Uncovering the Diverse Indigenous Tribes of Papua New Guinea


Explore Papua New Guinea’s true gems—its captivating indigenous tribes.

Imagine a country with over 850 spoken languages and more than 600 distinct tribes, each with its own customs and traditions. Isolated from the outside world for centuries, Papua New Guinea boasts an abundance of indigenous cultures that vary greatly from region to region.

In this place, tribes adorned in traditional costumes perform ritual dances at cultural festivals like the Mt. Hagen Show and the Goroka Show, attracting visitors from around the globe. Despite the presence of these festivals, many of the tribes’ customs and traditions remain shrouded in mystery, enhancing the allure and intrigue of this unique destination.

West Papua is a region that boasts a diverse population of around 312 different tribes. Some of these tribes are so isolated that they remain uncontacted by the outside world. While the central mountainous area of Papua is home to the highland peoples, who have long practiced the arts of pig husbandry and sweet potato cultivation, the lowland peoples inhabit the swampy and malarial coastal regions, where they hunt abundant game and gather to survive.

With a myriad of Papuan tribal languages spoken in the region, there is so much to explore and discover in this part of the world. The people of Papua New Guinea are ethnically distinct from their Indonesian rulers, adding to the region’s unique cultural charm.

1. The Asaro Mudmen

Papua New Guinea - Indigenous Tribes
Asaro Mudmen at a Port Moresby cultural show. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea are home to a group of men famous for their chilling clay masks. These headpieces, which can weigh up to 10kg, are adorned with pigs’ teeth and shells to create a sinister appearance. Adding to the eerie effect, the men extend their fingers with bamboo to create claw-like appendages similar to those of Freddie Krueger. The Mudmen reenact a legendary Asaro tale for foreign visitors. In the performance, the tribe is dressed in costumes to scare away a larger rival tribe. The larger tribe believed that the Mudmen were the dead returned to life, a surefire way to terrify superstitious highland tribespeople. 

2. Tambul Tribes – Papua New Guinea

Tambul Tribe in Papua New Guinea
Source: Sudo SnapIT via VisualHunt.com

The Tambul people live at the base of the second-highest mountain in Papua New Guinea, Mt. Giluwe. These folks reside on the borders of the Western Highlands, Enga, and Southern Highland Provinces, resulting in a unique blend of traditional clothing, face, and body painting, singing, and dancing.

Their traditional “bilas,” or body ornaments, are truly a sight to behold. With brightly colored headdresses adorned with bird feathers and faces painted in bold red and yellow stripes, the Tambul men have an intimidating, almost warlike expression. Their dances and songs mimic the ferocity of war cries, leaving a lasting impression on all who witness them.

Among the most famous Tambul tribes are the Yano, Sipaka, Kaniba, Kulmindi, and Yapo tribes. The Yanos, in particular, are known for their courtship songs, which contain words with double meanings, often with a sexual undertone. These courtship songs are prevalent in many cultures across the Highlands. Meanwhile, the Kanimba tribe is famous for performing a “Box Contract,” a real-life drama that tells the story of the Tambul people’s first contact with Westerners.

The Tambul people are also renowned for their “Moka,” a traditional method of wealth exchange in which men give gifts to each other, with the receiver offering a larger gift in return. By offering more than they receive, men gain prestige in the community. A man’s status in the community is measured by the size of his pig wealth, and those who amass significant wealth are often village chiefs, known as “bigmen.” The men will often borrow goods from their clans to sponsor a big Moka ceremony, a testament to their dedication and ingenuity.

3. The Crocodile Men

Papua New Guinea Crocodile Men
Source: Christopher from San Francisco, USA via Wikimedia Commons

The intricate body patterns of the Crocodile Men from the Sepik region have gained notoriety for their striking resemblance to the skin of the crocodile, a revered animal in the province that symbolizes manhood, strength, and power. To attain such markings, young men in the tribes of the Sepik region undergo a rigorous initiation ceremony that leaves permanent scars on their backs and shoulders.

