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Identification. The Mimika people are named after the Mimika River in the central district of Irian Jaya Province of Indonesia (formerly Netherlands, or Dutch, New Guinea). "Kamoro" means "living person" as opposed to "ghosts." There is no native name for the area, but as wènata, "real human beings," they contrast themselves with "not-real Persons" such as the adjacent Asmat and Kapauku.

Location. The area is located between 4° and 6° S and 134°59 to 136° 19 E, bounded by the Utakwa River in the east and the shores of Etna Bay in the west. The people inhabit the lowlands traversed by some sixty swamp and Mountain rivers and creeks. The southeast monsoons bring rains that last from June to mid-September, but wet and dry seasons are not clearly demarcated.

Demography. A population of approximately 8,600 (1955) lives in about thirty villages. Since 1962, Indonesian migrants have also settled in the area.

linguistic Affiliation. The Kamoro language, of which six to eight dialects have been identified, is a member of the Asmat-Kamoro Family of Non-Austronesian languages.

History and Cultural Relations

Oral traditions trace the origins of the Mimika people to conflict over sago groves among four local groups living in the lowlands east of the Utakwa River. An exodus to the southwest triggered a chain reaction among other groups in the east moving to the west. Linguistic evidence does point to a genetic relationship between Asmat (east of Mimika), and Sentani, far to the northeast on the north coast of Irian Jaya, thus suggesting a possible prehistoric northeast-southwest migration. Historic contacts with foreigners began perhaps as early as a.d. 1600, with Chinese, Indonesian, and Dutch Traders entering the area from the west via Etna Bay. In the early twentieth century, while the area was under Dutch administration, Ceramese Islamic traders appointed nominal local representatives (radjas ) in western Mimika, leading to a rush for ironware, textiles, earrings, and beads in exchange for resin, local foods, and slaves. In general, attitudes towards foreigners passed through several stages: enmity and cautious rapprochement; goodwill inspired by a strong desire for Western commodities; disappointment and passive resistance to interference with a seminomadic way of life; and, finally, following Japanese occupation during World War II, coexistence and resignation to the strangers' permanent presence. The entire Mimika population has now been baptized, but due to a paucity of marketable resources, economic development has been slow.


The largest population concentration is found in the central and eastern regions, where villages range from about 60 to 400 inhabitants. In the past people lived in tiny dispersed temporary dwellings scattered around semipermanent longhouse settlements, and everyday life still consists of moving up and down between sago groves upstream and fishing grounds downstream. The traditional longhouse pattern is still followed in the temporary settlements for sago production, fishing, and foraging, but in the villages people have adopted separate family dwellings introduced by missionaries and the Dutch administration.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In order of importance, major subsistence activities are: sago making; foraging; fishing; some slash-and-burn gardening of tobacco, bananas, and tubers (especially in upstream settlements); and hunting. Coconut palms are grown in all villages, but cash cropping is of minor importance. Industrial art is limited and controlled by Indonesian merchants. It concerns the supply of timber for the local mill and some ironwood for export purposes. Cash earnings are mainly dependent on migrant labor outside the district in urban centers. Up-to-date and reliable information is not available. Food production was part of a cycle of extensive and shorter ceremonies, but this rhythm has been interfered with by duties connected with government administration. Many villagers leave for the sago and fishing grounds on Mondays and return to the villages on Saturdays in order to attend church services. A substantial amount of work has to be done for the village, the school, and for payment of taxes. Timber provides some cash earnings, but migrant labor in urban centers is economically more important. Trade stores are owned by Chinese or Indonesian tradespeople.

Industrial Arts. Mimika material equipment is simple and adapted to a seminomadic way of life. Apart from implements, two types of canoes were manufactureddugouts, used in river travel, and seagoing canoes with high, sharp bows.

Trade. Traditional trade was of secondary importance. It still concerns the exchange of canoes for the right of sago Production in West Mimika, where sago groves are scarce in the furthermost coastal areas. Inland people of Eastern Mimika trade tobacco to coastal communities. Tobacco was also obtained from Highland Papuans in exchange for inferior iron tools.

Division of Labor. The sexual division of labor functions as a device to institute a reciprocal state of interdependence between the sexes. Women play a major role in the production of sago, catching fish, foraging, collecting shellfish, cutting and transporting firewood, and preparing food. They also control the use of canoes, mats, bags, and the food supply. Men are the producers of canoes, tools, weapons, and implements for fishing and hunting; the construction of semiPermanent longhouses and village dwellings is also their responsibility. Men also do most of the gardening (though this is of minor importance) and are nowadays the wage earners. The greater part of ritual activities are performed and controlled by men, but elderly women wield remarkable power and also have much ritual knowledge. There is a "guild" of drummers/singers, and there are specialist wood-carvers of high repute.

