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ETHNONYMS: Kai, Ninggiroem, Ninggirum


Identification. "Ningerum" is the name for the people living to the northeast of Ningerum Station (Kiunga District of Western Province, Papua New Guinea). They are one of the ethnic groups whose customary lands straddled the international border that separates Papua New Guinea from Irian Jaya. At contact with Westerners they had no common name for themselves; individual groups identified themselves according to their local clan names. The name of Ningerum appears to have been adopted in the 1950s by Dutch colonial administrators from the Muyu name (Ninggiroem or Ninggirum) for these closely related peoples who speak mutually intelligible dialects of the same language.

Location. The Ningerum inhabit the rain-forested ridge country that forms the southern foothills of the Star Mountains. Their territory lies primarily between the Ok Tedi (or Alice) River and the Ok Birim at 140°45 to 141°20 E and 5°15 to 5°35 S. The Ok Mani (just south of the Ok Tedi copper mine) and the rugged country south of the Ok Kawol are the customary northern limits of their territory. Except when under cultivation, this interior lowlands region is everywhere covered by dense rain forest. Elevation varies from about 100 meters in the south to over 1,000 meters at the summits of the highest hills in the north. The majority of the territory, however, is under 500 meters and consists of ridges running north to south, divided by steep, V-shaped valleys formed by many rivers and streams. Swampy areas are found in most of the valleys, especially in the south where the Terrain is less rugged. The main walking tracks follow the major ridge tops and spurs. The climate is humid and tropical, characterized by very heavy rainfall (in excess of 250 centimeters annually) and warm temperatures (with a range of 20° C to 33° C in the south but somewhat cooler in the north). There are pronounced wet and dry seasons.

Demography. There are about 4,500 Ningerum people today. Over 3,300 live in Kiunga District (Papua New Guinea) and it is estimated that over 1,000 live in Kecamatan Mindiptana (Irian Jaya). Smaller numbers have migrated to Daru, Port Moresby, Merauke, and other urban centers. Population density ranges from 7 persons per square kilometer in the south of their territory to less than 2 in the north. At the time of Western contact, the population may have reached 6,000, but the region suffered population decline following numerous influenza epidemics in the 1950s and 1960s.

Linguistic Affiliation. Ningerum, with at least four dialects, is classified as a member of the Lowland Ok Subfamily of the Ok Family of Non-Austronesian languages. Its closest links are with the languages spoken by the Muyu and Yonggom peoples (North and South Kati languages), although these languages are unintelligible to monolingual Ningerum speakers. Besides phonological and traditional vocabulary differences in these dialects, the contemporary linguistic pattern is influenced by recent borrowings from the three contact languages (Motu, Tok Pisin, and Malay) that are used in the southern, northern, and western parts of Ningerum, respectively.

History and Cultural Relations

Ningerum were first contacted early in the century by Indonesian bird-of-paradise hunters and later by Dutch and Australian administrative patrols. For fifty years, outside contacts were few and left little impact, but in the 1950s Dutch and Australian government patrols began to visit Ningerum settlements on a regular basis. The government appointed Village constables who were expected to keep order and represent the government's rule of law. Dutch colonial officers administered several villages along the border. After international border agreements between the Dutch and Australian governments, boundary markers were erected in four Ningerum villages in 1962. Not long afterwards, inhabitants of these villages were compelled to move their houses away from the border and choose residence in Irian Barat (now under Indonesian control) or Papua (under the Australians). The Ningerum Patrol Post was opened in 1964, and regular patrols were established two or three times a year. But despite increasing contact with the government for a few years, People on both sides of the border felt neglected once the frequency of patrols began to decline in the mid-1970s. Mining exploration and test drilling in the nearby Star Mountains brought several periods of intense activity, followed by relative neglect. With the construction of the Ok Tedi Mine in the 1980s, large townships have been established in Tabubil and Kiunga. The mine has brought a dramatic increase in contact with expatriates, environmental degradation in Several rivers, and a great deal of commerce to the region. The long-term impact of the mine on Ningerum life and relations with outsiders is still uncertain.


