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ETHNONYMS: Blimo, Mianmin, Wagarabai


Identification. The Miyanmin live in Telefomin District of Sandaun (West Sepik) Province and Ambunti District of East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. There are two divisions: the mountain-dwelling southeastern Miyanmin refer to themselves as am-nakai or (cultured) "house people" and to the northwestern, low-altitude Miyanmin as sa-nakai or (wild) "forest people." Although it is now accepted, the name "Miyanmin" was originally the usage of the neighboring Telefolmin people for a now-extinct Miyanmin local group.

Location. The majority of Miyanmin live at around 1,000 meters in the Donner, Thurnwald, and Stolle mountains in the central cordillera of New Guinea, an area drained by the Upper Sepik, August, and May rivers. A smaller number live in the lowlands on the Upper August River, in the West and Landslip ranges and at the head of the Right May (Mai) River. The total area exceeds 3,800 square kilometers. It is an area of high rainfall and low seasonality and embraces a riety of forest types including midmontane beech and conifer forest, lower-montane oak and mixed rain forest, and lowland rain forest.

Demography. Mianmin speakers number approximately 1,800. Overall population density is 0.5 person per square kilometer. Of this total, the population of the higher-altitude Miyanmin groups of the southeast is approximately 1,150, with a crude population density of 8 persons per square kilometer.

Linguistic Affiliation. They speak a Papuan language called Mianmin, which is a member of the Mountain Ok Subfamily of the Ok Family of languages. Wagarabai is the name given to the dialect of Mianmin spoken by people living at low altitudes on the northern frontier.

>History and Cultural Relations

Regional scholars have adopted the linguistic designation Mountain Ok to refer to the culturally related peoples living in and around the Sepik River source basin of Ifitaman. These related peoples include the Telefolmin and Atbalmin, southern neighbors of the Miyanmin and their traditional enemies. The northern frontier contacts groups such as the Iwam and Abau who are speakers of Upper Sepik languages. The indirect evidence of forest burning in Ifitaman suggests the presence of people in the Mountain Ok area at least 17,000-15,000 years ago with agriculture appearing in the Region about 3,500 years ago. The linguistic separation of the major Mountain Ok groups may have occurred between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. Mountain Ok groups share the belief that they were founded by an ancestress named Afek and that their separate existence is due to the travels of Afek or her sisters. The Miyanmin attribute their origin to one of these sisters. The most recent expansion and large-scale movement in the region began some 300 years ago. The Mountain Ok peoples were discovered by Richard Thurnwald and the German Sepik River expedition of 1912-1914. The expedition may have made visual contact with Miyanmin in the May Valley and the western Thurnwalds in 1913. This pattern of fleeting contact was sustained through subsequent visits by Westerners between 1927 and the 1950s when Systematic pacification was initiated by Australian colonial authorities. This coincided with the heavy impact of introduced diseases that continued through the late 1960s. Heavy fighting between the Miyanmin and neighboring groups in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in court trials and mass jailings. In response, several Miyanmin groups in the eastern Thurnwalds began to develop a local modernization plan and mass conversion to Christianity even before missionaries entered the area directly. The plan, which continues to evolve, includes the construction of bush airstrips as centers for education, health care, and commerce. The movement has now extended to many other groups. Today, most men have worked as laborers elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. A number of young people have attended high school or mission institutions, some have received vocational training in health care and education, and one is in university.


