views updated


ETHNONYMS: Arawe, Asengseng


Identification. To outsiders, the Sengseng tend to identify themselves simply as "Arawe," a term designating all the People of southwest New Britain, including Arawe Islanders, who practice artificial deformation of the skull.

Location. Scattered through a region that extends from approximately 149°52 E and from 6° to 6°17 S, the Sengseng live on either side of the Andru River on the southern side of the island of New Britain, in the state of Papua New Guinea. A few live directly on the coast, in villages that also contain speakers of neighboring languages, but most are located in the interior, up to a height of about 424 meters in the foothills of the Whiteman Range. The country is limestone karst broken by many small streams that can turn into flash floods during the frequent heavy rains. This is one of the wettest parts of Papua New Guinea, averaging about 635 centimeters annually, with the heaviest falls concentrated from June to September. It is warm during the day but, particularly at the higher altitudes, very cool at night.

Demography. The population in 1980 was probably just under 1,000. There is no evidence of overall increase since the early 1960s. Accurate figures are impossible to obtain Because so many villages now contain speakers of other Languages. Earlier census material indicated a considerable excess of adult males, but this does not appear in the 1980 census (which may not be accurate).

linguistic Affiliation. Sengseng is one of several closely related languages spoken along the southern and eastern side of the Whiteman Range. These languages include Kaulong, with the largest group of speakers, and Miu, to the west, and Karore and Psohoh to the east. Linguists disagree about which languages are the closest relatives of this group, which has been called Pasismanua after the name of a government census division in which most of the Kaulong and Sengseng speakers live. Pasismanua are generally agreed to be Oceanic (Austronesian), but several linguists have argued that they show influences from Non-Austronesian (Papuan) languages once spoken in this region.

History and Cultural Relations

Culturally, the Sengseng are almost identical to speakers of other Pasismanua languages, but they also have much in common with speakers of other southwest New Britain Languages, particularly Arawe and Lamogai (Bibling). The difficult terrain and sparse population isolated many interior Sengseng from direct contact with the Australian government until the mid-1950s, though villagers nearer the coast came under government influence earlier. Followers of a cargo cult centered outside Sengseng territory persuaded a number of interior people to move nearer the coast in the late 1950s, and these villagers were converted to Roman Catholicism. Since that time they also have belonged to the system of local government councils, whereas interior villages still had a system of government-appointed headmen in 1981. Missionaries began to work in the interior about 1984.


Settlements are tiny, usually containing no more than a dozen people and often fewer. The Australian government established official consolidated villages for census purposes but these places are rarely inhabited. A settlement contains a men's house, one or more family houses, and a few trees such as coconut and betel palms. Until warfare was forbidden, each settlement was located on a hilltop, which ideally featured a large strangler fig that could be climbed if enemies attacked. Women use shelters built in the bush outside the settlement while menstruating and giving birth.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The starch staple is taro, but because it has been affected by a blight since about 1960, manioc has become increasingly important. Other cultigens include bananas, various greens (especially Hibiscus manihot ), yams, sugarcane, and, near the coast, sweet potatoes. Because of a traditional pattern of planting a single large garden in one day, often no taro is available for long periods. Then the Sengseng rely on wild foods, particularly wild yams (Dioscorea spp.) and, in season, breadfruit. Year-round, perhaps 50 percent of their calories come from wild foods. Coconuts do not grow well in the interior and are reserved for feasts. Domestic animals are limited to pigs and dogs. When a pig's upper canines are removed, the lower ones eventually grow in a complete circle, and the killing of such a tusker is a major event. Domestic pork is eaten only at feasts; most protein comes from wild sources. Birds, bats, and arboreal marsupials are hunted with long blowguns, and wild pigs with dogs and spears. Other creatures are collected when encountered. They include pythons, bandicoots, frogs, and insects, especially the grubs of longicorn beetles and tent caterpillars, supplemented by an occasional wallaby or cassowary. Eels are highly prized, and during dry weather streams are dammed and bailed dry so as to obtain large supplies of shrimp and other crustaceans. Many wild fruits and nuts Supplement the diet. Men go away to work to obtain money and particularly to buy cheaply elsewhere in Papua New Guinea one of the main forms of wealth in Sengseng, gold-lip pearl shells. Locally the Sengseng earn money by selling shells to foreigners, who use them to manufacture their own money.

