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ETHNONYM: Green River


Identification and Location. The Abau are the westernmost people living on the Sepik River. The name was applied by linguists; it is not used by the Abau people. It might have derived from the kinship term for grandparents, abau. "Green River" is inappropriate as an ethnonym because it is the name of a river flowing mainly through non-Abau territory and of a government patrol post near the boundaries of three unrelated language groups.

Abau territory falls within Sandaun (West Sepik) Province of Papua New Guinea and extends mainly along the south bank of the Sepik from the vicinity of the Yellow River, a northern tributary of the upper Sepik, to the international border of the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya; that is between 141°00 and 141°00 E. by 4° S. It also includes the area south of the Green River patrol post and the floodplains of the Idam and August rivers, southern tributaries of the upper Sepik. The West Range to the south is sparsely inhabited by peoples who speak unrelated languages and whose cultures are more related to those of the Sepik foothills than to that of the riverine Abau. On the north side of the Sepik, in an area of swamps grading through forest to patchy grass country, peoples of unrelated language groups share a culture not unlike that of the Abau.

Demography. The names of 1990 and 2000 village-based census units are difficult to correlate with Abau villages. The linguist Laycock estimated 4,545 people based on information in 1970. The census figures for 1980 suggest no significant change. It is estimated that the Abau number between 4,500 and 5,000 people and inhabit 1,700 square miles (4,350 square kilometers).

Linguistic Affiliation. Abau belongs to the Sepik-Ramu phylum of Non-Austronesian ("Papuan") languages and is characterized by tonemes. The language most closely related to Abau is Iwam, which is spoken by people living along the Sepik and the lower May River, downstream from the Abau. Iwam and Abau have 30 percent cognate vocabulary.

History and Cultural Relations

Abau speakers separate Biaka and Pyu speakers, whose languages appear to be related at the phylum level, to the north and west, respectively. Several Abau groups tell how they originated from locations farther downstream from where they currently live; some say from the May River. Despite traditions of a common origin, there appears to have been little sense of loyalty among these groups. Each settlement was autonomous, and enmity between settlements was common. Even intermarriage between groups did not guarantee friendship. It seems that enmity was strongest and most enduring between speakers of different languages, but was ameliorated for purposes of trade. Enmity between the Abau of the Idam valley and the Amto (an unrelated speech community in the Simaiya valley and West Range immediately to the east) seems to have been particularly intense until warfare was banned by the colonial administration.

Almost nothing is known of the prehistory of the area. A small stone head unearthed in a village near the Green River patrol post was not recognized as an Abau artifact.

The first Europeans to contact the Abau were members of the German-Dutch border-marking expedition of 1910, followed by the 1912-1913 Kaiserin-Augusta-Fluss expedition. A small ethnographic collection from among the Abau is in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin. In 1914 Richard Thurnwald explored widely throughout the upper basin of the Sepik, following that river almost to its source near Telefomin. The Eve-Hodgekiss oil search expedition of 1938 constructed an airstrip at Green River and the first plane landed in 1938, but it was not until 1949 that a patrol post was established there.

A small airstrip was built in the Idam valley in the 1960s but was soon abandoned because of drainage problems. Another airstrip was built on the August River in the early 1970s to service a small police post there. The Christian Mission to Many Lands has had a small station based at Green River since 1953. A few men have been employed as plantation workers and have brought back an awareness of the outside world, a knowledge of Pidgin English, and a desire to acquire some of the material wealth of Europeans. However, there appear to be no major resources in the area to realize that desire.


The Abau once lived in large community houses close to the banks of rivers and surrounded by food gardens. Administration officers pressured the people to abandon these houses in favor of single-family dwellings set out in a village pattern, but communal dwellings were still seen in the 1970s. The community houses were rectangular structures supported at least six feet off the ground by many flimsy posts. The gable roof utilized prefabricated sections of sago leaf thatch. The walls were midribs of sago palm frond cut to the required length and lashed with cane. The flooring was made of tough blackpalm bark. There were usually small verandas at each end of the house. Hearths were lined up on either side of the house, one side for men and the other for women and children, though children moved freely in the men's space. Firewood was dried and meat and fish were preserved in racks above the hearth. It is estimated that a community house would not have lasted more than four years.

More recent single-family dwellings are similar in construction to community houses, though smaller and with a large open veranda to facilitate socializing and communication between the occupants of neighboring dwellings.

