, and may be honoured with a traditional mumu feast.

Chimbu is a province in the Highlands region of PNG, peppered with remote villages and alive with ancient traditions, dress and customs. Spend time at a village here, seeing how weapons and musical instruments are made and having a go at making a bilum, a sturdy string bag used throughout PNG. The Kalam tribe lives in Simbai, Bismarck province, another possible village visit. The Kalam wear distinctive helmets covered in beetle heads. On a small ship expedition that takes in some of PNG’s islands, you may spend time with the people living on remote Mussa Island, one of the westernmost extensions of the Lapita culture.

National Mask Festival & Warwagira

This annual event, founded in 1995 and held in July, celebrates the unique mask cultures of East New Britain Province and is a cultural tribute to the local people: the Tolai, Baining and Sulka. It’s an extravaganza of cultural dancing, ritual performance and storytelling with a variety of arts and crafts on display and takes place in Kokopo. The opening ceremony is called the Kinavai, and features the arrival of the Tolai Tubuans and Duk-Duks (masked spirits) emerging from the sea mist at dawn. You can also see the traditional Tolai shell money exchanges that mark the opening of the festival.

Sepik River

The Sepik is Papua New Guinea’s longest river, meandering 1,200km from the West Papuan border to the Bismarck Sea, west of Madang. Wewak is the gateway to river exploration, usually by motorised longboat. Villages with stilt houses wait around each bend, where rituals are conducted in haus tambarans (spirit houses). You can meet the Crocodile Men from the Chambri tribe, who practice skin scarification as an initiation rite for boys, marking their skin with ‘crocodile’ scars to signal them passing into manhood. Ancient lore states that men evolved from crocodiles and these creatures are sacred to the Chambri.

Practicalities

The best and, in fact, the only way to visit Papua New Guinea is to book yourself onto an organised tour. This will include a tour leader and local guides and drivers – essential since there’s barely any tourism infrastructure in PNG and few roads – plus internal flights and transport, meals and accommodation. Most organised tours make PNG’s local culture a huge part of the itinerary, alongside exploring World War II sites and some trekking, bird watching and snorkelling, so you’ll have time at various villages to meet local people and join cultural activities with them. Some tours are also designed to coincide with one of the annual tribal festivals, with entrance fees included in the holiday price. Tours are generally small group departures, with no more than 12 people. Small groups can visit villages and local tribes sensitively and with minimal impact, ensuring that both travellers and Papua New Guineans benefit from the interaction.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mark Robinson] [Top box - Hagen Cultural Show: Jialiang Gao] [Madang: TANAKA Juuyoh] [Sepik River people: David Bacon]
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