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Identification. At the time of their first recorded contact with Westerners, in 1872, the Austronesian-speaking people known as Motu lived in thirteen nucleated seaside villages on the south coast of the New Guinea mainland, immediately east and west of Port Moresby (9°29 S, 147°8 E), the first center of European settlement and the present capital of Papua New Guinea. One further Motu village was established subsequently. Three Motu villages, Elevala, Tanobada, and Hanuabada, were located close together on the shore of Port Moresby harbor, only a mile or so to the west of the present city's docks and commercial center. The Motu shared this coastline and its hinterland with a non-Austronesian-speaking people, the Koita, who occupied small residential enclaves in a number of Motu villages in addition to their own independent villages in the immediate hinterland. Today, Motu still inhabit the same fourteen seaside villages, though many of them have migrated from villages outside Port Moresby into its suburban residential areas. Most Motu villages were traditionally built over the water in tidal shallows, facing a barrier reef some distance offshore.

Location. From about April to November, when the southeast trade winds blow in from the sea, the Motu coast is hot and dry. Between November and March, the northwest monsoon brings some rain and increased humidity. The slopes, low hills, swamps, and valleys of the immediate hinterland behind and between Motu villages, where traditionally the Motu maintained gardens and occasionally hunted game, were sparsely covered with humid tropical savanna, mainly dry grass and stunted eucalypti. At the edges of the barrier reef, along the inshore beaches, and in the waters between, Motu fished.

Demography. Although no precise figures are available, from the random observations of early missionaries and other visitors the total population of all Motu villages at the time of first contact, including the small Koita minorities in some Villages, has been estimated at between 4,000 and 5,000. Subsequently, in the early decades of colonization, there were increases and decreases in particular villages and a slight but not spectacular increase overall. After World War II, However, with rapid urbanization, a shift from a subsistence Economy to wage labor, and improved medical services, the Motu population began to increase rapidly. For example, village population records show that the total population resident in the fourteen Motu villages increased between 1954 and 1968 from approximately 7,500 to 13,500. Precise figures on a Village basis are no longer available, but the Motu population has continued to increase rapidly and may now number more than 25,000. Doubtless because of their proximity to Port Moresby, the Motu have played a role in the history and development of Papua New Guinea disproportionate to their numbers.

Linguistic Affiliation. In common with some other Peoples scattered over Papua New Guinea's coastal periphery and offshore islands, the Motu speak an Austronesian Language, classified in the Central Family, Eastern Subgroup.

History and Cultural Relations

Available archaeological evidence suggests that the Motu, seafarers with their own distinctive maritime culture and ceramic tradition, first occupied their present habitat Comparatively recently in the history of settlement on New Guinea's southern shores. From 1872, when the first Christian missionaries arrived, through the entire colonial period inaugurated in 1884 with the establishment of a British Protectorate, Motuparticularly in the Port Moresby villagesparticipated actively and significantly in the social, Economic, and political developments that culminated in the establishment of Papua New Guinea as an independent nation-state in 1975. The early colonial government employed Motu speakersincluding policemen recruited from the Solomon Islands who acquired a knowledge of simplified Motu when stationed in Port Moresby and, subsequently, Motu themselvesin remoter administrative Districts. As a result, a simplified version of the Motu language, at first called "Police Motu," but now known officially as "Hiri Motu," became established as a lingua franca in Papua. Motu from Port Moresby villages, educated in English at their mission school, were also recruited to clerical or commercial jobs in Port Moresby. Nevertheless, before World War II, only a small proportion of Motu in the Port Moresby villages and almost none from other villages worked for wages, and most villagers made their living from traditional subsistence activities. Since World War II, Motufirst from the Port Moresby villages and then from the remoter villages as they were connected to the town by roadhave increasingly entered the work force of Port Moresby's expanding commercial, industrial, and service economy, until today almost all Motu men and many women work full-time for wages in the town; those from nearer villages commute daily, and those from remoter Villages live in town during the working week and return home at the weekends. As the Motu work force was absorbed into the urban economy, traditional economic enterprises Declined and eventually disappeared. Apart from a few Commercial fishermen, most able-bodied Motu men and many women are today urban workers: entrepreneurial, professional, white-collar, and blue-collar. Traditionally, Motu maintained trading relationships and lived in peace with some of their immediate inland neighbors, with whom they traded mainly fish for vegetables and fruit, and with the Erema and Toaripi peoples some distance west across the Gulf of Papua, to whose villages they made annual overseas trading expeditions (known as hiri ), exchanging pottery and ceremonial ornaments for sago, canoe hulls, and areca nuts. Outside of these exchange relationships, contacts with other neighboring peoples prior to colonization were fortuitous and hostile.