A special kind of house was constructed for dancing. It was similar to a community house, but hearths were arranged around the perimeter of a lower dance floor supported only at the edges. A large center post passed through a hole in the floor and supported the ridge pole but not the floor. The slow, knee-bending action of the dancers caused the floor to spring slowly up and down in rhythm with the dancing.


Subsistence. The Abau are swidden horticulturalists, hunters, and gatherers but rely primarily on sago for their staple starch. Food crops include taro, sweet potato, yams, and bananas as well as recently introduced crops such as pineapples, pawpaws, beans, and corn. Gardens are fenced to prevent feral pigs from destroying crops. The Abau cultivate coconut palms, areca palm (betel nut), and breadfruit, roasting the whole fruit in the fire but eating only the cooked seeds. They hunt feral pigs and domesticate a few but slaughter domestic pigs only on special occasions. Woman and children gather frogs and tadpoles and dam small creeks so that they can use crushed derris root in the water to stun the fish. The men catch fish and hunt various animals, including flying foxes, bandicoots, possums, cuscus and rats, birds and cassowaries, and wallabies.

Commercial Activities. There appear to no opportunities for commercial development at the present time. During the 1960s there was a brief revival of shield making to supply the artifact industry.

Industrial Arts. Before the introduction by Europeans of knives, steel axes, and machetes, tools were made of stone and bone. Stone adze blades were roughly shaped by percussion flaking of river pebbles and then ground and polished. These blades were bound onto a haft shaped like the number "7" but could be rotated so that the tools functioned as axes or adzes. These adjustable tools were particularly apt for the hollowing out of logs for canoe hulls. Cylindrical stones ground to a point at each end were similarly hafted and used to fell sago palms. The pith of the sago palm is shredded by pounding with a stone core that is hafted in the same way as the palm cutter and axe or adze. Chisels and pandanus fruit splitters are made from the tibia of the cassowary, and pig bones are used as spoons. Rat incisors are used as chisels for fine carving.

Bow staves are made from black palm, and bowstrings from split rattan. Arrows for hunting large game and for warfare are elaborately ornamented. Most arrows have a reed shaft and a barbed point; bamboo blades are joined to the shaft by an elaborately carved and painted foreshaft. Shields were carved from the large flat buttress roots of trees and suspended from the bow shoulder by a horizontal bast strap. Designs were carved in relief bands painted black, with the curvilinear figures usually in an ocher color against a white ground. Hourglass-shaped hand drums without carved handles are fitted with a lizard skin tympanum; designs related to those on shields are carved and painted at the distal end. Wooden trumpets with a slightly tapering cone shape also bear carved and painted designs at the distal end. Bamboo jaw's harps are played for amusement. Log slit drums figure in legends, but only a few, small, crudely carved examples could be found in the 1960s.

Women make looped string bags of various sizes that are used to carry everything from small personal items to food, firewood, and babies. Women also make and wear reed or sago-string skirts. Men make and wear gourd penis sheaths, either egg-shaped or tapering. Curvilinear designs representing insects and other small creatures are burned onto the surface of the gourds. This type of ornamentation also is applied to gourds used for smoking or as containers for the lime chewed with betel nuts. Bamboo smoking tubes are provided with etched designs that often are similar to those on the arrow foreshafts.

A variety of head, neck, chest, arm, and leg ornaments were made from shells, bone, teeth, seeds, fur, and feathers.

Trade. The major items of trade were stone tools, for which dogs'-teeth necklaces and pigs were exchanged. A type of triangular cross-section adze was traded from the same source in the Star Mountains to the west from which the Telefolmin obtained their adzes; these adzes have been found as far down the Sepik River as Angoram. Some axe and adze blades were made locally from large river pebbles, and some were obtained by trade from the upper reaches of streams east and west of the Abau. Shell ornaments of nassa, cowrie, pearl shell, and conus also were obtained by trade.

Division of Labor. Men clear forest for gardens, erect fences, build houses, and carve canoes. They hunt with bows and arrows, assisted by dogs. Both sexes plant, weed, and harvest. Men fell sago palms. Women extract the sago starch from the palm and cook sago by mixing water boiled in bamboo tubes with the sago starch to make gelatinous "sausages." A container made by folding and stitching sago spathe (the large sheathing leaf enveloping the flowering head of the palm) is used in this process. Women are the primary carers for children, but men carry children and play with them. Women make the looped string bags used by both sexes.

Land Tenure. Land belonging to each settlement appears to have relatively clearly defined boundaries that were contested by warfare. It appears that an individual's rights to use land are inherited primarily from the father, secondarily from the mother, and occasionally from affines.


