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ETHNONYMS: Karau, Kaup, Mayet


Identification. The term "Murik" is generally used to refer to people living in five villages (Kaup, Big Murik, Darapap, Karau, Mendam) along the north coast of Papua New Guinea, west of the mouth of the Sepik River. Local differentiations designate three clusters of related villages from west to east: Kaup, Mayet (Big Murik), and Karau (Darapap, Karau, and Mendam) Originally "Murik" was used by coastal peoples to the west to refer to the Mayet. The Murik are culturally similar to other peoples of the region, but language and subsistence bases differ widely. The Murik, with the Exception of Kaup, are generally "landless," and they trade throughout the region.

Location. The Murik reside along the north coast of Papua New Guinea in the East Sepik Province in the Sepik estuary, an area of mangrove lakes, swamps, and sandy beaches. The Murik Lakes region is humid and flat. The villages are located on narrow sandbanks that separate the lakes from the open ocean. During the wet season, November to May, a Northwesterly wind prevails, bringing blustery late-afternoon winds, thunderstorms, heavy rainfall, and somewhat cooler temperatures. The transition from wet to dry season is marked by extreme high "spring" tides and by periods of complete stillness. Despite high humidity during the dry season, approximately June to October, there are droughts of several weeks' duration that cause severe shortages of fresh water. The northeasterly onshore breezes of this season, combined with longer periods of clear weather and calm seas, lead the Murik to refer to this as the good season for travel to town markets and visits to trade partners throughout the region.

Demography. The indigenous population of the villages is approximately 1,500 people. Village size varies from 80 to 450 people. Several hundred Murik live in the provincial capital, Wewak, and other towns. The postcontact population of the villages remains fairly constant due to out-migration.

Linguistic Affiliation. Murik is a Non-Austronesian or Papuan language of the Nor Family, which includes Chambri, Karawari, Yimas, Angoram, and Kopar. These groups are scattered throughout the Sepik Basin, suggesting a history of extensive migration. Many Murik know several languages of the region. Formerly communication with trade partners was ensured by sending children to live in a trade partner's village for a year. Most Murik now speak the vernacular and Melanesian Pidgin.

History and Cultural Relations

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the mangrove lakes are the result of the river filling in an extensive inland sea 1,000 years ago. The Murik origin myth describes an extensive migration from Moim, on the Sepik River near Angoram, to the coast and offshore islands, eventually settling in the Murik Lakes at least 400 years ago. During the migration period, the Non-Austronesian or Papuan people from the Sepik Basin had extensive contact with Austronesian-speaking peoples who inhabited the offshore islands and some regions of the coast. Murik culture thus became an integration of Austronesian and Non-Austronesian cultural features. The first recorded mention of Murik is in 1616, when they visited a Dutch sailing vessel piloted by Jacob le Maire. Subsequently, German survey expeditions of the Sepik River collected artifacts from the region. Because the land was unsuitable for establishing copra plantations, this area was little influenced by traders and planters during the years of German colonial administration (1884 to World War I). By about 1913, a German Catholic missionary, Father Joseph Schmidt, S.V.D., had established a mission station at Big Murik. He remained there until 1942. German New Guinea was placed under military occupation by an Australian military force from 1914 to 1918. During this period German troops landed at Kaup and proceeded through the Murik Villages, burning the men's houses and destroying many sacred objects in punishment for a Murik head-hunting raid. This event was followed by a long period of relative quiet during which the Murik extended their trade network and some took up work in towns, on plantations, and in various branches of colonial government. In 1942 the Japanese occupied the Murik Lakes for approximately nine months, followed by a bombing raid by Australian and American forces in 1943. Many people were killed and injured and the rest fled to the mangroves. Under Australian administration, the Murik took advantage of opportunities for education and employment. During the transition from colonial to independent government, Michael Somare of Karau village became a national Political leader and was elected first Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (1975). Mission influence since 1942 has been mainly through the Catholic mission at Marienberg. In 1952 a Seventh-Day Adventist church and school were established in Darapap village.


