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ETHNONYMS: Sanio, Saniyo-Hiyowe, Saniyo-Hiyewe, Heve


Identification and Location. Speakers of the Saniyo-Hiyowe language live in the Ambunti District of East Sepik Province in Papua New Guinea. Saniyo-Hiyowe is the name given by linguists to the language spoken by the people who live in the watershed of the Wogamus River, a tributary of the April River that joins the April just above its confluence with the Sepik. This area lies between 4° 22" S. and 4° 35" S. and 142° 9" E. and 142° 28" E. Most of the land is frequently-inundated swamp forest 130 feet (40 meters) above sea level, with low hills up to 1,150 feet (350 meters) rising out of the floodplain.

Demography. The number of speakers of Saniyo-Hiyowe was estimated at 644 in 1981. As a result of a high rate of infant mortality, the population is barely maintaining itself. Nearly half the children born die in infancy or early childhood from malaria, pneumonia, and other infectious diseases. This was the case in the early contact period of the 1960s, and this situation has continued because of the inability to provide health services consistently to low-density areas distant from district headquarters. The postcontact movement of people to larger settlements and riverside settlements has increased exposure to infectious diseases. There was recruitment of contract labor from this area in the 1960s and early 1970s, from which a few men failed to return. Otherwise, little or no out-migration has occurred.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Saniyo-Hiyowe language is the westernmost language of the Sepik Hill stock (formerly called the Sepik Hill family), a group of languages spoken in the foothills at the southern edge of the Sepik River basin, from the Karawari River west to the Leonard Schultze River. The Sepik Hill stock belongs to the Sepik-Ramu phylum. Saniyo-Hiowe is closely related to the Paka and Hewa languages spoken by taro-growing people living at higher altitudes in the Central Range.

History and Cultural Relations

Legends detail the local origin of clans rather than migration into the area. Australian colonial patrols made the first contact in 1961. They encouraged people to move from the foo-thills to riverside locations, and people wanting more contact built settlements at riverside sites on the Wogamus, the April River (Bukabuki), and the Leonard Schultze (Nikiai). The airstrip at Mapisi was opened for mission air traffic in 1981 and attracted increased settlement there. Saniyo have close interactions to the south and west with speakers of Yabio and Pai, small language groups that are not part of the Sepik Hill stock.


Some settlements consist of a single large rectangular house; others, especially in postcontact times, have a dozen or more smaller houses. The typical settlement size increased from thirty in precontact times to seventy five in the 1970s, though people frequently leave larger settlements to spend time in bush houses to hunt and gather. Houses were described as "bird-cages" by an early visitor because of their construction from many small timbers rather than a few main supporting posts and beams. The largest investment of labor goes into the thatched roof, which is covered with large shingles, each made by folding rows of sago leaves over a stick and stitching them in place with rattan. The palm bark flooring is raised above ground level anywhere from two to six feet or, very rarely, is placed high in a tree.

A typical house has four hearths, one in each quarter of the main room, for individual families or visitors. The house may have one or more additional attached apartments, each with its own hearth, for a widow living in isolation. The floor level fireplaces are clay-covered areas set into the wood and palm-slat raised floor. The small fires in them are kept going for warmth at night, lighting cigarettes, and cooking. Each main settlement had a men's house for rituals that were not supposed to be seen by women or uninitiated males.


Subsistence. The staple food is a starch produced from the pith of the sago palm. The sago palms harvested are mostly seedless varieties that must have been planted at one time from cuttings, but it is rarely necessary to plant more sago. The sago palms replace themselves by sending up suckers from the base making the Saniyo essentially foragers rather than farmers.

Sago starch is extracted by felling and splitting open the mature palm and then scraping and pounding the pith with a stone tool. The loosened pith is placed in a washing trough built on a large sago leaf base. Water is poured over the pith and kneaded in the trough. The water containing the leached starch runs through a filter into a lower settling trough. The starch may be mixed with boiling water to make a stiff pudding, but normally it is baked in the coals in a leaf-wrapped packet.

Sago contributes 85 percent of the diet, and the remaining 15 percent is diverse. Domesticated pigs are raised in small numbers, and occasionally a cassowary chick is captured from the wild. Gardening is not significant, but some men grow small plots of bananas and occasionally taro. Tree crops include pandanus, breadfruit, and coconuts. Several crops introduced in the 1960s have taken hold, including squash, papaya, and cucumber. Wild greens are gathered, especially edible ferns. Hunting and fishing make equal contributions to the diet. The game taken includes wild pigs, marsupials, and cassowaries. The main fishing methods are the placement of basket traps in weirs, the use of multipronged spears, poisoning, and hook and line fishing.

