Highland Tribes of Papua New Guinea

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The Highlands Region is one of four regions of Papua New Guinea. Administratively, it is divided into seven provinces: 1) Chimbu (Simbu); 2) Eastern Highlands; 3) Enga, 4) Hela, 5) Jiwaka, 6) Southern Highlands and 7) Western Highlands. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Highlands Region as the name suggests is a mountainous area. Extending from the west to the southeast and entirely landlocked, it occupies the central part of the island of New Guinea. The mountains reach elevations of over 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). The highest point in the Highland and Papua New Guinea is Mount Wilhelm (4,509 meters, 4,793 feet). It is located is the Bismarck Range, which is part of the Central Range. [Source: Encyclopedia Britannica]

The Highlands also feature dense rain forests and enclosed upland basins that are usually at 1,370 meters (4,500 feet) or higher. The basins contain lake deposits, formed by soil washed down from the surrounding mountains and trapped by impeded drainage. The soil often contains layers of volcanic ash, or tephra, deposited from nearby volcanoes, some of them recently active, are usually very fertile.

Describing what is like to drive in the New Guinea Highlands,Sean Flynn wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “The road out of Mount Hagen deteriorates by the mile, the pitted blacktop of the little city crumbling to dirt before collapsing into reddish ruts scraped through the deep green of Papua New Guinea’s highlands. In the final stretch before Kilima, a bedraggled coffee plantation in the Nebilyer Valley, our Toyota Land Cruiser has to crawl in low gear, wobbling and tottering through craters and washouts...“The road tumbles down a final derelict hill and flattens into a dirt plain between a rusted-out shed, which is old, and an iron-roofed fundamentalist church, which is new. Then it narrows and rises again toward Joe’s house, up on the next hill. There are five people walking along the road between the shed and the church. [Source: Sean Flynn, Smithsonian magazine, March 2018]

Bob and Robin Connolly, Australian documentary filmmaker, made three documentaries in the Highlands in the 1980s. The initial one, First Contact, was nominated for an Academy Award, and the last, Black Harvest, had “extraordinary historical resonance,” the New York Times wrote, “so rich that watching it feels like taking an inspired crash course in economics and cultural anthropology.” Newsweek said it had “the scale and richness of classical tragedy.”

Tribes of the Highland of Papua New Guinea

At one time about 39 percent of the population of Papua New Guinea lived in the highlands. One reason for this might have been the fact that people from Papua New Guinea are susceptible to malaria. Unlike African blacks they lack the sickle cell gene which protects them from malaria. There are less malaria mosquitos in the Highlands.

Well-known Highland tribes include the Chimbu, Enga, Foi, Hewa, Huli, Kalam, Kaluli, the Maprik Tribes, the Sepik Tribes and Tambul Tribes. On the southern face of the Highlands are Anga speakers and Papuan plateau peoples. In the high central mountains are the Mountain Ok peoples. High Sepik tribes live along the Sepik River and its tributaries. Peoples throughout this zone were preoccupied with ideas about growth and the physical fluids and substances (semen, vaginal fluids, and menstrual blood) that they regarded as hat they regarded as agents of reproduction and growth.

Highland Tribe Society and Customs

Many Highland societies and tribes are organized around clans which live in distinct settlements. Clans are divided into sub-clans which are essentially large extended families with a founding ancestor that can often be traced back to a male heir living five or six generations ago. Marriages are between members of different sub clans and the children become members of the father's clan.

Highland men who wear traditional costumes wear a belt with bunches of leaves passing over the rear called "arse grass." Cassowary quills, shells and ballpoint pens are all placed in the round hole through the nasal septum. [Source: "Man on Earth" by John Reader, Perennial Press, Harper and Row,

Many Highlanders traditionally cooked their food inside banana leaves placed on rocks heated by hot coals. A Highlander wedding is as much a sharing of wealth as it is a union of two people in love. The groom pays the bride's family something like 12 pigs, 30 pearl shells and US$4000 in Papua currency. Highland men love to show of their arrow scars and tell stories about how they got them. [Source: "Man on Earth" by John Reader, Perennial Press, Harper and Row,

In the Mt. Hagen area women, who usually have clean, well-oiled bodies, cover themselves wih mud to symbolize death and decay. They cover their head with strands of gray grass seeds called Job’s tears and wear dozens of necklaces that are removed one day at a time until the mourning period, which can last for months, is over.