The villages located on the ocean beach have been subjected to extensive damage from onshore storms and high seas. Where sufficient land is available, houses are arranged in sections by descent group. In Big Murik, Darapap, and Karau this orderly arrangement has been disrupted by shifts in the coastline and land shortages. The present village sites face the mangrove lakes. Houses are built on stilts from 4 to 8 feet above the ground. Shells and coconut refuse accumulate below houses to increase the dry land area. Canoes are built and maintained in proximity to the owners' houses. Large ceremonial houses (taab ) are constructed by descent groups to house sacred objects and to perform secret rituals. Smaller men's houses (kamasaan ) are used for daily gatherings to discuss village affairs and to work on carvings. Very large Domestic dwellings, inhabited by a senior woman and her family, are designated as ceremonial houses for women's ritual (sambaan iron). Household composition varies with the domestic life cycle but usually includes an extended family of three or four generations. New houses are built by young couples as their family outgrows the extended family household. Villages have small garden plots and coconut groves nearby, and coconut, betel, and fruit trees grow in and around the village. The Mangroves are laced with hand-cut channels for fishing and harvesting shellfish. Many families also maintain fishing houses deep in the mangroves.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence is based on fishing and trade. Both men and women fish in the lakes and ocean, but women gather most of the shellfish from the mangroves. The staple starch is sago, obtained by trade with villages on the inland side of the lakes. Garden produce and pigs, used primarily for ritual feasts, are obtained from trade partners in coastal and lower river villages. Gardens are maintained by those who feel so inclined and are often pillaged by foraging children before the fruit is ripe. Murik engage in extensive commercial activities. They trade smoked fish, fresh shellfish, baskets, and shells for garden produce, betel nuts, tobacco, and pigs. Manufactured items such as pots, plates, and canoe logs are sought in exchange for baskets. The most prestigious trade involves nonmaterial goods such as carving motifs, basket designs, magic, songs, and dance complexes. Cash income is obtained through Remittances from relatives working in towns and through the sale of fish, shellfish, baskets, and tourist carvings in town Markets. The money is used for transportation (outboard motors and fuel), school fees, clothing, and small household items.

Industrial Arts. Murik men have a distinctive carving style. Many ritual and household objects are made of carved wood, including canoes, paddles, house posts, male and female figures, masks, food pounders, plates, and betel mortars. Women weave twill-plaited baskets or bags of various sizes decorated with colored and raised designs. Designs are owned by descent groups or by individuals and transmission of designs is carefully monitored. The baskets that are traded or sold to non-Murik and tourists usually carry designs designated for public use.

Trade. A history of extensive trade along the coast, river, and offshore islands has been documented from Bibliographic sources. Men and women have inherited trade partners in other villages with whom they maintain obligations over multiple generations. Trade for sago is tinged with hostility, but it goes on of necessity throughout the year. Trade with coastal and island villages is conducted as hospitality and confined to the dry season. Coastal and island trade activities occur in preparation for ritual performance.

Division oí Labor. There is a high degree of cooperation among men and women on behalf of the household and the descent group. Few tasks are exclusively male or female. In general, men's work includes fishing, carving, house building, maintaining coconut groves, organizing village affairs, and conducting overseas trade. Women's work includes cooking, fishing, processing the catch, basket weaving, primary responsibility for raising children, and selling in the market. Men and women collect firewood, maintain canoes, care for Children, and trade for sago.

Land Tenure. Several types of land are distinguishedvillages, coconut plantations, gardens, and mangroves. Open lakes are fished by all Murik. Land and mangrove waters are owned by the eldest sibling of the senior generation. He or she inherits from one or both parents the right to regulate use of land on behalf of the sibling group. Access to various types of land is allocated according to a rule of primogeniture.


Kin Groupe and Descent. Descent groups trace their origin to an eponymous named couple, brother-sister pair, or man with several wives. Each group has a history describing their arrival in the Murik Lakes from elsewhere in the region. These are named, corporate groups in which descent is traced ambilineally. Giving names to individuals is an important way of indicating group membership (s). Individual claims to membership are activated by participating in cooperative enterprises and ritual work. Groups compete for members by sponsoring life-cycle rituals on behalf of individuals, especially firstborns. Leadership within the descent group is validated by organizing trade activities, rituals, feasts, and dance performance.

Kinship Terminology. Terminology is of the Hawaiian type with special terms for mother's brother and father's sister.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage among the Murik is best characterized as brittle monogamy that eventually stabilizes around parenting responsibilities. There is no ritual to mark a marriage, but assent of parents and assurance of appropriate genealogical distance are important. The rule of exogamy is that spouses should be at least third cousins, though occasional exceptions occur, usually due to confusion over adoptive ties. The Murik say they formerly practiced sister-exchange marriage and never paid bride-wealth. Marriage to outsiders is considered acceptable, even advantageous, as it establishes kin obligations that may be exploited for trade purposes. There is customarily bride-service of several years, during which ideally the son-in-law builds a new house for his wife's parents. Then the couple may reside where they choose. Women say they prefer to live near their mother and sisters, while men say that they have better access to resources when living near their Father and brothers. Married children may always move back to the parental household in case of conflict or divorce. The terms of divorce are settled among the descent groups of the marriage partners.

Domestic Unit. Married couples are responsible for the maintenance of their own nuclear families, but the unit of production is the sibling group. Adult siblings and their spouses cooperate in child care, food processing, trade, and daily exchange of foodstuffs, canoes, and fishing equipment.

Inheritance. Inheritance may be claimed through the Father and/or mother and follows a rule of primogeniture within sibling groups. A firstborn sibling legitimates his or her position of ownership, responsibility, and leadership through work. He or she may be displaced by an ambitious younger sibling who must ritually retire older siblings in sequence. There is a strong preference for inheritance from father to son, but mother-son and father-daughter inheritance are not unusual.

