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Identification. The Maring are a linguistically and Culturally distinct people of the interior highlands of New Guinea, made up of twenty-one named clan clusters divided, geographically, into two groups: one occupying the mountains of the Simbai Valley of Madang Province; the other located in the Jimi Valley of the Western Highlands Province. Despite this geographic separation, the linguistic, social, and cultural evidence links both Maring populations most closely to the peoples of the western highlands.

Location. Maring territory, extending about 350 kilometers, is located at approximately 5° S and 145° E, in the Bismarck mountain range. The land is heavily forested and of high relief. The year is split into relatively wetter and drier seasons, but the difference in rainfall between these two periods is not particularly great. Rainfall is usually at night. Temperature variations are slight throughout the year, with average daily temperatures fluctuating between lows in the 60s and highs in the 70s.

Demography. Population estimates for the Maring were in excess of 7,000 in 1988. Individual clan-cluster territories support populations ranging from 150 to 900 people.

linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Maring belongs to the Jimi Subfamily of the Central Family of the East New Guinea Highland Stock.

History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic and other evidence suggests that the Maring came into their present territory from some undetermined region to the south. Traditional trade relations have long existed between the Maring and other peoples of the region. Contact with Europeans came late to Maring territory; the first Australian patrol did not arrive in the region until 1954, and governmental control of the area was not fully effected until 1962. However, the indirect effects of an Australian presence were felt as early as the 1940s, as steel tools entered the regional trade network and European diseases (dysentery and measles) struck the region. Also predating the actual entry of Australians in the region was the arrival of cargo cults, which were introduced by peoples from the north of Maring territory and had a brief popularity in the 1940s. However, after the Marings' early participation in cargo-cult activities, such practices quickly fell into disuse. As part of the Australian government's efforts to bring the Maring into its orbit, a headman (luluai ) and assistant headman (tultul ) were appointed, but these positions had little to do with local affairs, serving only as points of contact for dealings with the government.


The Maring settlement pattern has been described as "pulsating," with house clusters and homesteads scattered throughout a clan cluster's territory most of the time but undergoing a sort of nucleation at certain times in the ritual cycle, when nearly everyone in a clan cluster is housed near the clan cluster's central dance ground. Populations tend to disperse as pig herds increase, then temporarily come together around a dance ground when ritual cooperation throughout the clan cluster is necessary. This gathering together rarely lasts for more than a year before the process of territorial dispersal begins again. During the "nucleated" settlement period, one finds residential compounds, consisting of matrilaterally related kin, clustered around the traditional dance ground of the clan cluster, with individual gardens on the adjacent land. A single compound will consist of a men's house, in which two to eleven men and postinitiation boys sleep and eat; and individual women's houses, located downhill from the men's house, in which live women, their young children and unmarried daughters, and, at times, other female kin in temporary need. Pigs are kept in individual stalls in the women's houses, each stall having its own entrance from the outside. All buildings are made of wood frames, thatched with pandanus leaves, and sometimes built on stilts. "Modern" homesteads no longer construct a separate men's house, but within the single dwelling shared by men and women the separation of male and female is still maintained. Near the dance ground a "magic house," where men of the clan cluster congregate, serves as an important public forum.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Maring subsistence is based upon slash-and-burn gardening, pig husbandry, and some hunting and gathering in the rain forest, as well as fishingprimarily for eelsin the rivers of the territory. Gardens are planted with taro, sweet potatoes, manioc, and bananas. Also grown are sugarcane, pandanus, and a variety of greens. Maize has been introduced to the region. Pig husbandry is of great importance, but Maring do not breed pigs domestically. Rather, all male pigs are castrated young in order to ensure that they will attain large size. Female pigs may breed with feral boars, but this is prevented whenever possible, again with an eye to assuring greater growth. Instead, pig herds are increased primarily through trade. Hunting and gathering also contribute to the subsistence economy, but to a markedly lesser extent. Nonetheless, hunting is considered to be a highly prestigious male activity. Eeling is important, as eels are a significant ritual food. In the past, Maring manufactured salt for trade.

