LOCATION: Papua New Guinea

POPULATION: Approximately 10,000

LANGUAGE: Iatmul; Nyara; Tok Pisin; some English

RELIGION: Traditional Iatmul; Christianity


The art of Iatmul people is the most well represented of all the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea. However, few people have much knowledge or understanding of the complex culture that produced these appealing sculptures, carvings, and masks. The Iatmul were cannibals and headhunters in the times before contact with European missionaries in the 1930s. The violence in traditional Iatmul society was necessary for males to gain status. However, after the arrival of the Europeans, Iatmuls who practiced cannibalism and headhunting were labeled as murderers. After some of the men were publicly executed, these violent practices ended.


The total Iatmul population is about 10,000 people. The homeland of the Iatmul is along the middle course of the Sepik River in the country of Papua New Guinea. The Sepik is a river that changes with the seasons. During the rainy season that lasts for around five months, the river may rise dramatically and flood the surrounding lowlands. Iatmul villages become a cluster of houses perched on stilts situated within a body of muddy water. All movement has to be done by canoe during this time.

The Iatmul's location in the middle reaches of the vast river has been advantageous to them. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, they were able to serve as brokers in the extensive trade networks of the Sepik River Basin. The location still serves them well, as they are able to attract large numbers of tourists to their villages due to the relative accessibility of the area.

A large number of Iatmul have left the Sepik region and now live in other parts of Papua New Guinea. Emigration from Iatmul villages may be as high as 50 percent.


The Iatmul language is classified by linguists as a Papuan, or non-Austronesian, language that belongs to the Ndu language family. The Papuan languages are spoken throughout the island of New Guinea and on a few smaller neighboring islands in Indonesia. There is very little information on the Iatmul language. The Iatmul refer to their language by the word nyara . The language has two dialects. Iatmul children and many adults are also fluent in Tok Pisin (an English-based pidgin language), one of the national languages of Papua New Guinea.


Iatmul mythology states that they originated from a hole in the mud in the present-day territory of the neighboring Sawos people. Some groups tell stories of a great flood. The survivors floated down the river (the Sepik) on rafts or pieces of grass-covered ground that became lodged in the river. The piece of land that this created became the site of the first men's house for the Iatmul ancestors. The present-day men's houses are supposed to be representations of the original piece of earth that was became the Iatmul world. Other myths tell of the formation of the heavens and earth from the great ancestral crocodile that split in two, with his upper jaw becoming the heavens and his lower jaw becoming the earthly realms.


Traditional religious beliefs of the Iatmul people centered on the spirits of the rivers, forests, and swamps. There was also a concern for the ghosts of the dead and the harm they could do to the living. Many myths explain the natural and supernatural world for the Iatmul clans. Important in these myths are the people and places where events took place in the mythological past. Different clans (groups of people with common descent) have secret knowledge of the names of the characters and events in their particular collection of myths. Clans would try to learn the secret names of other clans; to do so was to gain power over that group.

Missionaries have been active among the Iatmul since the 1930s. There are many converts to Christianity along the Sepik River. Some missionaries went as far as to burn the men's house and the artifacts and art that it contained. An enormous amount of cultural information was lost in the process.


Christian holidays are celebrated by converted Iatmul. Holidays like Christmas (December 25) and Easter (late March or early April) do not have the degree of commercial emphasis found in the United States. National holidays of the country are recognized, but since there are no banks or post offices in the area, these holidays have little meaning.


Male initiation was a common practice among the Iatmul. It involved extensive ceremonial activities that ended with the scarification (ritual scarring) of the upper back and chest of the young initiate. The patterns that are made are said to resemble the skin of the crocodile, the most important animal in Iatmul folklore and mythology. Very few men still undergo this practice, not because of the pain involved, but because of the expense. It costs a few hundred dollars and several pigs to hire someone to do the scarification.

The Iatmul also celebrated important events in the lives of males and females. For example, the Iatmul would celebrate the first time a girl made a sago (starch made from palm trees) pancake or the first time a boy carved a canoe. These celebrations were called naven . Naven ceremonies have all but disappeared from Iatmul culture today.


Traditional greetings between men of different villages who traded with each other consisted of formal ceremonial dialogues where men had well-defined roles. The style of interaction between adult Iatmul men is often described as being aggressive. Tourists are often perplexed because Iatmul men put on a very fierce face instead of a smile when they pose for pictures. Iatmul women were in charge of the trade that took place with the Sawos and Chambri, two neighboring groups. Iatmul women exchanged fish for the sago (starch) produced by women from these neighboring groups. While men were aggressive, combative, and quick to anger, Iatmul women maintained harmony within the community and relations with outside communities. The Iatmul have been exposed to Western culture since the 1930s, and as a result they have adopted some of its aspects. Greetings are Westernized and consist of the use of stock phrases and handshakes.


Iatmul villages vary in size from 300 to 1,000 people. Villages traditionally centered on a men's house, which was the architectural centerpiece of the village. These buildings were massive structures elaborately decorated with carvings and paintings. They also housed the majority of religious items including drums, flutes, and sacred sculptures. At the present time, most men's houses are warehouses for the storage of artifacts that are sold to tourists and art collectors. They also serve as meeting places for adult men.

