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ETHNONYMS: Nukuma, Washkuk, Waskuk


Identification. The Kwoma are located in the Ambunti Sub-Province of the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea. The people are divided into two dialect groups. One is located in the Washkuk Hills, a range of low mountains on the north side of the Sepik adjacent to the Ambunti Patrol Post; the other is situated to the north and west of the Washkuk range along tributaries of the Sepik. Members of the former identify themselves as "Kwoma," or "hill people," and refer to the latter as "Nukuma," or "headwater people." Linguists give the name Kwoma to the language as a whole and Nukuma to its northern dialect. "Washkuk" or Waskuk is a government name of uncertain derivation for the language and the people.

Location. The total area the people occupy coincides roughly with that of the Washkuk Hills Census District, an area of 485 kilometers located between 4° and 5° S and 142° and 143° E. Climate is of the tropical-forest type.

Demography. Kwoma speakers in the Washkuk Hills number approximately 2,000, Nukuma speakers 1,200. Population density is 5.8 persons per square kilometer.

linguistic Affiliation. Kwoma is one of ninety or so distinct Papuan or Non-Austronesian languages that make up the Sepik-Ramu Phylum-Kwoma is classified in the Nukuma Language Family.

History and Cultural Relations

Kwoma trace their origin to various "holes" in the ground in Nukuma territory. Linguistically, Kwoma is closely related to Kwanga, spoken by a substantially larger population in the southern foothills of the Torricelli Mountains 48 kilometers to the north, and almost certainly the Kwoma people have migrated during recent centuries from this region to their present sites. First European contact took place shortly Before World War I, when the region was under German Control, but European society had minimal impact until after World War IL Christian missions have been active since the 1950s, and most people are nominal adherents to one denomination or another. Most men have worked for several years elsewhere in Papua New Guinea as wage laborers or in the employ of churches, the army, or the police force. In everyday life people speak Kwoma among themselves, and New Guinea pidgin with outsiders. Few speak English.


Traditionally, the population was divided among a number of large but discrete settlement groups composed of numerous hamlets separated by gardens and stretches of forest. In the Washkuk Hills all settlements were located on hilltops. At the center of each hamlet was one or more huge ceremonial buildings (in pidgin, haus tambaran), which were used as men's clubhouses and as the venues for rituals. Dwellings were scattered in a rough circle around the periphery of the hamlet. Following pacification around 1945, settlements in the Washkuk Hills were relocated to sites next to or near waterways. Several of these settlements simultaneously divided into two or more distinct villages. Contemporary villages are more consolidated than formerly and are composed of wards occupied by members of individual clans; most of them have one or more centrally situated ceremonial buildings. In Common with those of other "hill" cultures in the same region, houses formerly were built directly on the ground. Today houses (but not kitchens) tend to be raised on piles. During the day, when they are not working out of the village, people sit outside (or underneath) their houses; this facilitates friendly interaction with neighbors and passersby, the importance of which Kwoma emphasize.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Kwoma subsist principally on wild sago, which is locally abundant, and the produce of swiddens, including yams, taro, and bananas. Animal protein is provided predominantly by fish. Kwoma do not keep domestic pigs, though pigs and cassowaries are occasionally hunted for food, mainly on ceremonial occasions. The Sepik River region has little economic potential in Western terms. Very few Kwoma earn income from cash crops or other commercial activities. The main cash crop is coffee. In villages, individual families often run small trade stores, selling such goods as batteries, kerosene, and soap.

Division of Labor. In economic activities there is a division of labor between the sexes: men undertake the heaviest tasks such as house building and clearing forest for gardens, while women perform the majority of household duties. But the division is not rigid and men regularly assist with such activities as cooking and the care of children and women with garden clearing and maintenance. Sago processing, the major economic activity, is undertaken by the male and female members of individual households working independently.

Trade. Kwoma villages closest to the Sepik trade with adjacent river villages. Trade is conducted both privately through ties of "friendship" and at regular markets. Kwoma exchange sago and other "bush" products such as betel nuts for fish and currency shells. Trading at markets is conducted by women.

Land Tenure. Land is used mainly for subsistence purposes; the low population density up to now has helped to ensure against pressure on this resource.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic kin groups are named, exogamous, patrilineal, patrilocal clans. In theory, members of a single clan trace descent by known agnatic links from a common, named, human male forbear. Some clans are agnatically linked through their founders to other exogamous groups, but such larger patrilineal units are not named and do not unite for action in any context. Each clan "owns" a large number of totems, principally plants and animal species. Totemic species are classified as either "male" or "female": "male" species (e.g., different types of fish) provide the majority of men's names, "female" species (e.g., most birds, including the cassowary and birds of paradise) the majority of women's names. Clans that share the same or similar sets of totems form named divisions of classes; such divisions cross village, tribal, and even linguistic boundaries. Members of clans in the same totemic division regard each other as kin. A person's other major class of relatives are those by marriage. People who are neither kin nor affines are "unrelated" or "strangers." Clans in the same totemic division may intermarry.

