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ETHNONYMS: Kuman, Simbu


Identification. The Chimbu live in the Chimbu, Koro, and Wahgi valleys in the mountainous central highlands of Papua New Guinea. An ethnic and linguistic group, not traditionally a political entity, the Chimbu are speakers of Kuman and related dialects. Most people living in the Chimbu homeland identify themselves first and foremost as members of particular clans and tribesidentification as "Chimbus" is restricted primarily to occasions of interaction with nonethnically Chimbus. The term Chimbu was given to the people by the first Australian explorers (in the early 1930s) who heard the word simbu (an expression of pleased surprise in the Kuman language) exclaimed by the people at first meetings with the explorers.

Location. The Chimbu homeland is in the northern part of Simbu Province, in the central Cordillera Mountains of New Guinea, around the coordinates 6° S and 145° E. They live in rugged mountain valleys between 1,400 and 2,400 meters above sea level, where the climate is temperate, with Precipitation averaging between 250 and 320 centimeters per year. To the east live the Chuave and Siane, and to the north live the Bundi of the upper Jimi Valley. In many ways Culturally very similar to the Chimbu are the Kuma (Middle Wahgi) people living to the west. South of the Chimbu in the lower Wahgi and Marigl valleys are Gumine peoples, and farther south are lower altitude areas, lightly settled by Pawaia and Mikaru (Daribi) speakers.

Demography. Approximately 180,000 people live in the 6,500 square kilometers of Simbu Province. Of those, more than one-third live in the traditional homeland areas of the Kuman-speaking Chimbu. In most of the northern areas of the province, population densities exceed 150 persons per square kilometer, and in some census divisions population densities exceed 300 persons per square kilometer.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kuman and related languages (SinaSina, Chuave, Gumine) are part of the Central Family of the East New Guinea Highlands Stock of Papuan languages.

History and Cultural Relations

Little archaeological evidence exists for the Chimbu area proper, but data from other highland areas suggest occupation as long as 30,000 years ago, possibly with agriculture developing 8,000 years before the present. It is believed that the introduction of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas ) about 300 years ago allowed for the cultivation of this staple food at higher altitudes with a subsequent increase in the population of the area. Oral traditions place the origin of the Chimbu at Womkama in the Chimbu Valley, where a supernatural man chased away the husband of the original couple living in the area and fathered the ancestors of the current Chimbu tribal groups. First Western contact occurred in 1934 when an Expedition, led by gold miner Michael Leahy and Australian patrol officer James Taylor, passed through the area, and soon afterward an Australian government patrol post and Roman Catholic and Lutheran missions were established. The initial years of colonial administration were marked by efforts to curtail tribal fighting and establish administrative control in the area. Limited government resources and staff made this goal difficult, and by the beginning of World War II only a tenuous peace had been imposed in parts of Simbu. Following the war, Australian efforts to extend and solidify administrative control continued, local men were recruited as laborers for coastal plantations, and coffee was introduced as a cash crop. Establishment of elected local government Councils after 1959 was followed by representation of the area in a territorial (later national) legislative body and by the creation of a provincial legislature. Local tribal politics remain Important and tribal affiliation greatly influences the participation in these new political bodies.


In contrast to highland areas to the east, Kuman Chimbu do not arrange their houses into villages but rather have a dispersed settlement pattern Traditionally, men lived in large men's houses set on ridges for purposes of defense, apart from women, girls, and young boys. Each married woman and her unmarried daughters, young sons, and the family's pigs lived in a house that was situated some distance from the men's house and in or near the family's gardens. By situating their houses near the gardens, women were able to remain close to their work and better manage their pigs, a family's greatest economic asset. Although this housing pattern still exists to some extent, reduction in the segregation of the sexes, reduction in tribal fighting, and economic development have resulted in more men living with their families in houses that are located near coffee gardens and roads. Most Chimbu houses are oval or rectangular, with dirt floors, low thatched roofs, and walls woven from flattened reeds.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The primary subsistence crop in Simbu is the sweet potato. Grown in fenced and tilled gardens, sometimes on slopes as steep as 45°, sweet potatoes provide food for both people and pigs. Sweet potatoes are the main food at every meal, comprising about 75 percent of the diet. Over 130 sweet potato cultivars, or varieties, are grown in different microenvironments and for different purposes. Sweet potato gardens are usually made in grass or forest fallow areas by digging ditches in a gridwork pattern to form a checkerboardlike pattern of mounds 3 to 4 square meters in size on which vine cuttings are planted. Gardens are planted throughout the year, with impending requirements for food, such as the need for more sweet potatoes for upcoming food exchanges and increased pig herds, influencing planting as much as climate seasonality. In addition to sweet potatoes, other crops grown for consumption include sugarcane, greens, beans, bananas, taro, and nut and fruit varieties of pandanus. Pigs are by far the most important Domesticated animal to the Chimbu and are the supreme valuable, sacrificed to the ancestors in pre-Christian times and blessed before slaughter today. Pigs, killed and cooked, are the main item used in the many ceremonial exchanges that are crucial to creating and cementing the many social relationships Between individuals. By giving partners pork, vegetables, money, and purchased items (such as beer) the contributors create a debt that the receivers must repay in the future in order not to lose valued prestige. These exchanges occur at various times, for various reasonsfor example, to celebrate marriage, to compensate for injury or death, or to thank a wife's natal kin group for the children born into the husband's clan. By far the largest of these exchange ceremonies is the pig ceremony (bugla ingu), at which hundreds or even thousands of pigs are slaughtered, cooked, and distributed to friends and affines at the final climax of events. Money has become an increasingly important item exchanged in these ceremonies. For most rural people, money is primarily earned through the growing of coffee in small, individually Controlled gardens. In addition to coffee, money is acquired through the selling of vegetables in local markets and, for a small minority, through wage employment.

