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ETHNONYMS: Laewomba, Laiwomba, Laewamba, Nambawan Makam


Identification and Location. The meaning and derivation of the ethnonym Wampar are not known. The Wampar live in the valleys of the Markham and Wampit rivers in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. The nearest town to their tribal area is Lae. The Rumu River is a natural border to the Adzera in the northwest. The Wampar have settled in nine villages. Five of them are situated along the highway that connects Lae with the highland provinces. South of the Markham four villages are near the road to Wau and Bulolo. Wide areas in the Markham valley are covered with sword grass. Wampar gardens are located in gallery forests along the rivers and creeks and at the foothills of the surrounding mountains.

Demography. The Wampar practiced infanticide before the arrival of missionaries in 1909, after which the population increased rapidly. A 1937 census listed 1,841 Wampar. The official census for 1980 listed 5,150. For the year 2000 the Wampar population was estimated at approximately 10,000, based on the latest census taken in one of the Wampar villages. In 1994-1995 demographic research showed declining fertility. One reason may have been the spread of venereal diseases; another reason was that Wampar women were practicing family planning because they feared that their land would not be sufficient for the coming generations. However, the population has increased because immigration has been more influential than the transition to a modern fertility regime. The increase in the 1980s and 1990s was been caused mainly by migration from the highlands, Sepik Province, and the mountain areas north of the Markham valley.

Linguistic Affiliation. Wampar is an Austronesian language. It belongs to the Markham group within the Houn-Golf family and, together with Musom, Duwet, Nafir, Aribwaungg, Aribwatsa, and Labu, to the subgroup of the Lower Markham languages. There are no dialect differences in Wampar. Pidgin English, the second official language in Papua New Guinea, is gaining importance in the villages. Since 1999 the Wampar language has been taught in elementary schools.

History and Cultural Relations

According to tradition, the Wampar came down the Watut to the Markham valley in the nineteenth century. Probably they drove away other ethnic groups that were living there. In the first years of the twentieth century the Wampar had contact with Lutheran missionaries and colonial officers. In 1909 peace was made between the Wampar, Labu, Lae, and Bukawa under the influence of the Lutheran mission. Wampar relations to the Watut and members of other neighboring groups that have come to live with them since the 1960s have been paternalistic. Some young men were raised as family members and received land from their stepfathers; others have stayed as workers. These immigrants have a status between adoption and employment: they work without payment and are allowed to live and eat in a Wampar household. Others, accompanied by their families, receive pay and/or are given a piece of land to garden. Today migrants from other New Guinea provinces are coming in great numbers into Wampar territory. These immigrants intend to stay, in marked contrast to Wampar migrants, who work for a period of time in cities and then return to their villages. Wampar villages are near the town of Lae with its opportunities for frequent interethnic contact, and the wealthy Wampar are preferred marriage partners. Since the period of peaceful relations with foreigners in the 1960s and 1970s, the situation has been changed to the point where there are plans to drive foreign men out of Wampar territory. In a patrilineal and patrilocal society it is easier to incorporate foreign women married to Wampar men.


Before contact one or more related lineages settled in hamlets. The mission and the government encouraged the Wampar to settle in larger villages. During World War I the Wampar dispersed again and lived in small hamlets, but at the end of the war they returned to their villages. Today villages are becoming too large and crowded, and many families are leaving their villages and settling in hamlets near the highway or their gardens.


Subsistence. The majority of Wampar families maintain gardens that supply bananas, the main staple, and areca nuts for consumption and sale. Coconuts, taro, sweet potatoes, vegetables, corn, onions, tomatoes, pineapples, watermelons, and peanuts are grown in their gardens. Women fish and collect shrimps in the Markham, a more socially than economically important activity. Some men hunt wild pigs, birds, and marsupials. All households keep pigs. The pigs roam free, interbreeding with wild pigs, and return to the households only to be fed. Pigs are important for bride-prices, funerals, and other feasts. The subsistence economy is almost as important as the market economy. Many Wampar work in towns, at the airport, or as teachers or engage in commercial activities. Rice, sugar, tea, bread, biscuits, and canned goods (sardines and corned beef) supplement the diet.

