Papua New Guinea is home to thousands of tribes, many of which have only recently been in contact with the outside world. One of the world’s least explored countries, culturally and geographically, Papua New Guinea is also one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. New Papua New Guinea tribes are still being discovered here, the most recent being the Korowai tribe, along with new species of plants and animals deep in the interior.
Only eighteen percent of the PNG population live in urbanized areas, these people are referred to as Papua New Guineans. The vast majority of the population are the indigenous people called Papuans and it’s these tribal people that make Papua New Guinea possibly the most exciting country on Earth to visit.
Exploring the many Papua New Guinea tribes also means discovering cultural practices that seem completely alien to Westerners, but this is all the more reason to travel to this incredible destination. To experience first-hand the traditional cultural practices that were abandoned hundreds or even thousands of years ago elsewhere around the world.
Each of these Papua New Guinea tribes have their own culture, traditions and customs. One things certain, the vast majority have never seen an iphone, nor care to. Some tribes have a population of thousands whereas others have less than one hundred members. From the crocodile-impersonating tribesmen of the Sepik River, yellow-faced Huli Wigmen, barefoot Baining Fire Dancers with birds on their head to Asaro Mud Men and Skeleton Warriors…
Meet 6 wild, wonderful and dare I say a little wacky (from a Westerner’s perspective) local tribal communities in Papua New Guinea.
The Huli Wigmen
Huli Wigmen: Despite their bright and cheerful appearance, the Huli Wigmen, also known as the Huli tribe or just ‘Wigmen’ are actually fierce warriors and the largest Papua New Guinea tribe with over 250,000 members. Their tribe has lived in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea, not far from Tari City for thousands of years, supporting themselves primarily through hunting and agriculture.
The Huli are the least isolated tribe and they’re also the most globally recognized in Papua New Guinea. With their yellow painted faces, grass skirts and bones through their noses, if you’ve ever researched Papua New Guinea it’s the Huli tribe people’s photographs that probably caught your eye first.
A special mention has to be given to the Wigmen’s wild and highly instagramable headdresses. These show-stopping works of art (put together by an expert wig master) are fashioned from their own hair, decorated with parrot and bird-of-paradise feathers and are large enough to act as a small umbrella. Despite being a main driving force for Papua New Guinea tourism, creating a headdress is still a genuine and authentic process.
The Huli Wigmen mainly live in isolation and don’t often meet each other, so when they do get together for ceremonies and cultural events it’s a spectacular show to watch. This is also when they put on their headdresses which are usually only worn on special occasions such as the traditional ‘sing-sings’ that most tribes par-take in throughout PNG. If you get the opportunity to experience a ‘sing-sing’ you’ll witness much bouncing, pogoing, chanting, kundudrum beating and most certainly a flurry of feathers.
Huli Wigmen Tribe Fun Facts:
- Their main currency is pigs and they use these pigs to pay for a bride.
- A democracy? Possibly because the Huli are the only PNG tribe without a chief.
- Don’t be shy when visiting this tribe because these guys know how to take a selfie!
Chambri Tribe AKA The Crocodile Men
Chambri Crocodile Men: The Chambri tribe can be found in East Sepik province and are more commonly known as The Crocodile Men of Papua New Guinea. Crocodiles are sacred to the Chambri people because they believe that they descend from crocodiles that migrated to land from their nearby river. The tribe partake in an initiation ritual for boys entering manhood when they’re between the ages of 11 and 30. The unique initiation rite of the Chambri pays homage to the crocodile and they enter a wooden and thatched spirit-house called a tambaran to live there for six weeks leading up to the ‘becoming a man’ initiation ceremony.
During this time in the tambaran, one ritual performed involves crocodile scarification. For this, tribal elders use bamboo slivers to make hundreds of slices in the skin, just less than one inch in length and the cuts flow down the boy’s back and body until they resemble (and feel like) crocodile skin. Chewing of medicinal plant leaves is the only pain relief offered and it’s believed that if the boy can withstand this, he can overcome any pain encountered in later life.
When the cutting is over, the boys are placed next to a communal fire and smoke is blown over their back to purify them, clay and tea tree oil are massaged into the wounds to ensure their scars stay raised when they heal, just like crocodile skin.
