PAPUA NEW GUINEA (PNG) is the second largest island in the world. Although it is roughly the size of California, it is one of the most rural countries on the planet and only eighteen percent of its six million inhabitants live in urban areas. Incredibly, over 800 indigenous languages are spoken in Papua: a statistic that accounts for 1/5 of the world’s total.
Just as Papua is linguistically diverse, it is also an ecological and geographical wonder. From snowcapped peaks reaching heights of 13,000 feet, to steamy rain-soaked jungles, volcanically active islands and coral reefs with “more fish than water,” PNG is a virtual treasure trove of natural beauty waiting for the intrepid traveler.
But for the adventure of a lifetime, one only needs to head inland and cruise the mighty Sepik River in a dugout canoe. Running some 700 miles, the Sepik is more than just a river; it’s a living museum populated by complex peoples who not only produce some of the most spiritually charged art in the world, but who also practice one of the most grueling and bloody body modification rituals known today.
THE KANINGARA OF THE BLACKWATER
In the Middle Sepik River region, several thousand people speaking more than 250 languages are knitted together in systems of trade and cultural interaction. One of these groups is the Kaningara who inhabit a single village on the Blackwater River, a major tributary of the Sepik. The Blackwater is rightly named because its waters are dark brown in the shallows and pitch black in its depths. The coloration is a result of decaying plants that produce an excessive amount of tannin which stains the surrounding water.
The rivers and lakes of the region are infested with crocodiles, and the jungles are filled with poisonous snakes like the death adder which can kill you in four hours unless you are lucky enough to find anti-venom. Everyone here has malaria and at least twice a year the villagers endure their agonizing symptoms including chills, fever, aching joints, and all-night sweats.
Here on the Blackwater in the shadow of the Central Mountain Range, animal, spiritual, and human life is celebrated with power and passion. Music, dancing, masking, architecture, and ritual scarification are all forms of artistic expression that are designed to communicate with the world of the ancestors, to mark rites of passage and to replay over and over again the intimate spiritual links that unite humans with their environment. And for this same reason, any act can serve as a pretext for ceremony, whether part of daily life (for example, the building of a dugout canoe) or of a more exceptional nature (as was headhunting in the past, for instance). But the most fascinating of all of these ritual events are indisputably the initiation ceremonies for young men held in the haus tambaran or “Spirit House” which is forbidden to women.
THE SPIRIT HOUSE
Like spirit houses elsewhere in the Sepik, the Kaningara haus tambaran is located at the physical center and highest point of the village. Because of its location, the Spirit House is the focus of the social and ceremonial lives of its adult male members. It is here in the Spirit House that men (and only men) spend part of almost every day of their lives either sitting quietly chewing betel-nut, dozing after a hard day’s work, or in conversation with other men; it is also the building in which men publicly debate matters of clan and village concern and in which, formerly, they prepared for war. Moreover, it is within the spirit house that groups of men perform the rituals and rite of passage ceremonies that are believed to be of vital importance for the economic, political, and ancestral well-being of the community in which it is located.
The Sepik ideal is that men should progress through all rites of passage ceremonies together in groups based on their kin classifications and relations. The skin-cutting ritual is no exception, because ideologically it is a vehicle for the creation and re-creation of Sepik men. More specifically, what is called tambaran is a complex of graded male initiation rites that dramatize sexual difference and overtly wean young men away from maternal influences. Much more than an event marking puberty, these grades traditionally constituted a whole hierarchy beginning at infancy, and were staged through various phases of adolescence, maturity, and old age.
Today, these masculine bonds of association last for a lifetime. And this is especially true of the skin-cutting ritual; since it is only with the help and encouragement of the other initiates that you are able to pass through this bloody and painful ordeal. For example, the young men that are secluded in the spirit house during their initiation work together as a team. If you are short of food, another initiate will share his with you. If you think you want to back out, the other initiates will instill in you the necessary courage, strength, and at times even humor to help you cope with the forthcoming cuts that will “consume” your body. Of course, no initiate will ever forget the memories that are generated in the spirit house itself, since in real and symbolic terms each man will confront his own death and then narrowly escape it.