Land Tenure. Since land tenure is an aspect of a flexible social organization in which power and authority are diffused, the rules allow for much variety. Also, territory boundaries are much more sharply defined with regard to waterways than to the land itself, owing to the vital role of canoes as a means of transport. Land rights are inalienable to strangers or foreigners, though such people may be permitted to use the land. Sago groves belong to groups of siblings, cousins, and their children, but the use of sago groves (like fishing grounds) is extended to kin and affines of the persons who claim possession. Men usually act as spokesmen, but women are extremely influential. Tidal creeks, which can be closed off with a weir for fishing purposes, are owned and controlled by sisters, female cousins, or a mother and her daughters. Gardens are usually owned by older married couples. Trees are subject to individual possession, either by men or women. Since kinship is strongly classificatory and includes relationships based on adoption, friendship, and other considerations, the actual use of land and creeks is fairly nonrestrictive and collective. Land disputes mainly occur between villages with adjoining territories.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is closely associated with gender. The relation between siblings is a key metaphor for kinship, descent, marriage, and sociopolitical ties in myth and cosmology. But there is a clear male bias in that a male is said to have offspring originating from his penis (kamare ) his kamarima are his children and his brothers' childrenand offspring from his anus (wa )his watako are his sisters' children. By contrast, a woman does not have metaphorical offspring from the front and behind. Yet, while males are considered to model the fetus by means of frequent coitusexplicitly likened to carving a "spirit pole" (see below)it is women who ensure the succession and reproduction of human beings in matrilineal descent groups. Thus in kinship, as otherwise, women and men have a complementary relationship, each sex contributing in its distinctive way.

Kinship Terminology. Consistent with the structural importance of "siblingship," kinship terminology stresses "Horizontal" (generational) rather than "vertical" (lineal) ties and categories. It has a bilateral Hawaiian-type slant stressing generation and relative age. However, again gender comes in: "inferior" and "male" wife takers are terminologically distinguished from "superior" and "female" wife givers. The former, referred to as kaokapajti (sister's husband and daughter's husband) are required to render a wide variety of services. A man without kaokapajti is a social nobody. There are two modalities of matrilineal descent groups, each being associated with ideal preference for uxorilocal or matrilocal residence. The first modality, a vertical one, includes all matrilineal descendants of a named woman over three generations. In the fourth generation the focal point shifts to a woman of the Second generation. The second modality, a horizontal one, includes siblings and cousins who claim to have one maternal grandmother in common. The two modalities represented by various groupings constitute the core of people who share a tract of land (taparè). The relationship between these groupings is usually putatively matrilineal.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is ideally a matter of direct sister Exchange between two groups, but indirect exchange by means of bride-wealth has been widely accepted as a substitute. The relationship between bride takers and bride givers is subject to rules of avoidance and joking, with bride givers' joking being more aggressive. The ideal preference is for uxorilocal or matrilocal residence.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit consists of a married couple, their unmarried children, and a varying number of dependent relatives, all of whom usually eat and sleep together. Its composition and relation to its neighbors reflect the traditional longhouse community, replaced by separate family dwellings in the villages but still operating in the temporary settlements near sago and fishing grounds. Married couples had their own living quarters but were also part of matrifocal longhouse communities. Frequent intermarriage within coresident extended longhouse communities and strong ties Between siblings blurred the residence parterns. The concentration of traditional communities in villages and the combination of villages in compounds have added to this blurred picture. Each domestic unit operates and cooperates with other units in an autonomous fashion. Working parties are of varying constitution, with a preference for small parties of six to ten persons, subdivided in pairs.

Inheritance. The mobility involved in the food quest and the flexible nature of kinship and descent, as well as the fact that tenure and use of land and fishing grounds operate along a sliding scale between individual and collective claims, all militate against clear-cut rules of inheritance. However, the multifarious ritual functions and the command of natural phenomena such as weather, mosquitoes, and various types of disease are subject to strict rules of predominantly patrilineal inheritance.

