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Identification. The Kiwai are a coastal people of southern New Guinea who live between the Pahoturi and Fly rivers and on the islands and river banks of the estuaries of the Fly and Bamu rivers. Almost all of what we know about these people comes from the work of Gunnar Landtman, who lived among the Kiwai of Kiwai Island in the Fly River Delta for two years from 1910 to 1912 and whose major descriptions were published in 1917 and 1927. This summary is based primarily on these descriptions.

Location. The Fly River Delta lies between 8° and 8° 15 S and between 143° and 143°45 E. The Fly River is approximately 80 kilometers wide at its mouth, and Kiwai Island, which is 60 kilometers long and 5 to 10 kilometers wide, is the largest of the islands in the delta. The islands of the Fly and Bamu deltas are extremely low and swampy as are the river banks and coastlines near the mouths of these rivers. In tidal areas, vegetation consists almost exclusively of mangroves and nipa palms, but further inland there are large freshwater swamps and dry savannas. The average annual rainfall at the mouth of the Fly River is about 200 centimeters, most of which falls during the northwest monsoon from December to April. During this period it rains almost every day, and the rain is often accompanied by violent thunderstorms and high winds.

Demography. In 1980 there were approximately 13,400 Kiwai. This figure includes 7,800 speakers of Southern Kiwai, 2,000 speakers of Wabuda, and 3,600 speakers of Bamu Kiwai. The population density of the area is about 2.5 persons per square kilometer. There are no reliable early population estimates for the Kiwai, and there is no reliable information on population growth or decline.

Linguistic Affiliation. Stefan Wurm has identified seven languages in the Kiwai (or Kiwaian) Language Family. The people who call themselves Kiwai, and who are the subject of this summary, speak the Southern Kiwai, Wabuda, and Bamu Kiwai languages. The other four languages of the Kiwai Family are Morigi, Kerewo, Arigibi, and Northeastern Kiwai. The Kiwai Family is part of the Trans-Fly Stock which, in turn, is part of the Trans-New Guinea Language Phylum. According to Wurm, however, the languages of the Kiwai Family are "aberrant members" of the Trans-New Guinea Stock, and the apparent relationship between the languages of the Kiwai Family and the other languages of the Trans-Fly Stock may be the result of relatively recent contact rather than genetic relationship. The languages of the Kiwai Family also show strong connections with the languages of the Upper Fly River area, particularly those of the Ok and Awin-Pa Families.

History and Cultural Relations

The mouth of the Fly River was discovered by Europeans in 1842, and there was considerable contact between the Kiwai and European explorers, traders, and missionaries during the second half of the nineteenth century. By the time Landtman arrived in 1910, many Kiwai men spoke Pidgin English and had worked on pearl-shell boats in the Torres Strait and on plantations farther to the east on the southern coast of New Guinea. In 1884, the British established the protectorate of British New Guinea along the southern coast of New Guinea, and, in 1905, the southeastern quarter of New Guinea became the Australian Territory of Papua. Since 1975, the Kiwai have been citizens of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea.

The cultural similarities and differences both among the speakers of Kiwaian languages and among the Kiwai and their neighbors have not been well documented. Nonetheless, there appear to be broad cultural similarities between the Kiwai and the Marind-anim who live farther west along the southern coast of New Guinea and between the Kiwai and the Gogodala who live along the Aramia River to the west and northwest of the Kiwai.


Villages, which range in population from about 50 to 500 Persons, are built close to the water. Traditionally, the Kiwai built two types of houses: the móto, or communal dwelling where the women, children, and married men lived, and the dárimo, or men's house. Both types of houses had raised floors of split palm and thatched roofs that extended almost to the level of the floor. Some móto were very longone measured by Landtman was 154 meters longand were inhabited by the members of a single totemic clan, although two or three clans would sometimes occupy separate parts of the same house. The móto had an open passageway running lengthwise down the middle of the house and a row of fire-places on each side. Each family had its own fireplace along the side of the house. The dárimo were constructed like the móto, but served as ceremonial houses and as residences for the unmarried men. On some occasions, married men would also sleep in the dárimo. Today, the móto and the dárimo are largely things of the past, and most villages consist of small single-family dwellings with raised floors of split palm, walls of sago palm frond stems, and thatched roofs.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Kiwai are a horticultural people who get most of their food from their Gardens. The alluvial soil of the Kiwai area is very rich, and they cultivate yams, taro, sweet potatoes, bananas, coconut and sago palms, sugarcane, and betel nuts. The Kiwai also hunt pigs, cassowaries, wallabies, snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and birds with bamboo bows and arrows. Larger game animals such as pigs, cassowaries, and wallabies are usually hunted with dogs. Dugongs and turtles are hunted with harpoons, and the Kiwai obtain fish with hooks and lines, spears, and traps. Fishing nets were not traditionally used by the Kiwai, but commercial nylon nets are now available. According to Landtman, a great many magical observances are associated with gardening and hunting, including the hunting of dugongs and turtles.