Industrial Arts and Trade. Crafts of clothing and tool making are now largely abandoned, their products replaced with items manufactured beyond the local communities and purchased in stores. All subsistence work, before contact, relied upon the skillful use of local woods, fibers, canes, stone and bone materials, and a few trade items. In general, men made the wooden tools and weapons and constructed fences and houses; they also made artifacts of cane, bamboo, and bark.

Division of Labor. As in precolonial times, the division of labor remains based primarily upon gender. Men fell trees, till the soil, dig ditches, and build fences and houses; women do the bulk of the garden planting, weeding, and harvesting, care for the children, cook, and care for pigs. Men are also responsible for political activities and, in time of tribal warfare, defense of the territory. The production of coffee is primarily the responsibility of men, and the few Chimbus with wage employment are almost exclusively men. Predominantly, women sell items (mostly fresh vegetables) in the local markets.

Land Tenure. Each family's land is divided among a number of different plots, often on different types of soil at Different altitudes. Land tenure in Chimbu is marked by relative fluidity. Most commonly land is jointly inherited from a Father to his sons. But it is not unusual for associations with more distant agnates and with kin or affines in other clans to result in rights to use their land. Rights to land in fallow remain in the hands of the previous user so long as those rights are defended. Despite the high population densities in most parts of Chimbu, absolute landlessness is unknown because of the ability of individuals to acquire land through any of a number of different contacts. But the advent of cash cropping has led to a lack of land suitable for growing coffee and other tree crops. Therefore, although land for food is available to all, access to the means to earn money through commodity production has become limited. This lack of land suitable for cash crops has led to a large number of Chimbus, over 30 percent in some higher altitude areas, to migrate away from their home territories to towns and lower, less crowded rural lands.


Kin Groups and Descent. Chimbu view their kin groups as consisting of patrilineal segments, "brother" groups, which have descended from a common patrilineal "father" ancestor. The clan, with an average population of 600-800, is the usual unit of exogamy. Clan names are often taken from the ancestral founder's name combined with a suffix meaning "rope." Clans are further divided into subclans, kin groups with Between 50 and 250 persons. The subclan group is often the main organizing unit at ceremonial events, such as marriages and funerals, and subclan members undertake some joint agricultural activities. Smaller groups are sometimes identified within the subclan. These "one blood" or men's house groups consist of close agnates or lineage mates.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terms are classiftcatory by generation and bifurcate merging, distinguishing sex and relative age among siblings and father's siblings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage in Chimbu, as in many parts of the world, represents a social and economic link between the groom's kin group and the bride's kin group. The ceremony reflects this with a large number of valuables, primarily pigs and money, negotiated and arranged by senior members of clan segments and given as bride-price. Men are usually in their early twenties when they are first married, women are usually aged 15 to 18. Residence after marriage is usually patrivirilocal. Polygyny is still common, although the influence of Christian missions has reduced its occurrence. Having more than one wife is economically advantageous for men Because women are the primary laborers in the gardens. Until the birth of children, marriages are very unstable, but divorce occurs sometimes years after children are born.

Domestic Unit. Until recently, men always lived separately from their wives in communal men's houses, joining their wives and children most often in the late afternoon at mealtime. Coresidence of a married couple in a single house is becoming more common. If a man has more than one wife, each wife lives in a separate house and has her own gardens. An individual man and his wife or wives are the primary productive unit. Often closely related men will cooperate in the fencing and tilling or adjacent garden plots. Households commonly join others during short visits.

Inheritance. Brothers jointly inherit their father's land in crops as well as rights to fallow and forest land. Usually most of the land is distributed to sons after they are married, when the father gets older and becomes less active. Other valuables are distributed to other kin after a man dies. Land of childless men is redistributed by senior men of the clan segment.