But the scars can also save your life. Stories are told of a Blackwater man who had been working as a guide for an exploration party in the mountains led by two mining engineers. Forced to stop their truck by a tree felled across a narrow road, the entire party had been captured by a local gang of young men, armed with bush knives and axes. All prisoners were told to relinquish their valuables and then to strip. As the scarified guide removed his shirt, one of the assailants recognized from his initiation scars that both he and the intended victim were from the Sepik. Because of this bond, the man was spared further humiliation and abuse. In contrast, the two Americans were tied and then dragged naked over sharp rocks; their injuries required hospital treatment afterwards! As a result of this incident, the Blackwater guide notified his clansmen that all young men should be initiated, since it had been his scars that had saved him from severe injury.
I had heard comparable talk before. Others described the possible protection their scars might give them if threatened by assault from other Sepik men in coastal towns like Madang or Wewak. They had also said that no matter where they might die or be killed in Papua, they would be recognized as “children of the Sepik” and their bodies would be shipped home.
But the question remains, why are women forbidden from entering the spirit house in the first place?
One of the distinguishing features of Kaningara and surrounding middle Sepik cultures is its “male-centeredness” and the particular emphasis placed on men as “the creators of other men.” According to local myth, originally it was men who had the power to bear children, but the women controlled the Spirit House and a magical set of sacred flutes used to make men through spiritual communications. One night, however, the women were so exhausted after a long series of rituals that they went home to sleep; and that’s when the men snuck into the Spirit House and stole the sacred flutes and thereby reclaimed their power of “making” men.
Today, women are strictly prohibited from hearing the flutes now or having any access to the structures of power like the spirit house where the flutes and other sacred objects invested with spirits are kept. If a woman was to enter the spirit house, she would be killed. These facts alone bespeak of the latent fear among Kaningara men that women can become dominant again.
On another level, however, the mythological origins of the Kaningara’s Spirit House provide yet another classic “charter” for the continued existence of male power. A long time ago, a Kaningara man named Marsivo was in his canoe on the water. He dropped his lime stick while chewing betel nut and dove down into the water to find it. He saw a haus tambaran on the bottom of the lake and entered it. His lime stick was there and so was a crocodile spirit named Nashut.
This spirit was male and he would not let Marsivo leave unless he stayed for one month. During his stay, Marsivo was taught everything that the Kaningara know today from warfare, to headhunting, to agriculture, and how to build a Spirit House. The crocodile spirit also told Marsivo that if the Kaningara men began to skin-cut themselves in his likeness at the Spirit House, they would absorb some of his power and become the strongest and most powerful group in the Blackwater region.
This narrative describes that the Spirit House is a primordial feature of Kaningara society, as old as Kaningara culture itself. The myth also explicitly represents the spirit house as a male institution which has a supernatural origin. By attributing a supernatural origin to such buildings the myth can be seen to invest them, and the social values they express, with a sanctity and authority in social and ritual life that people (especially women) cannot question. Spirit houses thus form part of the divine order of things.
The carvings, paintings, and other sacred objects inside the Spirit House also reinforce male potency. The houseposts and beams are carved into anthropomorphic figures identified with spirits, mythological characters including culture heroes, and other male ancestors. Many of the paintings refer to plant and animal totems that belong to the various (male) clans of the village (e.g., Cassowary, Crocodile, Bird of Paradise, etc.). Each housepost figure is associated with a particular clan and is believed to be responsible for its well-being. This was especially true during times of war, when clansmen offered food and betel nuts to it. If the proper rituals were not observed, the spirit represented by the figure could bring misfortune or even death to warriors in the clan. All of these sculptures are individually named and some wear the elaborate scarification patterns that are applied to new initiates.