Industrial Arts. Technology includes wooden spears, shields, hourglass drums, flutes, panpipes, bark cloth, and bags made of vine. The most important wealth itemspierced, polished disks of black and white stone, called niklak are of unknown origin. Ornaments are made of plaited vines, dogs' teeth, shells, and cassowary pinions, as well as circular pigs' tusks.

Trade. Tobacco and betel nuts grow particularly well in the interior and are traded towards the coast in exchange for coconuts, lizard skins for drumheads, and bivalves. Prepared salt and wood for spears are received from the Miu to the west. Local trade includes pigments such as manganese for blackening teeth and red minerals for painting shields. Now that they are no longer made on the coast, shields and bark cloth manufactured in the interior are sold to coastal Sengseng, the shields being used in dancing.

Division of Labor. The planting of a new garden is the main communal task, being carried out by a group of men. Men also may cooperate in building a men's house and in hunting wild pigs. Family houses are usually built by husband and wife. Because men believe that taro will not grow well if planted by a woman, and unmarried men also fear being "poisoned" if they eat food cooked near where women sleep, Sengseng men do many tasks that, in other societies, are carried out by women. Women prepare food for themselves and their children, and men for themselves. Purely masculine jobs are usually the heaviest: cutting down trees, damming streams, fencing gardens against pigs, and hunting, as well as butchering and cooking domestic pigs. Men also manufacture weapons, drums, and bark cloth. Particularly female tasks are the weeding of gardens, the manufacture of bags and baskets, the rearing of domestic pigs, and the care of young babies.

Land Tenure. Surprisingly for horticulturalists, gardening land is not owned, though the site of a men's house and the trees planted nearby are. It is believed that taro grows best near where an ancestor is buried, but any descendant of a Person who once lived in a settlement can make a garden in the vicinity. There is no shortage of land.


Kin Groups and Descent. Each Sengseng traces Membership in several cognatic descent categories, composed of all those who share a named, remote, common ancestor, who may be a bird or a supernatural being. Sometimes a food taboo is associated with the category, but the members do not constitute any sort of social group. A settlement is composed of some of the descendants, through both men and women, of the founder, and though in theory descendants through men have authority over descendants through women and can expel them if a quarrel arises, in practice this rarely happens. Sengseng genealogies are long and enable people to trace connections with all those with whom they normally interact. A strong preference is expressed for marriage between certain categories of kin, particularly, for a man, with a daughter of a woman called taso, "father's sister." Most feel, however, that first cross cousins are too closely related to marry; if they do, they have to pay off any aggrieved kin. Marriage between first parallel cousins is forbidden, and sexual Relations between them are considered incestuous. Kin ties are extended by adoption; the traditional pattern of killing Widows left many children parentless, and even an unmarried man might adopt a child old enough to be weaned.

Kinship Terminology. This does not fit any usual classification. Cousin terminology is of the Hawaiian type, so that distinctions between various kinds of cousin rest on description of the links. Mother and mother's sister are called by the same term, with a separate term for father's sister, but there are separate terms for father, father's brother, and mother's brother.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. All women marry, but a number of men do not, fearing the physical weakening thought to afflict men who engage in sexual intercourse. Ideally, the woman chooses her own husband, singling out a man in the most approved Kinship category (classificatory, not true, mother's brother or mother's brother's son) at a dance and physically attacking him. He gives her a gift that indicates their betrothal. If her family members agree to the marriage, they deliver her to him with payments in shells and pigs. The payments from the man's side are larger and entitle his kin to expect that when the husband dies, the wife will be killed by her own closest male kin. Today, widow killing has been forbidden by the successive governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea, but remarriage for widows is still disapproved. Because marriage is for eternity, there is no divorce, but men are permitted to take more than one wife, who may be sisters. Relations between affines include many taboos on disrespectful or antagonistic behavior; fines in shells are demanded for any breach of these restrictions, and misfortune befalls the perpetrator. Most conspicuously, it is taboo to say any word that resembles the name of an affine of senior generation, and a special "married" vocabulary exists to deal with this problem. A great Social divide separates the married and unmarried; it is improper for the unmarried, especially men, to show any interest in such matters as the pregnancy of a married woman, and an unmarried man should not approach the house of a married man other than his own father.

