Archive for the 'Oceania' Category

Yam Mask by the Abelam People of Papua New Guinea



Figure 1. Abelam Yam Mask, E/1974/04/003, Sam Noble Collection. Photo Courtesy of Sam Noble Museum of Natural History.


Helmet Mask/ Yam Mask


East Sepik, Papua New Guinea

Cane Reed, Natural Pigments

To say that yams play a large part of life for the Abelam people of Papua New Guinea would be an understatement. Yams play an integral part of connecting the Abelam people to their environment, community neighbors, and cultural celebrations. Not only does this crop serve as a food staple, the Abelam people observe a dedicated six month growing period for the tuber, with some yams measuring in at a whopping ten feet long!


Figure 2: Abelam Community. Photo Credit Unknown.



Figure 3. A Yam mask using a modern halloween mask.    Photo courtesy:

Tending to their yam gardens and growing the largest tuber possible is the sole focus of the men during the growing season. The growing season for yams typically begins in August and ends in February. For the months that mark the growing season, all warfare and fighting is stopped. Hunting and the butchering of animals is stopped, and even sexual activity is suspended until the end of the growing season. This is because the Abelam believe that their giant yams are aware beings that “have a sort of extrasensory perception.” Richard Scaglion, an ethnologist who worked closely with the tribe in the 1970s described the Abelams view of yams saying:

“They (the yams) can “feel” things. They appreciate tranquility and can perceive social discord. Various other things deemed as “hot” activities upset their serenity. Yams can “sense” an act of sexual intercourse because it is “hot.” Fighting is “hot.” The killing and butchering of animals is also “hot” so there is a taboo against these activities while yams are growing.” (1)

The six months dedicated to the growing of yams allows the men of the tribe to pause from their rivalries and pour their energies into growing the largest yam possible. The man who grows the largest yam is seen has having the most power. Each man traditionally gifts his prized yam to his rival, who is expected to deliver an even bigger yam the next year or face humiliation.


Figure 4. Yams on display. Photo courtesy of

Each community takes their turn displaying their yams proudly, a process which can take months of festivities. Each community demonstrates the fruits of their harvest, taking the largest yams and laying them vertically in long rows so that they can be viewed. Once the yams are ready for display they are decorated with a variety of colorful embellishments. These may include palms leaves, oranges, feathers, and shell money. However, the most important ornamentation is the yam mask itself, which is believed to imbue the yams with the spiritual power and knowledge of Abelam ancestors.

An Abelam “yam mask” ties together the importance of yams to Abelam cosmology and ancestry. Masks like the one seen in Figure 1 are created by the men of the tribe. This is done by stripping the pliable fibers from cane shoots. After carefully weaving the basket-like mask, natural paints and dyes are applied to the surface.  These days its possible to find variations from the traditional ornamentations. Moderns versions of the yam mask can include a variety of decorations. Labels repurposed from mackerel tins, as well as red and yellow cellophane “twisty ties” are now seen with some frequency in the decoration of yam masks.  Some even include store bought halloween masks, as seen in figure 3. Once the mask is completed, it is reused through many yam harvest celebrations.


Figure 5. Yams on display. Photo courtesy of

At the completion of the harvest festival, the masks are removed from their displays and hung in the eaves of their Abelam homes. Overtime, the burning hearths and fires within these dwellings darken the masks with soot. At the end of the growth season the men of the community remove these masks, carefully wash them and touch up the paint, returning the masks to their previous vibrancy.

This cyclical practice of re-using the masks in many ways mirrors the cyclical quality of the Abelam way of life. Through their devout focus on the growth and harvest cycle of the yams, they have also found a way to live in balance with their neighboring communities and the limited resources around them. By abstaining from sexual activity they control their population growth and guarantee new mothers a break from continuous pregnancies. By refraining from hunting and the butchering of animals they allow the wild pig populations around them to rebound and grow. By laying down weapons, they allow angers to cool. The best yams are allowed to sprout and are replanted, rooting not only next years crops, but each generation through a lineage of yam planting.

(Christina J. Naruszewicz)


1. Richard Scaglion. Abelam: Giant Yam and Cycles of Sex, Warfare and Ritual.  (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993), 11.