Sculptures depicting the most well-known mythological and ceremonial figures tend to be concentrated in the front half of the building. The carvings and paintings on the lower sides of the cross-beams – looking directly down on the men who sit below them – are thought to be embodied by the spirits they depict. The spirits, men say, watch over proceedings in the spirit house and sanction the conventions that govern behavior within it.
The very size of the Kaningara Spirit House is also very important not simply because its magnificence expresses male, clan and even the village’s prestige, but because its construction requires efforts of coordination and technical feats of extraordinary difficulty. Tall and heavy cornerposts are raised and dropped into deep holes, and a ridgebeam that may weigh a ton is hoisted and shouldered up temporary central poles to the height of the roof line. Of course, these operations can only proceed once spirits have been introduced into the village and after a series of feasts and rites of purification have been completed; since traditionally, the central post of the building upon construction was set on top of two human heads captured in war. These heads were believed to contribute to the secret powers resident in the spirit house as well as provide defense against evil spirits and spells.
However, the Spirit House and associated art forms inside it sometimes combine male and female symbolism in various ways to remind all Kaningara that only “men can make men.” For example, the ridgepole is a phallic form and is associated with spears and warfare, while the house as a whole is understood as a female form, its interior being equated with the belly or womb. In “her” belly, men store ritual accoutrements that their primal forefathers allegedly stole from the women in order, as men say, to compensate for their inability to give birth. The sacred flutes are also housed here which are symbolic of the birth canal. But some of the supporting houseposts inside are rendered with enormous phalluses which are symbolic forms of male virility. In such cases, these phalli are not only metonymic providers of semen; they are analogous to the milk-yielding breast of women. Even the entrance to the spirit house is vaginal in shape, and as one enters they climb a flight of stairs (through grass fibers akin to pubic hair) that is situated between the legs of an androgynous fertility symbol and are blessed in the process. This symbolism again epitomizes the sense in which the enhancement of masculinity is based paradoxically upon the mimicry and appropriation of female creativity and anatomy which is central to Kaningara thought.
MAKING MEN IN KANINGARA
The skin-cutting ritual of the Kaningara takes place every four to five years. Initiates may be anywhere from twelve to thirty-five years of age, especially since the ritual is very expensive and families sometimes pool together their financial resources for many years to pay for it. Initiation practices require removing any traces of the mother’s postpartum blood from the initiates’ body by skin-cutting. Symbolically speaking, this act is necessary to utterly divorce young men from the world of womenfolk, and to fill them with the power of the crocodile spirit.
Usually it is the maternal uncle of the initiate who inflicts the wounds. In this way, the mother’s blood is spilled back to her line as the uncle makes a man for his in-law’s clan. In turn, he gives birth to the boy in a process anthropologists call male “parthenogenesis.” Paradoxically, however, it is this birth symbolism that has made so many Sepik peoples so vulnerable to Christian evangelism of late, with all its claims of rebirth and radical transformation.
But in order for the initiate to become a full member of their father’s clan, they must not only get skin-cut; they must also endure a two-month long seclusion in the spirit house prior to the cutting ritual itself. During this time, their father’s and mother’s brothers instruct them in whispered tones about clan genealogies, song cycles, and other spiritual information. This allows for the young men to gain a profound knowledge of their ancestral beliefs and myths that speak of the origin of all things and of their magic. Among the Kaningara, knowledge is power and once endowed with this spiritually significant information, “boys” become “men.”
Yet the initiates must also be “dominated” by their male peers as this is the necessary precondition for their transformation from initiates into junior adults. Thus, initiates must endure taunting, having food thrown at them, and other frightening, painful, and tiring rituals during their seclusion: like weeks of all-night dancing and singing, as well as bathing in the cold waters of the Blackwater River at dawn every morning to test their courage and strength. Most of these ritual acts evoke the helplessness of childhood, and the initiates are made to appear powerless in the face of their male elders.
