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ETHNONYMS: Hageners, Mbowamb, Medlpa


Identification. The Melpa people live in the Western Highlands Province of the independent state of Papua New Guinea. They are a homogeneous ethnolinguistic group, bounded on the west by the Enga and on the east by the Wahgi peoples.

Location. The Melpa live in a location which is approximately between 144° to 145° E and 5° to 6° S. Geographically, their area consists of montane valleys and mountain slopes, varying between 400 and 2,100 meters above sea level. The bulk of the population lives at altitudes between 1,500 and 1,800 meters above sea level. The climate is marked by a relatively wet period from October to March and dry from April to September. Temperatures vary from seasonal lows of 4° C or less to highs of 27° C or more. Annual rainfall is in excess of 250 centimeters. In the dry season there may be periods of drought and nocturnal frost. Otherwise, the climate is benign and the planting of crops continues year-round.

Demography. The 60,000 or more Melpa speakers occupy the areas south and north of the modern township of Mount Hagen. Population density varies with ecology, but exceeds 134 persons per square kilometer in parts of the Wahgi Valley and Ogelbeng Plain just outside of the town, tapering to fewer than 19 persons per square kilometer in the northern parts known indigenously as "Kopon" (Dei Council). Annual growth of the population since colonial times is calculated at slightly over 2 percent per annum.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Melpa language is spoken by more than 60,000 persons. It belongs to the East New Guinea Highlands Stock of Non-Austronesian languages and to the Central Family within that stock. The nearest related languages are spoken in the Nebilyer Valley, Tambul, and Ialibu south of the Melpa area. To the east the Wahgi and Chimbu languages and to the north the Maring, Narak, and Kandawo languages also belong to the same family.

History and Cultural Relations

Intensive horticulture has been practiced in the area for some 9,000 years, starting in fertile drained swamps and moving later to hillsides when sweet potatoes became available to replace taro as the staple crop, an event estimated to have occurred within the last few hundred years. Trading networks brought shell valuables, plumes for decoration, salt, and stone axe blades from distant parts. Europeans discovered the area in 1933 as part of an exploratory drive in search of gold in the highlands creeks. The brothers Michael, James, and Danny Leahy and the Australian Patrol Officer James L. Taylor were prominent in the process of discovery and initial pacification. Mount Hagen was established as a center for mission activities, trade, and administration. Until the 1950s, major contact with the outside world was by air. Nowadays the Highlands Highway to the coastal port of Lae on the north coast of Papua New Guinea is the chief channel for goods to enter and leave. Until 1975, Papua New Guinea was under Australian colonial control, and Western Highlands was a district. At independence, the districts became Provinces and from the late 1970s these gained their own provin cial assemblies and governments in addition to the National Parliament.


The indigenous form of settlement is the hamlet or extended family homestead situated close to gardening areas within a clan territory. Pathways lead from one settlement to another. Some settlements have a ceremonial ground associated with them. This is particularly likely to be so if one of the residents is a political leader (a big-man). There are two kinds of houses: men's houses, usually round and occupied by men and boys from the time they are 8 or 9 years old; and women's houses, long and sometimes with a special compartment for pig stalls, in which the women and their unmarried daughters live. Houses are made from posts, bark, woven cane, and thatching grass. Missions introduced "line villages" with Family houses instead of separate men's and women's houses. These innovations have had variable success. Houses Nowadays tend to be built near roads, introduced since colonial times.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditional Subsistence rests on the cultivation of sweet potatoes, in mounds or squares surrounded by drainage trenches. In fallow areas among trees the people also make vegetable gardens for cucumbers, beans, maize (introduced), sugarcane, and bananas (both for cooking and for eating ripe). These gardens are nowadays supplemented or even replaced by areas planted with coffee from which cash is earned. Vegetables are also taken for sale in Mount Hagen market. Trade stores dot the countryside, in which introduced clothing, foodstuffs, and household utensils can be bought.

Industrial Arts. In precolonial times, a number of stone-axe quarries were operated, and the rough-cut or polished stones were exported as well as being used locally. Europeans brought steel tools that replaced those of stone. Prehistoric mortars and pestles are found archaeologically, but these items were used by the Melpa as cult objects rather than tools.

