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Identification. The Muyu live just south of the central mountains of Irian Jaya, just along the border with Papua New Guinea. The name Muyu is taken from the Muyu River, a tributary of the Kao River, itself a tributary of the Digul River.

Location. The Muyu area is between 5° and 7° S and 140°5 and 141° E. The Muyu people originally inhabited the hilly country between the central highlands and the plains of the south coast. There is no dear wet or dry season in the Muyu area. The average (heavy) rainfall is between 400 and 650 centimeters per year, depending on the location in the area.

Demography. In 1956 the Muyu people numbered 12,223. At that time the total number of inhabitants of the administrative subdivision of Muyu was 17,269, although not all Muyu then lived in the subdivision. Muyu settlements were mostly found near Merauke (410 inhabitants in 1954). In 1984 about 7,000 Muyu fled over the border into Papua New Guinea, because of dissatisfaction with the situation in their own area. In 1989 a few thousand returned to Irian Jaya, partly to the Merauke area on the south coast. The population density averaged about 3 persons per square kilometer in 1956. The population growth rate is not high, but at the moment no exact figures are known. Traditionally, the Muyu are very mobile and easily migrate to other areas with more Economic opportunities.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Muyu speak dialects of Kati in the Ok Family of Papuan languages. A thorough analysis of the Muyu language and its relations with the languages of the surrounding people has yet to be done.

History and Cultural Relations

The Muyu probably migrated from the area of the central mountains to the present Muyu area. Because of their trade system they maintained many relations with the neighboring groups. The first contact with non-Papuan people was probably in the period between 1907 and 1915, during a general military exploration of Dutch New Guinea. In 1902 a Dutch Indies administration post was opened on the southeast coast of Dutch New Guinea as the capital of the South New Guinea Division, which included the Muyu area. Foreign relations further developed between 1914 and 1926 when birds of paradise were hunted in South New Guinea by Chinese, Japanese, Australians, and Indonesians, according to Muyu stories. Some young Muyu followed the bird hunters to other parts of the Dutch Indies and Merauke. In 1927 the Upper Digul Subdivision was delineated with Tanah Merah as the capital and the Muyu area as a part of it. From Tanah Merah the first administrative interventions began, especially to control the frequent revenge killings. In 1933 the missionaries of the congregation of the Sacred Heart established a mission post at Ninati, in the Muyu area, followed by the government in 1935, when the Muyu area became a "district" (a sub-subdivision). The Contacts between the Muyu and the foreigners, missionaries, and officials then became more intensive. The Muyu became a subdivision in 1955, with a "controleur BB" (officer of the civil service) as its head, who was responsible to the "resident" of the South New Guinea Division at Merauke. In 1963, when Dutch New Guinea became a province of Indonesia, the Muyu area became a kecamatan, with a camat as its chief, as a part of the kabupaten Merauke, with a bupati as its head. Because of dissatisfaction with lack of development, unfair treatment by the military, and pressure by the OPM ("Organisasi Papua Merdeka," the organization of freedom fighters), about 7,000 Muyu people fled to Papua New Guinea.


Before the interventions of the government and the mission a striking feature of the Muyu culture was the dispersed form of settlement. The patrilineal lineages constituted territorial units, ranging from about four to sixty inhabitants. But even within these settlements, houses were dispersed because of the strong urge to build one's house on one's own land. Thus every adult man with a nuclear family had his own individual land, as the whole Muyu area was divided into individually owned plots. If possible, the Muyu lived in their gardens, which were clearings in the forest. The houses were well built at a height of about 10 meters, either on the trunks of trees that had been cut to that height or on poles of that length, for safety reasons. The floors and walls were made of strips of palm tree wood, bound with rattan cane and roofs thatched with sago palm leaves. After 1933, first the mission and then the government urged the Muyu to live together in villages of about 150 to 400 inhabitants each in order to be more easily reached by the mission and the government. Only in villages of such a size could schools, houses for school teachers or catechists, and guest houses (pasanggrahan ) for visiting officials be built and maintained. Village houses were built close together neatly in a row along both sides of the road. Today the houses are usually built in the same styles as before and also on poles, but now the poles are at a height of only 1 to 3 meters.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Muyu are slash-and-burn horticulturalists. The stone ax was used for clearing wood; it has been replaced by imported iron axes and machetes. The main crops are many varieties of bananas and root crops. Most important among the latter are yams, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and breadfruit. Sago palms are found and planted along the small rivers and in swamps, and they are a staple food crop for the southern Muyu. Commercial crops are difficult to grow in the Muyu area because of the heavy rainfall and poor soils. In 1960-1962 rubber and cacao were planted as commercial crops, with rubber providing hope for the development of the Muyu area. But the Indonesian Government apparently has not been able to continue these efforts and the promising developments have stagnated. Pigs are the most important domestic animals.

Industrial Arts. No important traditional industrial arts were known, with even stone axes imported from neighboring tribes. The Muyu did make their own bows and arrows, their drums, and in the southern part dugouts for crossing the rivers. The northern Muyu made rattan-cane suspension bridges. As far as is known, no new industrial arts have been introduced.

