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Papua New Guinea Culture: An Introduction to Ancient Traditions

Margherita Ragg

Papua New Guinea Culture: An Introduction to Ancient Traditions

Margherita Ragg

Apr 2018

Papua New Guinea is one of the few places left in the world where overused adjectives such as “wild,” “remote,” and “pristine” genuinely still apply. It’s the world’s second largest island (after Greenland), and one of the most sparsely populated countries on the planet.

The country contains some of the planet’s most extraordinary biodiversity. Papua New Guinea is home to the third biggest forest in the world, after the Amazon and the Congo. That massive rainforest is home to the only poisonous bird on the planet, the world’s largest butterfly, the longest lizard. PNG also boasts the Pacific’s largest area of mangrove forest, coral reef, and sea grass beds.

This remarkable diversity doesn’t just include nature, but extends to indigenous cultures as well. Despite being home to a mere 7 million people, the population of Papua New Guinea belongs to over 7,000 different cultural groups. Each of these has their own language, as well as distinct forms of cultural expression including dance, music, body paint, costume, and weapons.

Traveling around PNG means exploring a kaleidoscope of cultural, natural, and ecological diversity, making this relatively off-the-radar Pacific Island truly one of a kind. The impenetrable rainforest covering the island’s interior means that several cultural groups inhabiting Papua New Guinea developed in isolation, living a lifestyle that has remained relatively unchanged for over 40,000 years.

They’re almost entirely self-sufficient in terms of food, sustaining themselves mostly through agriculture and pig farming. Pork, together with yam, is one of the staple foods found across the country. However, pigs in PNG are not just food: They also occupy a central role in many cultural celebrations, being slaughtered to celebrate marriages, cremations, and initiation rites.

Covering the myriad cultures and traditions of people who call Papua New Guinea home is a daunting task. There’s so much to say on the subject that you could fill at least 10 books. One of the best ways to discover Papua New Guinea’s culture is to attend a sing-sing– a ritual gathering in which people from one or more tribes share their cultural traditions or celebrate events.

The Sepik region of eastern Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse on the island, with over 250 different tribal groups living in the vicinity of the Sepik River. Each has its own distinct art, crafts, and cultural beliefs.

Traveling around Papua New Guinea also means getting in touch with cultural practices that might seem alien to us, and difficult to understand. However, this is also one of the best reasons to head to this remarkable islands– to learn about traditional cultural practices that, elsewhere in the world, were lost hundreds or thousands of years ago.  

–Margherita Ragg

BIO: Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.