Commercial Activities. Commercial activities are minimal. There is some casual employment as translators, household help, and unskilled labor, locally with missionaries or by walking to the Frieda River mining site.

Industrial Arts. Men make their own arrows for hunting. The arrows used to hunt large game have three parts: a reed shaft, a carved and painted palm wood foreshaft, and a bamboo head.

Women make string bags. They make their own skirts from shredded leaves or sedges. Men's traditional genital covering of a shell or a seed was replaced by a scrap of trade cloth or cotton shorts by the 1960s.

Three types of stone tools were in use in the 1960s: polished stone adzes, polished stone sago cutting tools, and flaked stone sago pounder/scrapers. The adzes used for sago cutting were replaced by steel axes and adzes, but stone sago pounders continued to be manufactured and used.

Trade. Sago was traded to Sepik River peoples, though the distances involved made such trade rare and unprofitable. Shells and other ornaments and stone tools were traded, but only the flaked stone sago pounders originated in the area. Since contact, produce and artifacts have been sold to missionaries, traders, and adventure tourists. Exchange items have included clothing, metal tools, flashlights and batteries, wristwatches, hooks and line, beads, salt, and matches.

Division of Labor. The primary division of labor involves gender and age. Women do most of the sago work, though it is not unknown for men to do it. Men hunt and do most house-building and craftwork with wood. They specialize in activities that they enjoy and do especially well; for example, one man disabled by a leg distorted by tertiary yaws made fine arrows and armbands. Men who especially enjoy hunting or house-building share meat or living space with others. Women make string bags and other items of string. Both men and women gather wild plants and fish.

Land Tenure. The patrilineage is the land-holding unit, holding in common tracts of bush and watercourses and the hunting and fishing rights associated with them. Sago palms are held by sibling sets, brothers and sisters who were shown the sago by either or both of their parents.


Kin Groups and Descent. A named patri-clan is associated with the hill of its traditional home. Each clan has its own myth of origin at that place, a slit gong call, and a totem such as a dog or a betel nut palm. Within the clan, constituent patrilineages bear a name that consists of the clan name and a birth order term associated with the founder; for example, Arasu peteriari is a lineage of the Arasu clan that traces its descent from a first-born son. Genealogies are not traced back farther than the lineage founders.

Kinship Terminology. Some Omaha features occur in the cousin terminology, though cross-generational merging is not pervasive. Birth order terms that refer to birth orders one through five of each sex are important in the kinship terminology as well as in personal naming.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. For women marriage does not occur immediately after menarche and may be delayed for years, especially if a young woman's labor is important to her family. Both partners in the prospective couple and their parents may be involved in proposing or resisting a union.

Some weeks after a woman has gone to her new husband's community and they have begun cohabiting, a feast is held to which her relatives are invited for the payment of the bride-price. Individual relatives of the groom, not his patrilineage collectively, contribute to the bride-price. The shell valuables they have contributed are amassed for display and then distributed to individual relatives of the bride, not necessarily the members of her patrilineage. The largest items, passing to and from closer relatives, are cowry shell money stitched on woven string bands. Smaller items include other types of shells, formerly dog's-teeth necklaces, and now strings of colorful trade beads. Cash began to be used for bride-wealth in the 1980s.

Sister exchange, or, more accurately, an attempt to pair marriages to achieve parity in the flow of women, is expected and does not eliminate the expectation of bride-wealth.

Marriage is very stable, and divorce as a result of adultery is unusual. Polygyny is permitted.

A high rate of mortality among young adults causes many marriages to be broken by death while the children are still young. Both widows and widowers are subject to severe food taboos and behavioral restrictions, for example, on work.

Domestic Unit. The basic unit consists of the husband, the wife, and young children. The couple rarely live alone but regroup frequently into new households, residing for a time with a brother or sister or the parent of one spouse or visiting or being visited by other relatives. Although there is a bias toward virilocality, residence is better described as multilocal, as it is not unusual for a family to have houses in more than one hamlet. The basic coresident unit is a brother and sister with their spouses and children, joined by various young single and elderly widowed relatives.

