The Papuans

Highland warriors

© Jeanne Herbert/Survival


"Foreigners don't consider us to be humans. That's why the companies and the Indonesian government treat us like animals, and use brutal and cruel methods." Tom Beanal, Amungme chief, 1999.



Who does this name designate?

The Portuguese discovered New Guinea in the 16th century. They named it Papua, a word which came from the Malay language, papuwa, "kinky hair". Papuan designates a myriad of peoples divided into tribes and clans, of different languages and ways of life. Papuans are Melanesians.


In which countries and in which natural environment do they live?

Papuans live in New Guinea, a big island located in the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia, surrounded by smaller islands, such as New Britain.



New Guinea is covered with thick rainforests and has mountains that rise to 4.500 meters. Therefore, the climate can be hot and humid, but also cold because of the altitude. Near the coast, in the marshy lowlands, the Papuans are less isolated and more in contact with the modern world.

The island of New Guinea is divided in two:

  • In the West (yellow on the map), Western Papua, formerly called Irian Jaya, an Indonesian province since 1963, where Papuans demand their independence.
  • In the East (grey on the map), Papua New Guinea, independent since 1975, with Port Moresby as its capital.


The flag of Papua New Guinea


What is the size of the population? 

In Western Papua, there are 312 Papuan groups, representing a million people. In Papua New Guinea, 8 out of 10 inhabitants are Papuan, or 3.6 million people.

Here are some Papuan peoples which we talk about on this page:

  • the Iatmul of the Sepik Valley;
  • the Dani of the Baliem Valley, population 150,000, the biggest group in Western Papua;
  • the Amungme of the South Central Highlands;
  • the Asmat of the Southern coast;
  • the Korowaî, isolated in the heart of the mountains;
  • the Baruya of the eastern mountains ;
  • the Lakalai of New Britain;
  • and the Mendi of the eastern mountains.

What languages do they speak?

In Papua New Guinea, Papuans speak 750 different languages. Enga, used by 180,000 people, is one of the most spoken. Some are only used by a few dozen people and are endangered. In elementary school, pidgin is the common language, and for academics, business or politics, people speak English.


How do they dress?

Papuans used to live naked, adorned with an infinite variety of precious ornaments. Today they willingly adopt European clothing, but for ceremonies, the traditions are not forgotten.

Initiated men wear a penis sheath, a hollowed-out, dried, long and pointy fruit that they place on their penis and wear raised towards the sky. Some sheathes are a meter long. Women often wear dresses of dried plant fibers.
Ornaments vary by clan: necklaces of dog teeth, the number of which indicates how many dogs have been eaten; neckties of little, white shells also serving as money; cauri; crowns of brightly, colored feathers; bat wingbones, curved pig teeth or insect mandibles worn in the septum; large pendants of mother-of-pearl; and multicolored face painting.

To keep their hands free, they carry things in long nets of braided fibers which hang on their backs. To protect themselves from rain, they cover themselves with huge pandamus leaves.

What are their houses like?

The Korowai of Western Papua have, no doubt, the most astonishing houses, perched in trees more than 20 meters off the ground. You reach them by ladders made by cutting notches into straight and narrow tree trunks.

The beams of the structure are tied together with rattan fibers, the walls and floor are covered with strips of bark, and the roof is made of sago palm leaves (you'll read about the sago palm below). It is decorated with shells, carapaces and bones, witness to the skill and courage of the hunter who lives under its roof.

These houses are perched so high in order to be far from the vermin that attack wood, the mosquitoes that devour your skin and animal predators. Also, from up high, you have a good view for observing the approach of any visitors.
In each village, the Asmat build a common house 80 meters long, on stilts, to be above the mud and floods. The men come together there to discuss and the oldest teach the youngest all matters of life. It's a kind of school.

What do they eat?

The dietary staple is sago, a paste obtained from the flesh of the sago palm, which Papuans cut down with an adze. An adze is a small axe with a stone or metal blade. In one day, a sago palm is cut down, its flesh is retrieved and 50 kilos of sago are prepared.

Tubers such as taro, yams and sweet potatoes, beans, squash, bananas and sugar cane are cultivated in gardens. The men make the clearings where the women can tend gardens.

All sorts of meat are eaten: larva fritters, locusts, salamanders, lizards, grasshoppers and snakes cooked on stones heated in fire. Pork is served at festivals when there are many dinner guests. The men also hunt wild pigs, birds and small game. Breadfruit, a green fruit with sweet flesh, is gathered in the forest.

The Baruya produce bars of plant salt from a juice which they press in straps of bark. They trade this salt for things that they need which other tribes produce.


Which animals live around them?

The rainforest shelters numerous species of birds with magnificent feathers, valued for ornaments, like the bird of paradise and the cockatoo. The bird most sought after is without a doubt the the cassowary. It is 1.5 meters tall, weighs 80 kilos and has a horny crest which, when its head is lowered, allows it to run through brush.