Trade. Over time, exchange networks extended beyond the Melpa area in all directions, but particularly westward with Enga speakers, with whom stone axe blades were Exchanged for salt packs. Major religious cults also diffused into the area from the south and southwest via Tambul. The lowlying northern areas were sources of fruit, pandanus, and bird plumes. The Melpa moka ceremonial exchange chains linked together many groups in the area itself in a complex set of obligations to make prestations of pigs and shells between Exchange partners from different groups. Trade nowadays is in coffee, exported to the world market.

Division of Labor. The indigenous division of labor is by sex. Men create garden areas, fence them, and plant luxury crops. Women plant greens, the staple sweet potatoes, and taro. They harvest gardens and keep them free of weeds, and they are also largely responsible for feeding the pig herds that are essential to the prestige economy.

Land Tenure. Land is generally inherited by sons from their fathers as they grow up and marry. Daughters can be allocated portions to use even after marriage, but marriage is usually virilocal and a wife expects to garden mostly on her husband's land within his clan area.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent groups are normatively patrilineal, but there is a counterbalancing stress on matrilateral relationships and on affinal alliances expressed through exchange and in shifts of residence to the maternal group in case of in-group conflict or economic advantage. Exogamous clans are clustered into tribes and divided into subclans and smaller units that act as groups in exchange activities.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology follows the Iroquois system with bifurcate-merging terms for collaterale. Most kin terms are self-reciprocals in address but not in reference.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage takes place through an exchange of payments of a bride-wealth type. Payments are high and require the cooperation of kin groups. The items are pigs, shells (traditionally), and cash (nowadays). Reverse prestations are made from the bride's side, including an endowment of breeding pigs over which she has significant control. Residence is normatively patrivirilocal. Divorce does occur and is marked by the return of a part of the bride-wealth, especially if the woman is judged at fault or has produced no children for the husband's clan.

Domestic Unit. A newly married couple may either build a fresh women's house for the bride or may use space in an existing women's house. Over time they will build houses for themselves, close to the man's settlement.

Inheritance. Land rights are the most important for inheritance, and land is parceled out according to the needs of children at their marriages. Most land goes to sons. Married daughters may be given cultivation rights at their natal place also.

Socialization. A postpartum taboo is observed for two to three years, after which children are weaned. Training is not severe, and children are treated with tolerance. There is no formal group-based initiation ritual for either boys or girls, but boys shift to the men's house well before puberty. Puberty for boys is marked by the donning of a wig made from human hair. Traditionally, both sexes learn by the "look and learn" method. Nowadays, most children go at least to primary school.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Clans are primarily linked by Marriages and the exchange ties that flow from them. Clans of a tribe generally had obligations to give support in serious warfare, but internally they might also fight each other. Tribal warfare has returned in the 1970s and 1980s with the partial breakdown of government control.

Political Organization. The indigenous leader is the bigman (wö nuim ) who does not formally succeed to an office but with the aid of his kin establishes a dominant place in the networks of moka exchange. In precolonial times, big-men held a greater monopoly over shell wealth, which disappeared after Europeans brought in thousands of these previously scarce items. Big-men must also be good speakers and negotiators. Nowadays, the big-man system operates along with the introduced roles of councillors, provincial members, and members of the National Parliament, all of whom are elected every four or five years.

Social Control. Force played a major role in relations Between groups in the past, modified by the negotiating skills of big-men. Internally, conflicts were settled by moots. Nowadays, these are replaced by official Village Courts and by a range of other introduced courts.

Conflict. Conflict is endemic in Melpa society, counter-balanced by strong norms of friendship between kin and Exchange partners. The resurgence of political conflict between groups is a serious contemporary problem. It is fueled both by economic change and by continuity of a revenge mentality.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Everyday religion in the past was centered on the family, lineage, and clan ghosts, to whom pork sacrifices were made in cases of sickness and at times of Political danger (e.g., prior to warfare). In addition, circulating cults moved through the area, exported from group to group. Nowadays, many Melpa are members of various Christian churches in the area.

