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.

If you wonder how we made our way to the Sepik River, check our post on How to cross the Indonesia – Papua New Guinea Border Overland for more details.

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.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Sepik River

Sepik River

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Old lady on the Sepik River

Old lady on the Sepik River

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. Villages like Pagwi, Kanganamum, Korogo, Yentchen, Wamerak, and many more lay directly by the Sepik River.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Dungout canoes on the Sepik River

Dugout canoes on the Sepik River

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. A successful fishing morning

A successful fishing morning

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.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Sepik River Village

Sepik River Village

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.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Kids playing in the Sepik River

Kids playing in the Sepik River

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.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Kids in a pilotis house.

Kids in a pilotis house

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.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Kanganamun House Tambaran

Kanganamun House Tambaran

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 and crocodile scarification happen. This is the place one has to go when entering the village, though you need permission to enter the men’s house.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Spirit House on the East Sepik River

Spirit House on the East Sepik River

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.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Inside Men's House

Inside 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.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Remaining pole of a burn-down spirit house

The remaining pole of a burn-down spirit house

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.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Crocodile Dance

Crocodile Dance

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.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Little boy during the Crocodile dance

Little boy during the Crocodile dance

During the Cassowry dance, only the children accompany the Cassowary which is there to protect them.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Kids from the Cassowary Dance

Kids from the Cassowary Dance

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Cassowary Dance

Cassowary Dance

Two men wearing traditional masks and performing in front of the Kanganamun spirit house.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Kanganamun -Dance Tambaran Masks

Kanganamun -Dance Tambaran Masks

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.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Statue of the Woman with the Eagle and Crocodile by our guide Vincent

Statue of the Woman with the Eagle and Crocodile by our guide Vincent

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.

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Drumming in the men's house

Drumming in the men’s house

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. East Sepik River Mask

East Sepik River Mask

Papua. New Guinea East Sepik River Clans Crocodile Traditions. Pottery Making

Pottery Making

Sepik River Tours

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.

Sepik River Travel Resources


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