Socialization. Children are encouraged to be independent and to take initiative. There is a low demand for obedience but a high expectation that older children, especially firstborns, assume responsibility for and indulge younger siblings. Classificatory mother's brothers and father's sisters spontaneously celebrate first achievements. These same ritual actors encourage social competence in children by publicly mocking their faux pas.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social organization is oriented toward the proliferation of ties to other individuals and groups through exchange relations. Adoption, fictive kinship, exogamy, and assimilation of others into Murik villages are means to this end. Descent groups are residentially dispersed and convene to legitimate the transfer of status and to coordinate trade and ritual work. Village loyalty is extremely high. Villages are affiliated through intermarriage, but those who marry in lack a local support group of cognatic kin.

Political Organization. Senior members of the descent groups in each village provide political leadership. These Individuals control the descent-group insignia (suman), named ornaments of shells, feathers, and other valuables assembled and displayed on ritual occasions. The firstborn of a descent group in each village controls the suman, in whose presence there may be no conflict or violence. He or she thus manages resources, evaluates membership claims, and settles disputes. Transfer of suman from one individual to another must be legitimated by the combined leaders from all of the villages who give prior approval and attend in person the ritual bestowal of suman.

Social Control. Wrongdoing and guilt are indicated by untoward events, illness, or unexpected death. The causes are established by consulting oracles and developing a consensus interpretation. Public exposure of the offense is sufficient to curtail its consequences. Gossip and aggressive joking are important mechanisms of social control, as are mocking and mimicry by formal joking partners who must be compensated for their performances.

Conflict. Intratribal conflict occurs most frequently over sexual jealousy and group membership claims. These are settled either by a public hearing or negotiations among descentgroup leaders, who may award compensation in the form of pigs. Prior to European intervention, armed conflict with non-Murik peoples, particularly the sago-producing villages, was the norm. Neighboring peoples sometimes arranged for the Murik to rid them of suspected sorcerers and other enemies.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. The indigenous religion is based on a multiplicity of local spirits who are instrumental in causing illness and death, in inspiring homicidal rage during headhunting and warfare, and in acting as individual guardians. Ancestor spirits maintain a continuous relationship with the world of the living and point out flaws in social life by making ill some member of the transgressor's family. Ceremonies to propitiate spirits and to ensure the vitality of the community are performed by the men's and women's secret societies. Present-day Christianity is practiced in a syncretic form and was originally accepted as a potential means to domination of Others by providing access to a superior source of sacred power.

Religious Practitioners. Individuals learn, usually from a parent, special magic spells for effecting dream travel, weather control, healing, etc. Sexual prowess and strength in fighting are acquired from spirits who inhabit carved figures and masks on ritual occasions. Access is regulated through initiation into the secret societies of men and women. Some individuals are susceptible to possession by various kinds of spirits.

Ceremonies. There is an extensive series of life-cycle Rituals, only some of which are observed for any one individual. Rituals celebrating specific first accomplishments are opportunities for establishing descent-group claims and are most often performed for firstborns. The four stages of initiation into the secret society of men or of women, retirement from the position of descent-group leader, mourning, and the end of mourning are other opportunities to reinforce or change descent-group affiliations. Other ceremonial occasions include consecration of domestic and cult houses and canoe launching.

Arts. Murik men make many kinds of carved wooden objects and body decorations of woven fiber, shell, and animal teeth. An elaborate series of fantastic spirit figure costumes is owned, made, and displayed by the age grades of the men's secret society. Murik women achieve regional reputations for their skill in weaving twill-plaited bags. Formerly they also wove large sleeping bags that had room for several people in them.

Medicine. The Murik attribute most illnesses to social causes, which means therefore that they have social remedies. Following diagnosis, symptoms are treated through herbal remedies or bloodletting; however, illness recurs if the social cause is not addressed. Malaria, colds, and headache are so common that they are not diagnosed as social ailments but are presumed to be caused by overwork and exposure. Aspirin is valued as a general remedy. Other forms of Western treatment are sought only after traditional remedies have failed.

Death and Afterlife. Death is believed to result from Social causes. It is considered appropriate for old people, who have indicated their willingness to leave the realm of the living by asking that their particular basket be woven. Death is always an occasion for sorrow and loneliness, but when a child or an adult in the prime of life dies, the reaction is one of rage and sorcery is suspected. Death, fainting, and dreaming are evidence that the soul (nabran ) has left the body. Upon death the soul hovers near close kin and may try to lure them away to the realm of the dead by offering food in a dream. Therefore, mourners are in a polluted state and do not cook or obtain foodstuffs. At the end-of-mourning ceremony the soul becomes an ancestor, sent away to a permanent dwelling place among the mangroves where other deceased members of the descent group reside. As an ancestor, it is propitiated for assistance, and it oversees the conduct of Social affairs.

See alsoWogeo


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