Religious Practitioners. Religious experts (mön wö ) were significant in both local and circulating cults. They were both curers and intercessors between people and spirits. Some learned from their fathers, others by apprenticeship to existing experts. Women could become mediums possessed by spirits and able to reveal secrets.

Ceremonies. The climactic ceremonies of the circulating cults were impressive public affairs, in which the male participants danced out from the cult enclosure and distributed pork to hundreds of guests.

Arts. Self-decoration was, and is, an art and a major preOccupation of the people at festival times, both for cults and for moka exchanges. Other arts include the composition and performance of courting songs, laments, and songs for Ceremonies, the playing of flutes and Jew's harps, and the chanting of epics.

Medicine. The mön wö knew ranges of spells to cure Sickness. Adults in general were acquainted with a small number of herbal remedies. Often sickness was attributed to moral causes. Wrongdoing within the group was thought to bring an unfavorable reaction both from ghosts and from the group "mi," a sacred object or creature associated with the group's origins. For these spirits indigenous sacrifices had to be made. Nowadays, people make prayers in the Christian churches (Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Seventh-Day Adventist) for sickness, and they visit hospitals and aid posts for pragmatic treatment. Mön wö still practice their art, however.

Death and Afterlife. Death is marked by elaborate mourning and later by a funeral feast with special emphasis on gifts to maternal kin. Formerly, the corpse was exposed and after a while its bones were removed for use in shrines; nowadays, bodies are buried. Traditionally the dead are thought to travel down watercourses to a place in the lowlying northern Jimi Valley called "Mötamb Lip Pana." Spirits of the dead are believed to come back in dreams, however, and to continually influence the living with their benevolent or malevolent presence. Small skull houses were constructed in the past for personal sacrifices. Nowadays, many people are baptized and few maintain skull houses, but belief in the activities of spirits continues to influence people's interpretations of events, and indigenous notions underlie many Christian practices.

See also Chimbu, Mae Enga, Maring


Brandewie, Ernest (1891). Contrast and Context in New Guinea Culture. St. Augustin, Germany: Anthropos Institute.

Strathern, A. J. (1971). The Rope of Moka: Big-Men and Ceremonial Exchange in Mount Hagen, New Guinea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Strathern, A. J. (1972). One Father, One Blood: Descent and Group Structure among the Melpa People. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Strathern, A. M. (1972). Women in Between: Female Roles in a Male World. London: Seminar Press.

Strauss, H., and H. Tischner (1962). Die Mi-Kultur der Hagenberg-Stämme. Hamburg: Cram, de Gruyter & CO.

Vicedom, G. F., and H. Tischner (1943-1948). Die Mbowamb. 3 vols. Hamburg: Friederichsen, de Gruyter & Co.


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ALTERNATE NAMES: Medlpa; Hageners

LOCATION: Papua New Guinea


LANGUAGE: Melpa; Tok Pisin

RELIGION: Christianity; native Melpa religion


The Melpa (also spelled Medlpa) are some of the first Papuans that tourists and visitors to the island of New Guinea see when they step off planes arriving in Mount Hagen. (The Melpa are often called "Hageners.") The Melpa frequent the airport, offering modern "stone axes," colorful string bags, and other artifacts for sale. Some of them also provide taxi and bus service to the local hotels and guest houses.

The Melpa are a highland group. Until 1933 (when Europeans arrived in the highlands) New Guinea had been unknown to the outside world. Conversely, the highlanders had never before seen people who lived beyond their mountain valleys and plains. The first contact between these two groups was recorded on film. It provides a fascinating record of this monumental time of discovery for both groups.


The Melpa live in the Western Highlands Province of the independent Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea. They are highlands-dwelling people who occupy the areas north and south of the town of Mount Hagen. There are about 60,000 Melpa in total. The climate in the area is relatively mild, especially by tropical standards. The temperature rarely exceeds 86°f (36°c) in the summer months and rarely falls below freezing in winter. Rainfall is heaviest between October and March, with a dry period from April until September. Mosquitoes are nonexistent in this region of Papua New Guinea and therefore, malaria is not a problem.


