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ETHNONYMS: Kewapi, Pole, South Mendi


Identification. The Kewa live in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea and speak three major, mutually intelligible dialects. The name "Kewa" is not indigenous, in that areas are known only by the names of the clans that occupy them and not by more generic terms. It means, literally, "a stranger," and refers to people generally living south of Ialibu, the main center from which the first census was taken. The same name, with similar meanings, is found in other parts of the Southern Highlands Province. The people refer to themselves as those who speak the adaa agaa(le), "the large/important language."

Location. The Kewa cultural area is located between 6° 15 and 6°40 N and 143°7 and 144°1 E. One major river network, the Mendi-Erave and its tributaries, drains the whole Kewa area. Two prominent mountains, Giluwe (4,400 meters) and Ialibu (3,300 meters), lie to the north and northeast of the area. The area is part of the central cordillera, which is a complex system of ranges and broad upland valleys with Forest, wild cane, and grasslands. There are many limestone escarpments as well as strike ridges composed of sedimentary rocks. The Kagua (1,500 meters) and Erave (1,300 meters) areas have extensive plateaus. The average yearly rainfall in the Kagua area (the central part of Kewa) is 310 centimeters and the temperature is 17-26° C during the day and 9-17° C at night. There is no marked wet-dry season, but June-August and December are usually the driest months.

Demography. As of 1989 the estimated population was 63,600 with a density from 15-40 persons per square kilometer, although in some areas it is much less. The population is growing at the rate of 2.7 percent per year, with a fluctuating resident population due to migration out to towns and plantations. In the 18-40 age bracket, 35-40 percent of the People are nonresident in their village or parish. The major towns in the Kewa area are Kagua and Erave, with Mendi and Ialibu on the northern border. Only Mendi has more than 1,000 permanent residents.

linguistic Affiliation. Kewa is part of the Mendi-Kewa Subgroup of the Engan (West-Central) Family of languages. The Engan Family is, in turn, a part of a large group of Highlands languages (more than 60), which are in turn a segment of a much larger chain of languages that crosses Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya. These languages are remotely related and are called Papuan to distinguish them from the Austronesian languages. Kewa also has some relationship, both culturally and linguistically, with groups to the south and west towards Lake Kutubu.

History and Cultural Relations

The ancestors of the Kewa most likely lived in the area now occupied by the Central Enga people, which is well to the north and northwest. There are very old trade links which extend southwest to Lake Kutubu and along the Kikori River, as well as northwest to the Upper Mendi. The first European visitors, patrol officers Jack Hides and James O'Malley, penetrated the Kewa area in 1935, followed by I. Champion and
C. J. Adamson in 1936. There was little contact again until the early 1950s. Since that time both the missions and the government have built airstrips, schools, roads, and medical facilities.


The parishes and villages that now exist have grown up around traditional dance grounds, as well as mission and Government stations. People live in dispersed homesteads according to patrilineal lines. Several clan groups may reside in the same ceremonial dance ground territory with their respective men's and women's houses. More recently, nuclear Family houses have become the rule. Homesteads are surrounded by fenced gardens, casuarina trees, cordyline leaves, and ditches to mark boundaries. There are often coffee groves as well. Every five to ten years a particular clan sponsors a pig kill and long (100-150 meters) low houses are built by the participants. The men's house is a low (2-3 meters at the peak, 1 meter at the sides), rectangular structure with grass roof, bark sides, and an open porchlike dwelling where food is communally cooked and eaten by the men. An entrance from the communal section of the house leads to individual sleeping platforms, slightly raised, each with a sunken fireplace.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Kewa are subsistence horticulturalists and pigkeepers. Their dietary staple crop is the sweet potato, although native taro and introduced taro are planted as well. Sweet potatoes account for some 85 percent of the caloric intake. Harvesting of the sweet potatoes takes place 5-8 months after planting, depending on the soil and rainfall. The slashing, burning, and cutting of trees and the tilling of the soil are the duties of the men. Women assist in slashing and clearing of the grass, and they are responsible for the final clearing, planting, weeding, harvesting, and transport of the sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are baked in the ashes of the fire or in pots. The Kewa people have two main types of gardens: the maapu and the ee. The former is generally for sweet potatoes, cassava, sugarcane, and edible pitpit, although introduced vegetables may be cultivated as well. The sweet-potato vines are planted into mounds, circular or rectangular, which enhance drainage and use the natural compost from clearing and weeding. The ee is an overgrown maapu, or forest garden, and contains primarily greens and old sweet potatoes, which are also used as pig feed. Other common food crops are cucumbers, beans, corn, cabbages, onions, peanuts, and pumpkins. All of the foods mentioned as well as pineapple, bits of pork, and fried biscuits are commonly sold in the local markets. Two kinds of pandanus (the common screw pine), one with a large nut and the other with a long red fruit, are harvested. The main commercial crop is Arabica coffee, although tea, chili, and pyrethrum have been tried. The pig is the primary domestic animal and elaborate ceremonies and rituals are associated with it. Other animals include chickens, the occasional goat, a few cattle, and penned cassowaries.