Industrial Arts. The Kiwai remain largely preindustrial. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, they used only stone tools, but by the time Landtman arrived in 1910 most Kiwai men had steel axes and knives. Any adult can produce the implements necessary for day-to-day living from materials found in the local environment.

Trade. Traditionally there was an extensive trade network among the Kiwai and their neighbors. From the people who lived further inland, the Kiwai obtained bird of paradise feathers, live cassowaries, bows and arrows, and garden produce, and from Torres Strait Islanders to the south they obtained harpoon shafts, shells, dugong and turtle meat, and stones for axes and clubs. In exchange, the Kiwai traded canoes, garden produce, sago, bows and arrows, mats, belts, grass skirts, and feathers. By far the most important Kiwai trade items, however, were the canoes that were traded Primarily to the people of the Torres Strait in exchange for finished and unfinished stone tools. Landtman notes that it is not clear to what extent traditional trade took the form of barter since most things seem to have changed hands through mutual gift giving. Today, the Kiwai are able to buy steel tools, metal pots, Western clothes, radios, European-style foods, and other European articles from locally owned trade stores.

Division of Labor. The Kiwai have a loose sexual division of labor. Women's work includes taking care of children; carrying firewood and water; making sago; preparing food; making baskets, mats, and clothing; and fishing with hooks or traps in small creeks. Men's work includes building houses, making canoes, hunting, and open-water hunting and fishing with harpoons and spears. Both men and women garden. Men fell the trees and build fences, after which women prepare the garden. Planting may be done by either sex, although it is generally seen as men's work, and harvesting may be done by either men or women. The only exceptions are yams, which are planted and harvested only by men. In sago making, men chop down the palm and remove the bark, after which women chop and squeeze the pith. Beyond this rough sexual division of labor, there is rudimentary division of labor based on differences in skill in producing objects such as canoes, harpoons, and drums.

Land Tenure. Land is divided among the different Villages, and, within the land owned by a village, land is divided among individual men, except for large swamps which belong to the entire community. While land is said to be owned by individuals, there is a strong notion that land actually belongs to a family or kin group. This prevents the alienation of land to outsiders and prevents women, who marry outside their kin group, from actually owning land. The Kiwai make a clear distinction between ownership and usufruct, however, and landowners are free to grant usufruct rights for the purpose of Gardening to whomever they wish. Hunting and fishing are not restricted by landownership.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Kiwai are divided into patrilineal totemic clans. According to Landtman, these clans are "strictly exogamous." In some areas the clans are grouped into moieties which have ritual functions and may or may not be exogamous. Married women remain members of their natal totemic clans. Descent is patrilineal.

Kinship Terminology. The Kiwai have Hawaiian-type cousin terms and generational kinship terms in the parental generation. According to Landtman, Kiwai kinship terms do not distinguish between parallel cousins and cross cousins. All cousins are addressed and referred to by the same terms as those used for siblingsterms that denote the sex of the Sibling and his or her age relative to the speaker. There is, However, a special term that is used by cross cousins that is not sex-specific. Landtman also notes that matrilateral parallel cousins "are hardly considered to be related at all by blood, and no particular kinship terms are used between them; they are not, however, allowed to marry." There are five terms for members of the parental generation. Both the father's and the mother's older brothers are addressed and referred to with the term used for grandfather, and both the father's and the mother's older sisters are addressed and referred to with the term that is used for mother. Finally, both the father's and the mother's younger brothers are addressed and referred to with a compound term that includes the term for father, and both the father's and the mother's younger sisters are addressed and referred to with a compound term that includes the term for mother.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Landtman suggests that often there was tension between individual desires and traditional marriage rules. Traditionally, a Kiwai man could marry only if he compensated his bride's father with a woman who was given as a wife to a man of the bride's family. Although some marriages began as love affairs, older people often ignored young people's wishes in arranging marriages because of this requirement of reciprocity. When Landtman was living with the Kiwai, marriages by exchange were still the rule, but marriage through the prestation of gifts to the bride's family (i.e., bride-wealth) was becoming increasingly common. Landtman argues that these gifts were primarily intended to indicate "the importance and prosperity of the donors," and he notes that reciprocal gifts were given by the bride's family to the groom's family. In some instances, a man could also obtain a wife by working for her father for a short period of time. Girls usually marry shortly after puberty. Men and women with the same totem cannot marry, nor can they marry if any of their four parents have the same totem. First cousins cannot marry, and boys and girls who are not related but have grown up together because of adoption cannot marry. There is no formal marriage ceremony, but a feast is usually held with the food provided by the groom's family. A groom should not have sexual intercourse with his bride until he has taken an enemy's head since sons who are born before their father has taken a head are subject to ridicule as they grow up. After marriage the woman moves into her husband's house. Polygyny is accepted but not generally practiced. According to Landtman, divorce was frequent and usually resulted from the wife's "incompetence" as a housekeeper and worker or from the wife's barrenness.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the typical unit of production. Traditionally, the members of a totemic clan lived together in their clan's móto.