The Melpa speak a Papuan language belonging to the East New Guinea Highlands stock. Melpa has over 60,000 speakers, and a portion of that population speaks Tok Pisin (an English-based pidgin language) as a second language. Tok Pisin is one of the official languages of Papua New Guinea. Melpa is not under threat from Tok Pisin, as are some other languages in the country. Most Melpa children still grow up speaking Melpa as their first language.


Myths relating the origins of the clans (group of people with common descent) were and still are told within Melpa society. Sacred objects or living beings associated with these myths and clans are called mi. Extended speeches and epic stories are performed to tell the deeds of clan heroes and ancestors.


Ghosts of dead family and clan members are the focal point of non-Christian religious practice among the Melpa. Pig sacrifices are made to keep these ghosts happy. These sacrifices are made when illness occurs within the village or before any dangerous task begins. The Melpa have religious experts who are responsible for curing the sick and act as intermediaries (go-betweens) between the human world and the spirit world. Women are not allowed to be curers but can be possessed by spirits and can also foretell the future.

Christianity has existed in the Melpa region ever since the founding of Mount Hagen as an administrative, trade, and missionary center in the 1930s. A number of the Melpa are now practicing Christians and attend the local churches on a regular basis.


The Mount Hagen Show is an important local holiday for Hageners. Groups from all over the highlands region attend to perform traditional songs, music, and dance wearing ceremonial clothing. Body decoration reaches it height for this event. National holidays such as Independence Day (September 16) are recognized by the Melpa who live and work in Mount Hagen, but not by rural Melpa.

The most important and well known ceremonial event in traditional Melpa society was an exchange process known as the moka. An individual male gave an gift to another male, who then gave a gift, plus something more, to that individual. Exchange partnerships would continue through the adult lives of men. Before the introduction of European goods into the highlands, the major items of exchange in the moka were pigs, both living and cooked, and pearlshell necklaces. Nowadays, cash, machetes (large knives), and even four-wheel-drive vehicles are exchanged in moka ceremonies. The goal of the exchange is to gain status and prestige in the eyes of the larger society by giving more than one received. Men who are accomplished at achieving this goal are known as "big-men" in the community and are viewed as leaders. True big-men are able to arrange large-scale, multiple moka exchanges involving many pairs of exchange partners. Anthropologists refer to this type of exchange as "redistribution." The goal is not to gather goods or wealth for personal use, but instead to redistribute (share) items among the community.


The Melpa people do not socially recognize or celebrate a girl's first menstruation, as most other highland groups from Papua New Guinea do. However, like other groups in the area, the Melpa do segregate males and females due to the fear of pollution of males by females, especially through menstrual blood.

In the past, the Melpa had elaborate initiation rites for males. Through contact with the outside world, these have been greatly reduced.


In some parts of the highlands, villages are separated by valleys and mountain ridges. Especially in the more rural Melpa region, villages may be widely separated from each other. In these areas, greetings are accomplished long distance via yodeling. Requests, directions, commands, and challenges are often yodeled back and forth by men across a ravine or a ridge, completely out of visual range of each other.

Inheritance is based on patrilineal principles: sons inherit from their fathers. The most important item for inheritance is land. Parcels of a father's land are given to his sons at the time that the sons are married. When daughters are married, their fathers may grant them gardening rights to parcels of land.


There are two types of traditional Melpa houses: men's and women's. Men's houses are round with cone-shaped roofs. This is where men live and where preteenage boys live once they have been separated from their mothers (around the age of eight). Women and their unmarried daughters live in the rectangular-shaped women's house. The women's house also contains pig stalls to keep the pigs from wandering off at night or being stolen. A village consists of at least one men's house and one women's house. Members of a clan traditionally resided in the same area, which was linked by paths to nearby gardening areas. Missionaries encouraged the building of family homes where a husband, a wife, and their children would sleep together. Some Melpa have adopted this new form of residence while others have chosen not to.


Marriage involves the exchange of valuables by both families. The majority of the goods are given by the groom's family to the bride's family. They constitute what anthropologists refer to as "bride wealth" or "bride price." Traditionally, the groom's family and kinfolk would provide a number of pigs and shells to the father of the bride in compensation for the loss of his daughter. Nowadays, cash payments are included in the transaction. The bride's family provides the new couple with a number of breeding pigs. The negotiation of a bride price is a significant part of the marriage transaction and can cause a potential marriage to be canceled.