Motu villages were traditionally closely nucleated, the houses typically built out in lines over the water. Wooden walkways linked the houses in each line. Each of the independent, localized descent groups (iduhu ), which together constituted the village polity, occupied its own line of houses. Although large numbers of Motu still live over the water in this way, many others have now built houses ashore. Traditionally, Motu traveled between villages by canoe or on foot, but now all Motu villages are linked to Port Moresby, and they can thus be reached from each other, by road.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally, Motu grew yams and bananas, with other minor crops, in Garden plots scattered along the shore and over the coastal hillsides, maintained clusters of coconut palms near their Villages, reared pigs (primarily for ceremonial purposes), fished, and gathered shellfish and crabs. They did not, however, produce enough staple food to meet their needs, so they augmented their food stores by trading fish, pottery, and Ceremonial ornaments with their neighbors and overseas trading partners.

Industrial Arts and Division of Labor. Traditionally, there were no specialist craft workers among the Motu. The only division of labor was sexual. All men fished, sailed on the hiri, and constructed canoes, houses, and fishing nets. All women gathered crabs and shellfish, manufactured pottery, cooked, and fetched water. In the gardens, the soil was first broken by men and then weeded and cleared by women, but crops were planted, tended, and harvested by both sexes together.

Trade. Trade transactions usually took the form of reciprocal gift exchanges, but on the hiri direct baiter supplemented gift exchange. Gift exchanges involving ceremonial valuables (mainly arm shells and other ornaments, pigs, and yams) occurred between individuals and groups in different villages or iduhu at feasts with dancing, often associated with mortuary rites, and between kin and affines during marriage ceremonies. Except for a few commercial fishermen, Motu have not tried to find commercial markets for their traditional produce or to introduce new cash crops.

Land Tenure. In theory, Motu hold that rights to use or alienate any piece of land are shared by all descendants, through males or females or both, of the person who is known to have first cultivated or occupied it. In practice traditional rights to residential or garden land were mainly exercised by agnatic descendants, since males and their immediate Families tended to live in the residential section (iduhu) and cultivate the land of their fathers, whereas females married out. In colonial and postcolonial times, however, when Motu sold land for cash sums that were easily divisible, all descendants of the original occupant shared in the proceeds.


Kin Groups and Descent. There are two significant corporate groups in a Motu village: the household, comprising one or more nuclear families; and the iduhu, comprising a number of households located together in their own residential section of the village. Nuclear families within a Household, and households within an iduhu, are usually linked by agnatic ties: between fathers, sons, and brothers in a Household, and between agnatic descendants of its founder in an iduhu. Some rights (e.g., to share in an iduhu's fishing catch) extend also to sisters and their children, and some (e.g., to land) extend to further descendants bilaterally, but the core members of the iduhu with the strongest claims to its scarce material and ritual resources are agnates. Females marry out, but subsequently retain close bonds with their fathers and brothers.