Industrial Arts. Maring use simple technology: digging sticks, axes, and bush knives are the only gardening tools; bows and arrows and snares, as well as pits and deadfalls, are used in hunting; and spears, axes, and wooden shields complement the bows and arrows as weapons of war. Other items of local manufacture include net bags, aprons, loincloths, caps, waistbands, and armbands. Maring trade for steel tools, as they did for their earlier stone versions. Containers are made of hollowed gourds and bamboo tubes.

Trade. Much, if not most, circulation of goods is carried out through participation in relationships of exchange within the clan cluster, or between two clan clusters. However, Maring traditionally traded salt outside of Maring territory with peoples to their south in order to acquire stone tools, pigs, feathers, shells, and some furs. Most exchange relations, however, are between a man and his wife's agnates, his sisters' husbands' kin, his mother's agnatic kin, and the agnatic kin of his daughters' husbands. In recent years, interclan markets have been introduced. The items sold at these markets are principally foodstuffs, both raw and cooked, and while these markets are patterned after "modern" ones, they in fact simply provide a new forum for essentially balanced exchanges between individuals.

Division of Labor. Maring men fell trees, build houses and fences, hunt, and fish for eels. Women do the bulk of the gardening work, weeding, harvesting, and the burning off of used plots to clear them of refuse. Women and young children also handle the responsibilities of pig rearing, but men butcher the meat. Gardening is done in male-female pairs consisting of husband and wife, brother and sister, or daughter and widowed father. An individual will participate in several such pairs simultaneously. Child care is a woman's task.

Land Tenure. All gardening lands are held in the name of the clan cluster and subclan, and individuals ostensibly have access to that land only through membership therein. However, a nonmember of a clan cluster may be granted access to land on the basis of recent or historic marriage relations between the two clan clusters.


Kin Groups and Descent. Each Maring clan is held to be derived from the descendants of a group of fatherless brothers. Each of these founding brothers stands as the founder of a subclan, and an individual's membership in the subclan is based on claiming patrilineal descent to one or another of these brothers.

Kinship Terminology. Maring kin terms are Iroquoistype for one's own generation and bifurcate-merging on the level of the first ascending generation. On all other generational levels, both ascending and descending, the terminology is generational.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriageability is determined according to both matrilateral and patrilateral relationships: one cannot marry a woman from one's mother's clan nor one from one's own subclan unit, but marriage between subclans of a single clan is permissible. Marriage with a local woman is preferred, for the husband acquires land rights from his wife's kin. Rights in women are held by the clan, through the person of the woman's eldest brother. This brother, who receives the greatest share of the bride-wealth, chooses an appropriate husband, and it is not unusual for a certain high degree of tension to exist between a man and his sister should his choice not meet with her approval. Sister exchange is the ideal, and it requires the lowest bride-wealth. A woman may, and often does, pick her own husband, but such alliances must be regularized by the payment of bride-wealth to her kin. Should this payment not be quickly forthcoming, Maring traditionally resolved the situation by going to war against the husband and his kin. Today such problems are brought to court, but this solution is rarely satisfactory as the courts, reflecting a Western tendency to prefer the rights of the individual over those of the group, tend to find against the errant sister's kin. Maring marriage itself is not ritually marked, beyond an initial token payment of bride-wealth and the fact that the woman takes up residence in her new husband's mother's house. Eventually her husband will build her a house of her own, usually around the time of the birth of their first child, and it is also at this time that the husband generally fulfills the remainder of his bride-wealth commitment. Until the birth of children and this payment of major bride-wealth, divorce is simple and rather common. Marriage is usually monogamous, though polygyny is considered ideal. However, bride-price considerations make it difficult for men to afford acquiring more than one wife.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit consists of a man, his wife, and their children. This arrangement is not, however, a residential group, as men live in their separate houses (or separate parts of the "modern" dwelling structures) , and a woman's house may shelter some of her female kin at times. The core unit within the family is the gardening pair, but a gardening pair may also be composed of a man and one of his own female kin, as noted earlier.

Inheritance. Men inherit rights in land patrilineally, while individual, movable property is passed on at the discretion of the owner or the owner's survivors.