The Melpa trace their genealogies through the male line. Clans are created through common descent from a shared male ancestor. Individuals choose their spouses from clans outside their own. After marriage, the couple moves into the groom's father's village. Later, they will build a new women's house for the bride near the groom's men's house. Divorce consists of repayment of part of the bride price, especially if the woman is seen to have been at fault.


The Melpa who live or work in Mount Hagen wear Western-style clothing. Men usually wear shorts, T-shirts, shoes if they own them, and a knitted cap, and they carry a string bag. Women wear A-line dresses often made of a floral print fabric. They also carry string bags, but much larger than those of the men. Women also wear shoes if they own them; however, men are more likely than women to own shoes. The concept of owning a wardrobe of clothing does not exist for the majority of Melpa. Most people own only one change of clothing. It is still possible to see Melpa dressed in traditional clothing, including the wig made from human hair that adult Melpa men wear on important occasions. In some cases, Melpa from rural villages will travel by plane to visit other highland communities. During these travels, the rural Melpa may dress in their traditional clothing and carry the tools of traditional life, such as stone axes and digging sticks. The airport at Mount Hagen is truly a meeting place of the jet age and the stone age.


Like other Highland cultures in Papua New Guinea, the Melpa's traditional staple foods were sweet potatoes and pork. Sweet potatoes are still an important staple. Western-style foodstuffs have gained in importance now that they are available in trade stores and since eating this type of food increases a person's status in the eyes of the community.


Traditional education consisted of socializing young boys and girls to become competent members of adult Melpa society. Although this is still true today, public and parochial schools (church-run, private schools) are also open to Hageners. In the highlands region, Western-style education has been integrated with traditional ways of life to produce individuals who seem to exist in two very different worlds at the same time.


Vocal music is especially important in Melpa society. Courtship songs are common in many highland cultures in New Guinea. Men woo their mates by composing and performing songs that have double-entendre lyrics (words with two sets of meanings, one often sexual in nature). When men go to sing to women in other villages, they paint and decorate themselves very elaborately.


The traditional division of labor was between the sexes. Men were responsible for creating gardens and building fences to keep out the pigs. Women tended the pigs, planted the staple crop of sweet potatoes and other foodstuffs such as greens and taro (a starch), and weeded and harvested the garden plot.

Modern Melpa work in a variety of jobs in the town of Mount Hagen. Driving taxis and buses, porting baggage at the airport, and working in shops are among the types of employment that the Hageners pursue.


As in other parts of Papua New Guinea, rugby is an important sport in the area around Mount Hagen. Mount Hagen is the venue (location) for many rugby games involving Hageners and other Papuans from throughout the island.


Town-dwelling Melpa have access to electricity and many of them enjoy watching television. There are very few locally produced television shows in the country. Most programs are bought from Australian broadcasting, which in turn purchases shows from the United States. Therefore, Hageners are exposed to American society in the form of situation comedies.


Body decoration is the major art form in the Hagen region. Moka (exchanges) and ceremonial events have historically been important times for elaborate decoration to take place. Body paint is produced from local dyes mixed with pig fat. Traditional materials such as feathers and shells are used to decorate elaborate headdresses. Today, traditional headdresses are decorated with modern items, such as labels of various products and the tops of tin cans. The American product Liquid Paper (white correction fluid) has also become a favorite substitute for traditional white paint. The intensity of whiteness is cited as the reason for the switch.


Revenge was the basis for many violent actions taken by the Melpa in the time before pacification (when they were forced by European missionaries to become more peaceful). Revenge murders often pitted the male members of one clan against those of another. This mentality has not completely disappeared from the Melpa. Hundreds of men wearing full war dress can occasionally be seen running along the Highlands Highway toward a neighboring village. Their intent is to exact revenge for a death or wrongdoing that took place in the past. Events like these alarm tourists and government officials. As a result, warnings are sometimes issued regarding travel in the region.


Strathern, Andrew. The Rope of Moka: Big-Men and Ceremonial Exchange in Mount Hagen, New Guinea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.


Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Papua New Guinea. [Online] Available, 1998.

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