Inheritance. Land and personal belongings are divided among a man's sons. As his sons grow up a man will give them land with the final partition taking place at the time of the man's death. If a man leaves a widow and children, his sons are expected to support their mother and sisters. If a man does not have any sons, the land passes to his brothers who are supposed to look after the dead man's family. Some personal belongings are deposited in the grave, but the remainder is divided among the dead person's sons. Daughters are not entitled to inherit personal belongings, but they are often given some by their brothers.

Socialization. Children are usually nursed until they begin to talk. Women will sometimes rub ginger on their nipples to expedite weaning. A child's hair is not cut until the child begins to walk, and shortly thereafter his or her earlobes and septum are pierced. The hair is kept short until puberty when boys and girls begin to let their hair grow. Boys are not initiated at any one time but are introduced to different Ceremonies as they take place. A boy, however, must have Experienced the mogúru ceremony (see below) before he is ready to marry. After the mogúru ceremony, a boy will sleep in the dárimo or men's house. Landtman notes that, at least in some areas, boys "must practice sodomy in order to become tall and strong," but he states that he is not certain how wide-spread this belief and practice is among the Kiwai. Girls are initiated shortly after menarche. Their initiation consists of a procession and ritual bath, and the symbolism of the event emphasizes their transition from childhood to eligibility for marriage.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There are no differences of rank among the Kiwai, and every man is the equal of every other. This is partly facilitated by there being little property which would constitute a difference in wealth. There are, however, some differences in status based on differences in skills. Successful gardeners, hunters, and harpooners, as well as Renowned sorcerers, great warriors, and eloquent orators command respect and recognition from others. People with physical and mental disabilities are looked down upon, as are idlers, braggarts, and widowers who have not remarried. According to Landtman, women are almost equal to men. They possess property (except land), and they can do as they please with the things that they produce. They are, however, excluded from many public affairs and from men's religious secrets including myths and rituals. Landtman reports that a woman would be killed if she were to find out anything about the men's secrets but, outside the world of men's secrets, women publicly express their opinions and are listened to.

Political Organization. The Kiwai have no chiefs. Tribal authority is exercised collectively by several men, each of whom is the head of a totemic clan. Leaders are middle-aged men of some exceptional ability, and their influence decreases as soon as they begin to lose their physical and mental powers.

Social Control. In the case of violent death, revenge (either by sorcery or physical attack) was taken on the murderer as soon as possible. Revenge was the responsibility of the Entire clan. Prior to pacification, almost every homicide led to fighting, but nowadays compensation is the usual way of settling a homicide.

Conflict. The Kiwai distinguish between hostility between clans of the same village or between related village Communities and conflict between tribes that are hereditary enemies or that regularly raid one another. The first type of conflict involves few fatalities. The second type has the purpose of killing as many enemies as possible, destroying their property, and taking the heads of the people who are killed. Most conflicts are over women.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Landtman gives little information about Kiwai religious beliefs, but he notes that their religious beliefs are not systematic. The Kiwai believe in a vast number of Supernatural beings including various types of water beings, wicked female beings, and beings associated with certain localities. Virtually every conspicuous place in the landscape is thought to be the abode of a mythical being, some of which are humanlike and others of which are like animals or trees. Like many other groups in southern New Guinea, the Kiwai have a large number of myths about the life of Sido who the Kiwai believe was the first man to die and open the way to Adiri, the land of the dead.

