Traveling to Papua New Guinea is like exploring the last frontiers. Conditions are rough and challenging. But the country still has deep root into traditions, and its people could not be more welcoming. Exploring the banks of the Sepik River encompasses Papua New Guinea clans and culture. Many of the villages along the East Sepik River did not have contact with the Western world until the 19th-century and maintained a lifestyle that changed little for thousands of years.
The Sepik River
The Sepik River is one of the longest rivers on the New Guinea island, where Papua New Guinea is. The water traverses thick forests and jungles and passes along muddy banks and scarce remote villages.
The life is centered on the river. Men fish from their traditional dugout canoes to provide a primary diet of fish, while women make sago out of the sago palm tree. The Sepik River is also a mean of communication between the villages. The long river is split between two provinces, the East Sepik and the West Sepik (also known as Sandaun). On one end, the West Sepik covers the interior mountains, lowland jungles, and the coasts. On the other, the East Sepik sits mostly along the river itself, developing unique culture and traditions.
Along with rare vegetations and animals, the Sepik River is home two crocodile species – one fresh-water crocodile, the other saltwater-crocodile. The crocodiles are a significant element of the economy and traditions for the residents of the East Sepik River.
East Sepik River Clans & Villages
Several villages sit along the East Sepik riverbanks: Kanganamun, Palimbe, Korogo, Tanbanom, Pagwi, Kamanibit, Yenchen, and many others. Pelimbe is the oldest and other villages like Kanganamun were built by members of that original settlement that left to create new ones on their own.
A village usually has several clans and even sub-clans. Crocodiles, eagles, snakes, cassowary, pigs, and other animal representations, can each represent a spirit clan. The more diverse the clan and spirit, the stronger the village, as the united spirits become stronger to protect against the black magic used by attacking warriors.
New settlements are usually independent with about 20 people and at least three or four different clans. Crocodile, pig, and eagle are among the strongest spirit clans. Clans lineage comes from the parents, who can each come from different clans. Fathers transmit their clan to their sons. Daughters receive both the family and the husband clans. Each clan has its traditions, rituals, and oral stories, which vary from one clan to the other.
The Iatmul People are one of the large ethnic group, about 10,000 people, who live mostly around the East Sepik River. Iatmul is also the name of their language. But this is not a unifying factor as villages are independent. This is mostly a lineage reference, but not a reference for social behavior. The oral history shows how the Iatmul people have been crucial to the development of the villages around the Sepik River and even around the Chambri Lake.
Tribal Wars and Cannibalism
Tribal wars between villages happened regularly in the past, where headhunting was part of the local river culture. Before the most recent tribal wars, the Sandaun region had 42 different clans. Following the violent events, many groups were killed and disappeared. The remaining tribes grabbed the lands and properties. Further destructions occurred during World War I and II. Occupying forces bombarded the villages, using them as battlegrounds and its inhabitants as human shields.
As part of the clan warfare, hunters would cut the head of the captured warriors on the village’s bloodstone, and bring them as a trophy. Heads would be boiled; then the young warriors would feed on the flesh and skin. Once cleaned, the skulls would hang in the men’s houses for a while before the men bury them under the men’s houses foundations or the bloodstone. Cannibalism was practiced until the 20th century.
Today, the issues see more peaceful resolutions. But mistrust and historical conflicts between villages are still present. The tension is still perceivable during land or property discussion. A sign of the cultural diversity is the roughly 300 languages alive within the Sandaun area. As a reference, Papua New Guinea as a whole is comprised of about 800 indigenous languages.
Men’s Houses (Haus Tambaran)
The culture along the Sepik River is traditionally a male culture. Warriors would congregate in the men’s house, also called the spirit house. Another name is Haus Tambaran in pidgin, one of the national languages. The building is by far the most sacred in the village, where the men take all critical decisions and where ceremonies such as boys initiations happen. This is the place one has to go when entering the village, though you need permission to enter the men’s house.
Local women cannot enter the spirit houses, though white women can. On the other end, women’s spirits are different from the men and help make the village stronger by offering better protection.
Different clans share the same men’s house, and a village can have two separate men’s house.
These separate houses usually reflect different clans and can be either a light or a dark house. The light houses are usually brighter, with more opening and taller. In contrast, the dark houses have lower roofs with dimmer lights.
Each men’s house has a village drum to call out the men of the villages. Impressively each person has a unique drum call and only a few people, mostly elders, know the drum calls of every village member.
Sepik River Crocodile Rituals and Traditions
With the river come the crocodiles, on which the local folks build strong traditions and customs, including rites of passages. The rituals and ceremonies take place in the elaborated spirit houses decorated with carved masks and totems.
The crocodile culture around the Sepik River takes on a unique form as the initiation of young men requires their back to go through a series of small cuts aimed to recreate the markings and skin of a crocodile. These excruciating ceremonies last about one month. During that time, the young men follow a rigorous code of conduct to purify themselves and have almost no interaction with the outside world. These rituals develop a tight brotherhood connection between the young men, which provide a strong network of support.
East Sepik River Traditional Dances
Many villages developed their own traditional dances, based on the clans’ believes and traditions. Kanganamum is famous for its Cassowary dance with small kids, and its Masks dance, whereas Yenchen is the place to go to see the crocodile dance.
During the Crocodile dance, men, women, and kids are dressed in traditional clothes and dance around the crocodiles.
During the Cassowry dance, only the children accompany the Cassowary which is there to protect them.
Two men wearing traditional masks and performing in front of the Kanganamun spirit house.
East Sepik River Art
The Sepik River is famous for its beautiful wood carvings and clay pottery. In the same way, each clan’s traditions are unique, so is their art. Unique in the style, colors, and design, and taking various shapes depending on the villages: stools, masks, totems, house posts, hooks, drums, and shields.
Drums – called Garamuts – are carved of hollow trunks to create animals that represent the village clans. These are used in traditional performances and rituals. Many of these totems and masks aim to protect the villages and clans against evil spirits.
We were lucky to learn about the Sepik River and Crocodile culture during a week-long stay in the villages. Coming soon: our 7-day itinerary along the Sepik River villages with our guide Vincent Yarme from Gawi Sepik Tours, How to organize your Sepik River trip, and other posts on Sepik River art and crafts, as well as daily activities such as sago making.