Socialization. Young children are kept with their mothers, and as they become old enough to help out they participate in gathering activities with her. A daughter remains with her mother until marriage; she learns the necessary skills and appropriate behaviors of a woman through instruction and observation. Boys around the age of 8 undergo initiation and then move into the men's house of their fathers. It is largely through observation of and association with the adult males of his patriline that a boy acquires adult knowledge.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Each Maring clan cluster maintains a single territory, and its members cooperate economically, ritually, and in war. Within that territory, however, the day-to-day gardening activities and responsibilities of providing for the subsistence of individuals are carried out by smaller groups: the gardening pairs (husband and wife; brother and sister; daughter and father); brothers; and men related through marriage.

Political Organization. The largest Maring political unit is the clan cluster. There is no chiefly office, either hereditary or elected, nor are there any other formally recognized offices. Even the concept of big-men is somewhat inappropriate. An individual may gain the support or assistance of others for a particular enterprise through his own powers of persuasion, but any and all Maring men may, if they choose, participate equally in decision making. Attributes which contribute to a man's leadership potential are the ability and willingness to express an opinion on issues; a strong, outgoing personality; physical strength; and a reputation for intelligent or successful leadership in previous situations. All this being said, the arena within which leadership may be exercised is quite limited. It rarely extends beyond the level of the subclan and is most strongly felt among the individual's coresidents in the men's house. Generally, the leader is merely the first to act upon whatever group activity the consensus of the group appears to support. The government-appointed luluai and tultul are offices of no local relevance, and the appointees enjoy no special influence in the community.

Social Control. Social control is largely effected through beliefs in and observances of taboos, as well as through the operation of community pressures brought to bear upon the nonconforming individual. Government courts exist, and cases are sometimes brought to them, but this practice is not common given the personal and economic costs of bringing a suit and the lack of fit between court conceptions of justice and those of the Maring. Serious offensessuch as wife stealing, rape, pig killing, crop stealing, and sorcerytraditionally called for blood vengeance to be sought by the principal offended party, which in the case of wife stealing or rape would be the brother or husband of the woman involved.

Conflict. Fighting among the Maring rarely escalates to warfare within a local populationthere are simply too many ties of interdependency for the community to allow hostilities to continue, even if the principals are of different clans. If such disputes cannot be resolved peacefully, the local group may split and take up relations of enmity, but this occurrence is relatively rare. Warfare, properly called, occurs between two separate local populations and was traditionally precipitated by serious offenses such as wife stealing. With their inception in an interpersonal dispute, hostilities call into play sets of allies recruited from the cognatic and affinal relations of the principal combatants. Fighting is highly ritualized and carried out in stages; the first stage requires that the offended party summon the offenders to a designated place in the forest, which will be cleared expressly for the purpose of battle. Shamans (kun kaze yu ) perform rituals and summon spirits before the battle, and "fight-magic men" perform spells over the weapons and the warriors. The fighting itself is strictly regulated, with the adversarial groups lined up opposite one another on the fight grounds and shooting arrows at one another. Wounds are minimal and deaths are rare. After this "small" fight, if the dispute has not been resolved, ritual preparations for the second stage of hostilities (ura kunuai, "true fight") are begun. This second stage of fighting is done with axes, jabbing spears, and bows and arrows. At this level of fighting, fatalities are less rare than in the "nothing fight," and the combat may go on sporadically over a period of weeks, ending only when one side or another can no longer hold the support of its allies. During the course of the war, fighting would be interrupted because of rain or to permit the kin of a slain warrior to mourn the deceased. Wars ended in one of two ways. In the first case, one side might successfully rout the opposing force, after which they would burn their victims' gardens and houses and kill all the people they could find in the enemy's territory. The territory itself, however, was not occupied by the victors, for it was believed still to harbor the ancestral spirits of the previous owners. In the second case, one side might call a truce, which would be ritually marked by a pig feast and the planting of a ritually important bush called the rumbim.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Central to Maring beliefs is the worship of ancestors. Maring origin myths refer to a group of brothers traveling from the southwest to what is now Maring territory and finding a group of sisters, whom they married. These Marriages gave rise to the current Maring clans. These founding brothers and the spirits of all other ancestors constitute the principal supernatural forces recognized by the Maring. Without the assistance of ancestral spirits there can be no success in gardening, hunting, pig rearing, or warfare. A separate class of ancestral spirits, the rawa mugi, live in a special part of the territory and are the spirits of warriors killed in battle. Other spirits, not ancestral or even of human origin, inhabit the Maring lands, and, along with the rawa mugi, are associated with natural resources or physical attributes of the region. One special spirit (or group of spirits) is the "smoke woman," through whom shamans communicate with the spirit world.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans and fight-magic men are always male, and it is their ritual knowledge, along with the shamans' access to the spirit world through the smoke-woman spirits, that makes them indispensable in preparations for war. The Maring also believe in the existence of sorcerers, who are capable of causing death or illness through magical means and who are identified as men who possess great wealth but are not appropriately generous to others.

