Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s most culturally rich and offbeat travel destinations. The island country is home to hundreds of tribes – each with its own languages, beliefs, traditions and customs. Cultures vary considerably throughout the island as many tribes were isolated from each other for hundreds of years, and it's fascinating to see the bilas (traditional body adornments), customs and rituals from each region. Here's our guide to some of the most famous tribes of PNG.
1. The Baining Fire Dancers
The Baining people are from the Gazelle Peninsula in East New Britain. One of their most famous traditions is the fire dance which is performed to commemorate the births and deaths of family members and the coming of age for young men. The ritual sees the tribe's spirit men dance barefoot over a roaring fire to hypnotizing drum beats and chanting. They paint their skin white and wear huge kavat masks made from cane and barkcloth which are painted with big coiling eyes and protruding lips. Spectators can feel the heat from meters away, so seeing the men jump and twirl through the flames is a sight to behold.
If you're keen to learn more about the Baining people and their fascinating culture, join us on our Firedance Festival trip.
2. The Crocodile Men
The Sepik River is home to some of the world’s largest fresh and saltwater crocs. The men from the Chambri tribe of the East Sepik province, also known as the Crocodile Men, are famous for the skin scarification on their back, arms and chest which resembles the scales of a crocodile. The pukpuk (crocodile) is highly symbolic in Chambri culture and young men undergo this painful ceremony as an initiation into manhood. You can learn about the importance of the pukpuk at the annual Sepik River Festival.
3. The Asaro Mudmen
Hailing from the Asaro tribe of the Eastern Highlands, the Asaro Mudmen are famous for their clay body paint, large mud masks and lengthy bamboo finger extensions. Legend has it that the Asaro were once under attack by another tribe but, with their spectacularly spooky bilas, managed to frighten them off by tricking them into thinking they were spirits of the dead. You can see the Asaro Mudmen reenact this legend at the Goroka Cultural Show – PNG's longest-running festival which takes place every September.
4. The Huli Wigmen
The Huli Wigmen are from the Huli tribe of the Hela province and Southern Highlands. As part of the initiation into adulthood, teenage boys leave home and live with elders in a hausman (men’s house) in the jungle. To grow healthy locks quickly, they follow a strict diet, wet their hair with holy water three times a day and sleep in a special sleeping position – this usually takes around 18 months and they're forbidden to have any contact with women (including their mothers) during this time.
Once their hair is long enough, the wig master cuts it off and weaves it into a wig which signifies that the young men are now ready to have a family. You can see the Huli Wigmen at the Goroka Cultural Show.
5. The women of the Orokaiva tribe
Women from the Orokaiva tribe of the Oro province are famous for their facial tattoos. When young women reach full maturity, usually at the age of 18, they leave their village and go live in huts with female elders. The tattooing process can take several months as it's done in small sections every day using thorns and a natural ink made from charcoal and water – a technique that is passed down through the generations. Facial tattoos symbolize that a woman is now ready for marriage.
Oro women are also known for making beautiful tapa cloths using mulberry tree bark and natural dyes from plants and flowers.
Learn more about festivals in Papua New Guinea
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