Religious Practitioners. There are no priests and no specific training is necessary for those who perform religious ceremonies. Sorcery is learned on an individual basis from other sorcerers, and a sorcerer can demand, and will receive, almost any payment for his services. A common payment is sexual access to the client's wife. Sorcerers work by getting some part of their intended victim's body (e.g., nail or hair clippings) or personal possessions. According to Landtman, "every Kiwai man practices sorcery, without which he would have no success in any of his occupations or undertakings."

Ceremonies. The Kiwai have a large number of Ceremonies including ceremonies undertaken prior to a fight expedition and ceremonies designed to make young men fearless and invulnerable in battle. They also have several important secret ceremonies including the hóriómu, the mogúru, and the mimía. The hóriómu is connected with the cult of the dead and is held each year at the beginning of the dry season (in April or May). The ceremony lasts several weeks, occupying a few hours each day before sunset. The mogúru is the most secret and most important ceremony of the Kiwai People. Traditionally, it was held once or twice a year in the dárimo. The two main purposes of the mogúru are the sexual instruction of boys and girls who have reached puberty and the preparation of a magical concoction made of herbs and semen collected from the vaginas of women following promiscuous sexual intercourse. The mimía or fire ceremony is connected with the initiation of young men. During the Ceremony, the young men are burned and beaten and given magical substances that are believed to make them strong.

Arts. The Kiwai produce a great deal of representational art, and even their utilitarian wooden implements (e.g., digging or walking sticks) are often carved to represent a human face or body. Musical instruments include hourglass and cylindrical drums, rattles made from seed pods, reed whistles, panpipes, bamboo and reed flutes, shell trumpets, Jew's harps, and bullroarers. The Kiwai also make elaborate Ceremonial masks from wood and turtle shells.

Medicine. Illness is believed to be caused by comets, earthquakes, sorcery, or the abduction of a person's soul by a spirit. Menstrual blood is believed to be particularly deleterious to men's health. In the case of fever, the patient is bled from the part of the body where the illness is thought to be located. Sick people are given food that is considered "strong" such as pig meat, shark meat, taro, or sago. Bananas are not eaten because they are soft, and dugong and turtle meat may not be eaten because they are associated with the spirit world. It is also bad if a sick person comes into contact with someone (man or woman) who has recently had sexual intercourse.

Death and Afterlife. Wailing begins immediately after a person dies and continues through the night. The next morning, the dead person's face is painted black, white, and red and the body is dressed in a headdress and shell ornaments. The body is then placed in a sitting position near the door of the house. After being displayed, the body is placed on a board and carried a short distance from the village where it is placed on a platform. If the person was murdered and revenge has already been taken, the murderer's head may be cut off and placed as a pillow under the head of the deceased. Water is poured over the body daily to speed decomposition. When only bones remain, they are washed and then buried in a garden belonging to the dead person. Sometimes the skull of the deceased is kept and decorated by his widow. The widow spends a period of time secluded in an enclosure of mats in the móto. A widower will not go into seclusion, but he will spend several days crying for his wife and will refrain from hunting and fishing for a long time. Both widows and widowers wear a mourning garb made of grass and consisting of a cap with long fringe and a fringed covering for his or her shoulders, chest, arms, and legs. No drums may be beaten until a feast is held a few weeks later to end the period of mourning. Ordinarily the spirits of the dead are invisible, but sometimes they can be seen and touched. A ghost may not always start its journey to the land of the dead immediately but may instead linger for a time near its former home. The Kiwai are particularly afraid of the ghosts of sorcerers and persons who have met a violent death or have died in an unusual way. Even after spirits have gone to the land of the dead, they may return to give messages to the living either through dreams or appearing to them directly. Ghosts may also possess living people.

See alsoMarind-anim, Torres Strait


Landtman, Gunnar (1917). The Folk-Tales of the Kiwai Papuans. Acta Societatis Scientiarum Fennicae, vol. 47. Helsinki: Finnish Society of Literature.

Landtman, Gunnar (1927). The Kiwai Papuans of British New Guinea. London: Macmillan.

Wurm, Stefan (1951). Studies in the Kiwai Languages, Fly Delta, Papua, New Guinea. Acta Ethnologica et Linguistica, no. 2. Vienna: Institut für Völkerkunde der Universität Wien.

Wurm, Stefan (1973). "The Kiwaian Language Family." In The Linguistic Situation in the Gulf District and Adjacent Areas, Papua New Guinea, edited by Karl Franklin, 219-260. Pacific Linguistics, Series C, no. 26. Canberra: Australian National University.