Kinship Terminology. With one complication, Motu Kinship terminology is of the so-called "Hawaiian" type, distinguishing cognates of one's own generation only by age (kaka, older; tadi, younger) or sex (taihu, opposite sex) and applying only one term (tubu ) to all cognates of one's grandparents' or grandchildren's generation. The complication occurs in the terms used by proximate generations: In the generation of one's parents, mother's male cognates and husbands of Father's female cognates (both called vava ) and father's female cognates and the wives of mother's male cognates (lala ) are distinguished from father and his male cognates (tama) and mother and her female cognates (sina ), and these distinctions operate reciprocally for cognates of one's children's Generation. This type of terminology, sometimes called bifurcate-merging, is associated with classificatory brother-sister exchange marriage, which was traditionally not uncommon among the Motu.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although, traditionally, important men sometimes married several wives, Motu marriages today are monogamous. There is a rule against marrying any cognate but traditionally marriage within the village was preferred, which sometimes severely limited the range of choices and encouraged relaxation of the rule in the case of distant cognates. Traditionally, too, marriages were arranged, and childhood betrothals were common, but nowadays young people are mainly free to choose their own spouses. Gift exchanges traditionally accompanied various stages in the process of betrothal and marriage, culminating in the main presentation of bride-wealth (in the past consisting mainly of arm shells but now including substantial sums of money). In recent times, bride-wealth inflation, led by wealthier Motu, has delayed or impeded this final legitimation of marriages according to

Motu custom among the less wealthy. Residence after Marriage was traditionally viripatrilocal. Divorce, involving a Return of bride-wealth, was possible but infrequent.

Domestic Unit. Traditionally, household members pooled foodstuffs and cooked together, but component nuclear Families ate separately. Households, or sometimes component Nuclear families within households, maintained their own Garden plots. Each household had its own small fishing nets, though larger nets were owned and operated by the whole iduhu.

Inheritance. Houses and major household effects were (and are) usually inherited by the householder's oldest son. Other sons and their families might continue to live there, but they would seek eventually to establish their own separate households.

Socialization. All members of the household help in caring for and raising children, but mothers undertake the major chores. Traditional skills were learned by boys from their Fathers and other senior men of the household, and by girls from their mothers and other senior women.

Sociopolitical Organization

Although there are perceived to be specific historical links Between certain Motu villages, traditionally all villages were Politically independent and there was no formal sociopolitical organization above the village level.

Social Organization. Normally, the senior married male agnate is recognized within an iduhu as its leader, and within a household as its head, and the status of other male Members is determined by genealogical seniority both between and within generations. At the village level, there was Traditionally no formal status hierarchy, but prominent men, for the most part iduhu leaders, competed for status and influence through the sponsorship and management of enterprises that conferred prestige, such as hiri expeditions, feasts with dancing, bride-wealth payments, and (in precolonial times) feats of military leadership. Nowadays, in the cash economy, Motu men of outstanding achievement seekthrough bride-wealth payments, hospitality, and other forms of conspicuous consumptionto convert wealth into status, influence, and, ultimately, public office.

Political Organization. Political decisions at the village level were traditionally achieved and maintained through public debate, in which political leaders (big-men) used a rhetoric invoking their superior achievements and prestige, which in turn reflected the range and size of their support networks, to "shame" other participants out of contention until a clear victor or a winning consensus emerged. In the modern postindependence polity, important decisions affecting the Motu are made by politicians who build on local support to pursue power through formal organizations (including Political parties) and informal alliances, all operating within a wider structure of democratically elected local, regional, and national legislatures and their supporting bureaucracies.

Conflict. At the village level, competition and conflict were endemic and essential features of the traditional Motu way of life: ultimately, victory over their rivals in the rhetoric of the political arena motivated individuals and groups to work, compete, and achieve to their maximum capacity. Victory was never complete, defeat rarely absolute; the pursuit of advantage was never-ending. Consensusor, in its absence and as a last resort, physical confrontationmight temporarily give victory in a dispute to one party over the other, and the loser might offer a gift to placate the winner for the time being, but most losers withdrew only to fight again another day. Beyond the village, oral traditions and early historical Records suggest that Motu engaged in warfare or conducted raids intermittently against other neighboring peoples and even sometimes against other Motu villages. Such warfare, endemic in this area, was eventually suppressed by the British administration after its establishment in 1884.