Initiates must also observe numerous taboos during their seclusion including, but not limited to, the following: they must never look at or speak to women passing by the Spirit House; they must remain on the west side of the Spirit House at all times (the east side is only for “men” and the initiated); when an initiate needs to use the bathroom outside, he must completely cover himself in a sheet so that women and children cannot see him; when eating, the young man must use tongs or a fork and never his fingers (moreover, he may not touch himself to itch or scratch unless he uses a stick or other kind of scratcher); also when eating, he must face the wall at all times and never look or speak to others; when he sits, he cannot use a stool or bench as these are for “men” only; an initiate cannot smoke or chew betel while in seclusion and he can only wear his underwear while inside the spirit house; he must always walk barefoot during his seclusion; and he may only eat a diet of fish, sago, greens, and the occasional banana since other meats, fruits, and vegetables are forbidden. If an initiate breaks any of these taboos, an elder will swat him sharply on his butt, back, or legs with a switch. Of course, it is also believed that if you break any of these taboos, “you could die.” Many men told me a story of a recent initiate who was having marital problems. One evening, he snuck out of the Spirit House during his seclusion to see his wife. Three months after his skin-cutting, he died.
These rituals (and the mosquitoes that infest the Spirit House!) ultimately harden the initiates, and rid them of any residual femininity. But as noted previously, they also build bonds of kinship and friendship that span the generations as well as the region; because young men from surrounding villages, even enemy villages, come to Kaningara to be cut. In this way, inter-village conflicts are oftentimes mediated through male bonds of association formed through the skin-cutting ritual.
THE SKIN-CUTTING RITUAL
Claitus, at 81, is the oldest man living in Kaningara village. He is also the oldest cutter in the village, and these days he mentors younger men in the arts of skin carving. When the village was occupied by the Japanese during WWII, Claitus had just completed his initiation. Amazingly, he endured the “traditional” 2-year seclusion in the Spirit House before being cut! Obviously, times have changed and so has the tool used to make the skin-cuts. Back in the day, Claitus told me, “we used bamboo knifes instead of razor blades to make the cuts. You can make a very sharp knife-blade with bamboo, and we used to reuse these blades when we cut young men. But now, we only use disposable razor blades because of the risk of spreading disease.”
He continued: “men far and wide come to Kaningara because we not only have expert cutters here, but we also have the largest and oldest spirit house in the region. It took the men eleven years to build it! And everyone in the region knows of its power. You know, spirit houses have to be rebuilt after time because the climate here in the jungle eats away at them. But this Spirit House has many of the sacred carvings and objects from the oldest house that used to rest in our traditional village back in the hills.
“So you might think that the village of Kaningara is old. But around 1930, a Catholic missionary moved to the promontory overlooking the lakes, and then many of our people began migrating here from the hills to work and learn from him. Eventually, the old village was all but abandoned so we moved the Spirit House here over fifty years ago,” Claitus said.
But even the oldest spirit houses were built to replace spirit house caves. These caves still exist high in the hills above Kaningara, where skulls litter their dark recesses. Such skulls were head-hunting trophies, scraped clean after their skin and brains were boiled off and eaten in a kind of warrior soup.
Not surprisingly, the Kaningara, like many other groups residing in PNG, were traditionally headhunters. They built massive skull racks in their spirit houses, and even hung the clay coated skulls of famous ancestors from ceremonial hooks suspended in their spirit houses.
Such suspension hooks were carved in anthropometric forms and represented powerful culture heroes. These hooks had specific names and were the property of clans. They were believed to ward off disease and evil and to assist in hunting animals or in capturing heads during headhunting expeditions if the proper ritual offerings were made to them. For example, before warriors embarked on a headhunting raid, flowers, pieces of meat, and betel nuts were hung on the hook. An attendant called for a spirit to enter the hook by eating its ceremonial offerings. As he fell into a trance, the spirit spoke through him and gave advice as to the outcome of the campaign. Sometimes the spirit even accompanied the warriors on a headhunting expedition to help weaken or trap victims. And if the warriors returned from a successful human hunt, additional offerings of food were made to the hook.