A young man who has reached the age of maturity is ceremoniously taken away from his mother, who protests vehemently and transported to a men’s-only spirit house. In this sacred abode, the men make small incisions on the young man’s skin, which are then allowed to heal before being re-cut, a process that takes several months to complete. To alleviate the pain during this grueling process, the men chew on betel nuts, which act as a mild stimulant.

4. Kaluli Tribe in Papua New Guinea

Kaluli People Papua New Guinea
Credit: Jimmy Nelson

Nestled amidst the lush rainforests of the Southern Highlands Province lies an incredible sight: Mt. Bosavi, the collapsed cone of an extinct volcano and home to a number of tribes, including the Kaluli tribe. Accessible only by small aircraft landing on a tiny grass airstrip, this remote location boasts a unique culture and stunning biodiversity.

It wasn’t until 1935 that the first contact was made with the Bosavi people, due to their isolation. This isolation, however, has also allowed for the emergence of unique endemic species, some of which are still unknown to science.

The people living north of the mountain, known as the Bosavi kalu, are divided into four culturally identical but linguistically distinct groups: the Kaluli, Ologo, Walulu, and Wisesi. The Kaluli, in particular, are a fascinating group of people who reside in scattered villages within the dense rainforest. They live in longhouses, each housing up to 60 to 90 people, and traditionally, married women and children occupy one side of the longhouse while married men sleep on the other.

Interestingly, the Kaluli are highly egalitarian people with no formal leadership or hierarchy. They live by their own rules, with any man capable of initiating group action.

Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of Kaluli culture is the Gisaro ceremony, also known as the “Burning of the Dancers”. During this ceremony, guests from other longhouses perform songs to provoke the hosts’ sad emotions, ultimately leading to grief and emotional suffering. The grieving individual then runs up to the dancers and thrusts burning tree-sap torches against their backs and shoulders in a cathartic release of anger and sorrow.

The Kaluli are a remarkable tribe with an equally remarkable culture. Their way of life, traditions, and connection to the rainforest make them an intriguing group of people, and their isolation from the rest of the world only adds to their mystique.

5. Chimbu Skeleton Tribe

Papua New Guinea
New Guinea’s Highland region. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This tribe has captured some attention with their eerie skeleton dance. Their young men, adorned in black body paint with white bones, mimic the dead in a hauntingly beautiful manner. The tribe lives in Papua New Guinea’s Highland region.

The origins of this unique dance, which was first witnessed by Westerners in 1934, are unknown. However, it is believed that the Chimbu tribe employs this dance as a tool to intimidate their enemies. Given that the Highland region is a hotbed for tribal disputes, different groups have developed distinct techniques to scare off their rivals.

Despite the lack of concrete knowledge about the Chimbu, they are undeniably fascinating. The Chimbu tend to live in remote settlements rather than villages, and the skeleton dance is not commonly seen. Nonetheless, when the dance is performed, it is a mesmerizing sight to behold. The languid, zombie-like movements of the dancers represent the dead and are intended to evoke fear and respect in a region where the two are closely intertwined.

6. The Suli Muli Dancers

Suli Muli Papua New Guinea
Source: Michele Wilson

With their striking headdresses made of moss towering above them and their bodies covered in vibrant soil and clay, the Suli Muli dancers are a sight to behold. This tribe derives its name from the lyrics of their traditional dance, which they shout out in unison to the beat of the Kundu drums.

The Suli Muli dancers hail from the beautiful Enga Province, which they call home. Every August, they take center stage at the Enga Cultural Show in Wabag, showcasing their rich cultural heritage through their mesmerizing performances.

The intricate headdresses worn by the Suli Muli dancers are a work of art, crafted from a variety of materials such as human hair, moss, plant fibers, feathers, and leaves, all carefully chosen to give them both body and decorative flair. With their faces painted black and their chests bared, their traditional dress is a stunning visual representation of their unique cultural identity.

Related: Explore the Incredible Tribes in Asia


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