Social Control. Within the iduhu, traditionally, social control was usually maintained and conflict avoided or resolved through the exercise of agnatic authority, supported by ancestral ritual sanctions.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The Motu were the first people in mainland Papua New Guinea to receive Christian missionaries, and most Motu are now church members. For some generations, however, Christianity and traditional religious beliefs coexisted.

Religious Beliefs. Motu traditionally believed that their well-being depended on the continued support of their ancestral spirits, who were believed to go after death to a place of plenty over the sea, to the west, but who were thought also to maintain a concern for, and spiritual contact with, their living descendants in the village. Households and iduhu regularly performed mystical rites instituted by their ancestors to promote success in such enterprises as gardening, fishing, and the hiri. The ancestors of a household or iduhu were thought to monitor the behavior of members and to punish misbehavior by inflicting illness or misfortune.

Religious Practitioners. There were no specialist religious practitioners in traditional Motu society, except for diviners who could identify certain illnesses and calamities as punishments for particular infringements of the ancestral code or as the effects of sorcery (mea ) or witchcraft (vada ). The Motu believed that, in general, only Koita and other neighboring peoples practiced sorcery and witchcraft, but individual Motu could buy or otherwise enlist their services or skills.

Ceremonies. To gain the ancestors' support or to placate them, Motu traditionally held private ceremonies at the sacred place (irutahuna ) of a house or canoe. Following the death of an important household member, to ensure a successful transition to the world of ancestral spirits, a series of public ceremonies took place over several years or more, culminating in a major feast with dancing (turia ) during which the deceased's bones were disinterred.

Arts. Traditionally, Motu women were elaborately tattooed, but the practice has now ceased. Their ceramics (cooking pots, water jars, and food platters) were elegant but plain, with little decoration. Motu achieved their most spectacular artistic expression in their dances in which, with elaborate feather headdresses, brightly painted faces, arm shells and plaited amulets, colorful grass skirts on the women, and elegant perineal bands on the men, they danced in various formations to the percussion rhythms of wooden hourglass drums. Early missionaries viewed Motu dancing as a prelude to sexual abandon, and they forbade it. For some generations, Motu were divided between Christians, who did not dance, and pagans, who did. Although the Christians eventually won, some of the dance forms still survive, but only as cultural relics performed occasionally for tourists or in historical pageants.

See also Koiari, Namau, Orokolo


Belshaw, Cyril S. (1957). The Great Village. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Dutton, Tom, ed. (1982). The Hiri in History. Pacific Research Monograph no. 8. Canberra: Australian National University.

Groves, Murray (1960). "Western Motu Descent Groups." Ethnology 1:15-30.

Seligmann, C. G. (1910). The Melanesians of British New Guinea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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LOCATION: Southern coast of Papua New Guinea

LANGUAGE: Motu (Hiri Motu); Tok Pisin; English

RELIGION: Christianity


The Motu are a group who live on the southern coast of Papua New Guinea. They occupy a stretch of coastline that was the first area of permanent European settlement on the island of New Guinea. The Motu are well chronicled because of their elaborate annual trading expeditions to distant parts of the Gulf of Papua. The Motu men built large sailing boats called lagatoi, which were multihulled rafts built out of large logs that were lashed together. These rafts were propelled by crab-claw-shaped sails made of coconut fiber. A crew of thirty men was needed to sail one of these vessels. Although the annual hiri (trade) expeditions are no longer undertaken by the Motu, annual ceremonies and events commemorate the tradition.


The Motu homeland is in the Central Province of Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea has been an independent nation since 1975. It occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, the third-largest island in the world. The capital of Papua New Guinea is Port Moresby, a city that divides the traditional Motu territory in half. The first European accounts of the Motu record the same fourteen villages that are still occupied by the Motu today. The Motu coastline has two distinct seasons: a hot, dry period from April to November; and a wet, humid period from November to March. Some Motu have left their villages and moved to small settlements on the outskirts of Port Moresby. Others live in the city itself in modern homes with running water and electricity.