Customary settlements were small hamlets located on clan territories near gardens, sago swamps, and hunting lands. Most hamlets consisted of a single extended-family dwelling (am or hanua ) built as a tree house 5 meters or more above the ground. Houses were rectangular, with separate sections for women and men. Each section contained two or more hearths. About every five years, houses were rebuilt near new gardens. Beginning about 1950, Ningerum began forming Villages (kampong ) at the encouragement of Dutch missionaries. At first these villages comprised only a few houses, but they gradually increased in size with the encouragement of Australian officials. In the 1980s there were thirty-two Ningerum villages in Papua New Guinea, ranging in size from 29 people (in two houses) to 350 (in more than fifty houses). Like customary hamlets, most villages have periodically moved following epidemics or intravillage conflict. In Irian Jaya, the Indonesian government encouraged even larger villages (desa ). Village formation has not led Ningerum to abandon their customary residences; most families have both an isolated bush house, near their gardens, and a village house. Individuals and their nuclear families continue to reside with extended families, but they may live with different sets of relatives in their village and bush houses. Most Ningerum consider their bush house as their primary residence but spend two to three days in the village each week.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The extended family household was traditionally the basic unit of both Production and consumption. Sago and bananas are the major staples eaten every day. These foods are supplemented by sweet potatoes, taro, yams, breadfruit, okari and galip nuts, greens, sugarcane, pitpit, pineapples, and local fruits. There are two kinds of gardens in the south: extensive banana Gardens (up to 2 hectares) and small, mixed gardens, fenced to keep pigs out. Banana gardens require little tending aside from felling trees and planting suckers around the fallen trunks. Mixed gardens require considerable time for fencing, ground preparation, weeding, and tending. Gardens produce for about two years, after which they should lie fallow for fifteen or more years. Sago is abundant in the south, but it is planted and managed by weeding and cutting selected trees to increase productivity. In the north, sago is less common and monocropping of taro is important. Domesticated pigs run wild in most villages and forage for most of their diet. They are given some food in the evening to keep them from joining the feral herd. Domesticated boars are gelded, and sows are serviced by feral boars. Pork is an important part of the diet; in the dry season it is frequently eaten at pig feasts and other ceremonies, while in the wet season pigs are easily tracked and hunted with shotguns or bows and arrows. Hunting for marsupials and birds is of relatively minor importance, while small fish and crayfish are often caught in large numbers. Sago grubs, frogs, bush eggs, ant larvae, and other foods foraged in the forest are delicacies, but they are of minor importance in the daily diet. Until construction of the Ok Tedi copper mine began, small red chili peppers (lombok ) were the only cash crop, and they were cultivated on a very small scale. With the coming of the mine, economic opportunities have diversified and expanded into wage employment and vegetable production for cash sale.

Industrial Arts. Crafts include string bags, skirts from rushes, bows, and arrows. Other household utensils are of simple manufacture, using bush materials. Men occasionally make dugout canoes, used only for crossing major rivers. Houses are built high up on tree trunks or on shorter house posts in villages. Floors are of narrow palm slats, roofs are of sago-leaf thatch sewn in panels, and walls are made from the stems of sago fronds.

Trade. Considerable trade was conducted at large pig feasts, which brought together Ningerum, Yonggom, and Muyu from a wide area. This trade consisted of many small transactions involving manufactured goods (string bags and bows), raw materials (rushes for skirts, red ocher), dogs, piglets, cassowary chicks, and magic or other ritual knowledge. Money cowries, nassa shells, and dogs' teeth were the Standard mediums of exchange throughout the region. Men also occasionally went on long-distance trading expeditions as far as Mount Koreom in the west and up into the Star Mountains in the north. There was little product specialization in the lowlands; individuals sold what they had in excess of their needs and bought things that they might need but that they could ordinarily make themselves or get from close relatives. Trade with Star Mountains people was more specialized: Ningerum black-palm bows and shells were traded to Wopkaimin people for tobacco and hand drums, which were obtained from the Tifalmin people farther north.

Division of Labor. Most gardening is a cooperative effort involving a husband and his wife (or wives), often assisted by coresident kin. Women process sago in small groups after a tree has been cut down and opened by men. For tasks that require a great deal of laborsuch as house building or clearing and fencing gardensfamilies often invite twenty to thirty relatives and neighbors to help, reciprocating with an Elaborate meal. Only men hunt with bows and arrows or shotguns, usually by themselves. Both women and men go diving for fish in streams (using fishing arrows and goggles) in small groups. Women do most of the cooking, child tending, and firewood gathering, although men often assist when women are busy with other work. The only cooperative subsistence activity involving large groups (up to 100 men, women, and children) is the occasional use of derris root to poison large numbers of fish when streams are low. Major feasts involve the cooperative effort of two or more local clan segmentsoccasionally a villagebut most construction and food Production for these events is done by a small group of closely related men and women, respectively. Up to 1980, few Ningerum were regularly earning cash wages, and this was almost exclusively a male domain that usually required moving to an urban center or plantation (up to about 1970).