Industrial Arts. Basket weaving is now common and rious patterns are known. The materials are local reeds and vines, patterned with brown or black for contrast. Along the northeast border the people also weave walls from wild cane, which are in turn sold to other groups. Local artists incorporate designs into the weaving. Some stone axes and arrows are also prepared for tourists. Decorative weaving to secure the handles of ceremonial stone axes has long been practiced. In addition, umbrella mats, net bags and aprons, and wig coverings (for the men) are commonly made by the women. The men weave arm and leg bands, small purses, and previously carved wooden bowls. They still make arrows, bows, and spears, but they no longer carve or decorate shields. Industrial and commercial tasks are performed in the towns at vocational schools, or at mission centers.

Trade. Gold-lip pearl shells (Pinctada maxima ) are still used, along with pigs, as the main items of exchange for wives. Also common as trade items are packets of salt and tigaso oil from the Campnosperma tree, which is purchased in the Lake Kutubu area and carried in long bamboo containers. Every village has small trade stores owned by the local clan or subclans. They sell axes, knives (which are also used in trade), fish and rice, matches, pots and pans, batteries, some clothing, kerosene, and other items. Kewa men trade plumes of the birds of paradise, parrots, cockatoos, and cassowaries, from which they make elaborate headdresses.

Division of Labor. In addition to their gardening duties, women are responsible for the husbanding of pigs, looking after the smaller children, and cooking food in the family Residence or carrying it to the entrance of the men's house. The men collect and split firewood, plant sugarcane and edible pitpit, harvest pandanus nuts, hunt, and trade. Women are responsible for weaving net bags, net aprons, and thatching mats from pandanus leaves. The men weave the occasional armor legbands or fashion their own bark belts.

Land Tenure. Traditional claims on land are supported by the planting of pandanus trees and cordyline plants. Evidence of gardening and ditches are also a means of establishing clan and subclan ownership. Warfare has played an important part in present-day land claims and tenure. Upon arrival of the Pax Australiana all groups were given rights to the land where they were then residing. Tension exists in areas where land is less plentiful or where there are choice Forests or potential garden plots. In some areas, such as the Sugu and Erave, endemic malaria has restricted the use of much land. There has been some attempt to introduce large-scale cattle production into the Sugu territory on available land. The most effective claim for land tenure is planting trees, digging ditches, and building fences.


Kin Groups and Descent. The kin groups are loosely defined according to the ruru and repaa. The former is a collection of at least two generations of collateral male kin, their wives and children. The latter consists of a family (i.e., a husband and wife/wives) and their children, which has the potential of becoming a ruru. All land is allocated and claimed along these kinship lines, sometimes linked across widely separated areas due to the movements of the ancestors. Descent is reckoned through the male lineage with priority to the eldest male if there are brothers.

