Linguists have identified 250 languages in Papua, half of them spoken by less than a thousand people. In some remote region villages less than a day's walk apart speak completely different languages. In New Guinea there are over 1000 languages, one fifth of the world's total. In mid 1998, the Indonesian government reported the discovery of two “new tribes” in a very remote area of Papua that communicate using sign language.

Many tribes have not been studied very expensively and there is little historical or archeological evidence on them. Some tribes still don't communicate with the outside world. Missionaries attempt to coax them out with mirrors and gifts, but these are rejected and defaced by tribes.


The Eipo live in a 150 square kilometer area in the southernmost section of the Eipomek Valley in highlands that range between 1,600 meter and 2,100 meters in elevation and are surrounded by mountains with 4,600-meter-high peaks that get 589 centimeters of rain a year. Also known as the Eiopdumanang, Goliath, Kimyal and Mek, they live in villages centered around a men’s house, with women’s houses around the periphery where women stay when they are pregnant or menstruating, The Eipo is a small group with around 1,000 members. The are also small in size, weighing on average around 40 kilograms. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania “edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]

The main staple crop of the Eipo is sweet potatoes. They also raise several varieties of taro, cucumbers, greens, wild asparagus, bananas, sugar cane and collect a varieties of food from the forest. Men hunt small marsupials and snakes with dogs. Women collect frogs, snakes, lizards, spiders, other incests and larvae for food. Pigs are highly valued and raised primarily for ceremonial purposes. Many of their tools and weapons have traditionally been made of stone, wood and bone. They traditionally used few medicines other than pig fat and nettles. ~

Eipo Society and Culture

Eipo society revolves around extended families, lineages and clansmen house communities. Villages are led by big men chosen on the basis of their oratory skill and physical size. On the surface they seemed friendly and controlled but have an aggressive streak that is easily triggered and can take the form of a verbal quarrel or a physical attack with sticks, stone axes or arrows. Conflicts are often between neighboring groups and occasionally cannibalism has been practiced. On average in the 1980s three to four people out of 1,000 died violently ever year. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania “edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]

In the 1980s more than 10 percent of men had two wives and five percent lived permanently without wives. One woman was found living with two brothers. Pre-martial sex is allowed but married couples are expected to e faithful. Separation, divorce and remarriage are common. The abduction of wives for new marriages is not uncommon. ~

Christianity to some extent has displaced traditional religion, which emphasized a belief in spirits of the forest and holy relics that contained mythical powers and seers who could communicate with the dead. Initiations for boys between the ages of 4 to 15 are held every 10 years or so and involve the presentation of a penis gourd, cane waistband and special ornaments that are hung from the head down on the back. The event is celebrated with a big, costly pig feast with dancing. There have also traditionally been ceremonies for killing an enemy. ~

Death has traditionally been marked with a great amounts of wailing and lamenting. The corpse was traditionally placed in a tree and protected from rain by a covering of leaves and bark. After it mummified with was placed under the roof of a garden house and later, with a ceremony, placed in a rock shelter. These days with the influence of Christianity many times the dead are buried. The spirits of the dead are regarded as malevolent and the aim of post-death rituals is to dispel them as quickly as possible to a mythical ancestral village where they can not harm the living. ~


The Kapauku live in the west central highlands of Papua around the lakes Paniai, Tage and Tigi. Also known as the Ekagi, Ekari, Me and Tapiro, they have a reputation among other tribes as being traders but did not have contact with Europeans until 1938. Their tools have traditionally been made from stone, wood, bamboo, bone and animal teeth. Their primary weapons are bows and arrows tipped with bamboo blades. Their currency was shells. They number around 100,000. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania “edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]

The Kapauku have traditionally lived in longhouses with individual apartments for women and children and a men’s-house-style dormitory for the men. Their structures are elevated and have a place underneath for pigs. Sweet potatoes make up 90 percent of their diet and pig husbandry and trade is their primary economic activity. They also eat crayfish, dragonfly larvae, several types of beetles, frogs, bats and rats. Hunting and fishing doesn’t yield much. ~

Kapauku Culture

Kapauku social relations are organized around families united by marriage and totemic taboos. One the main goals of economic activity is attaining enough wealth for a bride price. Leadership positions are based on wealth measured in pigs, shells and wives. Confederations are formed from alliances of lineage groups. These sometimes are involved in feuds, raids and wars, which are triggered mainly to avenge the death of kin members and are fought mostly with bows and arrows. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania “edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]