Kinship Terminology. Kwoma terminology follows the Omaha system. Relationship terms also conflate laterally members of individual clans of the same sex and relative age, regardless of the degree of genealogical connection. Thus, a person refers to all clanswomen of his or her own generation as "true sisters" and kinsmen of his or her first ascending Generation as "true fathers." "Classifïcatory" sisters and fathers are persons of equivalent sex and generation in other clans in the same totemic division.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. As with many Papua New Guinea societies, Individual marriages give rise to alliances between groups that endure for up to four generations. Such alliances are made manifest, and defined, by continuing asymmetrical exchanges of food and wealth objects between members of wife-giving and wife-taking lines; food goes to wife-taking lines, wealth (in "payment" for the food) to wife-giving. Members of such lines also exchange a variety of reciprocal economic and Political services, such as assistance in gardening, house building, and, formerly, warfare. The major occasions on which Members of a wife-taking line give wealth to members of a wife-giving line are: at marriage (from the husband to the wife's brother); when the oldest child of the marriage reaches puberty (from the children's father to their mother's brother); and on the deaths of the wife and each child. The death payment for an unmarried girl, like that of a son, goes to the deceased's mother's clan; the death payment for a married woman, like her bride-wealth payment, goes to her natal clan. For the duration of an affinal alliance no further marriages may take place between the same two lines (though they may between other members of the same two clans). This restriction means that marriage is prohibited with a wide range of relatives, thus ensuring that marriages, and hence political alliances, are widely dispersed between clans and villages. Kwoma do not "prescribe" marriage with particular categories of relatives. A person's choice of a spouse should be acceptable to their clan as a whole, and traditionally an individual's first marriage was arranged. Clans corporately participate in the bride-wealth, puberty, and death payments in which their members are involved, either as donors or receivers of wealth. Clans that become too small to make such inter-group prestations independently fuse with other groups and pool their resources. Clans that grow too large for all members to receive a significant share of a bride-wealth or death payment divide into two or more separate clans. Divorce is strongly discouraged, especially during the early years of a marriage when part of the bride-wealth payment would have to be returned, but marriages may legitimately be terminated because of factors such as serious personal incompatibility, abandonment by a spouse, or a man taking an additional wife polygynously without the first wife's approval as convention requires. If a woman dies shortly after she marries, her clansmen may provide a clan sister in her place; when a man dies his widow is strongly encouraged, but cannot be compelled, to marry leviratically.

Domestic Unit. Each family, monogamous or polygynous, owns at least one "sleeping house" (in which men sleep with their wives and their children) and an adjacent kitchen. All sexually mature females in a household have separate hearths in which they do their own cooking. In polygynous Households each wife usually has a separate house, or a walled-off section of a common house. Polygyny is practiced by only a minority of men, usually village seniors, many of whom acquire additional wives as part of the levirate. A woman may agree to her husband taking a second or subsequent wife (e.g., an older brother's widow) only if the marriage remains nonsexual. Younger women prefer to marry monogamously, since sexual jealousy between cowives of childbearing age is common. When sons in a household reach adulthood they normally build houses next to their father's, to which they bring their wives at marriage.

Inheritance. Clans are independent land-holding and Ritual units, and a clan's estate in land and ritual paraphernalia, as well as such intangible property as totemic names and Exchange rights in clan-exogamous females, are inherited by their male members. Out-married clan females are often allocated usufructuary rights in parcels of their clan's land, but they cannot pass these rights to their children. A man's and woman's movable personal property, such as spears, cooking vessels, pets, and transistor radios, is not inherited by a clan member but passes to other groups as part of their death payments.