The Miyanmin are organized in local parish groups ranging in size from 40 to 200 members that claim large territories. At any given time, a parish or a cooperating group consisting of members of two parishes might occupy only a small portion of a group territory. Except when pioneering a new area, people live in dispersed hamlets that range in size from two women's houses and a men's house to as many as fifteen women's houses and several men's houses. Nuclear and polygynous families maintain houses in hamlets identified with each spouse's kin group and move between them seasonally. These houses are built on posts with bark floors and walls and treeleaf or palm thatch roofs. Polygynous cowives share the same roof but have separate doors and hearths in an unpartitioned house. Women's houses are of similar size and design, but they vary in small details reflecting their builders' personal styles. Men's houses are raised above women's houses and command approaches to hamlets, which are typically located on scalped ridges, mountain spurs, or riverbanks. In addition to residential structures, every parish has three kinds of specialized buildings: a large dance house that also serves as a longhouse during the initial phase of settlement; a men's cult house in which ancestral bones and other ritual objects are kept from the sight of women and children; and a dormitory and ritual site for boys undergoing initiation. The overall settlement pattern is dynamic with hamlets built and abandoned constantly in response to game abundance and the availability of garden land. Modernization has changed settlement patterns and house styles. Settlements around airstrips, such as Mianmin in the Hak Valley, Yapsiei on the Upper August River, and Hotmin at the junction of the May and Right May rivers, have grown to unusual size due to the services and amenities they provide, which include schools and health care. Modern houses are highly idiosyncratic in style, floor plan, and materials. Family houses have replaced Women's houses, and men's houses now shelter bachelors alone. The Hak Valley settlement now has as many as 400 persons with more than sixty family houses, leading to many social and environmental problems.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Miyanmin are shifting cultivators and hunters and also keep small numbers of domestic pigs. People of the lowlands depend more on sago (Metroxylon sago ) and aquatic resources. People say that "taro is our bones." Taro (Colocasia esculenta), produced using the slash-mulch technique, are the staple, with a variety of other traditional vegetables, such as squash, bananas, beans, and greens, also grown. Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas ) and introduced Western vegetables, such as commercial banana varieties, tomatoes, papayas, pineapples, and cabbages, have increasingly been grown around airstrip settlements both for subsistence and for their perceived commercial potential. Wild pigs, possums, wallabies, rats, cassowaries and other birds, snakes, lizards, frogs, insects, and other small terrestrial fauna continue to provide most of the high-quality protein in the diet. Hunting has declined around airstrip settlements, leading people to intensify pig husbandry. Cash sales of fruit and vegetables were part of the community Modernization plan that developed in the 1960s. Today, people of several communities with access to an airstrip realize modest incomes from such sales in markets at Telefomin and Tabubil, the town serving the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine. In villages, cooperative trade stores organized along kinship lines sell tobacco, salt, soap, rice, canned fish, cloth, kerosene, and similar commodities.

Industrial Arts. Traditional male crafts included the carving of war shields and clubs, arrow foreshafts and points, bows, and bamboo blades and spatulas, using implements of stone, cassowary bone, pig tusk, and rat's tooth, and cane work for hafting and personal adornment. Women made string bags and personal ornaments for everyone, pandanus1eaf mats, raffia skirts, and bark cloth. Few are trained in Western trades, though some men have picked up particular skills while pursuing contract labor. The fashioning of scrap metal into useful objects, such as arrow points and prongs, graters, and sickles, is common.

Trade. Traditionally, there was modest trade among parishes in capital and prestige goods such as palm-wood bows, arrow points and foreshafts, stone tools, shell ornaments, plumes, and cuscus fur. Individuals might visit kin and friends in other parishes to collect raw materials at their source. Participation in regional trade networks was disrupted by endemic warfare, although the eastern Miyanmin did maintain a trade relationship with a riverine group on the Lower May.

Land Tenure. Cognatic parishes and patrilineages claim land and may assert this control in relation to other parishes and, in modern times, within parishes with an airstrip settlement where there is pressure on agricultural and forest resources.

Division of Labor. There is a marked but flexible sexual division of labor in all spheres. In agriculture, men engage in tree clearing and women remove branches and undergrowth and do the planting. All sexes weed and, while women do most of the routine harvesting, men harvest some of the taro for feasts and ceremonies. In construction, men gather timber, do structural work, and lay the roof, while women gather leaves for roofs and clay with which they make the hearths in all houses. Men hunt the larger and more distant game, although women and children may serve as beaters in pig hunts. Women hunt possums, bandicoots, and rats as well as smaller animals.


Kin Groups and Descent. The parish is the basic group with corporate functions to which all Miyanmin belong. Although the genealogical composition of the predominantly endogamous parish is cognatic, the ideology of membership refers to coresidence rather than descent. Parishes are often paired in cooperative alliances forged by intermarriage. Descent is strongly emphasized in small patrilineages, typically four in number, of which am-nakai parishes are composed. These lineages are named after past big-men, are exogamous jurally, and are units of fission in the context of intragroup conflict. They are identified with particular hamlets whose resident population is comprised of a core of one or two Nuclear families headed by male elders of a lineage and a transient population of affines and matrikin. Some sa-nakai local groups are breakaway patrilineages of am-nakai parishes. Because postmarital residence is bilocal, matrikin, agnates, and affines are equally important.

