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ETHNONYMS: Biwat, Mundokuma, Mundugamor


Identification. The Mundugumor live in the area of the central Yuat River in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. "Mundugumor" is an old name relating to their art styles; contemporary residents typically refer to themselves as "Biwats," the name of one of their villages as well as the name sometimes given to the Yuat River.

Location. The dominant geographical feature of the Sepik region is the Sepik River itself, which meanders down from mountains through the hills, swamps, and grassland plains of the province. One of its major tributaries is the Yuat, a swiftmoving and strongly currented river that floods periodically. Although swamps and grasslands predominate to the north and south, the Mundugumor environment includes rain Forest as well. The climate is tropical; the rainy season extends from approximately November through March.

linguistic Affiliation. Biwat is a member of the Yuat Language Family.

Demography. The total population of the Mundugumor at the beginning of this century was probably about 1,000 people. Land and environmental resources were ample to support such a population. However, the population has increased steadily, and now land and resource pressures are being felt. Many people today leave the area and obtain jobs in towns and cities; some participate in resettlement schemes in nearby areas such as Angoram.

History and Cultural Relations

Little is known about the history of the Mundugumor before Western contact. Tradition says that the villages were founded by people coming from the west. A significant event was a change in the course of the Yuat River, a change that left two of the villages in the bush and made river villages of the other four. Western contact came early in this century in the form of German and Australian traders, administrators, and missionaries. Warfare and raiding as well as many Ceremonial activities ceased. Men began to leave their villages to work on coastal plantations for extended periods. Although a complete mission station with airstrip and resident priest was not established until 1956, mission effects were present much earlier. There is now a school in the village of Biwat, and many children continue additional education outside of the area and go on to skilled and professional jobs in urban settings.


The Mundugumor were composed of six villages: four along the banks of the Yuat River and two in the bush. Village size probably ranged from 108 to 200 people. Villages were not compact, nucleated settlements but rather a series of hamlets associated with one another. There were no central plazas or permanent ritual or men's houses. Today, the four river Villages have almost grown together, but traditional house style has changed little. Houses were made from natural materials of sago ribs and leaves, oil-palm bark, and substantial posts and were built approximately 5 feet above the ground. Some families constructed additional temporary shelters near their distant gardens.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional subsistence base was sago supplemented mainly by fish but also by game and garden produce. Gardens yielded bananas, coconuts, taro, sweet potatoes, and yams. A few pigs were kept as well. Pigs, cassowaries, marsupials, and birds were hunted. Betel nuts and tobacco were important crops that gave the Mundugumor hegemony in the regional trading System. Tobacco and betel nuts are still important as commercial crops, but introduced cash crops such as coffee, rubber, copra, and rice are also important. A few cattle are kept today as well as pigs and chickens.

Industrial Arts and Trade. There were no craft specialists; most adults made items of material culture that they needed. However, the Mundugumor did not make pottery or large baskets but traded tobacco, betel nuts, and garden Products for them with their inland neighbors. Their environment lacked stone, so they traded shell and shell rings (obtained from downriver groups) with upriver peoples for stone and stone tools and other mountain products.

Division of Labor. There was an informal division of labor by age but by far the most important division of labor was by sex. Men conducted most of the ritual events, cleared the land for gardening, hunted, and did the major work in house and canoe construction. Men also conducted warfare and intergroup raiding. Women were in charge of day-to-day living and did most of the subsistence labor: they gardened, fished, cooked, and cared for the children. Sago processing required the participation of both men and women, men to cut and women to scrape.

Land Tenure. Land was loosely associated with patrilineal groups but people had the right to ask to use land that belonged to any relative with whom they were friendly and who had adequate land; rarely were such requests denied.


Kin Groups and Descent. There were, and are today, patrilineal clans, but apart from being loosely associated with particular tracts of land, these groups were relatively unimportant. An individual's kin network, including affinal and matrilateral relatives, was more important. Exchange transactions among these kin down through the generations were very significant. Although Margaret Mead labeled these "ropes" descent groups, the term "rope" more likely served as a metaphor for the complex series of exchanges that commenced with a brother-sister exchange marriage and ended with another exchange marriage five generations later (rarely accomplished). These transactions highlighted the important roles of mother's brother and father's sister as well as brother and sister.