  • Arte Magical. “Yam Masks and Baba Masks: Ritual Masks from Papua New-Guinea”,
  • Carolyn Leigh and Ron Perry. “Abelam Yam Masks and Tops”
  • Scaglion, Richard. Abelam: Giant Yams and Cycles of Sex, Warfare and Ritual. In Portraits of Culture: Ethnographic Originals. M. Ember and C. R. Ember (eds.), pp. 3-24. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1993


Object: Statue of Vishnu Riding Garuda

Figure 1    Basalt statue of Vishnu riding Garuda from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Basalt statue of Vishnu riding Garuda from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Statue of Vishnu Riding Garuda
Unknown Date
Materials: Basalt, stone

Carved basalt statues of Vishnu riding Garuda are a prominent artistic and religious feature of southeastern Asia. These particular types of carved statues are often found in temples and shrines dedicated to Vishnu and his bird mount Garuda. The image of Vishnu and Garuda spread throughout Southeast Asia with the spread of Hinduism, and has even been adopted as the national emblem of Indonesia and Thailand. This statue from the Ethnology Collection is carved from basalt—a volcanic rock found naturally in plateau deposits and volcanic terrains—and is commonly used for carving statues, tools, and weapons. Carved basalt statues like this are incredibly heavy, which indicates that they aren’t intended to be moved around, but instead stationed at a temple or shrine for long periods of time. Statues of Vishnu and Garuda are often carved from basalt, granite, wood, and bronze, and are also featured in pillars and architecture. This particular statue was acquired in Indonesia, and measures about 5 feet in height.

Vishnu is one of the three iconic deities of the Hindu faith and is often depicted with his mount, Garuda. Garuda is often portrayed as half man, half bird, with his wings spreading out as he supports Vishnu. Stories and myths of Garuda date back more than 3,000 years, and his image can be found throughout Buddhism as well as Hinduism. The Hindu myth of Garuda tells that he became the mount of Vishnu when he attempted to steal the elixir of immortality from the gods to free his mother from the serpents who imprisoned her. Garuda resisted drinking the elixir himself and prevented the serpents from taking it. Vishnu was impressed by his strength and determination and made him king of all birds. After that point, Garuda became the mount of Vishnu and the enemy of all serpents. The image of Garuda is often used today for protection against snakes and snakebites, and he continues to be an important religious icon across Southeast Asia.

Take a look at this video of a sculptor carving a wooden statue of Vishnu riding Garuda:

[Adisson Bolles]

References Cited:

Behera, Prajna Paramita. “The Pillars of Homage to Lord Jagannatha”

“Carved and painted figure of Vishnu riding Garuda” Accessed February 13, 2015.

Dietrich, R. V., “Basalt” Gemrocks: Ornamental and Curio Stones. Accessed February 12, 2015.

“Garuda Wisnu Kencana Statue” GWK Cultural Park. Accessed February 14, 2015.

“Hindu deity Vishnu, 1100-1200” Asian Art Museum. Accessed February 13, 2015.

“Prambanan Temple Compounds” Accessed February 15, 2015.

“Opposites Attack” American Museum of Natural History. Accessed February 13, 2015.

“Prambanan Temple Compounds” Accessed February 15, 2015.

Object: Fish Hook

E/1955/6/134 b
Fish hook
Malaita, Solomon Islands
Circa 1940
Sea shell, tortoise shell, glass beads, fiber

The shaft of this fish hook, made from sea shell, measures just under three inches. The barb is made of tortoise shell and is attached to the shaft by fiber twine. Also attached to one end of the shaft is a set of glass beads on a fiber string. It was made on the island of Malaita in the Solomon Islands around 1940.

These types of hooks have long been used in the Solomon Islands to catch one particular kind of fish, bonito.

Bonito are medium size fish that swim in large schools. They are similar to tuna, but smaller. The people of the Solomon Islands have relied on Pacific Bonito for thousands of years and continue to do so today.

Historically, trolling was the most effective way for Solomon Islanders to catch bonito. Indeed, that is how this hook was designed to be used. They are not meant to be cast and reeled in over and over until a fish is caught. Instead, fishermen cast these hooks out behind their boats and move through schools of bonito. The bonito react to the quickly moving hooks by biting them. No bait is necessary. The action and color of the beads attached to the end of the hook encourage bonito to bite as both mimic distressed or dying baitfish.

This hook and the trolling method associated with it is just one of the many unique tools and strategies Solomon Islanders developed to take advantage of the plentiful marine resources around them. While this technique is probably the most ancient among them, others such as kite fishing, might be considered more ingenious.