Socialization. Infants and children of both sexes are cared for primarily by their mothers and other sisters. At about the age of 6 or 7, boys move in with their fathers if they live in a separate men's house. Starting at about age 7, about half of Chimbu children begin to attend school. Up to adolescence Chimbu girls spend large amounts of time with their mothers, helping in daily work. Boys form play sets with others of similar age from the same area, and these sets of related boys form relationships that last through adulthood. The initiation Ritual for males, held during the preparation for the pig Ceremony, involved the seclusion and instruction of boys and young men at the ceremonial ground in the meaning of the koa flutes and other ritual questions and proper behavior. Since the festivals were held at intervals of seven to ten years, and all youths who had not previously participated were taken, it was a men's group rite rather than a puberty Ceremony. The initiates were subject to bloodletting and painful ordeals. These ceremonies have ceased, except for revealing the flutes to young people at the time of the feast. At first menstruation, girls were secluded and for a few days (or weeks) instructed in proper behavior, and then their passage was celebrated with a family feast including members of the local subclan and kinsmen. Some girls are still secluded and celebrated in a family rite.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Chimbu society is organized around membership in agnatic kin groups with small groups at the lower level combining with other groups to form larger inclusive memberships, much like a segmentary lineage system. Individual loyalties and associations are generally strongest at the smallest, least inclusive level associated with common Residence areas and shared resources. The clan, the largest exogamous group, commonly acts as a unit in large ceremonial activities and does have a common territory. The largest indigenous sociopolitical organization is the tribe. The tribe, numbering up to 5,000 people, acts as a defensive unit in times of tribal fights with people from other tribes. The marriages contracted between members of different clans and tribes are fundamental in establishing political and economic relationships beyond the local level.

Political Organization. In traditional times the tribe was the largest political unit, but parliamentary democracy, begun in the late 1950s and early 1960s, created constituencies much larger than the traditional kin-based political units, but the influence of small local groups centered on leaders, called "big-men," has not diminished. These men are influential in organizing ceremonial exchanges of food and money, as well as rallying support for the candidacies of those standing for election. Typically more than one man from each tribal group stands in elections, fracturing support among many local candidates and allowing the successful candidate to win with often less than 10 percent of the total votes. In many ways modern parliamentary politics has not increased the scale of Chimbu political groupseven national-level politicians can gain office with a following not much larger than those supporting some traditional leaders in the past.

Social Control and Conflict. Although the possibility of violence, between family members as well as between large tribal groups, serves to control people's actions, mediation by third parties, often politically important men, is more often used to prevent or resolve disputes. Accusations of witchcraft are also levied against those who are perceived to be threatening agnatic group strength, usually against women, who marry into the group and are seen sometimes to have divided loyalties. Warfare occurs between different tribes and occasionally between clans within a tribe. Traditionally, the relations Between tribes were characterized by a permanent state of enmity, which served as an important contributing factor to the unity of a tribe. In the decades following colonial contact warfare at first diminished, only to reappear in the 1970s. Although the incidence of warfare is related to competition over scarce land, often the incident that precipitates fighting is a dispute over women, pigs, or unpaid debts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. The indigenous Chimbu religion had no organized priesthood or worship. The sun was seen as a major spirit of fertility. Supernatural belief and ceremonies concentrated on appealing to ancestral spirits who, if placated through the sacrifice of pigs, were believed to protect group members and contribute to the general welfare of the living. Although many traditional supernatural beliefs still exist, various Christian sects claim the majority of Chimbus as members.

Ceremonies. Of the most important traditional Ceremonies, initiation of boys into the men's cult is no longer practiced (having been actively discouraged by missionaries) ; the large pig-killing ceremonies (bugia ingu) are still held but with less emphasis on the sacrificing of pigs to ancestral spirits.

Arts. The visual arts are concentrated on body decoration with shells, feathers, wigs, and face paint being worn at times of ceremonial importance. Songs, poetry, drama, and stories are important as forms of entertainment and education. Musical instruments include two types of bamboo flutes, wooden and skin-covered drums, and bamboo Jew's harps.

Medicine. Illness and sudden death are attributed to witchcraft, sorcery, and transgression of supernatural sanctions. There was a very limited traditional herbal medical technology, but for most illnesses the people now make use of the government medical aid posts and hospitals.

Death and Afterlife. Although Christian beliefs have modified traditional beliefs, it is still thought by many that after death one's spirit lingers near the place of burial. Deaths caused by sorcery or war that are not revenged result in a Dangerous, discontented spirit that can cause great harm to the living. Chimbu stories are replete with accounts of deceiving ghosts.

See alsoDaribi, Gururumba, Melpa, Siane


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