Kinship Terminology. Hawaiian-type terminology was used in one's own first descending generation, but Iroquoistype terms were used in the first ascending generation; that is, mother's brother was distinguished from father and father's sister distinguished from mother. It was possible to modify the kin terms for brother and sister to describe a "distant" Sibling. A distinction was also made between older and younger same-sex siblings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage formed the basis for Mundugumor Social organization not only because a married couple was the core of a household but also because the affinal bond it created was a central cooperative bond and because it provided the structure for all significant exchange transactions for Several generations. Brother-sister exchange was the preferred way to marry. A man carefully guarded rights to his sister against both his brothers and his father, who might try to use her in an exchange for a wife for themselves. Ideally these marriages were between distant siblings (classificatory cross cousins). On occasion marriage occurred by payment rather than sister exchange, but these unions usually involved undesirable women or very influential men. Some powerful men enticed women to marry them and offered no compensation, and women stolen from enemy groups were rarely reciprocated. Residence was predominantly patrivirilocal, but a man was under some pressure to live and work with his affines if he had not reciprocated a sister to his wife's brother. Marriages were especially unstable in the early stages, and women not infrequently packed up and went home to their own families or men refused to acknowledge new wives. But after the birth of children, marriages tended to become more stable. Polygyny was an ideal men tried to accomplish, but only a few of the more powerful leaders had more than two or three wives.

Domestic unit. Household organization depended on the number of wives present. In a simple man's household, one or two wives and their children might occupy a single structure. In a leader's hamlet, there might be a house for each of Several wives, a house for adolescent sons, and a separate house for the household head. Each wife had her own hearth and cooked separately for her husband. The senior wife often cooked for all of her husband's children.

Inheritance. Inheritance rules varied. Access to land of course descended patrilineally, but a variety of other goods and rights went to sisters' children and from them to classificatory sisters' children.

Socialization. Children were not especially loved or prized, and newly married couples did not always look upon Pregnancy with happiness. Women and men both disliked the taboos that were incumbent upon them during pregnancy and with newborns, and mothers resented the restrictions on their freedom that children required. Children were cared for but not especially nurtured. Both boys and girls grew up assertive, tough, and independent.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. The basic social Organization was provided by networks of related kin more than the patrilineal clans; interpersonal alliances shifted frequently. Leadership was achieved by individuals who were fierce in warfare and raiding, aggressive, and capable of attracting adherents through the manipulation of exchanges. These strong leaders earned many wives (who produced tobacco and other produce for them) and had the support of their affines as well as less-dominant kin of their own and meeker men seeking shelter. Contemporary Mundugumor participate in the parliamentary democracy that is the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. They elect representatives to a variety of local and national legislative bodies. Although war leaders have vanished, individuals who excel in various new endeavors, such as education or business, have significant influence.

Social Control. A variety of sanctions operated. Physical coercion was not uncommon, but at least as important were crosscutting kinship ties and obligations that generated conflicting loyalties. A strong egalitarian ideology also tended to prevent the construction of permanent alliances, and strong men could not violate rules and norms excessively or their followers would defect to their rivals.

Conflict. Conflict was common. Intracommunity disputes arose over a variety of concerns, most frequently the arrangement of brother-sister exchange marriages or adultery. Mundugumor villages fought one another over a variety of issues including the maintenance of reputation and honor. Warfare and raiding were also prevalent before colonialism; raids were staged on enemy villages in order to kill as many of the enemy as possible. Alliances with other groups were precarious and shifted frequently.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. The Mundugumor acknowledged the existence of a variety of unseen but controllable forces in the universe. Much of their religious activity centered around trying to affect or control these forces. As a result of missionary activity, today the majority of people adhere to the Catholic faith but acknowledge that some of their old beliefs still remain. The Mundugumor pantheon was not a complex one. Most prominent were a variety of water and bush spirits that were associated with particular tracts of land. Spirits of the dead also were recognized. Mythical persons were able to tap into different kinds of unnamed power contained in the universe at will.

Religious Practitioners. There were some people who were more adept at dealing with these forces than others: curers, diviners, some ritual specialists, but none of these positions was recognized and permanent. Individuals also owned (inherited or bought) their own means of controlspells, charms, and so onand by a variety of magical acts attempted to harness the forces postulated by them.

Ceremonies. There were many ceremonial and ritual activities, including acts to ensure good gardening (especially of the long yam) and to ensure safe life-crisis passages. Initiations focused on admitting young men (and sometimes women) to view sacred objects; each such object had its own separate ritual initiation.

Arts. Mundugumor art was predominantly concerned with the sacred and efforts to control it. Sculpture and painting were the main media, and the style was affected by the mainstream art of the Middle Sepik region.

Medicine. Curing rituals focused on ascertaining the cause of the illnesssorcery, soul loss, taboo violation, etc.and attempting to correct the situation.

Death and Afterlife. Death that was not the result of obvious natural causes such as warfare was usually attributed to sorcery. After death, a part of an individual's nonphysical essence left the body and became a ghost who inhabited areas associated with the patrilineal clan. Mortuary rituals were designed to care for the body and release the ghost from the village.


McDowell, Nancy (forthcoming). The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonion Institution Press.

Mead, Margaret (1934). "Tambarans and Tumbuans 1935 in New Guinea." Natural History 34:234-246.

Mead, Margaret (1935). Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: William Morrow.


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