Trade. The Muyu had their own money system (cowrie shells) with which a trade system was developed. Pigs, pork, bows, tobacco, magic stones, formulas, ornaments, and services (namely the murder of an enemy) were traded. Shell money (or) also played an important role in bride-price payments. For most Muyu traditional money has been replaced by "modern" money. In 1954 a Chinese toko (trade store) was opened and the Muyu eagerly shopped for imported goods. After 1963 the supply of these goods decreased, and local inflation occurred with high prices (in Indonesian money) for local products such as pork and for bride-prices.

Division of Labor. Every wife has her own garden. The husband does the heavy work in the garden such as cutting trees, but the women clear most of the garden, grow the crops, and tend the pigs.

Land Tenure. All rights rest with the individual. The Entire Muyu region is divided into bits and pieces of land, each with its separate owner who is known to all neighbors. Upon a man's death his land and fishing ground are divided among his sons. Of course no registration of these rights is available in a culture without script. The danger in the "modern" situation is that these rights will not be fully recognized by the Government and land will be taken without proper procedures and compensation, leading to conflicts.


Kin Groups and Descent. As noted above, the Muyu were organized in patrilineages, which were also territorial units. The nuclear family was a very important unit, which formed a household. In the present situation several lineages (about ten to twenty) live together in a village. The Muyu kinship system is probably based on the ideal marriage with a mother's brother's daughter, the so-called exclusive cross-cousin marriage.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms followed the Iroquois system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygynous marriage is, and was, present, especially for men who could afford to marry more than one wife, who enhanced the man's wealth by caring for gardens and pigs. The Roman Catholic church attempts to introduce and maintain the value of the monogamous marriage. The basis of the marriage system is the institution of bride-price that provides the bride giver with the wealth he needs to obtain another wife for himself or his son. Bride-price thus makes the exclusive cross-cousin marriage and the open asymmetrical system possible. Especially in the southern part of the Muyu area, marriage to mother's brother's daughter was the ideal, while marriage with father's sister's daughter was forbidden. The bride-price also gave people much freedom of choice in selecting marriage partners. To a certain extent, freedom of choice exists also for the potential bride and groom, though in former times great pressure and even force could be applied to a woman if a high bride-price was available and could be paid in cash. The marriage system also supported the trade system by maintaining or creating trade contacts along trade routes even in remote areas. Postmarital residence was patrilocal and an independent family household was established. In the present village system, with several lineages living in one village, the bride can come from the same village as the groom. Today, the different lineages no longer necessarily live separately in different quarters of a village. Divorce is not common among the Muyu, because of the bride-price. The Roman Catholic church also discourages divorce.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear or polygynous family is the most common domestic unit living as a household in their own house.

Inheritance. Land and fishing waters are divided among surviving sons, the eldest son receiving somewhat more than the others. The rules of inheritance regarding articles of value are much the same as those regarding land. Here too it is the sons who inherit. However, the wife and daughters also receive a small part of this property.

Socialization. Children are raised by both parents, but after age 5 or 6 the boys spend more time with their fathers and the girls with their mothers. Emphasis is placed on independence and individualism, which means that from an early age the children have to take care of themselves as much as possible, such as fetching water for themselves or keeping their own gardens.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Muyu area is now a part of the Indonesian state, practically since 1963 and formally since 1969. Indonesia is a Republic with a president as head of state.

Social Organization. In Muyu society there was a strong tendency toward equality in position, though the rich (kayepak ) might have more influence. Through the process of modernization or development new classes of educated People have arisen, who have more status and modern wealth. But most of these people live outside of the Muyu area Because of the few economic opportunities in the area.

Political Organization. The Muyu society had no broader sociopolitical organization than the lineage. The lineages themselves were small and loosely structured, without Formally recognized chiefs. The kayepak could exert much influence inside and outside their own lineage because of their ability to help other people with their wealth or to threaten them by hiring murderers. The Muyu had no courts or Councils for solving conflicts, and social order was maintained by taking justice into one's own hands, by taking revenge by murder, or by asking compensation for suffered damage. In traditional times, conflicts were common, resulting in an atmosphere of fear, distrust, and caution. Becoming a part of a state, first the Dutch colonial state in 1935 and then the Indonesian state in 1963, the Muyu became part of a foreign-dominated system. Modern villages have a village head (kepala kampong ), who formerly was appointed by the colonial administration but who now can be elected. The village head is responsible to the camat, the head of the district (subsubdivision). The position of the village head is weak and tenuous, because of the lack of traditional chiefs in Muyu Society. Ideally, the Indonesian government provides a range of services including schools (via the Roman Catholic church), police, courts, health services, and development projects. In reality, there is still too little development, which was one reason so many Muyu fled to Papua New Guinea in 1984.

Social Control. Traditionally, informal social control was maintained by the threat of man and by supernatural beings (ancestor spirits). Today, social control is exercised by the administration, with headmen, police, and military people, and by the church, with teachers, catechists, and priests.