The language of the Motu is related to the other Austronesian languages of New Guinea and the South Pacific region. Austronesian languages are in the minority in Papua New Guinea, and speakers of these languages are usually only found in coastal regions. (The Papuan languages are the majority languages of this island nation.) During their annual trading expeditions, the Motu used a special form of their language referred to now as "Hiri Motu." Some Motu also speak Tok Pisin (an English-based pidgin language) and English.


The existing body of folklore and mythology of the Motu is being lost at a rapid rate due to urbanization and, in some cases, education. In many cases, children no longer have the opportunity to learn the traditional stories of the past. Many Motu stories tell of conflict between the Motu and their neighbors. Stories of the successes of ancestors in raiding neighboring villages are still remembered by some older Motu. Traditional myths tell the origins of the Motu, the development of fire, and the history of the hiri (trading expeditions). These myths and others have been written down and published as small booklets.


Christian missionaries have been active in the area since the earliest Motu-European contact during the 1930s. The vast majority of Motu are Christians. However, some of the traditional beliefs and ceremonies are still maintained in Motu society. The Motu believed in witchcraft and sorcery, but they did not practice it. Instead, they believed that neighboring groups had this power, and the Motu would have to enlist the services of outsiders if they wanted to inflict illness or death on one of their own.


The Motu celebrate Christian holidays. Most Motu participate in the nation's wage-earning work force. Therefore, they also recognize and, in some cases, celebrate the secular (nonreligious) national holidays. The Hiri Festival (commemorating the Motu trade expeditions) is also an important holiday. It gives the Motu a chance to celebrate their traditional heritage and enjoy their traditional dress and entertainment.


The Motu have experienced the effects of modernization more than many other groups in Papua New Guinea. As a result, many of the traditional aspects of their culture have been lost. The stages of life that were integral to traditional Motu society no longer exist. Only the payment of "bride price" (payment by the groom's family to the bride's family) still exists as part of a rite of passage. The transitions from infant to adolescent, adult, and then onward to death, are marked more in the European manner. Birthdays are celebrated by Motu who live in Port Moresby.


The choice of language for Motu greetings is the most important aspect of an interaction. Motus will usually greet each other in Hiri Motu, but also use English and Tok Pisin with some frequency. The choice of language directly reflects the nature of the social relationship between the parties involved.

The kinship terminology of the Motu is the Hawaiian type. (A kinship terminology is the set of terms that a person uses to refer to or address a relative.) In American English, one distinguishes between one's mother and one's aunts, but typically does not distinguish between maternal aunts and paternal aunts. In the Motu system, there are no distinctive words for "mother" and "aunt." Instead, both are referred to by the same term. However, the Motus do distinguish between relatives on the father's side and relatives on the mother's side.


Traditionally, the Motu built their houses in lines that were connected to each other by walkways built over the tidal shallows. A line of houses corresponded to a particular descent groupthat is, a group of people related to each other by a common ancestor. Some Motu have chosen to remain in village areas such as these, but have built houses on land. Motu village houses often have corrugated sheet-metal walls, thatched roofs, and plank floors. Some of the Motu who live in traditional villages do not have electricity. They rely on kerosene lanterns for lighting and on battery-operated radios for keeping in touch with the outside world. Urban Motu live in a range of house styles. Wealthy, professional Motu have large houses with all the comforts that most Americans are accustomed to having.


The nuclear family is the basic unit of social organization among the Motu. Households were traditionally linked together by a shared walkway and a shared cooking area.

Marriage among the Motu today has changed from when Europeans first encountered them. Today, the Motu are monogamous. In precolonial times, men of status and wealth often had several wives. Motu marriages were arranged in traditional times, and there were many restrictions on potential spouses. Child betrothal (engagement) was quite common. Gift exchange occurred frequently until the final bride price (goods given by the groom's family to the bride's family) was paid and the marriage was finalized. The modern Motu are free to choose their marriage partners. Wealthy Motu families have inflated bride prices, which has lengthened the time it takes for a marriage to become finalized.