Marriages are ideally between a young man and the daughter of his mother’s brother. The attainment of a good bride price often has precedence over making a good match. Divorce entails returning the bride price. Polygamy shows that a man is wealthy enough to pay several bride prices. There is no formal initiation ceremony for boys. Around the age of seven they have traditionally moved to the men’s dormitory and are instructed about what is expected as them as men. Girls have traditionally gone threw a brief instruction period of a few days and began wearing a bark-thong wrap after they menstruated for the first time. ~

The Kapauku believe in a creator god named Ugatame, who created mankind and illnesses and spirits to torment them. Ugatame dwells beyond the sky. Religious practitioners include shaman and sorcerers who are mainly used to treat illnesses by dealing with spirits in some way or giving herbal remedies, massages or ritual washings. Big events are celebrated with pig feasts, which sometimes go on for several days. There is no concept of the afterlife. The souls of dead become spirits that can haunt the living at night. The dead have traditionally been buried with their heads exposed and covered with a box with a window that allows them to see out.~


The Mejbrat live inland on the Bird’s head Peninsula of West Papua. Also known as the Brat, Mejprat and Meybrat, they have traditionally lived in villages centered around a spirit house which itself has been situated where the founding spirit is thought to have emerged from the ground. They number around 20,000. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania “edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]

Taro and yams are the staples of Mejbrat diet. Protein is derived from flying foxes, wild pigs, kangaroos, opossums killed with blowguns and spears. Grubs, larvae, locusts, lizards, bird’s eggs, mice and frogs are gathered. Some fishing is done in rivers and lakes with traps, poison, baited lines and spears. The Mejbrat have traditionally traded local barks, nutmeg and slaves for things like metal knives, cloth and opium, and valued goods like gongs and beads. ~

Society is organized around an extended family with the mother’s brother and mother’s brother’s daughter being important members. Political organization is relatively egalitarian with women attaining leadership positions as well as men. Marriages are regarded as the union of a gardening team, and the worth of a bride is determined by how well she can garden. A bride price of cloth, meat, fish, palm wines and labor is given with the wife’s family reciprocating with presents of lesser value. ~

Warfare is not a big thing with the Mejbrat. They have a complex system of totemic beliefs and supernatural sanctions and vew the universe as a pancake-like island with spirits living on the top and spirits living on the bottom. Spirit houses are set up where the spirits break through from one side to the other. Illnesses are thought to be caused by imbalances of “hot” and “cold” and the violations of taboos. Medical practitioners try to restore the balance. If they are unsuccessful, the Mejbrat believe, a person dies and his spirit goes underground to the world of the spirits. ~

Maskona and Mimika

The Maskona tribe is a bizarre group of people that live in a remote part of Papua that is surrounded by sheer 7,000 foot peaks and can only be reached by air. Up until the late 1970s the group lived in tree houses and killed the few outsiders that trespassed on their land. Writer Arthur Zich visited them and said they had some good one liners as well. Zich asked one chief if he had heard about the Second World War. The chief said, "I never even heard of the first one." A girl piped in, "Eight years ago we didn't even know what country we were in, or what a county was." When asked how the government had made its presence known, the chief said, "They came...and told us not to kill the missionaries anymore." [Source: Arthur Zich, National Geographic, January 1989]

The Mimika live in an area of lowlands and mountains inland from the south coast of Papua. Also known as the Kamaro, they have traditionally lived in longhouses and migrated between upstream sago gardens and downstream fishing grounds and have some similarities with to the Asmat and Kapauku. They are around 10,000 of them, with some Indonesians living among their homeland territory, primarily to harvest ironwood. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania “edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]

Mimika society is organized around longhouse communities with leadership roles taken by elder men. Their cosmological and ceremonial schemes have male and females aspects. In Mimika cosmology, there is an upstream side of the universe oriented towards females and a downstream side oriented towards males. The Mimika believe the original inhabitants of the earth were men who emerged from the penis and anus of a founding spirit. Important life-cycle ceremonies are held in conjunction with birth, death and the marking of adolescence with a ceremonial nose piercing. Mimika art is similar to Asmat art. ~

The household consists of a nuclear family plus a number of dependent relatives that eat and sleep together. Marriage ideally is a sister exchange between two families. Fathers and mothers play a fairly equal role in raising children. The whole idea of exchanges and reciprocations is very important to the Mimika. Death is believed to have originated when mankind reciprocated with gods given to them by the spirits. They believe the dead hang round the world for a few years and then escape through a hole under a tree to an underworld inhabited by God, Jesus and Mary. ~