Kinship Terminology. There are two discrete systems. The first is a metaclassification with six terms that distinguish consanguineals from affinals. For the former, generation and gender are distinguished. For the latter, spouses are distinguished from other affines. The second classification consists of forty elementary, derivative, and descriptive terms in Common use. Cousin terms are of the Hawaiian-generational type with bifurcate-merging terms for members of the first ascending generation of ego's gender and lineal terms for the opposite sex. Birth order and relative age are also distinguished. Thus, from the standpoint of a male ego, father's (elder) brother has a term derived from father with father's younger brother having his own term. Father's brothers are distinguished from mother's brothers while mother's sisters are equated with father's sisters.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Most first marriages, involving young people whose parents are alive, are by consent. Fathers dote on their daughters and desire sons-in-law who will hunt for them. Women may be compelled to marry against their wishes when they are the wards of their brothers or other male kin. The most common form of marriage among members of largely endogamous parishes is sister exchange, with free marriages the next most common form. The remaining marriages involve capture and widow remarriage. For intraparish Marriages, bilocal residence amounts to bride-service, Interparish marriages are equally divided between sister exchange and uxorilocality, with elopement and delayed reciprocity accounting for most of the remainder. Marriage with members of one's own or mother's patrilineage (i.e., classificatory Siblings) is jurally prohibited, with the few exceptions involving spouses who never shared residence while growing up. The high proportion of parish-endogamous marriages reinforces solidarity and generates the cognatic appearance of the group, while the somewhat less frequent interparish marriages create and maintain durable patterns of cooperation. Death payments are demanded when a parish member who is residing uxorilocally in another parish dies. Traditionally, divorce was rare among the am-nakai groups while reportedly Common among the sa-nakai groups. It is increasingly common in modern times, however. Polygyny is not associated with high social status but instead involves a man's need to augment the labor of a disabled first wife or his desire to acquire a young sex partner. Polygynous marriages are tense and are the most likely to end in divorce. Cowives do not attend each other in childbirth. Widows are encouraged to marry leviratically.

Domestic Unit. The elementary family of husband, wife (or wives), and children is the basic unit of consumption and production. Traditionally, while childless married couples might sleep together in the wives' houses, men typically spent the night in a men's house, which women never visited. Today, it is increasingly common for the entire family to sleep under one roof, although modern houses are likely to be partitioned.

Inheritance. Traditionally, a man or woman's sparse movable property, along with certain cultivated trees and the portion of their taro planting stock that survived mortuary destruction, was inherited by their children. People inherit their right to use land from both the maternal and the paternal lines and claims may extend many generations into the past.

Socialization. Men and women share equally in the care of children. Father-son relations are frequently tense. In mitigation, boys have very close relationships with their cross uncles who, for example, tutor them in crafts and related fields of knowledge. Girls' relationships with their mothers and other women are relaxed and highly supportive; they join in daily tasks at a young age. For boys, most learning occurs in same-sex, near-peer play groups. Traditionally, boys were removed from their mothers' houses after puberty to commence their advance through the male initiation cycle. There are no puberty or initiation rites for women. Today, some children have access to a community primary school.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional society was highly egalitarian with generalized sharing of resources within parishes and with visiting members of paired or allied parishes being an absolute value. Patrilineages were and remain significant landholding units with parishes then and now involved in external challenges to sovereignty. Modernization, however, has increased the frequency of disputes over resources, and assertions of lineage-based rights are today much more visible than they were in the 1960s, particularly around the airstrip villages.

Leadership. Miyanmin conform to the big-man pattern that has been identified for other fringe highland groups in which unstratified leadership roles are diffused widely and competence is defined narrowly in relation to such activities as agriculture, hunting, ritual, curing, and intergroup politics or war. Nevertheless, traditional war leaders were esteemed highly and parish oral history is organized in a framework comprised of the names of a succession of such men over ten or more generations.

Political Organization. Traditionally, the Miyanmin parishes were autonomous units with many concerns upon which they could act, including interparish affairs. A parish was also a ceremonial group, maintaining a cult house, organizing religious ceremonies, and building a dance house in connection with festivals attracting regional participation. Among the higher-altitude am-nakai groups, parishes were often paired in close cooperative relationships functioning jointly to exploit land. The ten am-nakai parishes of the Thurnwald Range and May Valley also formed a military alliance to campaign against the Telefolmin and Atbalmin to the south or to prey on excluded Miyanmin groups, including some of the sa-nakai, and riverine peoples of the Lower May. Since the national independence of Papua New Guinea in 1975, Miyanmin are conscious of their citizenship, identify with the "Pan-Min" movement of the Mountain Ok peoples at large that was sparked by the development of gold and Copper mines in the region, and attempt to participate in political affairs. This participation has been stymied because of their small population.