Domestic Unit. Newlyweds usually live apart from others, largely because of sexual jealousy on the man's part. Those couples who have been married longer may join a settlement, but they almost always have their own house. The father moves permanently to the men's house once a daughter approaches adolescence. Boys sleep in the men's house from the age of about 7, but they may still come home to eat. Some older, unmarried men live alone or join forces with each other, calling on female kin for help with such tasks as weeding their gardens. Married couples with their older children work together in gardens.

Inheritance. The major wealth items, niklak and gold-lip pearl shells, are often buried to avoid theft, and they may be lost forever if the owner dies unexpectedly. In theory, niklak are inherited only by men, but a woman may receive small ones if she has no brothers, whereas larger ones go to a nephew. In general, the oldest man in a sibling set holds the valuables inherited from a father; when he dies, the next brother takes them over. The same rule applies to such male goods as spears, shields, and hourglass drums. Girls inherit any personal goods from the mother, with the eldest daughter usually taking precedence. All descendants of the planter can take fruit from his trees.

Socialization. In line with eventual courtship patterns, baby girls are encouraged to be physically aggressive as soon as they can toddle. Boys may fight with each other but should tolerate blows from girls. Both sexes are warned against engaging in any kind of premarital sexual behavior and must observe taboos on acts that might stunt their growth or, in the case of girls, affect eventual childbearing. Children are not held responsible for their actions until they are adolescent, and they enjoy considerable freedom, though little girls are expected to baby-sit and to help care for piglets. Almost from birth, babies are constantly sung to and bounced in rhythm, and many learn to carry a tune before they can talk.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Sengseng believe that association with others is likely to lead to quarrels, and quarreling is in fact frequent between coresidents, though they try to avoid killing. Settlements constantly split up; it is always possible to join cognatic kin elsewhere. Links between settlements are maintained by marriage, attendance at dances, trade, and the practice of giving a visitor a pearl shell on departure, leading to return visits to settle the debt with an identical shell. With the establishment of official villages, however, coresidents often act as a unit in confronting other villages, but internal harmony remains minimal except when a resident is planning a ceremony and makes a special effort to gain cooperation from others.

Political Organization. The Sengseng identify themselves as speaking a common language, but they have never been united politically. Leadership depends on a combination of ability as a warrior and as an organizer of feasts in which Domestic pigs are killed, and the possession of wealth in niklak and pearl shells. A leader need not be married, but he must be willing to travel widely, to trade and collect debts, and to attend ceremonies at which pork is distributed together with pearl shells.

Social Control. The older men of a settlement punished certain offenses, such as public use of sexual terms, by spearing the offender. Most quarrels result from failure to pay debts on demand. Ending a quarrel requires an exchange of matched pearl shells, even in villages near the coast, where village officials and elders of both sexes try to settle disputes.

