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ETHNONYMS: Abulas, Ambelam, Ambelas, Ambulas


Identification. The Abelam live in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea and are divided into several subgroups; the most prominent is the Wosera, who are so named after the area they inhabit. This is the southernmost group of the Abelam. The other groups are named for geographic direction: northern, eastern, etc. The whole region is called Maprik, named after the Australian administrative post established in 1937 in the heart of Abelam territory.

Location. From the Sepik floodplains in the south the Abelam extend to the foothills of the Prince Alexander Mountains (coastal range) in the north. The Plains Arapesh living there call their neighbors in the south Abelam. The Abelam live in two ecological zones, the hills (up to about 600 to 700 meters above sea level) and the relict alluvial plains. These zones are characterized by different landforms, altitudes, annual rainfall, and soil types. In the north, the foothills are covered with thick secondary vegetation; virgin forest has almost completely disappeared due to shifting cultivation and to the high population density that was also responsible in former days for many fights and wars over land.

Demography. The Abelam number over 40,000. Parts of the Abelam territory range, with 70 persons per square kilometer, are among the most densely populated areas in Papua New Guinea.

linguistic Affiliation. Linguistically, Abelam forms, Together with the Iatmul, Sawos, Boiken, and Manambu, the Ndu Family of the Sepik Subphylum, which is classified as part of the Middle Sepik Stock, Sepik-Ramu Phylum. All of these language groups are located within the Sepik Basin, Except for the Boiken who have spread over the coastal range to the north coast.

History and Cultural Relations

In prehistoric times, the Sepik-Ramu Basin was flooded with salt water, this inland sea probably reached its maximum extent 5,000 to 6,000 years ago when it reached as far westward as Ambunti. The sea then began to drop gradually until it attained its present level around 1,000 years ago. During that span of time the Sepik Basin with its young floodplains began to develop and became separated from the Ramu Basin by the Bosman Plateau. Linguists point out that the Ndu Family of languages had a common ancestry, which suggests a common settlement history. Linguistic evidence also suggests that the Ndu speakers moved into the Sepik Plains from the south of the river. The Abelam evidently migrated northward during the last few centuries until after World War II, although there is much debate about where the Abelam came from and when they began moving north. Except for sporadic contacts with hunting parties from Indonesia, the first direct contact with the outside world occurred immediately before World War I, when the Abelam were discovered by the German ethnologist Richard Thurnwald who was traveling through Abelam Territory on his way over the Alexander Mountains to the north coast. Before long, European goods (and also diseases) had reached the Maprik area. Soon missionaries arrived as well, and by 1937 an Australian patrol post (Maprik) was established, land was cleared for an airstrip, and a road to the coastal town of Wewak was built. World War II brought drastic changes to the Abelam way of life; thousands of Japanese, Australian, and American soldiers fought bloody battles on Abelam territory using technology unknown to the Abelam. The establishment of further patrol posts, missionary stations, trade stores, and schools, the substitution of a cash economy based on wage labor for the indigenous subsistence economy, and the development of flourishing towns led Abelam life in new directions. In precolonial times the Abelamnot as a whole group but as many individual villageshad already had continuous relations with neighboring groups. Those with the Plains Arapesh were the most highly esteemed because the Arapesh villages supplied them with valuables, shell rings, and other shell ornaments in exchange for pigs. Relations with the Boiken in the east, the Sawos in the south, and different groups in the west were restricted more or less to border villages.


