Archive for the 'New Guinea' 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: 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: Drum

Drum, kundu
Papua New Guinea: Sepik River region
Materials: wood, lizard skin

The Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea is the home of many indigenous peoples who use their surrounding environment and resources for transportation, food and creating art. Carving wood is an integral part of these cultures due to the vast amounts of tropical trees and vegetation along the river, and is the basis for constructing things such as canoes, shields, ritualistic items and drums. This item is a drum known in New Guinea Pidgin as kundu, and is characterized by its hollowed interior and unique striking surface.

The hourglass shape of this kundu is the most common, but conical or cylindrical drums are also used. The carved handle on the side is another frequently seen feature as it makes the drum easier to play when standing, but is not a distinct attribute of this type of instrument. The low, resonating tone that the kundu produces when played is created from the lizard skin stretched over one of the open ends. Two methods are employed to adjust the pitch and tone of the drum beat. If the sound is lower than desired, the lizard or snake skin is held in front of a fire which causes it to tighten and raise the pitch. In order to lower the pitch, small globs of beeswax or other sticky sap-like substances found in the surrounding tropical forests are applied to the drumhead. The added weight lowers the resonant frequency, and thus lowers the pitch it produces. This creative approach to tuning allows the drum to be the exact pitch that the drummer desires.

Kundu drums are traditionally used during rituals, such as manhood initiation ceremonies or funerals, where it is played either alone or accompanied by other instruments like pan-flutes, rattles and other percussion equipment. Kundus are, like many things in Papua New Guinea cultures, associated with the supernatural world, and the sounds produced by the drums are representative of ancestral and spiritual voices. Today, these instruments are often created for and sold to tourists, with many of the historic drums now in museums and art collections around the world. [Kristina Sokolowsky]

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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