Conflict and Social Control. Miyanmin warfare included cannibalism, the abduction of nubile women and children of either sex, plunder, and the destruction of enemy assets. Among the am-nakai social control was exercised through public opinion, through consensus building in men's-house or cult-house discussions in which elders and big-men may have greater voices, and, in extreme cases as in the context of an adult death, through the mediumship of a shaman in a mortuary ritual. Threats to social order range from domestic pigs damaging gardens, to disputes over property, to adultery and other offenses involving women, to homicide. At all levels, including within households, individual violence or its threat is the typical sanction, sometimes augmented by public opinion. The highest levels of intraparish conflict in which public opinion is divided can lead to parish fission and longterm enmity. Interparish disputes frequently culminated in brief, violent clashes with a few deaths, burned houses, and territorial losses. Losers were allowed to return to salvage planting material from their gardens. Contrastingly, the sanakai groups are stereotypically anarchistic with high levels of interpersonal and intergroup violence and low group solidarity.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Today, most Miyanmin are Christian and, possibly excepting sorcery, traditional religious behavior and belief is retained only by the old. Churches have replaced cult houses, schools the initiation cycle. Traditionally, the Miyanmin believed that their world, including the physical world, neighboring peoples, and the land of the dead, was created by Afek or her younger sister. In addition to spirits, the sun and moon were recognized as remote supernatural beings. The Miyanmin also believed in bush demons associated with certain watercourses, trees, habitats, and objects that sanctioned taboo violations, caused sickness, and interfered with routine processes such as arrow flights. They also believed in a mythical rainbow-hued serpent that was responsible for human aggression.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional ritual leaders included shamans or "death seers" and elders. The latter served as arbiters of cult-house rituals, with one of their number serving as its principal keeper. Today, many local groups have indigenous Baptist pastors, one of whom is appointed by the Sepik Baptist Union to serve as circuit pastor.

Ceremonies. Traditional rituals were of three types: initiation; spirit intervention (including mortuary); and demon control (including curing). The initiation cycle consisted of twelve named rituals to advance boys and men through four statuses. Mortuary rites consisted of three phases: the burial wake; the seance; and garden destruction. The wake occurs on the day following the death and is marked by the violent arrival of visitors who either themselves bring the house of the deceased under mock attack or are themselves consumed in a brawl. The tree interment occurs in late afternoon. That night, a shaman conducts a seance in order to contact spirits, establish a cause of death, and set an appropriate course of action. The following day, male kin descend on the deceased's gardens and uproot and destroy a portion of the taro. Shamans also conduct rituals to cure illness, to foresee the course of battle, and to warn individuals of possible Danger. Today, church services are held every Sunday morning and baptism by immersion is carried out when required. Since the "Rabaibal" movement swept the Ok area in the 1970s, small, informal groups have gathered from time to time to receive the Holy Spirit that is manifested in individual trances and the appearance of bright lights.

Arts. Miyanmin art is expressed in personal adornment with paint, fur, feathers, palm fronds, beads, twine, flowers, and cane and in the production and decoration of utilitarian objects in media such as bark twine, wood, and bamboo.

Medicine. In addition to curing rituals, people make use of plant materials to cure sores, staunch bleeding, promote healing, relieve respiratory symptoms, control pain, and act as general tonics.

Death and Afterlife. Traditional practice was to place the dead on tree platforms and recover the bones later for placement in a cult house along with the mandibles of wild pigs believed to have been taken due to the intervention of the deceased's spirit. When people die, they become spirits and move to the land of the dead, which is already inhabited by indigenous spirits and other ancestral spirits who tend to reside with their own kind. The spirit of the newly dead will marry into the indigenous group, have children, and engage in normal activities such as hunting, and in most cases they will have a benign influence on the affairs of the living, assisting in agriculture, hunting, warfare, and the like. Rarely, a person who died angry might reside with another group's ancestral spirits and seek vengeance. Today, most groups bury the dead and hold a simple graveside prayer service.

See alsoTelefolmin


Gardner, Donald S. (1983). "Performativity in Ritual: The Mianmin Case." Man 18:344-360.

Gardner, Donald S. (1987). "Spirits and Conceptions of Agency among the Mianmin of Papua New Guinea." Oceania 57:161-177.

Morren, George E. B., Jr. (1981). "A Small Footnote to the 'Big Walk': Development and Change among the Miyanmin of Papua New Guinea." Oceania 52:39-63.

Morren, George E. B., Jr. (1984). "Warfare on the Highland Fringe of New Guinea: The Case of the Mountain Ok." In Warfare, Culture, and Environment, edited by B. Ferguson, 169-207. Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press.

Morren, George E. B., Jr. (1986). The Miyanmin: Human Ecology of a Papua New Guinea Society. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Morren, George E. B., Jr., and David Hyndman (1988). "The Taro Monoculture of Central New Guinea." Human Ecology 15:301-315.