Capturing a cassowary is a trial that every young man must pass in order to gain the strength and speed of the animal.
The Mendi raise cassowaries: they capture the chicks in the forest and keep them in cages. The women have the responsibility of feeding them, and they are killed for great ceremonies.

You could say there is a sort of cassowary fair held every year in certain villages. After parades in which each man dances with a cassowary on his back, visitors from afar exchange feathers, bones, paws and meat of the bird, for tools, shells, necklaces, etc.

The cuscus is a small marsupial much in demand by the Asmat. They make their hats with its fur.


Asmat with his cuscus hat © Jeanne Herbert/Survival


Pigs are part of the family. You can see mothers suckling their baby with one breast and a piglet with the other. There are striped pigs, spotted pigs and gray pigs, and all of them end up in the fire during meals shared with the whole tribe and people from the neighboring village. They serve as money and wedding gifts.


How do they hunt?

Hunting is reserved for men, on precisely defined territory belonging to the clan, and each tree is the property of the group.

There are various kinds of arrows, depending on what is hunted. For cassowaries, the arrows are made of hard wood and serrated with cutting teeth, while, for small game, an arrow with a flat bamboo blade is used. Hunters also set traps along animal trails.

The hunting of humans has in theory disappeared from tradition, along with cannibalism, or anthropophagy.

Among the Asmat, fishing is woman's work, even if men are present to protect them. Among the Papuans, roles are always precisely divided between men and women.


What are their beliefs and their rites?

Many Papuans, such as the Dani, were converted to Christianity by missionaries, often North American. This is how traditions disappear, such as making war with a neighboring clan under pretext of avenging an offense and eating one's victim to obtain his power.

According to the Baruya, women created plants, tools, arts and all that supports life. By force and by cunning, men hid everything from them and spend their lives preventing women from recuperating these things.

According to the Korowai, natural death doesn't exist. It's always the result of a curse by someone who they must find and kill. Wars of retaliation are therefore without end. One of their legends announces the end of the world upon first contact with whites and their modern things.


What are their celebrations?

Celebrations are always a time for sharing and exchange. Many pigs and sweet potatoes are cooked in the village plaza by steaming under a thick layer of leaves. Meanwhile, the men do war dances around the fire to the rhythm of drums. The meat is cut up and the best parts, the liver and the fat, are offered to the guests.

For these occasions, particular attention is made to ornaments: face and body painting, feather headdresses, bones, furs and shells in layers; and noses pierced with enormous boar teeth or cassowary bones.

Among the Lakalai, to honor the dead, great distributions of food are organized in company of statues which represent the deceased. They are sculpted from wood, painted with plant pastes, and have cunningly braided fibers for hair. These statues are then arranged in the house of the dead.


What does Papuan art look like?

Wood is the essential material of these regions of dense forest. Ceremonial statues, shields, masks, stools, drums and flutes are always sculpted with ornate motifs and often painted. These are the sacred objects which are arranged in the men's house, far from the eyes of women.

According to the Iatmul of the Sepik Valley, mostly fishermen and crocodile hunters, crocodiles created the world: pirogues and stools take the animal's form, with its scaly skin and long jaws. The great slit drum, carved out of a hollow trunk, topped by a head with terrifying eyes, lets the voices of the spirits be heard.

Young Asmat men make their knives out of the tibia of the first cassowary they hunt. It is extremely sharp, finely sculpted and kept in a sheath of braided fibers decorated with plumes.


What problems do they face today?

The situation differs greatly according to whether you are a Papuan from Western Papua or Papua New Guinea.

For the former, colonized since 1962 by Indonesia, it's essential to become independent again. They are revolting against the government and their protests are always violently repressed by the army. Torture, disappearances, massacres, burnt villages and a starving population forced to flee to the forest: this is the everyday situation, which is seldom spoken about because foreign journalists are forbidden to work there.

The reasons for their revolt are also found in the destruction of their environment. The largest goldmine in the world, operated by Americans, is found on their land, in the Grasberg mountains, and they only receive minimal profits from it.

Their forest is disappearing at the rate of 250.000 hectares per year according to the ecological organisation Greenpeace. The rare woods of the Asmat lands are sought by Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese companies, responsible for deforestation.

The Indonesian government has sent a million colonists from Java to live in Western Papua. They are settling Papuan lands and are now more numerous than the Papuans themselves.

In the face of all these threats, the Papuans have created their own army and their own flag. To wave it is to risk ten years of prison.


Kindly translated by Jason Miller.


Informations were collected in : Ethnies n° 8-9-10 'Renaissance du Pacifique', edited by Survival; Géo; Grands Reportages; Trek; Sciences et Vie; le Monde; Courrier International and Esprits de jungle by E. Lobo, ed. Romain Pages.