In other parts of PNG, human victims were sometimes captured in battle and brought back to the victor’s village. Here they were caged and fattened for cannibalistic feasting, and it has been said that even captured babies were sometimes “farmed” for consumption because children were considered to be the “juiciest morsels.”
Similarly, the young initiates (who are symbolically babies) that endure two months of seclusion in the Spirit House are “fattened up” on fish, sago, and certain vegetables before they are cut. The Kaningara say that this must be so because during the cutting the crocodile spirits will eat the boys and orally disgorge them as grown men. Before I was cut, Claitus told me that the crocodile spirit will “eat your body” because “we see each razor cut as a crocodile tooth biting into your skin. And when you are done, you will feel like a big crocodile is lying on you!”
But ritualistic fattening is also important in other ways. The extra fat layer allows the cut technician to work more quickly (he pinches a fold of skin and then cuts it), while at the same time it numbs the puncture wounds to some degree.
THE DAY BEFORE THE CUTTING
The day before the skin-cutting ritual is exhausting. First off, you spend the entire day and night singing and dancing. All the while, you must keep a stick of ginger root in your mouth and not lose it – or else SWAT to the backside! As darkness falls and only after most of the surrounding villagers have gone to bed, the initiates are led outside of the spirit house for an all-night walkabout in the jungle. Every initiate has a chaperon or “friend” who allows you to briefly visit your friends and family, but if you try to sleep at any point during the night he’ll quickly wake you with a switch to your butt or a flashlight to the face!
As dawn approaches, all of the young men are led to the river around 5am and left to soak in the cold Blackwater for over an hour. It’s really a test against hypothermia, but our “friends” also told us that the soaking would soften our skin for the cutting. Hysterically, one man who was going to be cut was a school teacher in Kaningara from the PNG highlands around Mt. Hagen. Hageners are typically very short, less than 5 feet tall, and this teacher had to prop up a bamboo pole to keep his head above the water! Even in water as cold as this, everyone was very sleepy and I found myself dozing and shivering at the same time.
After this ordeal, we were led back to the Spirit House. As soon as we entered, the men inside started shouting and pounding the floors with grass brooms made of river reeds. We were told to sit in a circle in the middle of floor and to keep our heads down while focusing our eyes only on the floorboards. The elders circled behind us and began uttering a low and ghostly chant while pushing down on our shoulders. They then began dropping pieces of sago on us like it was going to be our last meal. One by one we were helped to our feet and led to banana leaf beds placed around the spirit house. Next to each bed was a bucket of water and a towel.
At that moment, an elder in full Kaningara regalia sat upon the floor with legs outstretched. I was told to lie down on my back between my “father’s” legs and to brace for the cutting by holding on to his legs and ankles. Luckily for me, my “father” was my house host in the village, Patrick. Also in full regalia Patrick’s son-in-law Joe, who is a master cutter, positioned himself above me and readied his razors for the carnage that was to come. Another elder approached me at this time and told me to, “Keep steady. Don’t look around. Just keep steady.”
Joe first started cutting me on the right side of my chest. I didn’t really feel the first twenty or so cuts, and I attribute this to exhaustion as I hadn’t slept in three days! But once Joe started cutting deep into my nipples, I “woke up” and couldn’t believe how extremely painful this was going to be! I have been hand-tapped with nails in Indonesia, with needles in Borneo, with thorns in the Philippines, with hippo teeth in Hawaii, been hand-pricked in the Amazon, but I have NEVER felt anything as painful as a skin-cut! After 450 plus cuts, my entire chest felt like it was on fire – no kidding! And when I rose to my feet, the Spirit House looked like a battlefield: bloody buckets of water, bloody rags, and pools of blood lying everywhere. I now know why the village has never let an outsider like me participate before; you could die doing this!