Commercial Activities. The most important commercial activity is the selling of areca nuts in markets along the highway. Copra production once was important but is no longer lucrative, and Wampar now grow cacao instead. Since 1990 many families have been earning money by keeping cattle and poultry. At the end of the 1990s a few Wampar started to plant vanilla.

Industrial Arts. The Wampar do not have any important industrial arts.

Trade. Areca nuts are the socially and economically most important trade good. People from the highland provinces buy areca nuts from the Wampar and sell them in markets in Lae and other provinces. The Wampar are still very well off, but the highlanders are better organized, and there is a feeling that they are getting a bigger share of the areca trade. Sometimes they are able to dictate the prices. Competition has become harder, and the Wampar have lost their monopoly on areca nuts. The highway offers further possibilities for trade. Some Wampar women cook chicken and bananas or roast meat for sale to customers along the highway.

Division of Labor. Preparing a garden is a work done by the whole household. Men cut the bigger trees or shrubs and women clean the ground. Today bush knives and iron hatchets are used. Traditional digging sticks are seldom used and stone adzes have long been given up. Women weed the gardens, harvest the crops, and carry them to the village or to the market where they sell them. Men wrap the bananas with dry leaves before they become ripe. Today work with poultry (cleaning the chicken houses, feeding the chicken) and the cacao business is men's work. Generally the work for men has become easier in modern times because of iron tools. The work for women has become heavier: cloth (e. g. jeans) has to be washed and more products are sold on markets.

Land Tenure. The main landowning group is the patrilineal lineage. Land is important for its subsistence value and areca palms. Lineages claim areas where their ancestors settled when they came to the Markham valley. Within those areas the spirits of ancestors have special places (rop). The male members of lineages own land within those areas. Part of the land was leased to the Department of Civil Aviation, which built the Lae airport on that land. Some lineages sold or leased land to cattle growers, some sold the timber grown on their land. Land disputes have become more common in lineages with many men and with non-Wampar working on Wampar land. Traditionally, sons received land from their fathers and daughters worked in their husbands' gardens. With increasing interethnic marriages this system has changed, and some women married to non-Wampar now receive land from their fathers.


Kin Groups and Descent. Wampar kin groups are patrilineal. Every Wampar belongs to a clan and a lineage. Clan affiliation has lost importance. Although a patrilineal ideology still exists, kinship tends toward a more bilateral system. One reason is the growing number of interethnic marriages with men from other tribes.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are essentially of the Hawaiian type. Within an individual's generation, cross-sex siblings and all cousins are distinguished from those of the same sex.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, the exchange of sisters is considered an ideal marriage arrangement because it creates close bonds between two lineages. After a marriage between members of two lineages no other marriage between those lineages is allowed for about three generations. Children who have been raised in the same household or family should not marry. Parents arranged marriages, but the consent of the partners was necessary. Polygyny was common before the missionaries came, but today it is rare. When it is practiced, second or third wives come from other ethnic groups. Women have great freedom in mate selection and are expected to be active in the courtship process. If the parents approve, the couple starts living together. A bride-price of pigs, coconuts, and money is handed over later. Today young people meet their partners at high school or in town. Interethnic marriages have become more common since the 1970s.

Domestic Unit. Households are composed of one or more nuclear families, sometimes including foster children or workers from other ethnic groups. Household composition is changing. Living, cooking, eating, and working together are criteria that make the household an important social unit. Part households sometimes cook on their own fireplaces inside a larger household. A part household can consist of a newly married son with his spouse and one or two children. Most households are composed of several houses: separate sleeping houses for nuclear families, a cooking house, and a bachelors' house.

Inheritance. Normally male children inherit the right to family lands. Daughters inherit land rights if they do not have brothers, if they stay unmarried, or if their lineage is rich in land and they are married to a landless Wampar or non-Wampar. None of the children is favored because of birth order.