Socialization. Babies are well looked after not only by their mothers but also by their fathers, who share the normal duties with their wives. The demands of mobility for the food quest involve the two parents equally; as a result, weaned babies are often left in the care of slightly older siblings, supervised by one or two elder persons. Groups of children roam the village and learn to look after themselves at an early age. Games Children play are predominantly in imitation of adult duties. Sexual segregation sets in after the separate rites of passage for male and female adolescents.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The largest group with corporate functions was the longhouse community of the semiPermanent settlements, the core of which is constituted today by the two modalities of matrilineal descent. Each longhouse community was associated with two to four others, constituting extended longhouse communities, which were a unit in warfare, feasting, and the exchange of women. At present these communities usually live "together-apart" in villages, sometimes working cooperatively but remaining autonomous in many ways. A striking feature of Mimika social organization is its dual structure, which is expressed in the settlement pattern, land tenure, ceremonies, and ritual. However, moieties in the technical sense of the word do not occur; duality is, rather, a general structuring principle.

Political Organization. Longhouse communities in their present configuration in villages recognize one or more elderly men as their "great men." Their position is not a hereditary one; their authority and power depend on personal intellectual and oratorical skill and the number and strength of their kinship and affinal relations.

Social Control and Conflict. Personal courage and a Certain amount of mental imbalance were required for the position of warlord, who often was not identical with the leader of everyday life. In warfare, extended communities were joined in ever-changing federations, which carried out raids against each other.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Mimika cosmology is characterized by a dual complementary division, following the male-female distinction, with west, inland, and upstream asociated with women and east, coast, and downstream associated with men. The chief mechanism of the cosmos, as of history and social relations, is reciprocity. The adoption of Christianity has greatly altered the rituals that incorporate these themes, though a revival of traditional ceremonies swept through the area in the 1950s.

Religious Practitioners. Male and female elders possess detailed knowledge and conduct the rituals performed by members of their respective sexes.

Ceremonies. Two chief rituals, "Kaware" and "Emakame," are complementary and are considered to relate to each other as male to female. They are said to be the "mothers" of all other ceremonies, which mainly concern rites of passage, marking birth, adolescence (by piercing the nostrils of males), and death. Kaware epitomizes male control of Ritual functions and secrets and of communication with the invisible underworld; Emakame is the paradigm of the female powers of production, reproduction, and erotic life.

Arts. Mimika art mainly functions in ceremonial contexts, as in the shieldlike carvings (produced by men) that represent ancestral mothers and the recent dead. The most spectacular objects are the monumental spirit poles (mbitoro), which have a clear affinity with the well-known Asmat bis poles. Mbitoro depict two highly stylized male and female human figures, representing individuals of some repute who have died recently, and are placed in front of the ceremonial houses erected for nose-piercing rites. The mbitoro figure recurs in drum handles, and many utilitarian objects are ornamented with carved figures of hornbills and cassowaries.

Medicine. Each type of disease has its own male or female specialist who commands its special formula and method of physical treatment; no general practitioners exist.

Death and Afterlife. It is believed that ghosts and men once lived together in peace, even intermarrying. However, death originated owing to infractions by humans of the rule of reciprocity. The spirits of the dead live in parallel villages in the underworld, where the environmental setting is perfect: no more mud, but beautiful sand and gardens. The male Culture hero who carries the sun as a torch through the sky daily descends to the underworld, following a trail that connects the villages, and rises to the eastern sky in the early morning. Nowadays, God, Jesus, and Mary are also said to have their abode in the underworld. When a person dies, parting from the living takes several years, at the conclusion of which men and women of some repute impersonate the deceased in a masquerade, during which relatives and friends mourn and praise the deceased and finally invite the dead person to depart and to leave the living in peace. The "spirit," localized and fragmented in the moving parts of the body, leaves the body, goes upstream, and then descends to the underworld through a hole under a tree.

See alsoAsmat, Kapauku


Kooijman, Simon (1984). Art, Art Objects and Ritual in the Mimika Culture. Mededelingen van het Rijksmuseum voor Volkerkunde, no. 24. Leiden: Brill.

Pouwer, Jan (1955). Enkele aspecten van de Mimika-cultuur (Nederlands zuidwest Nieuw Guinea). The Hague: Staatsdrukkerijen Uitgeversbedrijf.

Pouwer, Jan (1956). "A Masquerade in Mimika." Antiquity and Survival 1:373-387.

Pouwer, Jan (1975). "Structural History: A New Guinea Case Study." In Explorations in the Anthropology of Religion: Essays in Honour of Jan Van Baal, edited by W. E. A. van Beek and J. H. Scherer, 80-112. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.