After the chest cutting, each initiate is led outside to have their backs cut. Just as he exits the front door of the Spirit House, a huge round of applause and shouts of encouragement are sounded by all of the family and village members waiting outside. Indeed, the mothers and other female relatives of these initiates have not seen their loved ones in months, so it is an emotional and joyful experience to see them after such a long separation.
Once the cutting has been completed, the initiates are led back into the spirit house to mend their wounds. By this time, the floors have been cleaned, fires have been lit, and new banana leaf beds await the bloodied bodies of the initiates. But first, oil from the kaumever tree, which is used to make war canoes, is applied to the cuts with a feather. Then, river mud is applied to the cuts, and the young men are told to rest and dry their wounds by the fires.
Some anthropologists suggest that the river mud is essentially feces and recreates the process of anal birth. This symbolism refers back to the Sepik men’s emulative desire for birth by transforming vaginal delivery into a masculine idiom of birth. Thus, reproduction is magically consigned to the realm of the male cult and ancestral crocodile spirits who only communicate with men. In turn, Sepik men, through the skin-cutting ritual, believe they have the sole power to “make men” by attempting to turn the world upside down and inside out. But over time, the river mud also promotes infection and results in large raised scars or keloids. Eventually, the skin-cuts resemble the bumpy scaled skin of a crocodile artfully following the natural contours of their body.
MONEY VS. TRADITION?
Nowadays the importance of the skin-cutting ritual is beginning to lose its spiritual meaning, because modernity and economic relations are propelling it away from its mythic past. For example, initiation is no longer obligatory to “become a man” and it is very expensive in local economic terms: a family must pay for two months of food, water, cooking, and then the cutting itself. Of course, there are very few opportunities to make money in the Blackwater region, except when occasional tourists visit (3-4 times a year) and locals sell carvings and sometimes family heirlooms.
Moreover, the Kaningara and other Sepik peoples have for some time encouraged their children, especially their sons, to seek education and work in urban centers on the coast. Indeed, a major reason why initiation is no longer obligatory is that competence as a good earner or breadwinner itself qualifies one as a fully adult clan member (e.g., without having to get cut). Thus, the youth are coming of age in a world where adult status is defined and dictated by an adult who can be effective economically in Kaningara and also away from Kaningara in those urban centers like Wewak, Madang, Lae, and even in the capital of Port Moresby.
Although most Kaningara say that a father should initiate his sons and that all young men should be scarified, many only do so if they have enough money. Furthermore, many boys know that the ritual is extremely painful so they find excuses like “I don’t have enough money” to get out of it. Thus, because scarification is unrelated to success in life in the towns, meaning it is unrelated to the capacity to earn money, it has become optional for the Kaningara and other Sepik groups. It takes place no longer as a ceremony essential to the making men, but in some sense as one of a number of opportunities for a father or family to display their affluence.
However, my closest friend during the seclusion who was about 33 years-old told me he had been living in Wewak for some years. He had not only been sending remittances to his family, but he had also been saving whatever cash he could for his skin-cutting. He said: “I am a man of the Sepik and without this ritual where would we be? Our village and our people only survive because of this ritual. We honor our ancestors through the skin-cutting, and we will never stop doing it…because it is what makes us who we are today.”
Bateson, Gregory (1936). Naven: A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bowden, Ross (1992). “Art, Architecture, and Collective Representations in a New Guinea Society.” Pp. 67-93 in Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Hauser-Schäublin, Brigitta (1994). “The Track of the Triangle: Form and Meaning in the Sepik, Papua New Guinea.” Pacific Studies 17(3): 133-170.
Höltker, Georg (1975). Menschen und Kulturen in Nordost-Neuguinea: gesammelte Aufsätze: Festschrift, Herrn Prof. Dr. Georg Höltker zu seinem 80. Geburtstag vom Anthropos-Inst.
Sullivan, Nancy (n.d.). Papua New Guinea with Trans Niugini Tours. 46pp.