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Identification. The term "Tangu" generally refers to one of several culturally similar communities living in the Bogia Region of the Madang Province of Papua New Guinea. The name also refers to the language spoken by both the Tangu "proper" and certain other related groups.

Location. Tangu live on a series of steep, forested ridges about 24 kilometers inland from Bogia Bay in the northern coastal area of Papua New Guinea, at about 4°25 S by 144°55 E.

Demography. In 1951-1952, the ethnographic present for this report, Kenelm Burridge estimated the Tangu population at roughly 2,000, distributed throughout about thirty settlements of varying size. The population is now approaching 3,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tangu is a Non-Austronesian Language in the Ataitan Language Family.

>History and Cultural Relations

While the Tangu are ethnographically quite similar to their neighbors, they consider themselves to be a distinct polity, tied closely together by kinship, trading, and exchange relationships. Perhaps the most distinctive feature setting them apart from their neighbors is their participation in a disputing activity known as br'ngun'guni, in which grievances are aired at public assemblies. European contact with Tangu was first made by German administrative officials shortly before World War I, although the event had relatively little effect on traditional life. Effective "control" was established by the Australians in the 1920s, at which time a Society of the Divine Word mission was also founded. Tangu have been known for participation in cargo cults or millenarian movements under the influence of two messianic leaders: first Mambu, in the 1930s and 1940s, and later Yali, in the 1950s.


The Tangu population is roughly grouped into four named neighborhoods. Each neighborhood contains one or more large settlements of some twenty or more houses and several smaller settlements, some comprised of only a few Homesteads. Settlements are strung out along a series of steep, interconnected ridges. Garden sites are scattered around the surrounding countryside. Tangu usually have temporary bush settlements associated with hunting and gardening areas far from the main village, and they may live in them for several weeks at a time.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Tangu are primarily subsistence farmers who practice swidden or slash-and-burn horticulture. Their staple crops include numerous varieties of yams, taro, and bananas, planted in rotation and supplemented with sago and breadfruit, especially during December and January, which are months of relative scarcity of the primary foods. These main crops are supported by sugarcane, coconuts, pitpit, gourds, beans, squashes, and greens. Maize, tapioca, sweet potatoes, melons, pumpkins, tomatoes, and other vegetables have been recently introduced. Pigs and chickens are kept domestically, the latter mainly for their feathers. Tangu forage in the forest, and they also hunt wild pigs, cassowaries, lizards, possums, cuscus, wallabies and other small marsupials, and birds. Land animals are usually tracked with the aid of dogs, or caught in snares or traps. Birds are usually shot with bows and arrows. Fish were traditionally netted with hand nets by women, speared by men, or stunned in pools by using poison roots. This life-style of basic subsistence farming, supplemented by some hunting and gathering, is also augmented by migrant or occasional labor for cash.

Industrial Arts. Tangu produce a variety of utilitarian objects used in their everyday lives, including banana-fiber underskirts, pandanus-fiber skirts, woven-cane bands and Personal adornments, and pandanus-fiber cord, from which they fashion string bags and fishing nets. They manufacture slit gongs, used for signaling public announcements, and traditional musical instruments including hand drums and Jew's harps. Their only commercial manufactures are clay pots, made with the coil technique, and string bags. These are traded within Tangu and also sold for cash.

Trade. Tangu have extensive trading relations, both among themselves and with neighboring people. Two of the four Tangu neighborhoods specialize in clay-pot making and two specialize in string bag and sago production. These items are traded within Tangu and are also sold to outsiders. The string bags and sago are sold mainly to people from the coast, while the clay pots are sold both to coastal inhabitants and to people from the hinterland. Other traditional items of Exchange include hunting dogs, tobacco, and betel nuts. More recently, the mission trade store stocks goods of European manufacture, which are sold or exchanged for local products and services. These items are often exchanged again, typically with hinterland neighbors.

Division of Labor. As in most tribal societies, Tangu division of labor is based on age and sex. Women cook, weed, look after young children, and do certain craftswork, such as making string bags. Men hunt, build houses and shelters, and do other craftswork, such as wood carving. Garden work is carried on by both sexes, although the sexes once again perform slightly different tasks, with men doing most of the heavy felling, clearing, and digging and women doing most of the daily carrying, weeding, and cleaning.

Land Tenure. Land can be "inherited" through either male or female relatives, but the practices governing the actual transfer of land are extremely flexible. Each individual has "claims" on land belonging to his or her relatives, Depending on the closeness of those relatives, and the strengths of the competing claims of others. Such "claims," recognized to a greater or lesser extent by the community, are always greater when actually exercised. Particularly strong structural claims can be made by sons on their father's claims, by nephews on their mother's brother's claims, and by husbands and wives on each other's claims. In general, the Tangu have ample land, and they tend to gravitate toward those areas where their claims are most easily exercised and their personal prospects best.


Kin Groups and Descent. Perhaps because individual Tangu can choose to exercise their "claims" in a variety of ways, Tangu have no named lineal descent groups. Kinship is based on mutual relationships between people rather than on corporate groups defined by categories of parentage or quasiparentage. The most important interrelationships are Between brothers, sisters, brothers and sisters, friends, siblings-in-law, cross cousins not intending to marry, betrothed couples, and spouses.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Iroquois type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Because of the sexual division of labor in Tangu, there are few unmarried adults. Marriages bring about cooperative exchange relationships between the families of the husband and wife. Ideally, marriages are arranged Between the children of people who are already friends or Between certain cross cousins. There is a period of formal betrothal lasting for several years, marked by the groom's family presenting a pig, chaplets of dogs' teeth, and other valuables to the wife's family. At first the engaged pair practice avoidance behavior, but later they exchange labor in one another's households. At the wedding itself, the wife's brothers host the husband's family. This practice not only clears the debt created by the betrothal pig and valuables, but it also sets up the exchange relationship between husband and wife's brothers that continues through the life of the marriage. Either partner is free to break off the marriage at will, but the close ties between their families make it difficult to do so without good cause. Men may often seek a second wife, commonly a sister of the first wife, or sometimes a divorced woman. These second marriages are accompanied by relatively little Ceremony: a payment to the woman's brothers usually contracts the marriage. Later, a return payment to the husband sets up the exchange relationship and frees the woman to divorce the man if she wishes.