Traditional clothing for Motu women consisted of a grass fiber skirt. They did not wear any footwear or any covering on their upper bodies, which were frequently tattooed. For ceremonies and other important occasions, both men and women would oil their skin. Feathers, flowers, and the leaves of croton plants were used to decorate women's hair, and were also placed in arm-bands (worn on the upper arms). Traditional dress is still used by the Motu for ceremonial events such as bride-price payments, weddings, and canoe races. Urban Motus wear Western-style clothing.


The traditional foods of the Motu were fish, yams, and bananas. They also collected shellfish and crabs. The Motu traded with their neighbors and also went on trading expeditions to far-away villages. Nowadays, Western foodstuffs have become staples. Tinned fish and canned Indonesian curry dishes are popular foods. Rice and tea are also important foods that are purchased in shops and grocery stores, where American products such as boxed cereals, soft drinks, and hot dogs are also sold. Although village families often cook together, Motu nuclear families eat separately.


Traditional education was structured along sex lines. Boys learned adult male activities from their male relatives; females learned adult female activities from their females relatives. Nowadays, public education is available to the Motu and almost all families take advantage of it. Some Motu go on to college at one of the national colleges or universities, such as the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby.


Traditional dances were very impressive. They often were intricate group dances. Men and women wore elaborate face paint and feather headdresses. Dancing was accompanied by drumming, and sometimes, singing. The Motu use hand-held, hourglass-shaped drums called kundu. Dancing was discouraged by Christian missionaries. As a result, many of the traditional ceremonial dances are no longer performed and are forgotten. Some dances are still performed on important occasions and for tourists who visit Motu villages.


The traditional division of labor in Motu society was along sex lines. Men built houses and canoes, constructed fishing nets, fished, and participated in trading expeditions. Women made the pottery that the men took to trade on the hiri (trading) voyages. Women also cooked, fetched water, and gathered foodstuffs. Both men and women tended the garden where limited crops were grown. Today, both men and women seek wage labor outside their villages, usually in Port Moresby. Many Motu hold white-collar (professional) jobs. Traditional industries are all but lost, with only a few still remaining for demonstration at festivals and ceremonies.


Rugby is both a spectator and participant sport throughout Papua New Guinea. Motu who live or work in Port Moresby watch league (semiprofessional) rugby. Canoe races are an important form of recreation for the Motu. The canoes are modeled on traditional styles, but are constructed of modern materials.


For Motu who live in or near Port Moresby, movie houses, clubs, and pubs are places for entertainment. The national beauty pageant that crowns "Miss Papua New Guinea" for competition in larger, regional pageants is an important event for those living in Port Moresby. Motu are always well represented in this event.


Art among the Motu was limited to pottery made by women, and to the elaborate body tattoos of women. Many Pacific societies have given up the practice of tattooing. However, some Motu girls and young women are still being tattooed. Patterns are geometric in nature, with some Christian motifs having become part of the imagery.


Maintaining the distinctiveness of their culture in the face of urbanization and modernization is a challenge for the present-day Motu. The Motu language has lost some ground to the popularity of Tok Pisin among young people. Larger problems are alcohol and drug abuse, and the spread of HIV (the AIDS virus).


Groves, M. "Hiri." In The Encyclopedia of Papua New Guinea, ed. P. Ryan. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1972.

Holdsworth, David. Festivals and Celebrations in Papua New Guinea. Bathurst, Australia: Robert Brown & Associates, 1982.


Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available, 1998.

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

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MotuBantu, stand-to •Manawatu, Vanuatu •passe-partout • gentoo • lean-to •pistou •into, thereinto •manitou • onto • Motu •Basotho, Hutu, Lesotho, Mobutu, Sotho, tutu •hereunto, thereunto, unto •surtout

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