Throughout the Maprik area there were continuous population movements, not only the general south-to-north pattern but also minor movements within the region. These movements generally involved small kin groups who affiliated themselves with an already existing settlement or who formed new settlements elsewhere. Only after warfare ceased and peace was imposed did these movements stop and villages become relatively permanent. In the north, the Abelam probably absorbed many Arapesh peopleor, rather, killed them or chased them off and took their territory. This high mobility is still reflected in the alliances of small groups in hamlets with other groups in other hamlets. Abelam villages vary in size. They are much smaller in the south with only 50 to 80 people. In the north, they now number up to 1,000 people. In the south, settlements are basically hamlets; in the north they are villages, preferably situated on a hill ridge, consisting of forty to fifty hamlets. Each is autonomous, at least concerning their relations with other settlements. Villages are Structured as an association of hamlets who have formed something like a localized league. The village territory is generally divided into "upper" and "lower" topographical units. The structure of villages in the north is complex. Through rituals for different root crops, yam festivals, and initiation, the different major hamletseach of which has a special role within this network of ritualsare bound together. Buildings such as storehouses, sleeping and dwelling houses, menstruation huts, and the towering ceremonial houses are built on the ground in a triangular plan. They consist more or less of a roof with a ridgepole gently sloping down from the front towards the back. Most spectacular are the ceremonial houses (korambo ) with a large ceremonial ground (amei ) in front of it. Only major hamlets have a korambo, which may be up to 25 meters tall, with a painted facade. The korambo and amei are considered the village center but larger villages may have up to ten or fifteen such centers. The building material is timber and bamboo for the inner structure; sago palm fronds are used for the thatch. Lashing techniques are elaborate.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Abelam are horticulturalists living mainly on yams, taro, and sweet potatoes. The soils in the area, as well as the Abelams' skills in gardening, yield considerable harvests of different varieties of yam and taro. In the north they are cultivated mostly in hillside gardens. In the south, in the Sepik Plains, vegetation is sparse and consists mostly of imperata grasslands. There yields are much smaller. The Abelam depend also on sago palms, which they exploit only seasonally, and on coconuts, bananas, and a large variety of vegetables and fruits. The Abelam practice slash-and-burn cultivation, allowing fallow periods of only a few years compared to as many as twenty years in the past. Today coffee and cocoa are grown as cash crops and are a major cause of the shorter fallow periods. Apart from asakua yams which grow in the poorly drained soils in the plains, there are dozens of other varieties of yam. In special ritual gardens men cultivate long yams that may grow up to 2 meters long. These are not grown for immediate consumption but for ritual yam exchange. After being harvested, they are decorated with plaited or wooden masks and with various ornaments for display at yam festivals where competition between the yam growers is important. These yam exchanges are held either between hamlets of the same village whose residents are members of different moieties orin a much more dramatic formbetween enemy villages. The growing and exchanging of yams has pervaded almost all aspects of Abelam life, and all male initiations are closely linked with it. Everything connected with women is inimical to long yams. Sexual intercourse during the planting season is avoided. This seems to have resulted in seasonal births in such villages. The production of a long tuber is, in a symbolic way, equated with the procreation of a child but with the emphasis that the long tuber is a creation of men only. The relation between men and women has been described as that of complementary opposition. Whereas yams and taro are grown primarily for daily consumption, the raising of pigs is done for exchange only. At each major yam exchange pigs must be contributed, too. Pigs, like long yams, may not be eaten by their owners.

Industrial Arts. All art objects such as elaborately patterned plaits for the ceremonial house, carvings, and paintings, as well as decorated pots and bone daggers, are made by men for their ceremonial life. The Abelam artist, though esteemed as a gifted specialist, is a yam grower like every other adult male. Meshwork used as boar-tusk ornaments and worn by men during fights and ceremonies, featherwork, and rious body ornaments are produced by men who otherwise are not artists. Today the most important personal items of both men and women are net bags. (In former times both sexes were almost completely naked in everyday life.) The Wosera are among the most prolific makers of net bags. The production of net bags is known and performed by all women, though the knowledge of dyeing is limited to a few. Some women are renowned for their artistic skill.

Division of Labor. In subsistence activities there exists a more or less strict division of labor. Men fell the trees and clear the land for new gardens. Then they fence it off, sometimes assisted by women. Men plant all varieties of yams; later women plant taro between the yam mounds. Weeding the gardens as many as six times before harvestis done exclusively by women. Men put up sticks for the yam vines and later they dig out the tubers, which women then clean of dirt and excessive roots. During all male communal affairs (with few exceptions during initiations) they are provided with food by women.

Trade. Piglets are reared only by women, who invest much labor in the production of pigs. In former times this was the only means to obtain wealth in the form of shell rings received from the Arapesh in exchange for pigs. Occasionally men from northern villages made trading expeditions not only to Arapesh settlements in the mountains (for shell rings, yellow paint, and magical substances) but sometimes even to the north coast. There they filled long bamboo tubes with salt water and carried them back to their villages. They used carvings and net bagsas trading goods and as gifts for their partners who provided them with shelter and food along the track. The large and beautifully patterned net bags (which are used also as marriage payments) were much more important as trading goods in the Wosera than they were in the north. Ceremonial earthen bowls, decorated elaborately, were mostly produced in southern villages and traded to northern villages. In general, however, each community was self-sufficient. Nevertheless, there were networks of cooperation between villages concerning the promotion of fertility, tubers, fruits, and men. Sometimes fertility was not promoted but Instead inhibitedoften by illness and death, believed to be caused by the witchcraft and sorcery for which some villages were well known.