Socialization. Infants are allowed to do whatever they like except if it is dangerous. Grandparents, parents, and siblings look after them. When they are three to four years old, the intense affection and fondness ends abruptly. After this age children do not get much attention and spend more time with other children and may receive physical punishment. Children can move freely within and between households and are not excluded from the adult sphere. At an early age girls learn in a playful way the tasks of women. Elaborate initiation rites were given up in the 1920s, when the Wampar were baptized.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, authority was in the hands of older men in the lineage who were good speakers, could persuade younger men to work for them, and had good relationships to other lineages through marriage. When a big man died, his son took over his position only if he had skills equal to his father's. Within the church hierarchy some big men have positions as ngaeng tsaru (church elders), pastors, and teachers. The authority of the elders is declining, and social problems often are discussed before the village courts.

Political Organization. There was no political organization beyond the lineage in precontact times. Since 1975 Papua New Guinea has been independent, and Wampar territory with its local government is under the authority of the Morobe provincial government. Each Wampar village elects a council for the local government and, since 1997, a magistrate for the village court. After the mission concentrated Wampar in villages, pastors and church elders (ngaeng tsaru) became the authorities. Councillors, church elders, and magistrates tend to be former big men of important lineages.

Social Control. Traditionally, older men and women exercised social control within the lineage. Missionaries have introduced regular meetings (tok nogut) where problems are discussed and conflicts are resolved. When the parties fail to come to an agreement, the case goes before the village court. Murders and other capital crimes are brought before a court in town. Gossip has always been a strong means of social control.

Conflict. Before the peace established in 1909, intraethnic and interethnic warfare was common. Today most conflicts arise from thefts of garden products and conflicts over land. Landless strangers living on Wampar territory are said to be the main cause of conflict, and crimes often are committed under the influence of alcohol and marijuana. Social change, the decrease of social control by elders, and the absence of new respected authorities are the reasons for this development.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Precontact religion consisted mainly of beliefs in ancestor spirits (mamafe). Mamafe are everywhere, although they are thought to be concentrated in special places. In 1911 German Lutheran missionaries founded the mission station Gabmadzung on Wampar land, and in the 1920s Wampar went as evangelists to the Watut. In the 1990s evangelical sects established small communities on Wampar territory. The Lutheran church has lost its predominance and part of its influence but is still an important social force.

Religious Practitioners. Mediums who had contact with spirits were known. After the time of contact and colonialization cargo ideas developed among Wampar, although with less intensity than in other areas in Papua New Guinea. Mediums fell into trances, and the spirits of the deceased told them that white people would come and bring marvelous goods. These cargo ideas ended in the 1980s with economic success and higher education.

Ceremonies. The delivery of the bride-price, funeral rites, and the end of the mourning period are important ceremonies. Today church ceremonies such as confirmations and the opening of a new church are major events. They are celebrated with a big meal, an exchange of presents, and singing and group dances.

Arts. Polyphonic songs are the most impressive art of the Wampar. They are still sung in church and at mourning ceremonies. Singing and dancing are dominant forms of artistic expression. The Wampar have not developed pictorial or plastic arts.

Medicine. Spirits and sorcery (oso, opang) are thought to be the causes of sickness. Healers can discover the kind of sickness and eventually the person who caused it. Ginger is important in this ritual and for curing the victim. In folk medicine "hot" medicine (e.g., nettles) was used against a "hot" sickness such as fever. Medical practices such as bloodletting and the use of steam and a range of herbal medicines are known. Western medicine has been added to these folk practices although it has not replaced belief in sorcery and spirits as explanations for sickness.

Death and Afterlife. The dead were buried under the house in precontact time. Near each village missionaries have established cemeteries, following the European model. When someone dies, the whole village gathers to sing mortuary songs. The ceremony is ancestor spirits. The dead person is buried the next day. Close relatives accompanied by a meal. The soul of the dead is thought to leave the body to live with the do not cut their hair and beards for a year. After one year a ceremonial meal is held again, and hair is cut.

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.


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