Domestic Unit. The basic and most permanent Cooperative work group is the household, generally consisting of a man, his wife or wives, and their natural and adopted Children. Occasionally an aging parent of either spouse may reside with them, but households are typically small and simply constituted.

Inheritance. Among the most important things that can be inherited are land claims and friendship relationships. These pass from parents of either sex to all of their children. People of the same sex, whose parents were friends, are expected to be friends. Land claims and personal relationships can also be inherited from other close relatives. As with land claims, people usually inherit more friendship relations than they can actually use, and they choose to activate those they find most congenial or most useful.

Socialization. Young children spend most of their time with their mothers and mother's sisters for the first few years of their lives. For girls, the natal household is the focus of their lives. They follow a fairly tranquil transition to adulthood, practicing the skills of Tangu womanhood from an early age. They learn the skills and crafts of women from their mothers and aunts: how to cook, carry, collect water, clear brush, and weed; how to make string, skirts, and string bags; how to gather and use wild plants; and how to care for younger siblings. For boys, the path to adulthood is less smooth. When a boy is about 6, he leaves his mother and begins to spend more time with his father, for whom he performs small services, and is taught a variety of skills. He learns about household lands and his father's special talents, such as curing, painting, carving, drumming, dancing, plaiting, building, trapping, or fishing. At the same time, he becomes involved with his mother's brothers, from whom he learns of their land claims and their special skills. Traditionally, at adolescence, boys entered a clubhouse, to be secluded, circumcised, and initiated. With the breakdown of this system, adolescent boys have some difficulties handling the authority of their fathers and mothers' brothers as they come of age, and a period of contract labor is common before marriage. Socialization in sexual matters is provided in part by the gangaringniengi or "sweetheart" relationship with a particular cross cousin who, although in a marriageable category, is forbidden as a marriage partner. "Sweethearts" dance, sit together, flirt, and fondle and stroke one another, engaging in love play. Breast and penis stimulation are common, but coitus is Formally prohibited.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, local communities were comprised of two exogamous intermarrying groups called gagawa. Households would establish exchange relationships with other households in the opposite group. Ideally, these exchange relationships would continue through time as parents transmitted them to their children. Today, Exchange relationships are still of major importance. Through marriage and formal friendships, individuals in different Communities are also linked. Thus Tangu society is integrated through mutual relationships between individuals and Between families.

Political Organization. Tangu have no chiefs. Instead, groups of households tend to be held together by wunika ruma, dynamic and hardworking big-men, who have no specific authority but lead by example and through respect gained in production and oratory.

Social Control. Social control within the group is maintained largely through the institution of br'ngun'guni: debating, talking, and disputing in public assembly. Matters of public concern are brought up and discussed on frequent occasions, and the weight of public opinion is usually enough to make people conform to collective norms of behavior.

Conflict. Conflict within the group often arises out of competition for status. Grievances may relate to competing claims on fishing, hunting and gardening resources, kinship matters, exchange obligations, or allegations of sorcery or trespass. Traditionally, when grievances arose between people whose groups were not sufficiently close to engage in br'ngun'guni, feuds and warfare generally resulted. Warfare with outsiders, such as the Diawat people, who were trying to expand their territory at the expense of the Tangu, was also common.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Tangu believe in a group of divine beings called puoker, water beings called pap'ta, and ghosts of the dead, who ultimately become ancestral beings. Spirit beings of all sorts are thought to be capable of affecting human affairs, but they are somewhat capricious and difficult to placate.

Religious Practitioners. The nature of Tangu religious practitioners is linked to the belief in ranguova, men who practice a combination of sorcery and witchcraft. Ranguova are responsible for inflicting many types of illness and death. Their identity can be determined by dreamer-diviners, and they can be killed by a different sort of specialist.

Ceremonies. Dances and feasts are held frequently to mark a variety of social occasions. Formerly, elaborate ritual accompanied boys' circumcision and also the manufacture and positioning of wooden slit gongs, but these rites are no longer practiced.

Arts. While goods of European manufacture are increasingly taking the place of certain traditional arts, finely produced personal accessories are still made, including bananafiber underskirts and pandanus-fiber overskirts, bark-cloth breechclouts, woven-cane ornaments and waistbands, and string bags. Slit gongs and hand drums are made, but without the carving, incising, pigmentation, and decoration that they formerly carried.

Medicine. Tangu recognize certain types of sicknesses as physiological and treat them with a variety of medicines. Other illnesses are linked with the activities of ranguova (sorcerers). Such illnesses are "treated" by determining the identity of the sorcerer, exposing him, and forcing him to cease his harmful activities.

Death and Afterlife. In Tangu, death is matter-of-fact, and deceased are buried quickly, often within an hour or two of dying. Traditionally, personal valuables were buried with the corpse. People mourn individually, on slit gongs, when they think of deceased loved ones from time to time. Each Individual is thought to have a "soul" or "mind" called gnek. After death, this soul becomes a ghost temporarily, then Finally becomes an ancestral spirit.


Burridge, Kenelm (1960). Mambu: A Melanesian Millennium. London: Methuen.

Burridge, Kenelm (1969). Tangu Traditions: A Study of the Way of Life, Mythology, and Developing Experience of a New Guinea People. London: Oxford University Press.