The Independent State of Papua New Guinea is a constitutional monarchy and Australia’s closest neighbor, with less than four kilometers separating it from Australia at the nearest point. Papua New Guinea is famous for many things: second biggest island in the world; 1% of the land mass but 5% of the world’s biodiversity; most pristine coral ecology in the world; largest number of active volcanoes and many other unique features. Perhaps the most striking fact about the country is the presence of around 800 spoken languages amongst a population of less than 8 million people.

The language diversity is attributed to many things. The geography of the country makes travel difficult with many steep mountain ranges, often volcanic, which leave many places inaccessible. Even now it is not possible to drive from the north of the island to the nation’s capital in the south because of a massive range of steep mountains known as the Owen Stanley Range. Many districts can still only be accessed by small plane or helicopter having no roads of any description. The country has also had a long history of colonisation and invasion. The original human settlers of the island came from the north through Thailand and the Philippines. These dark skinned strong boned people settled PNG about 40,000 years ago and some groups continued through to Australia to become the ancestors of the aboriginal people. Some 30,000 years later people with a different genetic type again descended from the north and because these people had better technology they were able to displace the original settlers pushing them up into the mountains and claiming the coastal regions. Lighter skinned and lighter built, these people went on to settle right across the islands of the South Pacific and New Zealand and became known as the Austronesians. Some of them became intrepid explorers reaching Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Hawaii and possibly the coast of South America. By the time they returned to re-colonise what is now Papua New Guinea years later they had developed a distinct new genotype which has become known as Polynesian. These settlers returned to settle the islands off the mainland and some of the coastal areas often displacing the Austronesian settlers. The basic language groups in PNG follow these genetic families but there has also been interchange of language and ideas resulting in this extraordinary diversity.

PNG has always had a strong clan and tribal social structure and very strong family links which coupled with a distrust of strangers and difficult terrain created distinct pockets of social identity in which separate languages developed used sometimes by only a handful of tribes. The common language today is Tok Pisin and it’s routes are from European and Australian settlers. The language of trade and exchange developed as a means to communicate with people of different tribes and was found to be useful to the indigenous population for communication between tribes who didn’t share a language. It started as a ‘broken’ language with elements of English, German, Dutch and French but was recognized as a distinct language with its own simple grammar by the 1900s. Most people here speak two or three languages. Their traditional tribal language or tok ples (talk place), Tok Pisin and English which is taught in schools and is the language of education, law and commerce.

Alongside the language each tribe developed a distinct culture with ceremonial dress, dances and songs unique to their place. So as well as 800 languages you have 800 sets of songs and costumes. This distinction generates a huge sense of pride as I was privileged to experience at the Rabaul mask festival. This is an annual gathering in its 21st year at which these traditional cultures are celebrated and shown to the wider PNG community and visitors from around the world. Rabaul is located in East New Britain a large island about 400 kilometers long and separated into two provinces. It has a long ridge of very steep and volcanic mountains. It is a microcosm of the history of the whole country with a mix of genetic types and in particular two peoples. The Tolai are coastal people and are Polynesian whilst the Baining are mountain people who are much more like the original Austroneasian settlers. Their cultures are very different. The mask festival had two spectacular highlights for me. The coastal Tolai people celebrate their spirit ancestors in the form of a creature known as a dukduk or tumburan. These strange looking costumes have a long conical head and a body made up of leaves which shimmer and shake like feathers as they dance. The dukduks arrive for the festival by boat at dawn where watchers on the beach call threats and wave spears as the flotilla of canoes carrying the dukduks and stuffed with people creep closer to the beach. There are garamut drums (hollowed logs) singing chanting and shouting until finally the dukduk come ashore in a frenzy of dancing. They are soon whisked off to a traditional spirit house until later in the day when the dancing continues and further ceremonies are performed. These ceremonies include the payment of the dukduk for their service which is made in kina. This is shell money made up of shell fragments threaded onto long cords and bundled together. There is fear of the dukduk and they are mastered by handlers who hurl the money payment at them, shout orders at them and try to keep them under control.

The Baining men celebrate their culture in such a completely different way it is hard to remember the communities live just a few miles from each other. Bearing masks with huge eyes and a strange beak and clad only in leaves the Baining use fire as a part of their ceremonies. The dancers undergo a long initiation to learn the dances and how to protect themselves as they dance in and through huge fires. The night is dark lit only by a huge fire when the musicians arrive in the dance ground. Percussion is provided by bamboo of various lengths drummed against a flat piece of wood ‘dok…dok…dok…’ is combined with drumming and a strange song, more like a wailing chant than singing which calls forth the dancers. They emerge from the dark with a strange skipping gait and dance around the singers, intimidating the audience with their huge masks and threatening gestures. As more dancers gather the percussion increases and the tension builds until one after another the dancers leap through the fire they walk into it kicking and scattering hot ashes and flames across a wide area. Spirit guides look out for the dancers who occasionally disappear; presumably to have themselves doused in water and skin protecting lotions before they return. The drumming and chanting continues for hour after hour as the fire gradually diminishes. One of the dancers might take a sick child in his arms and carry them around the fire. Another makes suggestive thrusts of his hips towards a young woman. Eventually the dancing and the fire subside leaving the echo of the chanting and strange shadows impressed upon the memory for days.

I have been lucky enough to have seen perhaps a hundred different dance groups (sing sing groups) perform a huge variety of dances in a huge variety of costumes from high up in the PNG mountains where men make wigs from their own hair shaped into horns and discs; women their skins shining with oil with huge headdresses of the most extravagant plumage from birds of paradise, who drum and sing with apparent endless energy from dawn until dusk; men dressed in mud and wearing mud masks who walk with stealth and brandish their spears and bows; dancers from the coast who carry a huge boat laden with fruit which represents the bounty of the sea and looks like a cross between a canoe and a Chinese dragon; whip dancers who strut around whilst hug sticks are broken across their arms legs and torso with an enormous “crack”. Every tribe has its own identity and whilst close neighbours may have similar costumes and songs across the country there is the most extraordinary diversity.

The dancing is often intimidating and would have been used as a ritual aggression between neighbouring tribes showing their strength and power through dance, song and endurance. Sometimes these sing sings would occur when tribes met on their borders and brides would have been exchanged binding the adjoining communities in mutual obligation and exchange. Sometimes they would be a precursor to war which often broke out between neighbouring tribes and tribal warfare and conflict is still common across the country.

This man is Francis. He is from New Ireland and was dancing at the Rabaul festival. He lived for many years in Madang on the mainland where he worked in the Land Registry department. He returned to his home when his father became sick and now lives off his garden produce and some fishing. He joined the cultural group when he came back home and has learned the songs and traditions of his home place and is hugely proud of his culture.

Difference is a key aspect of PNG culture and whilst development tends to bring homogeneity PNG people’s cultural pride will hopefully survive and difference will continue to be celebrated as part of what makes PNG such a unique place.

By Charlie Taylor

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