Kite fishing in the Solomon Islands is used primarily for catching small needlefish. With mouths too small for seashell/tortoise shell hooks such as the one profiled here, fishermen of the Solomon Islanders learned to utilize spider webs and kites to catch these fast fish. Watch the video below to learn more about this unconventional fishing technique.

Work Cited

California Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Marine Sport Fish Identification: Tuna & Mackerels. mspcont1.asp

Division of Ethnology: Database of Ethnology. Fish hook.

Infoplease. Solomon Islands.

Oxford Dictionaries. Definition of Troll.

Solomon Islands Department of Commerce, Employment and Tourism. Malaita Province.

[Jacob Boren]

Object: Pudding Knife

Pudding Knife
Kwoma Culture
Oceania: East Sepik: Papua New Guinea
Unknown Date
Materials: tropical hardwood with inlaid shells

This pudding knife was made by the Kwoma culture from the Eastern Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. It is 15.25″ long and 3.25” wide, and it is made out of a tropical hardwood inlaid with small pieces of shell in cross-shaped designs.

New Guinea is located in the southwest Pacific Ocean and is the world’s second largest island at more that 1000 miles in length.  A central, east-west mountain range dominates New Guinea’s geography. The western half of the island contains the highest mountains in Oceania, with peaks reaching 16,024 feet. These mountains create a steady supply of rain, providing an ideal environment for the island’s highland rain forests. The tropical environment of New Guinea means it is rich in natural resources. The island has an abundance of oil, minerals, gas, timber, and fish. In fact, New Guinea has more wealth in minerals and raw materials than the entire United States, even though the island is only about the size of the state of Texas. Today, most of New Guinea’s natural resources are exported to other countries.

For most people in New Guinea the local economy is based on subsistence fishing, hunting, and farming, and is tied to the seasonal cycle. Many indigenous communities do not use paper currency. Instead, they exchange yams, banana leaves, tree pulp, and seashells. The exchange of these items is usually marked by a ceremony or ritual.

Sago, a starchy substance originating from the sago palm tree, is an ingredient in many foods in Papua New Guinea. This includes a popular pudding served at ceremonies and celebrations. The pudding knife from the Ethnology Collection would likely have played a role in one of these events. Digging sticks are used to remove the sago pulp from the tree, and the pulp is then washed and filtered through a series of funnels until only the starch remains. The starch is then pounded into a paste that can be used to create the pudding.

This is a very old video about the production of sago starch in Papua New Guinea, but the general method is the same today. It was taken from an old 8mm film, so the sound is not very good. However, it is still interesting to watch:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Fish Trap

Fish Trap
Sumatra, Indonesia
Unknown Date
Materials: Bamboo

This object is a cylindrical-shaped woven bamboo fish trap. It is about 10.5 inches high by 20 inches long by 8 inches wide while the lid is 4.5 inches in diameter. The side of the basket has a hole that measures 7.5 inches in length and 1.75 inches in width. The hole is designed to allow fish to enter the trap, but does not allow the fish to exit. The top of the fish trap has a hole where the fish are dumped out by the fisherman. There is a round lid situated over the hole to prevent the fish from escaping while in the trap.

This fish trap was purchased from street peddlers on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia between 1968-1978 at a camp near the city of Pekanbaru. Indonesia is an archipelago consisting of around 17,500 islands in between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.   Today, Indonesia represents a crossroads of culture and trade with more than 300 distinct ethnic groups and more than 700 languages still spoken.

Fish traps are woven from bamboo and rattan and are set in the water about five meters (16.4 feet) deep. Fishermen often attach their traps to lines and buoys that float on the surface of the water so they can know where they left the traps. The lines (or ropes) make it easy to haul the traps to the surface of the water once they are full of fish. Sometimes, however, the fishermen simply rely on their memory to know where they set the traps, and then they swim down to retrieve them. Usually, a trap is left in the water for a few days to ensure their success at catching fish.

The fish are taken out of the trap through a special hole. In the case of the trap from the Ethnology Collection, the hole is at the top. This isn’t always the case. It depends on the style of the trap.

The fishing industry is vital to many of the cultural groups of Indonesia and the surrounding region and has been for centuries. A fish trap is called a “bubu” in Bahasa, one of the most common Malay and Indonesian languages. Fish traps come in many different shapes and sizes, but they all serve the same purpose: to catch fish and keep them from escaping.