Land Tenure. All land is owned by lineages and clans (kim). The wealthiest clans, if they have enough members, are the most powerful within a settlement as they will own, at least in part, the historically and thus ritually most important ceremonial grounds. A lineage's claim on land is demonstrated by their regularly using land for gardens. The individual plots owned by different lineages are marked by perennial plants; these are often overgrown by shrubs but are quickly rediscovered by old men when disputes over land arise. If a man clears land for a new garden or plants trees on ground not used by him before and nobody protests against it, he is regarded as the rightful owner.


Kin Groups and Descent. Most clans are split into Lineages, members of which often live together as a local unit. In a hamlet generally two or three clans (or rather lineages) are represented. This arrangement means that, within a lineage, a man with his brothers and their sons, as well as most of the in-marrying wives of their children, live together. Relations between siblings are close, expressing themselves also in continuous mutual assistance in all kinds of matters, with such assistance also extended to the children of brothers. The elder brother has some authority over the younger who pays him respect. Each nuclear family has several houses: a sleeping house for the father, a dwelling house for the mother and her children, and one or several storehouses for the root crop. In polygamous marriages not all in-marrying cowives live Together in the same hamletwhere they live depends on the relationship between cowives. But a man wants his wives to live on his own land. Otherwise, if his children are born on another clan's land, his claim over his children may be challenged. Although, ideally, Abelam clans are said to be patrilineal, affiliations with other lineages and clans are very flexible. Continuous relations with one's mother's relatives (living on the land of the mother's brother), fosterage, and adoption give many opportunities for temporary and/or Permanent association. This flexibility also leads to many disputes over landownership, rights of land use, etc. And Because of this associational flexibility and also the absence of elaborate genealogies, clans as social organizational units are only predominant in questions of landownership. Clans are associated with the names of spirits, specific water holes where the spirits are temporarily found, magical leaves, and emblems (mostly birds). Most of these attributes become relevant only in ritual context but even then they are not applied systematically but rather casually or in a flexible manner. Sometimes they are used as attributes for moieties rather than clans.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are used mostly on special occasions such as during a dispute when somebody wants to express how closely related he or she is with somebody else. In mortuary ceremonies, during the wake, and before the corpse is buried, the deceased is addressed in kin terms only. In everyday life mostly proper names are used. Cousin terms follow the Iroquois system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Lineages are said to be exogamous and Marriages within them are frowned upon. Marriages take place within a village. In some parts of Maprik region endogamy within the ceremonial moieties (ara ) prevail in order to prevent competition between father and son-in-law. Sister Exchange is a preferred form of marriage. In general, considerable freedom of choice is acknowledged to women in cases where the parents had not arranged intermarriage of their children. In former days marriage took place soon after first menstruation. In marriage transactions shell rings (nowadays supplemented by money) play an important role. Marriage payments can be substituted by giving at least one child back to the wife's clan. Sometimes, if no marriage payment at all is given, a man with his family has to live on his father-in-law's land and assist him, as a member of that household, in all communal subsistence activities such as clearing brush, planting, and harvesting. Divorce is not uncommon and Usually occurs with the wife's return to her own family; in such cases the bride-wealth is returned by her kin or by her new husband upon remarriage.

Domestic Unit. The smallest domestic unit consists of a man with one or more wives and their children if they all live in the same hamlet. But for most activities in the gardens, brothers and their wives cooperate, often assisted by brothers-in-law. Within a common garden owned mostly by male relatives of a lineage, each family has its own plot. Each woman owns her own pigs and chickens and plans her daily work independently from others. She has to be asked permission if her husband wants to sell one of her pigs. Even in polygynous households, cooking is done by each woman separately.

Inheritance. Ideally, inheritance is patrilineally organized. This concerns mainly landownership and clan membership though there are many exceptions which give rise to disputes.

Socialization. The pattern of adult roles is transmitted to children at a very early age through their being actively motivated to participate in everyday activities. If left back in the village, they are put under the supervision of older children who form playing groups. At the same time they are entrusted with social responsibility. Through various stages of initiation, boys and young men attain manhood, which is connected with ritual knowledge. The most prominent ritual event in a girl's life is the first-menstruation ceremony, which is acted out communally by all women of a village.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Apart from households, lineages, and clans within the village, the nonlocalized moiety system provides the structure for male initiations as well as for yam festivals. Members of one moiety (ara ) have their personal yam exchange partners, and each ara initiates the sons of their exchange partners. Thus, all ceremonial activity is balanced between ara. Although membership is primarily inherited from one's father, the equality of the two aras' Membership may be maintained by occasionally transferring members from one ara to the other.

