Papua New Guinea is one of the few places left in the world where overused adjectives such as “wild,” “remote,” and “pristine” genuinely still apply. It’s the world’s second largest island (after Greenland), and one of the most sparsely populated countries on the planet.
The country contains some of the planet’s most extraordinary biodiversity. Papua New Guinea is home to the third biggest forest in the world, after the Amazon and the Congo. That massive rainforest is home to the only poisonous bird on the planet, the world’s largest butterfly, the longest lizard. PNG also boasts the Pacific’s largest area of mangrove forest, coral reef, and sea grass beds.
This remarkable diversity doesn’t just include nature, but extends to indigenous cultures as well. Despite being home to a mere 7 million people, the population of Papua New Guinea belongs to over 7000 different cultural groups. Each of these has their own language, as well as distinct forms of cultural expression including dance, music, body paint, costume, and weapons.
Traveling around PNG means exploring a kaleidoscope of cultural, natural, and ecological diversity, making this relatively off-the-radar Pacific Island truly one of a kind. The impenetrable rainforest covering the island’s interior means that several cultural groups inhabiting Papua New Guinea developed in isolation, living a lifestyle that has remained relatively unchanged for over 40,000 years.
They’re almost entirely self-sufficient in terms of food, sustaining themselves mostly through agriculture and pig farming. Pork, together with yam, is one of the staple foods found across the country. However, pigs in PNG are not just food: They also occupy a central role in many cultural celebrations, being slaughtered to celebrate marriages, cremations, and initiation rites.
Here’s a look at some of the other customs and traditions that define the rich culture of Papua New Guinea:
Sing-Sing and Cultural Shows in Papua New Guinea
Covering the myriad cultures and traditions of people who call Papua New Guinea home is a daunting task. There’s so much to say on the subject that you could fill at least 10 books. One of the best ways to discover Papua New Guinea’s culture is to attend a sing-sing– a ritual gathering in which people from one or more tribes share their cultural traditions or celebrate events.
Some sing-sings happen spontaneously, while others are planned events taking place every year. The largest of them all is the Mount Hagen Cultural Show, an annual even held in the Western Highlands, which will be the highlight of our Papua New Guinea expedition next August.
The show was first organized in 1964 by a number of tribes from the area. It was created with the mission of sharing cultural experiences and preventing tribal animosities by bringing all of the local cultural groups together in one event.
Attending the Mount Hagen Cultural Show is definitely a one of a kind experience. Locals sport their very best costumes and spectacular body paints. You’ll see headdresses made with bird of paradise feathers, necklaces adorned with shells and animal teeth, and skirts fashioned from grass and leaves.
Not many tourists attend this show, so you’ll have a chance to get close to the performers, and even meet them and shake their hands.
The Huli People of Papua New Guinea
With their striking red and ochre body paint, the traditional attire of the Huli people is the one of the most colorful in the country. The Huli have lived in the central part of Papua New Guinea for thousands of years, supporting themselves primarily through hunting and agriculture.
One of the peculiarities of Huli tradition is that they all believe themselves to be one person– the descendant of an ancestor named Huli ,who was the first to cultivate their ancestral land. Red and ochre clay (known as ambua) are considered sacred in Huli culture, setting the Huli warriors apart from those of neighboring tribal groups. The upper part of their face is painted red, and the lower part ochre.
Alongside the body paint, the real show-stopper features of Huli traditional costumes are their wigs. They’re so important in Huli culture that male members of the tribe are also known as “Wigmen.” The Huli obsession with wigs is related to their unique initiation rites: At the age of 14 or 15, Huli boys leave their families and are sent to live in a sort of “bachelor school” to learn their role in society.
The most important activity during this time is taking care of the boys’ hair, in order to produce ceremonial wigs. Their hair is wet three times a day with holy water, then sprinkled with fern leaves while chanting spells. Boys must refrain from eating fat and spicy foods so that their hair grows strong. As the hair grows, it’s gradually formed into a kind of mushroom shape by using a band of bamboo. The boys must sleep on their back with their head on a brick in order not to ruin the shape.
After approximately 18 months, the hair is shaved close and the hair is woven into a traditional Huli wig. The wig masters will add ornaments such as colored clay and bird of paradise or parrot feathers. There are wigs for everyday use and for ceremonies, for personal use and for sale. The most elaborate ones can fetch $600 or more.
After the boys’ first “haircut,” the process starts again. Some young men will produce up to five or six wigs before it’s time to marry. According to Huli beliefs, only the hair of unmarried boys and young men can be used for making wigs.
Sepik Culture and Traditions
The Sepik region of eastern Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse on the island, with over 250 different tribal groups living in the vicinity of the Sepik River. Each has its own distinct art, crafts, and cultural beliefs.
The practice of headhunting was once widespread in the Sepik area. Among the Iatmul people, a young man could come of age only after taking the head of a rival. The head was then boiled to strip away the flesh, the skulls were painted and decorated, and then they were displayed in the men’s houses. In many tribal groups of Papua New Guinea, men and women used to lead separate lives, with men living together in one house and women in separate houses with their children.
In some cases, cannibalism was traditionally practiced in addition to headhunting. The flesh of enemies was eaten in order to absorb their strength and power. The practice started to decline with the arrival of Christian missionaries in PNG. Yet there are still elderly men in some Sepik villages who have reported tasted human flesh when they were children.
Sepik is also home to the Chambri tribe, who are also known as the “Crocodile Men of Papua New Guinea.” Crocodiles are sacred to the Chambri, who believe that they descend from crocodiles that migrated to land from their nearby river.
The unique initiation rite of the Chambri pays homage to this spirit animal. Young men live separately from the rest of their tribe for six weeks prior to the ceremony, which culminates in crocodile scarification. Tribal elders make hundreds of small, deep cuts on the young men’s back and buttocks. The initiates are held down and not allowed any kind of pain relief, as they need to withstand pain in order to become men.
Once the cutting is over, the young men are placed close to the communal fire. Smoke is blown over their back to purify them, and clay and tea tree oil are massaged into the wounds. This ensures that their scars remain raised when they heal, looking a bit like crocodile skin.
Traveling around Papua New Guinea also means getting in touch with cultural practices that might seem alien to us, and difficult to understand. However, this is also one of the best reasons to head to this remarkable islands– to learn about traditional cultural practices that, elsewhere in the world, were lost hundreds or thousands of years ago. –Margherita Ragg
BIO: Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.