Ceremonies. The most well-known of Maring ceremonies is the kaiko, which is in fact a series of ritual events, extended over the course of a year or more, that traditionally terminated with the start of a war. The kaiko has two periods. The first is marked by the planting of stakes around the border of a settlement's land, a procedure that often involves the annexation of abandoned land not previously claimed by the local group. This first period is a time when garden produce is accumulated and work is done to prepare the dance ground. At the start of the second stage, a shaman contacts the smoke woman to gain the approval of the spirit world for the upcoming celebrations. A ritually planted rumbim shrub is uprooted and deposited on the border of the local group's territory along with other ritual objects, and the residential area and dance ground are ritually cleansed. Throughout the kaiko year, the host group sponsors dances to which other groups, linked by kin or trade relations to the host group, are invited. Men and some unmarried women who attend the dances don elaborately ornamented dress, which includes feathered headdresses, fur-trimmed waistbands and loincloths, and face pigments. Performances of stomping dances and of songs go on all nightinterrupted at some point in the evening with a feast prepared by the host villageand end at dawn. This celebration is followed by a period of trading between the host group and their invited guests. The songs sung and the foods presented at the feast differ according to the portion of the kaiko year in which the dance is held. The final kaiko feast (konj kaiko, or pig kaiko) involves the relaxation of food taboos, a series of ritual addresses to the ancestors, and the initiation of such youths of the settlement as are ready to undergo ritual dedication to the rawa mugi. The culmination of the pig kaiko is a huge pig feast, with as many as 100 pigs slaughtered and thousands of pounds of pork distributed among the guests of the host group. During this last stage of the kaiko, individual obligations (such as death payments and compensation for favors or for grants of land) may be fulfilled, and bride-wealth negotiations may be initiated. At the end of the kaiko, any truces that were in effect between hostile groups are terminated, and traditionally this was a time when warfare was quite likely to erupt.

Arts. Maring decorative arts are limited, finding fullest expression in bodily adornment. Dance and song, accompanied by drums, are important in Maring ritual.

Medicine. All illnesses and deaths are held to be the result of purposeful action by another being, whether spirit or human, or the result of the violation of taboos. Certain plants are held to be medically efficacious.

Death and Afterlife. The dead join the ancestral spirits, who are tied to the clan and subclan territories, except in the case of warriors killed in battle, who become rawa mugi and go to dwell in the northern part of Maring territory. When someone dies, the body is left to lie in state for several days, then is exposed on a wooden outdoor platform until the flesh has rotted away and only bones are left. During this time, women maintain a constant vigil to keep away spirits, sorcerers, and animals who might interfere with the body. Some small bones are ultimately claimed by matrilateral female kin, while the remainder of the body is buried in a sacred "grove of the ancestors" and the grave is fenced and planted with rumbim. As a sign of intense mourning, a woman may chop off the joint of a small finger. Australian regulations regarding hygiene have banned the exposure of the corpse in the traditional manner, and the Maring now wrap the body in cloth and place it on a shelf dug out of the wall of the grave, in order to comply with government rules.

See also Melpa


Clarke, William C. (1972). Place and People: An Ecology of a New Guinean Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Healey, Christopher J. (1986). Pioneers of the Mountain Forest. Oceania Monograph no. 29. Sydney: Oceania Publications.

LiPuma, Edward (1988). The Gift of Kinship: Structure and Practice in Maring Social Organization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rappaport, Roy (1968). Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People. Rev. ed. 1984. New Haven: Yale University Press.


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