Socialization. Child rearing is the responsibility of the Parents and older siblings. Emphasis is placed on self-reliance and strength in interpersonal relations but also on awareness of the rights of others. Children learn principally by observing and imitating. By about the age of 10 girls have acquired all of the economic skills a married woman requires to maintain a household, and by the same age boys can perform most routine masculine activities. Traditionally, boys at or near puberty were incarcerated for several weeks in enclosures in which magic was performed on them to encourage their growth and make them skilled hunters, and in which they received intensive instruction in the society's complex dual literature. Each boy was assigned a "ceremonial father" from his clan who looked after him during initiation and became a lifelong ally. Older men commonly underwent a simultaneous period of seclusion during which outstanding big-men instructed them in advanced magical and ritual techniques. Both initiation rites, named "Handapiya" and "Nal" respectively, have effectively now been abandoned. Today, men's initiation takes the form of first participation in one or another of the first two yam harvest ceremonies, "Yena" and "Minja." The sculptures displayed during these rites, though differing in form, both constitute highly condensed symbolic expressions of traditional ideals that men still hold in relation to themselves, principally those of men as hunters of animals and killers of others in warfare, and as creators: hortiCulturally as growers of yams and in human terms as procreatore of children. When novices participate in these ceremonies and gradually acquire familiarity with the hitherto secret sculptures, including the way they are painted and decorated, they begin in earnest to master their community's esoteric knowledge and to inculcate these masculine ideals.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. Kwoma are divided into a number of named, politically autonomous tribes. Traditionally, the clans composing a tribe formed a discrete settlement group (see above); today several tribes can be divided into two or more villages. Leadership at the tribal level is exercised by men who have risen to positions of prominence through their debating skills, their greater knowledge of social and ritual matters, and, formerly, their prowess in warfare. "Big-men" usually are also outstanding artists. There are no inherited political offices. Political leaders reach the height of their power in their sixth and seventh decades. Men under the age of about 50 carry little weight in tribal politics. Today, Individual villages elect councillors to represent them in the Ambunti Local Government Council.

Conflict and Social Control. Formerly, warfare between tribes was common. Warfare between clans in the same tribe was strongly reprobated, but such clans were and still are believed to fight with sorcery, suspicion of which is the major cause of lasting ill-feeling between individuals and clans in the same tribe. Intratribal conflict ideally is resolved nonlethally, through discussion, mediation by clan leaders, (traditionally) fighting with sticks, and payments of compensation in shell wealth. Village leaders regularly convene meetings in the ceremonial houses, attended by all members of the local community, to resolve disputes and discuss other matters of village concern. Long-standing unresolved conflict is believed to precipitate retaliatory sorcery.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Although nominally Christian, Kwoma have a traditionally oriented ritual and aesthetic life. They believe in a complex pantheon of spirits. These fall into two categories: "bush" or "water" spirits occupying streams, boulders, or other natural features, collectively termed (in pidgin) masalai; and clan spirits depicted by ceremonial carvings.

Ceremonies. The three major contemporary Kwoma Rituals focus on the harvesting of yams; in each, men display different styles of painted and decorated wooden sculptures depicting powerful clan spirits (the agents thought responsible for the continuing fertility of yam gardens) and dance around these sculptures singing complex song cycles that celebrate incidents of note in the histories of individual clans. Previously, Kwoma performed a separate yam-planting ceremony that focused on the display of a distinctive style of carved female figure, but this ritual has now been abandoned. Women's participation in rituals is limited to dancing and singing outside men's houses on specific ceremonial occasions; women know the songs men perform and enthusiastically join in the choruses.

Arts. Like other Sepik peoples they are famous for their plastic art, principally wood carvings and paintings on bark. The bulk of plastic art decorates ceremonial buildings. The ceilings of these structures are lined with hundreds of paintings of totemic species, and the posts and beams are lavishly carved with sculptures depicting mythological personages and spirits. Kwoma men's houses are among the greatest of all artwork in the Pacific region.

Medicine. All serious illnesses, and deaths other than those from direct physical violence, are attributed to sorcery. Kwoma believe that serious illnesses (e.g., tuberculosis) can only be cured effectively if the initial conflicts that gave rise to the sorcery that caused them are resolved.

Death and Afterlife. Kwoma do not dwell on the afterlife and have no notion of a person's actions being punished or rewarded in the hereafter. The souls of the dead are thought to live in ghostly villages deep in the forest or, in the case of the most prominent men, in a subterranean world entered through lagoons. Kwoma practice double burial. The second burial, which takes place a year or more after the first, coincides with the complete decomposition of the body and marks the formal end of the period of mourning and the Permanent departure of the deceased's soul for the land of the dead. Corpses were formerly exposed on platforms; today they are buried in cemeteries. Although now illegal, a traditional practice persists in which various bones are recovered during the second burial and fashioned into daggers and other items of traditional adornment. Skulls of outstanding warriors and debaters are buried beside the main posts of men's houses to give added "strength" to the buildings.


Bowden, Ross (1983). Yena: Art and Ceremony in a Sepik Society. Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum.

Bowden, Ross (1983). "Kwoma Terminology and Marriage Alliance: The "Omaha" Problem Revisited." Man 18:745-765.

Whiting, John W. F. (1941). Becoming a Kwoma: Teaching and Learning in a New Guinea Tribe. New Haven: Yale University Press.