Kinship Terminology. The system is bifurcate collateral in the first ascending generation. In one's own generation, Iroquois-type cousin terms are used and all cross cousins are called by the same term but are terminologically different from siblings. Parallel cousins are classed as siblings. Siblings of the same sex have one term for the male and a different one for the female, whereas a single reciprocal term is used for siblings of the opposite sex. Males and females who are two generations removed use reciprocal terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is clan-exogamous. Wealth is Exchanged and negotiated by the father, uncles, or brothers of the bride with the woman's father or brother. The display of bride-wealth includes pearl shells, pigs, salt, indigenous oil, axes, knives, and cash. In some areas cassowaries are Exchanged as well. Reciprocal gifts are exchanged on the part of the bride's group. The negotiation and acceptance of Exchange items are pivotal in the marriage, just as their renegotiating is crucial in divorce settlements. Polygynous marriages are still common, although now most marriages are Monogamous and take place within the tradition of exchange and the contemporary validation of the church. The new bride is expected to live and work with the mother-in-law while the groom prepares a house and clears land for gardens. Ideally, sexual relations take place after the negotiations are complete. Residence for the wife is primarily virilocal. Divorce is not uncommon, especially if there are as yet no children, and perhaps half of the "marriages" end in divorce, if trial Marriages and casual liaisons preceding bride-wealth settlements are taken into account.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family may live together in a house, once the household unit is established. Many adult male members of the households spend considerable time in the men's houses as well. If there are gardens some distance from the central parish locale, then temporary houses are built there. People from other areas who have some obligations to a family may be adopted into the family. The term for a family is araalu, meaning "duration of the father." Married households have menstrual huts nearby that also function as birth huts.

Inheritance. The adult senior male distributes the wealth. Most items pass on to the next brother(s) in line, but pigs that the wife or daughters have tended become their property. Land is awarded through the male lineage. In cases of land shortage, the husband may return to the wife's domain to receive some land. People near death are encouraged to voice their will where shells, household goods, and common items are concerned.

Socialization. Children are raised by their mother and aunts until they are 8-10 years old, when the males start to spend time in the men's house. Rarely are any children subject to physical discipline. They have no kone (responsible thoughts, behavior) until they are 6 or so and, since they may die at a young age, the parents would be remorseful if they had punished the youngsters. Young boys in the men's house are expected to be quiet and listen to the talk and tales of the elders. All young children learn how to interact in the culture by observing and listening. Traditionally, no formal initiation rites seem to occur for either sex. Participation in men's cult activities marks the point at which a young adult male is accepted into the male adult cult world, and it usually begins when the boy is about 14 or so.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Kewa area is divided into census divisions. Certain parish districts are identified for the census. The same groups elect village leaders, one of whom, as councillor, represents the people to the Local Government Council. The council attempts to set and collect taxes, to assume some responsibility for roads, aid posts, health centers, and schools, to give agricultural assistance, and the like. Provincial and national representatives are elected on the basis of population distribution to the local assembly and the national parliament.

Social Organization. A clan or ruru includes any patriarchai lineages of more than two generations. Subclans with sufficient population suffix the form -repaa to the name of the progenitor. Clans reside in a parish, which includes all of the persons associated with a particular tract of land. In time of war or large ceremonies, clan alliances are common.

Political Organization. Traditionally, the big-men were responsible for their clan groups. They become prominent through competition in exchange ceremonies, warfare, and the possession of goods, including wives. Each clan has at least one big-man who is expected to represent the clan. There is no broad-based concept of tribal or group leadership that extends beyond the parish, although influential men are known over a wide area by virtue of their trade relationships and fighting alliances. Both the government and the churches have their appointed big-men.

Social Control. Traditionally, large peace feasts were held, where gifts of pork were presented. Important men, who were rich by virtue of the pigs and pearl shells that they owned and the number of their wives, would distribute wealth to foster alliances and relationships throughout their areas. Local Village magistrates serve the government and arbitrate lesser cases but anything that cannot be settled or that is considered major is referred to the government court. Courts are located at the provincial, district, or subdistrict headquarters: Mendi, Kagua, Ialibu, or Erave. Severe matters, such as murder, are dealt with by supreme court judges on their tours through the highlands.