Some of the hunter-gather tribes in the highlands use hornbill bills for spoons and fill a string bag of wood fiber with hawk feathers to keep dry on hunting expeditions. Lianas are pulled back and forth over a stick to start a fire and houses are built on top of stilts for defense. [Source: "Tropical rain Forests: Nature's Dwindling Treasure" by Peter White, January 1983]

Highland Tribal Wars

Mainly through the efforts of the Australian field officer, or kiaps, who governed the remote regions of PNG before independence, cannibalism and headhunting were brought under control in the highlands. Although headhunting is no longer practiced there has been a resurgence of tribal warfare which is mainly confined to intra-clan revenge killings.

Sean Flynn wrote in Smithsonian magazine: ““Tribal wars in the highlands were almost theatrical affairs, with battles scheduled for specific times and places — say, a field burned and stomped clear of grass so nobody could stage ambushes — and fought primarily with spears and arrows, big wooden shields and the occasional homemade shotgun.... There were dozens of casualties. At one point, Joseph Madang, was outflanked, shot by one of those primitive guns, chopped with steel axes, killed. [Source: Sean Flynn, Smithsonian magazine, March 2018]

As one tribesman said, “The only reason that we killed people was simply that if we hadn’t have killed them, they would have killed us and all our carriers, all the people that were with us. The gold had nothing to do with it.” [Source: Sean Flynn, Smithsonian magazine, March 2018]

White Men in The Highlands

Sean Flynn wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Long after missionaries and Europeans settled on the coast of New Guinea in the 19th century, the mountainous interior remained unexplored. As recently as the 1920s, outsiders believed the mountains, which run the length of the island from east to west, were too steep and rugged for anyone to live there. But when gold was discovered 40 miles inland, prospectors went north across the Coral Sea to seek their fortunes. Among them were three brothers from Queensland, Australia: Michael, James and Daniel Leahy, the children of Irish immigrants, who in the early 1930s hiked to the top of the ridges with a group of native porters and gun bois (or armed guards) from the coast. [Source: Sean Flynn, Smithsonian magazine, March 2018]

“In the highlands the Leahys found wide, fertile valleys, groomed with garden plots that were later estimated to feed a million inhabitants sorted into hundreds of tribes and clans. The highlanders lived in huts of timber and kunai grass, used stone tools and fought with wooden spears and arrows. Just as white settlers had been unaware of their existence, the highlanders had no idea that anyone lived beyond the mountains.

“At first, they suspected the white men were spirits, or maybe lightning come to earth. More curious than afraid, they traded with the white men, sweet potatoes and pigs and women in exchange for steel axes and shells (plentiful on the coast, but rare and highly prized in the highlands). When the expedition encountered new tribes, Michael “Mick” Leahy, the oldest brother and acknowledged leader, would shoot a pig to demonstrate his superior firepower. If a tribal “big man” tried to rally his warriors into a raiding party, Mick and his gun bois would shoot a few of them, too.

“The Leahys traipsed through the highlands until, in 1933, they struck a claim near what is now Mount Hagen. There they built an airstrip, with friendly locals stamping the dirt flat in endless sing-sings, and settled in to make a modest fortune dredging shiny rocks from the streams. In time, the Leahys became famous for “opening” the interior to the outside world, and Mount Hagen grew into one of the country’s largest cities.

Highland Gatherings and Sing Songs

As many as 100,OOO Highlanders show up for the annual Highlands Gathering in Mt. Hagen. Thousands of these wear traditional brightly colored costumes. The famous Asaro mud people are there. Women are also there who paint their faces with pig grease in the pattern of the tree python...as well as men with kangaroo tail bibs and 12 inch shells stuck through their noses. For entertainment "chorus lines of warriors" dressed in birds of paradise plumes perform the "Shhhh" dance with drums and spears. Ironically enough, the festival was conceived by Australian administrators to teach the highlanders the latest in agricultural methods.