Political Organization. Within the ara but also within assemblies held by hamlets or larger parts of the villages (as in disputes) the role of "big men" (nemandu ) as the actual leaders becomes apparent. Apart from ritual knowledge (often transmitted to the first-born son), which is used as religious legitimation for political actions, oratorical skill is an important qualification for becoming a nemandu or an influential man.

Social Control. Nemandu are mostly conflict resolvere, settling disputes by stressing the importance of solidarity and cooperation. Disputes (which are quite frequent) are held on the ceremonial ground. They become settled under the guidance of influential men through the singing of conciliatory ritual songs, by the exchange of shell rings, or by fighting.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Ceremonial houses (korambo) and Ceremonial grounds (amei) are the focus of most rituals connected with the life-cycle events for men and women. For a girl parts of the first-menstruation ritual as well as the presentation of shell rings as marriage payments take place in front of the korambo. During the death ritual, the corpse is left there for one night. The korambo is also important for its mere presence and does not really serve as a meetingplace. It is mainly for housing those spirits (ngwalndu ) who visit the living temporarily before going back to another world. In a ceremonial building the huge carved ngwalndu figures may be stored until they are used for an initiation. The large painted facade of a korambo is visually dominated by big faces associated with ngwalndu spirits. Although ngwalndu are to some extent ancestral spirits, no genealogy is reported linking the living with these powerful beings who influence the life of men, plants, and animals. The soul of a man (that soul which is associated with clan membership) is thought to live after death with a ngwalndu. While ngwalndu seem to be the most important supematurals, there are nevertheless many others as well, both male and female.

Ceremonies. Initiations of boys and men into the secrets of Abelam religion are divided into many stages, the first taking place when the boy is 5 or 6 years old, the last between 30 and 50. In each initiation boys are acquainted with one category of spiritual beings. This begins at an early age with the least important, and as adults they learn, after they have seen ngwalndu, the last secret beyond which there is only a boundless void. Important parts of initiation ceremonies take place in the ceremonial house where artists arrange elaborate compositions of carved, painted, or plaited figures, decorated with shell rings, feathers, flowers, and leaves. No explanation is given to the initiates. The aim of these rituals is to show them the secrets rather than to verbalize a meaning. For each display of artifacts in a ceremonial house there is an associated dance. In these dances men are painted and decorated all overthus they are transformed into beings from another world.

Arts. Abelam art is rich, with the emphasis on painting. Paint is seen as a magical substance that gives life to a piece of wood (carving). Only then do the figures become powerful and active. Paint is a metaphor for a magical substance used in sorcery, which in this case is not life-giving but life-taking. Throughout Abelam territory different art styles can be recognized, although there are also many commonalities. Abelam artists are highly respected but only rarely do they serve as Political leaders.

Medicine. The Abelam have a large body of knowledge concerning herbs and plants in the bush that were Traditionally used as remedies for various diseases. A few old men and women were considered experts and were consulted regularly. Under the influence of Western medicine the traditional knowledge is vanishing rapidly. Apart from diseases for which Abelam knew effective cures, they also recognized others which they traced back to magic and sorcery. For these no remedies except ritual and the supernatural could be of help.

Death and Afterlife. There is almost no "natural" death recognized, apart from those old people who had been sitting already for a long time "at the ashes of a fire." All other deaths are attributed to magic and sorcery mostly performed in other villages. Symbols of people's life souls are kept in specialized villages. As soon as a lethal illness is suspected these are checked in order to find the cause and origin of the Sorcery performed. After death the corpse is displayed in front of the ceremonial house and a wake is held. The body is buried the following morning. There are many rituals held over Several years until the soul is eternally freed from its bond to life. There are different souls, one associated with blood, one with bones. The latter is considered the eternal one, who becomes visible during the night as a shining star.

See alsoIatmul, Yangoru Boiken


Forge, Anthony (1966). "Art and Environment in the Sepik." Royal Anthropological Institute, Proceedings for 1965, pp. 23-31. London.

Kaberry, Phyllis M. (1941). "The Abelam Tribe, Sepik District, New Guinea: A Preliminary Report." Oceania 11:233-258, 345-367.

Kaberry, Phyllis M. (1971). "Political Organization among the Northern Abelam." In Politics in New Guinea, edited by Ronald M. Berndt and Peter Lawrence, 35-73. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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Scaglion, Richard. (1983). "The 'Coming' of Independence in Papua New Guinea: An Abelam View." Journal of the Polynesian Society 92:463-486.