16 June 2010


The Spirit of the Sepik in Papua New Guinea


Tangyi on the beach
Tangyi on the beach


While thumbing through the Port Moresby Post-Courier newspaper on my flight down to the Sepik River, my eyes fell to the headline under Positions Vacant on the Careers page: “Head Hunters.” Noting the headhunters@global email, I was relieved to see it followed by an ANZ bank symbol, and not an actual ad for those degreed in cannibalism.

During our cruise down the Sepik River on the MV Sepik Spirit, even though –thanks to missionary influence –I caught the occasional glance of Calvin Klein underwear bands rather than penis sheaths on the men, I discovered that life on the river still pretty much exists as it has for the last few generations. Life evolves around the daily hunting, gathering and foraging for food. The men still fish from dug out canoes and the women, with an inevitable child tugging at their breast, process and cook the sago plant. And make no doubt, the territorial clans still exist, as I discovered when mistakenly overstepping my boundary into one. Luckily, I got away with a small fine rather than an arrow through my forehead.

The respect for the river is immense, which is most apparent through the tribe’s reverence of the exquisitely crafted, yet ominously daunting, Sepik spirit houses.AWright_PNG_033

Men, especially of the Blackwater region, are isolated for over a month of initiation practices while receiving the crocodile tattooing. Succumbing to sleep deprivation, they enter an other-worldly mental state as they partake in rituals, feasts and are coached in the secrets of their elders. During this time, sex is discouraged, as spilling a man’s seed is considered to spiritually weaken them. I was surprised to find that our boat captain, John, had gone through this sacred scarring ritual himself, quite possibly the first white man having done so.

After two weeks, deep painful gashes with razor blades are made in the chests and backs of men, as the bleeding symbolizes the draining of their mother’s blood, making them stronger. The open wounds are packed in mud, silt and exposed to smoke, so they will keloid, giving the scars a raised emulation of the crocodile skin.

An ad in the newspaper for Head Hunters




The men’s ages can range from adolescent to adults, but their scars are a badge of honor, and a proud symbol of their finality into manhood. Never have I encountered a culture of men so willing to take their shirts off for me, which I have to admit I discovered to be an enjoyable perk of my job.

John, our boat captain, with scarring
John, our boat captain, with scarring

What surprised me was the discovery of women with significant scarring as well; often the symbol of the sun and moon on their arms. It’s a different story for the young girls than the young men. At their first menstruation the girls are fenced in alone in their home and then without much preparation forced into the inevitable scarring ritual. As the girls are often much younger and more fearful than the boys they sometimes run away. I was told that even if the scarring proves to be too much for the girls, their grandmothers are still willing to pass down their secrets of womanhood. From what I saw of the fabulous face paint, masks, adornment of shells, and ritualistic scarring this seemed to make the obvious not so secret: no matter what culture you’re raised in, men and women the world over certainly pay a high price for beauty.

Woman with sun and moon scarring
Woman with sun and moon scarring

Receive Our Posts By Email