Conflict. In the past recourse to violence, murder, or warfare generally arose from suspicion about causes of illness or death, disputes over debts, and unauthorized relations with women. Today, the ideal is that courts will resolve these conflicts in society, though the village head will often try to solve them informally.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Today, most Muyu are Roman Catholics. In the past, their traditional religion included beliefs in divine and other supernatural beings, myths about the origin of the Muyu and their way of life, religious ceremonies, religious-medical practices, etc. There was no uniformity throughout the entire region, which is not surprising, considering the dispersed settlement patterns, the open structure of the lineage, the many trade contacts, the marriage system, and the individualistic way in which knowledge of the supernatural was transferred. Some traditional religious beliefs and practices are maintained beside the Christian beliefs and practices.

Religious Beliefs. The Roman Catholic version of the Christian religion was brought by West European (Dutch) missionaries with the help of Indonesian (Kaiese) catechists and schoolteachers. This gave a special character to the contents of the Christian message and practice, which did not replace the existing religion but added new ideas and practices to it. For the central Muyu, Komot is the most important Supernatural being. The myths tell how he arranged the life of the Muyu as it was. Komot has also great signifance for the hunt. An important myth for most of the Muyu is that about Kamberap, a primeval man from whom both the sacral pig and the regular domesticated pig originated. This myth explains that all the foreigners and their wealth originated from the Muyu area. In connection with these ideas the Muyu believe that the foreigners keep secret the way in which they get their knowledge and wealth. In several salvation movements (cargo cults) the Muyu tried with supernatural means to discover the secret and obtain the same wealth, knowledge, and position as the foreigners. These ideas are still present even if they do not find expression in salvation movements, though they probably did play a role in the decision to flee to Papua New Guinea in 1984. In addition to the Christian God, Supernatural beings of the traditional religion play a role in daily village life, including Komot and the spirits of deceased ancestors, especially those of rich ones. They help if the Muyu live according to the rules and cause illness and death if the Muyu break the rules.

Religious Practitioners. There were no traditional Religious specialists. The ceremonies, such as the slaughtering of the sacral pig (yawarawon ) and the initiation of boys with the swinging of the bullroarer (mulin ) and the playing of the sacral flutes (konkomok ) can be arranged by any adult. Knowledge about the supernatural is transferred in an Individualistic way from father to son and mother to daughter. Magic stones or formulas can also be bought from other People. Roman Catholic religion is taught by the catechists, schoolteachers, and priests, who also organize and lead the ceremonies. Most of the catechists and some of the schoolteachers are Muyu. Priests are either Dutch settlers or Indonesians from other islands.

Ceremonies. The Roman Catholic church follows the church calendar, though in remote villages not all the Ceremonies are always held, as the priests can only visit the Villages once every several months. Traditional ceremonies are still held, such as those for the pig feasts, the boys' initiations, and certain illnesses.

Arts. The Muyu culture is not artistically rich. Material objects include the short hand drums with some decoration and the big shields from behind which the warriors could shoot their arrows. They also have songs and dances, which are not yet described.

Medicine. Several cures are based on the idea that the spirits of deceased ancestors (tawat ) have caused the diseases. No cures are known for diseases inflicted by sorcery. These afflictions will cease only if the person who applied the means (mitim ) retrieves it from the position in which he placed it to cause the disease. Through the missionaries and the government, modern medicines were introduced, especially in the modest hospital at Mindiptana.

Death and Afterlife. As soon as someone dies, his next of kin are informed, even if they live in other settlements. If they don't live too far away, they will come to view the deceased, and the women will take part in the lamentations. To express sorrow one may try also to avoid being suspected of causing death. In former times the body could be buried, dried over a fire, or wrapped and left to dry by itself. In the latter case the body was usually laid on a rack near the dwelling. After some time, when there was an occasion during a pig feast, the bones were rubbed with pig's fat and buried. Today, the bodies are only buried under pressure from the government. The reason behind the more extensive treatment of the body was not just love for the deceased but also fear of his tawat. If the spirit is not satisfied, there will be harmful consequences for pig raising and horticulture. In traditional religious beliefs the spirits of the deceased went to a special dwelling place for tawat, a settlement like those of the living but with a carefree existence. In general the idea of the dwelling place of the dead was not important to the Muyu. Far more significant was, and is, the idea that the spirits continue to play an important part in the daily lives of the living. The Christian ideas of Heaven and Hell are now also playing a role, though it is not yet clear which ideas are predominant. Today, the Roman Catholic burial Ceremonies are used if a catechist, school teacher, or priest is available.

See alsoMarind-anim, Ningerum


Schoorl, J. W. (1957). Kultuur en Kultuurveranderingen in het Moejoe-gebied (Culture and culture change in the Muyu area). The Hague: Voorhoeve. Reprint. 1990. Translation Series. Leiden: Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology.

Schoorl, J. W. (1988). "Mobility and Migration in Muyu Culture." Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Landen Volkenkunde 145:540-556.