Conflict. Most fighting was due to "payback," which could always be traced back to a couple of brothers who fought and then separated. It was always important to keep the number of deaths the same on the two sides, otherwise a further payback would be imminent. This is still the case. Other conflicts are domestic and settled within the clans and parishes. In the case of tribal warfare the district police are called in to maintain law and order. For local disputes the village magistrate is the first court of appeal. Most conflict is resolved only by prolonged negotiation and compensation. Suicide is not uncommon.

Religion and Expressive Culture

At least 80 percent of the Kewa population call themselves Christian, and most are baptized members of the Catholic or Lutheran churches. Other denominations in the Kewa area are: Evangelical Church of Papua, Wesleyan, Bible Church, United Church, Nazarene, Pentecostal, and Seventh-Day Adventist. The remaining Kewas are uncommitted or traditional animists. Syncretism is not uncommon.

Religious Beliefs. A belief in one supernatural being is widespread, often based on an interpretation of the sky being "Yaki(li)." Ancestral spirits can be particularly malevolent if not appeased properly. The most powerful spirits traditionally were those associated with various curing ceremonies. At a lower level, but still feared, are the nature spirits. Coexisting; with Christianity is the widespread belief in and acceptance of sorcery. Traditionally, men's cults predominated, with associated secret languages and ceremonies. There is a wide-spread fear of both the power of sorcerers and the power of ancestral ghosts.

Religious Practitioners. Certain men are responsible for divining and effecting cures. Pigs and chickens are killed and presented in payment for their services. Sorcery includes incantations and exorcisms of potent items. The most vicious forms of sorcery are always considered to be from outside the region. Hair, nails, and feces can be used for potential harm.

Ceremonies. Exchange ceremonies provide social cohesion, especially large festivals that culminate in the killing of hundreds of pigs. Bride-exchange and compensation Ceremonies are confined to the clans involved. With the advent of roads and accidental deaths, large compensation gifts are negotiated by the government. Churches have incorporated various special days and meetings into village life.

Arts. A few traditional musical instruments are made: the Jew's harp, drum, and flute. In some areas panpipes are also used. Combs and pipes are carved and designed from bamboo. The Kewa people excel in body decorations for special events, painting their faces with intricate, colorful designs. Wigs are decorated with beautiful plumes from birds of paradise, parrots, cockatoos, cassowaries, and other birds. Funeral decorations include clay for body painting and Job's tears (Coix lachryma-jobi ) for necklaces.

Medicine. Illness is often attributed to the breaking of Social taboos, such as incorrect preparation of food, not observing sexual abstinence at certain times, or not showing respect for the dead ancestors. Remedies are provided by healers and other experts, often using traditional herbs (such as ginger) and medicines. There are aid posts, health centers, and hospitals throughout the Kewa area.

Death and Afterlife. The bodies of important men are placed on elevated platforms; the bodies of lesser men and of women are suspended on poles. Grief is shown by painting the body with clay and tearing out the hair. The spirit of the departed person is assumed to reside nearby for some time. The more important the person was in life, the more Important the spirit is in death. Healthy people do not simply die; their death is attributed to sorcery or foul play of some kind. Well-known diseases such as leprosy, hepatitis, worm infestation, pneumonia, malaria, and dysentery traditionally had curing functions associated with particular spirits. The spirits of the dead are called upon in remembrance ceremonies and some important graves now are marked with special small houses. The Kewa belief in the afterlife is evident in various myths and stories.

See alsoFoi, Mendi


Franklin, Karl J., and Joice Franklin (1978). A Kewa Dictionary: With Supplementary Grammatical and Anthropological Materials. Pacific Linguistics, Series C, no. 53. Canberra: Australian National University.

Josephides, Lisette (1985). The Production of Inequality: Gender and Exchange among the Kewa. London: Tavistock.

LeRoy, John (1985). Fabricated World: An Interpretation of Kewa Tales. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.