Inheritance. Very few possessions are accumulated that can be inherited. Items of everyday personal use are destroyed or continue in use in the household. Claims to a future bride-price and sago palms are the few things that people explicitly speak of passing from parent to child: "When she is grown, you will share in her bride-price because I paid part of the bride-price for her mother."

Socialization. Mothers provide all the care for breast-fed infants, though the father may look after older children while the mother is away working with sago. Older children are not involved in caring for younger children. Socialization of teenagers, which consists of teaching them subsistence tasks, is done more by younger aunts and uncles than by parents. A ritual washing ceremony and feast was held to mark the menarche, after which the girl was decked out with bead and shell ornaments. The most highly valued trait that adults attempt to inculcate by lecturing young people is generosity, especially sharing food with others.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The largest named groupings are the parishes formed by pairing neighboring clans, such as Oparu-Paru or Arasu-Nikiyei.

Political Organization. The term "big man" means literally any adult male. Leadership is widely diffused, and egalitarianism is the rule. Women expect to be listened to in discussions of public affairs.

Social Control. Persons accused of witchcraft can be executed by the relatives of a person they are alleged to have killed through their craving for human flesh. Gossip and openly expressed disapproval attend violations of sexual and food taboos and failures of hospitality.

Conflict. The typical response to threatened conflict is avoidance, with people moving to another settlement to avoid conflict. In the absence of leaders to mediate conflicts, if people do not separate, a conflict can rapidly escalate to killing. Because this is known, the intervention of the police was welcomed from the early days of contact.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The supernatural entities of the Saniyo are local spirits resident in ironwood trees, the ground, and whirlpools and ancestral spirits. All these spirits are known for their ability to cause illness and the death of those who are particularly vulnerable, such as infants and the elderly. The deaths of those in less vulnerable age groups are more often attributed to sorcerers or witches.

Religious Practitioners. All adult males except the mentally deficient traditionally were initiated into the male cult. A shaman smoked tobacco and became possessed by its spirit in order to heal.

Ceremonies. The male cult involved the playing of a bamboo trumpet and paired bamboo flutes that represented the voices of the ancestors in the secrecy of the men's house. In case of illness, a pig is sacrificed to these ancestral spirits.

Dances traditionally were held at night in the larger houses. Dancing was done to the rhythm of hour-glassshaped drums. Central figures wore elaborate feathered head-dresses; others wore whatever finery they could assemble, including shell valuables.

Arts. Wood carving was the most developed visual art. Incised designs on war shields, drums, arrows, and spears were painted with red, white, and yellow ochre.

Medicine. Frequently-used traditional treatments employ the principle of the counter-irritant, such as rubbing the skin with nettles. Western medicine has been highly valued since its introduction because of the dramatic effect of injections of penicillin on yaws, but it is not consistently available.

Death and Afterlife. Before the government began to insist on burial, bodies were placed on a platform or, in the case of infants, in the fork of a tree. Later the bones were given a secondary burial. The shell valuables of a man who dies go to his matrilateral relative (a cross-cousin, mother's brother, or sister's son) as a funeral payment. It is said that the ghosts of the recently dead linger and may cause illness because of their jealousy of the living.

For other cultures in Papua New Guinea, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 2, Oceania.


Lewis, R. K. (1972). "Sanio-Hiowe Paragraph Structure," Pacific Linguistics 15: 1-9, Series A, 31.

Lewis, Sandra C. (1972). "Sanio-Hiowe Verb Phrases," Pacific Linguistics 15: 11-22, Series A, 31.

Townsend, Patricia K. (1971). "New Guinea Sago Gatherers: A Study of Demography in Relation to Subsistence," Ecologyof Food and Nutrition 1: 19-24. Reprinted in Food, Ecology, and Culture, edited by J. R. K. Robson (1981). New York: Gordon and Breach.

(1974). "Sago Production in a New Guinea Economy," Human Ecology 2: 217-236.

(1978). "The Politics of Mobility among the Sanio-Hiowe," Anthropological Quarterly 51: 26-35.

(1995). "The Washed and the Unwashed: Women's Life Cycle Rituals among the Saniyo-Hiyowe of East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea." In Gender Rituals: Female Initiation in Melanesia, edited by Nancy C. Lutkehaus and Paul B. Roscoe. 165-182. New York and London: Routledge.

Townsend, William H. (1969) "Stone and Steel Tool Use in a New Guinea Society," Ethnology 8: 199-205.