The Tor live along the Tor River in northern Papua south of the city of Jayapura. Also known as the Berik, Bonerif, Kaowerawedj, Kwerba, Mander and Soromaja, they are a seminomadic people who eke out a living in a very swampy, rainforest-covered homeland and live in houses set on piles around a cult house, with special peripherals for sex which is forbidden in the main villages. There are about 1,000 Tor. Their size has remained around the same for the past century due to a low birth rate and high infant mortality rate. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania “edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]

About 90 percent of the Tor’s diet is made of sago, which grows wild in the swamps where they live and is not cultivated. Protein comes from hunted wild pigs, cassowaries, lizards, rats, opossums and birds and gather shellfish, snails, slugs, eggs as well as greens, wild fruits and breadfruit. Pigs are raised from wild pigs caught in the forest and hand fed sago and slaughtered for feasts. Valued trade items include dogs, cassowary quills, shells, charms, and arrows. ~

Tor Culture

Tor villages are the group’s largest and most important social group. Kinship relations are also very important in part because the Tor believe that relatives are required to share food and thus will never cast a spell on them. Marriage is viewed as an economic institution involving elaborate trades and access to sago gardens and other resources. Women are allowed to sex with her husband’s brother. In the 1980s about 20 percent of men were polygamous and 30 percent were unable to get married and became permanent bachelors. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania “edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]

Boys undergo an initiation at the age of 14. They are forcibly taken to a special house located deep in the forest and are secluded for several months and taught about the male cult and the use of special sacred flutes. After these rituals they move from their family house to a bachelors house. The most important community activity is the construction of the cult houses. The feast to mark the completion features a concert of men’s secret flutes and consumption of pigs raised especially for the occasion. The cult house is decorated with wooden phalluses and hanging rattan fruit bats. ~

Both sexes wear aprons made from crushed bark and are tattooed. Each tribe has its own special markings comprised of things such as sago plants, arrows or sago spatulas. Malaria is a serious problem in Tor areas. Treatments include the rubbing of a salve and sucking out the “bad blood.” Both disease and death are attributed to sorcery. The dead have traditionally been wrapped in sago leaves or buried under a house followed by a ritual burning of all of the dead’s possessions. The afterlife is seen as a permanent state of hunger forcing the dead to seek its food from the living. ~


The Waropen live along the south coast of Yapen Island and the northern mainland coast of Papua. Also known as the Wonti and Worpen, they live in stilted longhouses built in a tidal forest around a men’s house for boys and unmarred men. They number around 6,000. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania “edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]

The Waropen cultivate sago and coconuts and fish and raise pigs. They live in clans and prefer marriage between men and the mother’s brother’s daughter. A bride price is required but gifts are exchanged between both families. Polygamy is common but divorce is unusual and can only done after returning the bride price. ~

Each lineage has a headman and the oldest male descendant of the oldest lineage in a clan is recognized as the chief. “Kako” (being rough and cruel) has traditionally been greatly admired. In the old days honorific titles were garnered on the basis of how many people were killed and slaves were taken in battles. Religion is centered around sacred and profane things. Sorcery can be practiced by anyone. There are initiation rites for both males and females that involve piecing the nose and ears. ~


The Yali are a group related to the Dani and have been described as "solidly embedded in the Stone Age." They were cannibals and used cowrie shells as currency ans stone tools before they converted to Christianity in 1975. Now they use steel machetes instead of stone axes.

In 1968, Yali tribesmen killed and ate two missionaries who had destroyed villages fetishes. In the 1970s Yali tribesman killed and ate a mission preacher and a dozen of his assistants. The journalist Thomas O'Neill asked a teacher in a Yali village what would happen if he stole one of the headman's pigs. "Oh, he'd probably kill you," the teacher told him, "but at least he wouldn't eat you anymore." [Source: Thomas O'Neill, National Geographic, February, 1996 ☼]

Yali eats sweet potatoes, beans, sugar cane and pigs. They live in smoky rectangular huts with pigs. Jawbones from previous pig feasts decorate the outside of the men's hut. Men still wear penis gourds and hoop skirts made of rattan wrapped around their waists. Women wear grass skirts with tree fiber bags hanging down their backs.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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