Electricity and running water are not available in Iatmul villages. Without plumbing, dishes are washed in the Sepik River, as are clothes. The Iatmul also rely on the Sepik to bathe. When the river is swollen but not flooded, bathing is a challenge. A person will walk upstream, get in the river, and then wash while the current carries them to the place where they started. Getting out of the river and staying clean are also a challenge, since the banks of the river are mounds of knee-deep mud.


Women play important roles in Iatmul daily life. Women are responsible for catching fish to trade with neighboring villages to obtain the sago flour to make pancakes. Women are also the primary caregivers.

In traditional Iatmul society, marriage partners were determined by strict rules. Acceptable marriage partners for a man included his father's mother's brother's son's daughter (a second cousin), his father's sister's daughter (a first cousin), or a woman that he would get in exchange for a sister he would give to another man. Anthropologists refer to this last type of marriage as "sister exchange."

A married couple takes up residence in the husband's father's house. The house will also be occupied by the father's other sons and their families. Each nuclear family has its own space within the large house. Each family also has its own hearth for cooking. Husbands often sleep in the men's house.


Most Iatmul men dress in Western-style clothes consisting of athletic shorts and a T-shirt. Shoes are rarely worn. Women's dress is more varied and depends on what type of activity they are engaged in and who is around at the time. It ranges from Western-style dresses to the use of the wrap-around laplap (a sarong-like cloth) to cover the body from the waist down. Children tend to dress like adults, but small children go naked.

12 • FOOD

The Iatmul diet consists primarily of fish and the edible palm tree called sago. Iatmul houses do not have tables; everyone sits on the floor. The midday meal is likely to be the only meal that the family eats together. At other times of day, people eat whenever they get hungry. The food for the day is stored in a woven basket that hangs from a carved and decorated hook near each person's sleeping area. Dried fish and sago pancakes are placed in the basket in the morning. Fruit and greens are sometimes collected from the forest. Canned curry from Indonesia and Malaysia has now become popular, as well as rice and tinned fish. These products are expensive and sometimes difficult to come by.


Traditional education is still important to the Iatmul. Boys and girls are trained to become competent adults able to perform the tasks that men and women do to keep the village functioning. Western school is an option for children whose parents want to send them. However, very few communities have their own school and typically children have to travel to other villages if they wish to attend.


Music is an important part of Iatmul ceremonial life. Today, ritual music is still performed at festivals and during special ceremonies.

Men play sacred flutes during initiation rituals, which are carried out less often today than in the past. The sacred bamboo flutes are stored in the rafters of houses or in the men's house itself. The sound produced is supposed to be the voices of the ancestral spirits. Women and children were traditionally forbidden to see the flutes.

The sacred flutes are also played after the death of an important man in the village. A pair of flutists plays during the night under the house of the deceased. During the day, the female relatives perform a kind of ritual lament that had a definite musical quality.


Work was traditionally divided along lines of sex and age. Adult women were responsible for fishing and gardening. Women also prepared the fish they caught, preserving a great deal of it by smoking it. Men were responsible for hunting, building, and performing most religious rituals. Girls and young boys would help their mothers with her chores. However, boys who had passed through initiation would not consider performing women's work. During initiation, boys would learn aspects of male work and ceremonial life. In the present, these patterns have remained the same with the exception that very few boys undergo initiation. Men often seek wage labor outside the village. Some men rent their canoes and conduct tours along the Sepik River.


For the Iatmul who still live along the Sepik River, sports are relatively unimportant. Boys make slingshots to shoot hard, dried mud balls at birds and other living targets. Men who have moved to towns and cities are more likely to follow rugby and soccer teams.


In an area without access to electricity, television, videos, and movies are virtually unknown. People who live in towns and cities with electricity go to movies, and some houses have television. Traditional entertainment consisted of storytelling, ritual performances, and music.


Artistic expression in traditional Iatmul society was completely utilitarian (designed for usefulness rather than beauty). Every item of daily use was decorated with carving or painting. Tourism has changed art production and appreciation in Iatmul society. Producing art for tourists is an important money-making endeavor for the present-day Iatmul. Masks and sculpture are the most sought-after items in the tourist art market.

In men's houses in Iatmul villages, there was an important ceremonial item referred to as a "debating stool." This was a free-standing sculpture with an oversized, stylized human head supported by a small body. On the back of the sculpture was a ledge that looked somewhat like a stool. The stool was used in debates that were held to settle disputes that might otherwise have ended in bloodshed. Debaters from each clan would beat a bunch of specially chosen leaves while they made their points. These stools are now produced for outsiders. While a debating stool purchased from an Iatmul on the Sepik River might cost around $100, a stool purchased from a dealer in Australia would cost around $1,500. Iatmul art has become a very profitable business for dealers in foreign countries.


Cultural change and emigration are major problems for the Iatmul today. Young people are the most likely to emigrate, and as a result, they do not learn about their culture. They move to cities and towns and begin using Tok Pisin as their primary language. Tourism has brought major changes to the Iatmul traditional way of life. Wage earning has become important. Western items such as tennis shoes and toothpaste are becoming important items for the modern Iatmul.


Bateson, Gregory. Naven . 2d ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1954.

Lutkehaus, Nancy, et al., ed. Sepik Heritage: Tradition and Change in Papua New Guinea . Durham, N.C.: Carolina University Press, 1990.


Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available http://www.interknowledge.com/papua-newguinea/ , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Papua New Guinea. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/pg/gen.html , 1998.

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