Land Tenure. All land is associated with a named, patrilineal clan segment and, in theory, owned by this group of Individuals. Fallow garden lands are usually considered owned by the male heirs of the last man to have cultivated the property. Usually these rights are held in common by a group of brothers or cousins, but where land is scarce, men may divide their holdings among their sons. Daughters retain rights of usufruct and may cultivate the land with their husbands if they live nearby. Usufruct rights to garden land may be allocated to friends or kin as a way of recruiting nonagnates into the local clan segment. After a generation such land becomes more closely associated with the family of the most recent cultivator than with the original owner. Less commonly, parcels of garden land have been alienated from their original clan segment through purchase by an individual for shell money. Rivers, ritual sites, and hunting landsas well as the rights to their flora and faunaare owned in common by the clan segment, whose interests are managed by the clan segment's elders. Land belonging to moribund clan segments can be expropriated by anyone who can make use of the resources and claim usufructuary rights through nonagnatic kin ties, through previous residence, or through former residence on the land of a parent or grandparent.


Kin Groups and Descent. Each person is born into the named patrilineal clan (kawatom ) of his or her father. Clans are associated with identifiable territories and one or more men's cult ritual sites situated in the bush away from the view of women and children. There are more than 200 local clans, and only the smallest clans are exogamous. Several clan segments may share myths about their origin from a single (Usually unnamed) ancestor. As corporate groups, local clan segments include many nonagnatesmainly wives and a variety of coresident kinsmen from other clans. Coresidence is far more important in defining rights and membership in the corporate group than formal clan membership according to birth.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Omaha type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage with a matrilateral cross cousin is preferred, but only a few marriages are contracted between actual cross cousins. Most spouses are understood to be classificatory cross cousins, but a lack of detailed knowledge about relationships in the second and third ascending generations allows considerable flexibility. Of more importance in arranging marriages is a preference to marry into nearby households. Such marriages consolidate land holdings and existing alliances. Polygyny is accepted but was more common in the past. The most influential men had four or five wives at one time. Divorce is possible but extremely rare. In most Marriages there are strong emotional bonds between husbands and wives. Large bride-price payments are required. After a substantial initial payment, continuing bride-price installments are usually paid for the life of the marriage.

Domestic Unit. Traditionally, an extended family of up to thirty people lived as a cooperative domestic group. A Household usually consisted of 2 or 3 brothers together with their wives and children and a handful of other relatives. With the cessation of intergroup raids and with the formation of Villages, these extended family units are now smaller, often only a nuclear family and a few other individuals (e.g., a grandmother, foster children, and unmarried siblings). Increasingly, the nuclear family is the key domestic group, although there is always room to incorporate otherwise unattached kin, particularly orphans and young single adults.

Inheritance. Children inherit land primarily from their Father, but they retain some rights through their mother. Sago, breadfruit, and nut trees are usually divided up among the children by their owner before death or can be distributed among the heirs in the absence of oral instructions. Portable wealth is nearly always insufficient to cover death payments to the deceased's matrikin and creditors. Such debts are Inherited jointly by the deceased's adult sons and sometimes brothers (or husband if the deceased is a woman).

Socialization. Parents are generally permissive, scolding and occasionally threatening children who misbehave. Ghosts, spirits, and sorcerers are often mentioned to frighten young children. Up to the opening of the Ok Tedi copper mine there were few opportunities for public education.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Ningerum social relations are centered on maintaining a network of alliances between a local clan segment and surrounding clan segments. Before pacification, such positive relations created a security circle for each isolated household. Such ties consolidated land rights and minimized resource scarcities for local groups. A complex set of social obligations consisting of ongoing bride-price, child-price, widow-price, death payments, burial payments, and other personal debts ensured continuing positive relations between neighboring allied families, as long as token payments were made from time to time. Today, allied families cooperate for feasting, ritual activities, house building, and fence building. Formerly, they also supported one another in defense and raiding.

Political Organization. Traditionally there was no form of central authority or hereditary leadership whose authority extended beyond the extended family household. Often Political authority was only nominal within a large household. Influential men (kaa horen ), elder members of the local clan segment, attempted to exert authority over their families through exhortations to action and proper behavior, but they had few other ways to influence their kin. Today, a man of Influence is often able to attract support from clan segments whose members are related to him through blood or marriage. Such ties, however, offer a very weak source of political cohesion and relatives often ignore exhortations. In the 1950s, Village constables (mamus ) were appointed in most villages by the Australian administration. Although most of these men were chosen because they were prominent, even the government's backing did little to augment their authority or expand political cohesion within the region. The Ningerum Local Government Council was established in 1971 with Councillors elected to represent two or three villages.