Conflict. In the past, warfare might erupt at any time. A man shamed in his own village, as by falling down in the Presence of women, would relieve his feelings by spearing the first outsider he encountered, and any hapless traveler might be speared by a man wishing to enhance his own reputation as a warrior. Dances still often lead to brawls and occasionally to killing, if any offense such as an insult is remembered. All killings demand a return death, but then peace is likely to be restored, with payments exchanged. Victims of warfare should not include a child, an important man, or more than one victim at a time; breach of these rules would provoke unControlled retaliation.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Apart from the period immediately after a death, ghosts have little to do with the living, but the landscape, including all deep pools, is inhabited by a variety of spirits of other sorts (called masalai in Pidgin English) who threaten but occasionally help people. The most important are invoked in garden magic to make the crops bear. Numerous taboos surround everyday life. The breach of some is punished by spirits, but often the consequences simply follow automatically. Much apparently religious behavior, such as the treatment of bones of the dead, is only vaguely and inConsistently explained in terms of spiritual beings. Characteristic of all southwest New Britain is the sacralization of fire, which, because it enables people to cook food, is considered to be the basis of human survival. Oaths are sworn on it, it is used to break up fights and to make sites taboo, and it must be treated with respect; serious burns follow breaches of taboo.

Religious Practitioners. Specialists practice garden magic, magic to control the weather, and many types of curing, for which they are paid if they are not working for close kin. A few men claim to be able to injure and kill through Sorcery, but most sorcerers are thought to be anonymous Foreigners, especially Kaulong speakers. Most men know some love magic, minor garden spells, and magic to induce debtors to pay up.

Ceremonies. The most important center on blackening the teeth of adolescent boys (to make them look attractive), the killing of pigs with circular tusks, funerals, and the decoration and honoring of the skulls of dead men. In some Villages, masked figures appear periodically: formerly, they chased and beat women and children, but today, now that violence has been forbidden by the government, they simply collect fines for offenses.

Art. Music, especially song, is the major art form, loved and constantly indulged in by everyone. Decorative arts are minimal; one kind of design is carved on all shields, and another is painted on all bark cloth. At dances, men simply sing, drum, and beat spears against their shields; only women actually dance.

Medicine. All respiratory disease in men is blamed on pollution by females: the people believe that girls and women should never be physically higher than men (i.e., they should never stand over or sit above men). Special cures exist for respiratory conditions and are used by both sexes. Other ailments are blamed on sorcery, breach of a taboo, and soul loss, the last especially if a sleeper is startled awake. Nonmagical cures are used for minor ailments. Western medicine is much desired but usually only available at a distant aid post staffed by a medical orderly paid by the government.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, a woman was strangled and buried with her husband in order to accompany him to the afterlife. Occasionally, a woman was killed to accompany a dead child. Burial was under the floor of the men's house, which continued to be occupied (still the case in Interior villages in 1981). Near the coast, the dead are buried in separate cemeteries, but pigs are still killed, growing taro is cut up, and one or more fruit trees are cut down, all to supply the dead in the afterlife. Most argue that after the ghost, accompanied by other ghosts, reaches the land of the dead in the interior, it shows no further interest in the living, though it may attack and eat any human beings met on the way. But there are contradictory beliefs in ghosts that live in certain places, especially caves, near villages, where they duplicate the activities of the living. Ghosts may also be summoned by rituals, especially one type of garden magic. Sometimes an aspiring leader exhumes a man's skull and holds ceremonies over it. These rituals bring good luck to the people of the settlement, but Sengseng disagree as to whether the ghost is attached to the skull.


Chinnery, E. W. P. (1928). Certain Natives in South New Britain and Dampier Straights. Territory of New Guinea Anthropological Report no. 3. Port Moresby: Government Printer.

Chowning, Ann (1974). "Disputing in Two West New Britain Societies." In Contention and Dispute: Aspects of Law and Social Control in Melanesia, edited by A. L. Epstein. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Chowning, Ann (1978). "Changes in West New Britain Trading Systems in the Twentieth Century." Mankind 11:296-307.

Chowning, Ann (1980). "Culture and Biology among the Sengseng." Journal of the Polynesian Society 89:7-31.

Chowning, Ann, and Jane C. Goodale (1965). "The Passismanua Census Division, West New Britain Open Electorate." In The Papua-New Guinea Elections, 1964, edited by D. G. Bettison, C. A. Hughes, and P. W. van der Veur, 264-279. Canberra: Australian National University Press.