Highland gatherings grew out of moka, originally a gathering or enemies to make peace and decide reparations. They are now competitions of the most ornate warriors, although violence on occasion has broken out. Moka was a highly ritualized system of exchange in the Mount Hagen through which reciprocal gifts of pigs helped tribesmen achieve status and settle disputes. They became illustrations of the anthropological concepts of "gift economy" and of "Big man" political system. Anthropologist Nancy Sullivan, who worked in the Highlands, told National Geographic, "Here men are the objects of beauty. To be masculine is to be well made-up. Women, though, court danger are too attractive. Men are already afraid of the power of women's biology."

Sing Songs, another group of occasions for tribal display, were organized after World War II by colonial government officials to promote regional peace among all the participating tribal clans. Dance and costumes express a great degree of individuality and innovation. In the 1980s dancers painted themselves with white stripes and wore long pointy bamboo fingers in costumes inspired by zebras.

Asaro Mudmen and Other Highland Groups

The Asaro tribe, also known as the Holosa, live just outside the town of Goroka in the Asaro Valley in the Eastern Highlands. Asaro men smear their bodies with white clay and perform skits and dances wearing earthen masks impregnated with animal teeth. Their rituals today are performed mainly in front of paying tourists and photographers.

The Baruya are a tribe in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. They have been studied since 1967 by anthropologist Maurice Godelier. He said their most sacred secret was that the young initiates, as soon as they enter the house of men, are nourished with the sperm of their elders, and that this ingestion is repeated for many years with the aim of making them grow taller and stronger than women, superior to them, capable of dominating them and leading them.” The practice is extinct: “This custom is no longer practiced today: it disappeared almost immediately after the arrival of the Europeans in 1960”.

The Hagahai, a group of seminomadic highlanders largely unknown to the outside world until 1983, were in danger of dying out. In 1984 there were only 294 members left and there numbers were declining steadily. In 1988 a full-time medical worker was hired to live with them and administer vaccines and antibiotics against the diseases that threatened them. Their population began to rise. But when the medical worker left Hahahai began dying again. In 1990 an airstrip was cleared out of the jungle to allow them ship out harvested coffee. Peace Corp workers were assigned to teach them to read and write. A medical anthropologist who worked with the Hagahai says she is not worried about the cultural intrusions: "There's no way they'll survive without change." [National Geographic Geographica, July 1990].

The Mountain Koiali (Mountain Koiari) live inland at higher elevations. They are closely related to the Grass Koiari, who numbered about 1,800 in 1973 and live in in Port Moresby Subprovince, Central Province of Papua New Guinea. “


Huli people are highland tribe. They have an annual gathering in which they dress up in bright colors. "They preen, strut, shimmy, and shake their feathered costumes, mimicking the local birds of paradise."

Hands never touch the hair of a Huli bachelor, who wears strange-looking hats that resembles a Vietnamese peasant hat covered by fur.. "He uses leafy twigs to drip sanctified water on his hair as it grows into a mushroom shape around bamboo supports. Soon it will be sheared off in one piece to make a wig he'll wear th rest off his life."

According to the Archive of Sexuality: Among the Huli young males leave the maternal house after initiation at age 7 or 8 to join their fathers, to avoid (sexual) contact with women. Men of 25 are married to 15-year-olds, whose virgin vagina has to be oiled in order to prevent damage to his penis. In 1968 R. M. Glasse wrote: “Young men begin to think of marrying when signs of their physical maturity appear; these include the quality and “firmness “ of the skin, abundant body hair and growth of a heavy beard. When these signs are evident, the men resign from the bachelor societies, don the crescent-shaped wig and evince an interest in attractive girls. They do not attend courting parties; these are the prerogative of married men”. The men are hesitant, for they are warned about the dangers of (menstruating women. “before marriage, the lovers are unlikely to have sexual intercourse. A single man fears coitus without the magical preparation that is available only to married men”. [Source: Archive of Sexuality, sexarchive.info ]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2023

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