Social Control. In principle, conflict should not exist within a local clan segment, but disagreements leading to Sorcery accusations among close relatives are not uncommon. There are no formal courts to air disputes and in the past a household or clan segment (together with allied individuals) would attack another household to defend their rights. Today, fear of sorcery and government intervention serve as the only mechanisms for maintaining cohesion within the villages.

Conflict. Before pacification in the 1950s, raids by small groups of warriors were a constant threat. Conflict typically arose as the result of sorcery suspicions following an unexpected death. Usually a single individual was the chosen victim in a raid. Since government control was established, traditional tensions have not abated and traditional forms of conflict have been rechannelled into heightened sorcery fears and frequent accusations of assault sorcery. In recent times, sorcery accusations have often been leveled against very close relatives, especially brothers and parallel cousins.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religious beliefs center on men's cult ritual, which concerns itself with celebrating the ghosts of dead male relatives. Ningerum also believe in a variety of Culture heroes (called "ahwaman"), bush spirits, and powerful essences, all of which are felt to have power (for good or bad) over human endeavors. They also believe in manipulation of the natural world through magic for both positive ends (success in hunting, gardening, and feasting) and for destructive ends (sorcery). The Montfort Catholic Mission has had catechists in a few villages since the late 1960s and the Evangelical Church of Papua has sponsored a few teachers since the late 1970s. Missionization has proceeded slowly and has had little impact on Ningerum religious beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. Men's cult leaders officiate over rites to celebrate the exhumed bones of the dead and release their spirits. Ningerum also have a variety of different kinds of healers. There are no shamans or general-purpose "medicine men." Typically each healer knows only one or two different ritual therapies, each suitable for specific problems.

Ceremonies. The most important ceremonies are the major pig feasts and the men's cult feasts that often accompany them. Public feasts are held in specially constructed feast compounds, containing a large feast house and a long plaza flanked by sleeping quarters for as many as 700 guests. Feasts may take more than six months to prepare and are held by a clan segment about once a decade. The public purpose of these feasts is to redistribute pork, but for the host families these events are an opportunity to celebrate the dead and to promote the host group's prosperity. Men's cult feasts resemble the public feasts in form, but they are also associated with male initiation in addition to pork redistribution and celebrating the dead.

Arts. Ningerum art is focused on decorating the human face and body for a variety of dances and ceremonies. They have few carvings or plastic arts, although formerly they carved and painted hand drums and probably had large painted shields. They have a variety of traditional songs and dances, many of which use drums or other simple percussion instruments.

Medicine. Traditional medicine includes a variety of ritual treatments aimed at attacks by ghosts, spirits, and sorcery. Assault sorcery is believed to be incurable, but projection Sorcery is cured by removing substances that have been magically projected into the body. Curing rituals aimed at ghost attack often promote community cohesion. Few treatments involve herbal remedies. Government-sponsored aid posts have been available since the late 1960s and are regularly used by Ningerum people when sick, but they are often used in conjunction with traditional treatments.

Death and Afterlife. Ningerum believe that at death the soul leaves the body and stays near its living relatives, whose lives it continues to influence for many years. Ghosts punish harmful action toward their living kin with sickness and can punish their living relatives if the ghosts are neglected. Death is never attributed to the work of ghosts. Deaths of the very young, the old, and the infirm are explained as due to weak physiology; for those in the prime of life, death is always considered to be the work of various kinds of assault sorcery.

See alsoMuyu


Austen, Leo (1925). "Report of a Patrol from Wukpit Camp (Tedi River) to Star Mountains." Papua Annual Report for 1922-23, 27-37. Melbourne: Government Printer.

Jackson, Richard (1982). Ok Tedi: The Pot of Gold. Waigani: University of Papua New Guinea.

Welsch, Robert L. (1983). "Traditional Medicine and Western Medical Options among the Ningerum of Papua New Guinea." In The Anthropology of Medicine: From Culture to Method, edited by L. Romanucci-Ross, D. Moerman, and L. Tancredi, 32-53. New York: Praeger.

Welsch, Robert L. (1985). "The Distribution of Therapeutic Knowledge in Ningerum: Implications for Primary Health Care and the Use of Aid Posts." Papua New Guinea Medical Journal 28:67-72.

Welsch, Robert L. (1987). "Multinational Development and Customary Land Tenure: The Ok Tedi Project of Papua New Guinea." The Journal of Anthropology no. 6, pt. 2, 109-132.


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