At the end of the crocodile scarification initiation and other lessons on how to become a man, care for a family and be useful to their society, the boys wear ornate headdresses and jewelry for a tribal ceremony celebrating their newfound manhood. This custom remains very much alive in the Sepik and the Crocodile Men are easy to meet for any adventure travelers visiting the Sepik. If you’re lucky you can get snappy with your camera as they’ll proudly remove their shirts and show-off their wild croc-body-mods.
Asaro Mudmen Tribe
Asaro Mudmen: The Asaro Mudmen come from just outside the town of Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Although their appearance and slow serpent like movements are terrifying by design, the Asaro are proud and happy to show travelers their way of life and you’ll find them to be welcoming and friendly. If you’re part of a specialized Papua New Guinea tribes tour then you may get the opportunity to witness an authentic cultural performance like no other.
Watch in awe (and terror) as ghostly grey clay-covered figures emerge out of the mist, naked if not for loincloths, donning creepy mud-baked masks with pointed ears, drooping tongues and pig bone nose piercings. Their bows and arrows all pointing straight at you!
Legend has it that they were defeated by an enemy tribe and forced to flee into the Asaro River waiting until dusk before attempting to escape. They rose from the muddy banks covered in clay, and returned to their village not knowing the enemy tribesmen were still there. The enemy were so terrified of their ghost-like appearance they fled in terror.
So how did the creepy-as-hell masks thing get started? Well, legends say that the people of Papua New Guinea thought that the mud from the Asaro river was poisonous. So instead of covering their faces with this alleged poison, they made crazy masks like these…
When they raided neighboring villages they would emerge out of the mountain mists like ghostly spirits before dawn, freaking out their opponents before they’d even shot a single arrow. Despite their terrifying appearance, the Asaro Tribe are some of the friendliest tribes people in Papua New Guinea and will happily scare their enemies and tourists alike on their way to becoming one of Papua New Guinea’s most revered performing cultures.
Oro Province Tattooed Women
Oro Province Tattooed Women: Face and body tattooing was widely practiced in Papua when Europeans first made contact, and there has been a modest revival in recent years of young women here getting exquisite facial tattoos in Oro Province. A lot of the earlier tattoos were apparently quite simple, but the facial tattoos belonging to the women of Tufi are impressive, intricate, geometric representations of nature, such as the feathers from a bird-of-paradise.
These tattoos are considered a rite-of-passage for young girls of 14 to 18 years of age to enter womanhood. The long and painful facial tattoo process takes roughly 2 months and upon emerging from the tattooist’s hut the new initiate will be considered a woman and ready for marriage.
It’s easy enough to see the Oro Province tattooed women in communities around Tufi, now a world-class location for diving, or during September’s not-to-be-missed Tufi Tapu Tattoo Festival.
You might also like: A Dying Tradition – The Full Face Tattoos Of Tribal Women In Mindat Myanmar
Baining Fire Dancers
Baining Fire Dancers: The Baining tribe live in a small village close to the island of East New Britain’s capital Kokopo. They can be found living deep in the mountains, surrounded by jungle and are aptly known as ‘Bush People’ and also ‘Fire Dancers’. Their ceremonial fire dance is a sight to behold and although the tribe’s women and children are banned from watching, it’s performed on occasions such as births and deaths and for certain adventure travel tour groups.
Feel the heat of the fire and let the rhythmic beating of bamboo sticks on kundudrums lead you into a trance-like state. Fire dancers wearing masks that represent forest spirits appear, barefoot they run through the bonfire sending fiery embers flickering into the night sky. Watching this fire dance is a surreal experience and the best way to connect with the Baining Fire Dancing tribe and the local people of East New Britain.
Chimbu Skeleton Tribe
Chimbu Tribe: These Skeleton Warriors are from the Western Highlands, specifically the Simbu or Chimbu region. Only first making contact with the Western world in 1934, the Chimbu tribe have largely remained a mystery and this only intensifies outsider interest in their culture and customs. The Chimbu tribe are best known for painting their entire bodies to resemble a spooky skeleton.
This used to be done to intimidate their enemies but now it’s more of a tradition used for ceremonies and celebrations. It has been estimated that some 60,000 people live in areas traditionally occupied by the Chimbu tribe however a 2011 census states that the entire province of Chimbu has a population of over 376,000. That’s a lot of Skeletons. Good to know they’re not ALL in my closet.