Kin Groups and Descent. There do not appear to be any named kin groups; each group is known by the name of its settlement. There are two "lines" of Abau: one that moved up the Sepik mainstream to Hufi on the international border and one that moved up the lower reaches of the Simaiya to the Idam and across to the middle August River. Relationships within each of these "lines" tend to be friendly, but relationships between the lines tend to be unfriendly, exacerbated by accusations of sorcery.

Kinship Terminology. Abau kin terminology is difficult to classify but it is Omaha-like in so far as all parallel relatives are called (male speaking) by the generationally appropriate nuclear family terms, there is a terminological differentiation of the sister's descendants, and there is a generational shift upwards of the mother's brother's daughter and her descendants. However, the mother's brother's son and the father's sister's son are terminologically equated by a word that is translatable as "pig-exchange relative." In the standard Omaha system, these terms should be different, and so it appears that the term for "pig-exchange relative" has "overwritten" the Omaha terms. Little is known of the female kinship terminology but it appears similar in structure to that of the male terminology while using many different terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. It is said that a man, usually the father, gives a woman to another man to marry. The ideal is sister exchange. There is often considerable pressure on a woman to marry a man not of her choice. However, at least as often a woman insists on having her own feelings considered. Most marriages are within the village group, but marriages to outsiders are arranged with a sense of reciprocitya woman of group A is given to a man of group B because previously a woman of group B was given to a man of group A. This is a generalized form of sister exchange. A bride can be bought with dogs' teeth, bows, arrows, and string bags.

A man is not supposed to marry his sister's daughter or his first cousin, but the latter is now permissible. In the past this would have created problems with the rules of pork distribution.

Sex before marriage causes considerable trouble because it disrupts plans for sister exchange, but adultery among married men and women is common. Women say that prostitutiongetting paid for sexwould be silly: "It is just fun."

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is the nuclear family, sometimes extended to include a sibling or another close relative of the husband or wife. Infanticide may be practiced if a child is born too soon after another child. Ideally, a child should have left the breast before another requires it. Women may resort to magic to prevent pregnancy, but abortion is not practiced. Men prefer male children because they see them as their replacements.

Inheritance. Men tend to inherit their fathers' most valuable possessions, such as stone tools, fight arrows, and hand drums. Inheritance of land, or of the right to use land, is cognaticthat is, through the father or motheralthough there appears to be a preference for patrilineal inheritance.

Socialization. Perhaps the most important attitude inculcated during childhood is the necessity for sharing food. When a boy shoots his first birds, neither he nor his parents may eat them; he must give them to someone else "or he will never grow up." A man is bound by the same rules when he shoots his first pigs. He cannot eat the first crop of coconuts or betel nut from the palms he has planted because "his blood has gone into it." For the same reason he must not eat the pigs he has reared or the sago or pandanus from the palms he has planted.

It was said that in pre-European times parents dealt harshly with naughty children, sometimes beating them so badly that they died. Children were frightened into obedience by warnings of "bogeymen" and enemy scouts. There appear to have been no formal rites of initiation or coming of age for boys or girls.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The community house group (today the village group) is the basic social unit that integrates nuclear families. Previously, men sat, ate, and slept in an area of the community house nominally separate from the women and children. The change to individual houses for the nuclear family, gathered together into villages, has broken down this separation of the sexes.

Political Organization. Traditionally, there were no formal political offices. An energetic young warrior may have been able to mobilize one or two settlements against an enemy, but larger alliances were unknown.

After the Green River patrol post was established, government officers appointed a luluai (village representative) and a tultul (assistant) in each settlement to mediate between themselves and the villagers. This system was replaced by local government councils with elected councilors in the late 1970s. Today candidates for office at the local, provincial, and national levels are elected on the basis of local loyalties but readily replaced if they are perceived not to have materially assisted their constituents.

Social Control. Antisocial behavior is generally tolerated and dealt with by avoidance. However, if a person is accused of sorcery and enough men feel aggrieved by the sorcerer's activities, they may kill the accused even if that person is a member of their community. If a person goes crazy and threatens extreme violence, a number of men may physically restrain that person until he or she calms down. Serious crimes are reported to government officials who have the power to take the accused into custody and, if found guilty, jail him at the provincial center. Monetary fines are ineffective as few people have money. A typical activity for prisoners is to cut the grass on airstrips and clear out drainage ditches at the roadside.