Take a look at this interesting video on how to make a similar type of bamboo fish trap:


[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Dance Mask

Figure 1     Balinese Dance Mask from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Balinese Dance Mask from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Indonesia: Island of Bali
Materials: Wood and paint

This carved, wooden dance mask, known as a topeng mask, is from the island of Bali in Indonesia. It represents a devil figure, with flapping ears, a movable jaw, large canines, exaggerated eyebrows and eyes, and an attached moustache and beard.

Figure 2    Map of the island of Bali in Indonesia

Figure 2 Map of the island of Bali in Indonesia

Topeng masks are used in a variety of dances referred to as topeng dances, a dramatic form of Indonesian dance that originated in the 17th Century. It is believed that the use of masks such as this devil mask is related to the cult of the ancestors, which considers dancers the interpreters of the gods.

These traditional masks often include several characters: “Topeng Manis (the typical refined hero character), “Topeng Kras (the violent, authoritarian character representing power), “Topeng Tua (an old man who may joke and draw-out the audience), “Penasar” (a buffoon or jokester who often acts as the narrator), and “Dalem” (a sovereign or leader). There is also usually an element of evil, represented through a demon, witch, or other character that must be overcome to achieve the happy ending in the story. This devil mask may represent a character such as Rangda, a fanged child-eating demon from Balinese mythology. In topeng dances, there is an attempt to include all aspects of human nature such as the dualities of the sacred and the profane or beauty and ugliness.

Figure 3    Rangda mask and costume

Figure 3 Rangda mask and costume

A typical performance alternates between speaking and non-speaking characters, and can include dance and fight sequences as well as special effects (sometimes provided by the gamelan, a traditional musical instrument). It is almost always wrapped-up by a series of comic characters introducing their own views, even including current events or local gossip to amuse the audience.

There is another style of Balinese mask in the Ethnology collection (Click this link to view: E/1958/24/3). What kind of character do you think it represents? Why? Let us know in the comments or send us a note via e-mail!


Take a look at this video describing the history of Bali and how it has influenced performance and art on this fascinating island:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Bartmann jug

Bartmann jug

Figure 1   Bartmann jug from the Ethnology Collection
of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Sumatra, Indonesia
Materials: Ceramic, salt glaze

The history of an object, how it moves from place to place over time, can teach us a great deal about a culture. It can tell us about trade, intermarriage, and, in general, how people and societies interact with one another. This jug is a fascinating case study of how an object can reveal an incredible story. It was purchased on the island of Sumatra in western Indonesia in the 1960’s-1970’s from a street vendor at a camp near the capital city of Pekanbaru.

This stoneware jug is made of hard, dense clay that is glazed using a method known as salt glazing. Salt glazing occurs when salt is introduced into a kiln when firing a ceramic vessel. It results in a glassy, mottled surface that makes the vessel impermeable to liquids. This jug is decorated with the image of a “bearded man” figurine, indicating it is a type of vessel known as a Bartmann (or Bellarmine) jug. Originally from the Frechen region of Germany, Bartmann jugs mainly date to the 16th and 17th centuries. They were used for transporting liquids and were traded widely across Northern Europe and the British Isles. The “bearded-man” figure represents a wild man from Northern European folklore and was thought to be a protective figure that warded off evil. In fact, sometimes these jugs were used as a charm against witchcraft!

So, how did a German jug for transporting liquids end up in a market in Indonesia, over 6,000 miles away? One possible answer is The Dutch East India Trading Company. One of the first multinational corporations in the world, The Dutch East India Trading Company routinely transported goods from Europe to Indonesia, which was then called the Dutch East Indies, between 1600 and 1800. The islands of Sumatra, Java, Madura, Borneo, Celebes, Maluku, Bali, and East Timor (among others) became the Dutch East Indies, known as the “Spice Islands” for their production of exotic spices such as nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and cinnamon.

When these islands came under control of The Dutch East India Trading Company, the company developed world-wide monopolies on these highly desired spices. The city of Pekanbaru was an important trading port for imported objects such as this jug. However, by 1800, mismanagement and bankruptcy resulted in the end of The Dutch East India Trading Company. The Dutch retained control of these culturally and agriculturally rich islands until the mid 20th century, and Indonesia did not become its own country until 1949 following a national revolution.

Today, Indonesia represents a crossroads of culture and trade between the Indian and Pacific oceans with more than 300 distinct ethnic groups and more than 700 languages still spoken. This object is a fascinating example of worldwide trade, the introduction of multinational corporations onto the world stage, the spread of cultural ideas, and the legacy of a colonial power.

Take a look at the video to learn more about the history of Indonesia and the Dutch East India Trading Company:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]


Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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