Conflict. Conflict within the village may be sparked by accusations of theft, adultery, or unfair distribution of food. Conflict is managed by avoidance or physical restraint. Conflict between communities may involve a number of men and quickly escalate to warfare, with the aim being to destroy the community, its settlement, and its gardens. If someone is killed, that person's death must be avenged.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, there were no initiatory rituals, and although the skeletal relics of some ancestors were retained as heirlooms, there do not appear to have been any rituals involving them. There is, however, strong adherence to animism and belief in humanlike spirits with shapeshifting powers that inhabit large trees, deep pools, and rivers. The spirit world is regarded as having a geographic location at the boundaries of human settlement, gardening, and hunting activities. The spirits of dead persons may be encountered in the bush and may choose to return to human settlements, sometimes with a spouse and with children who have been born to them in the spirit world. A characteristic of spirits is that they vomit when first attempting to eat cooked food or decompose or vanish if they are reminded of their death.

Religious Practitioners. Every community has a few men who use magic to cure illnesses. After chewing betel nut and cinnamon bark and engaging in periodic tobacco smoking, they examine patients and suck out splinters, nails, bones, stones, teeth, and other objects that are believed to be making the patient sick. These objects are thought to have been shot into the victim by sorcery. After the objects have been removed, they must chase off the malignant spirits that have been extracted along with the objects or the community's dogs will be driven crazy and they will not be able to hunt wild pigs successfully.

Ceremonies. Abau religious ceremonies seem to be concerned primarily with curing illness. Yafi is the name of a sickness-curing ceremony. A tall conical sago spathe headdress (bufiyaf) with a design painted on it like those on shields is worn by a man who also wears a large gourd penis sheath (yafsiau) and a belt of large bones and seeds. The masked man beats his drum and dances so that the sheath swings up and clacks on the belt. His function is to decoy and dispose of the malevolent spirits that have made people sick. The sick people sit on the ground, and the rest of the community dances around them. After the ceremony the participants must avoid sexual intercourse for a month so that the ginger they have used does not injure or kill their partners.

Arts. Designs are etched on bamboo smoking tubes and reed arrow shafts; singed on gourd penis sheaths, lime containers, and smoking apparatus; painted on sago palm spathe; and carved and painted on wood shields, hand drums, and trumpets. Arrow foreshafts are elaborately carved and painted and may be inherited from generation to generation. The designs are generally curvilinear and symmetrical around the vertical and horizontal axes.

There is a rich tradition of songs with texts evoking nostalgia and melancholy by means of allusion to phenomena in the natural world. Oral traditions are in linear, narrative form, with frequent reference to the spirit world and interactions between protagonists and spirits. A common motif is the man who gains a boon from a spirit woman and loses it through negligence. Another is the outcast who, through heroic experiences during an epic journey, becomes an admired superman.

Medicine. The most common herb used as medicine is nettle, which is thought to prevent the blood from coagulating in the veins, which the Abau recognize as a sign of death. Another method of curing certain illnesses is to sit on a platform above or lean over a bark container of medicinal leaves and water that is brought to boiling by dropping in hot stones. This method is believed to remove the vindictive powers of spirits who have taken the form of human beings (especially females). Chewing ginger, cinnamon, and betel nut and smoking tobacco are believed to be curative or necessary for healers to mobilize their curative powers. Chewing the extremely bitter wild taro leaf is mentioned as a means of abruptly shifting men into a warlike temperament. It is "heat" that is said to be the significant characteristic of these plant materials.

Death and Afterlife. If a person dies prematurely, even through an accident, it is believed that sorcery has been committed. A divination is conducted that involves a bamboo pole set up with rattling objects suspended from one end over the grave of the dead person; the other end is held by the diviner. The assembled men of the community call out the names of suspected sorcerers. If the pole rattles, they believe they are on the right track. Eventually, when the right name has been called and the motive has been established, the pole leaps out of its position over the grave and several young men hang on to it and rush up and down the village until they are exhausted. This disperses the power of the evil spirit. The pole is then attacked with axes and machetes, and the evil spirit is eliminated. The identified sorcerer may be attacked by sorcery or physically attacked and killed.

Dead people traditionally were put on a bark platform in the house that was left to deteriorate; now they are buried. Some bonesespecially of successful hunters or warriorswere selected and worn as decorations around the neck or put in a string bag painted red.

The spirit of a dead person is called bop. This is also the word for "shadow." Spirits go to kisau (the ground) and are called kisauru. The end of mourning is marked by the closest relatives washing in the river and sponsoring a lavish feast of sago, pandanus sauce, and smoked pork.

For other cultures in Papua New Guinea, see List of Cultures in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 2, Oceania.


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