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ETHNONYMS: Awara, Wapu, Wopu


Identification. Like many ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea the people of the Wantoat Valley had no need to name themselves. They knew their territorial boundaries and who were their enemies. Expatriates named them after their principal locality, the valley of the Wantoat River, a tributary of the Leron River which flows into the Markham River.

Location. The people live along the rugged, southern foothills of the Finisterre Mountains in the Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea, around 6° S and 146°30 E at altitudes from 360 to 1,800 meters. As the altitude increases the climate becomes more temperate.

Demography. In 1980 the population was estimated at 5,500 for the Central dialect, 1,500 for Awara, and 300 for Wapu.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language is a member of the Wantoat Family, Finisterre-Huon Stock, Trans-New Guinea Phylum of Papuan languages. It has three dialects: the Central; the Awara in the west; and the Wapu in the south.

History and Cultural Relations

The Wantoat homeland is in what was originally the German colony of Kaiser Wilhelmsland. Although Australia was given the administration of the area by the League of Nations following World War I, the people were first contacted in 1927 by a patrol led by German missionaries. In 1929 the missionaries began evangelization with national evangelists using the Kotte (Kâte) language as a church lingua franca. Rival evangelists from the nearby Kaiapit mission station in the Markham Valley to the south charged them with encroachment, and clashes followed. Subsequently the Wantoat people were divided into two circuits, one having Kotte (Kate) and the other having the Yabem language as the lingua franca. The results of the Australian administration establishing control and bringing peace to the area following World War II were increased mobility, marriage between people of more distant villages, the blending of minor dialectal differences, greater longevity for men, and less polygamy. Administrative control also allowed for the introduction of a limited cash economy and for the young men to leave for employment in towns and plantations. These trends were accelerated with the completion of the central Wantoat airstrip in 1956, the opening of a government patrol post with an English-language school, the arrival of trading companies, and the residency of an expatriate Lutheran missionary in 1960. With the connection of the Wantoat station to the national road system via the Leron Valley in 1985, one can expect ever greater changes.


In precontact times the people lived in small, relatively isolated hamlets of thirty to eighty persons located in defensible positions, usually on mountain ridges. Generally, several related hamlets were located within two to three hours walking time of one another, but it often took a day to walk to the next complex of related hamlets. Mutual hostility between these groups led to considerable linguistic variation; more than twenty-five minor dialects have been reported. To aid in administration the government required related hamlets to combine into larger villages, thereby reducing the number of settlements substantially. This policy, however, caused the garden areas to be situated farther from the village and hence more vulnerable to destruction by enemies; it also overloaded the capacity for village hygiene, thereby contributing to the more rapid spread of disease; and it renewed latent antagonisms so that village life generally became undesirable. Consequently, many people live in shelters in the gardens and return to the villages to meet governmental officers and attend church. Currently there are about sixty settlements with an average population of 120, but ranging from 43 to 318.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The people are horticulturalists, with the main crops being varieties of sweet potatoes, taro, yams, pandanus, sugarcane, and bananas. Traditionally, a deficiency in animal protein was partially offset by hunting marsupials in the forest; today, canned fish and meat are purchased. There were few wild pigs in the area, and the people practiced little pig husbandry. Consequently, both the Lutheran missionaries and the government agricultural workers had limited success in introducing European pigs for breeding. Attempts to introduce sheep and donkeys also met with little interest. The introduction of European vegetables for cash cropping failed because of the inaccessibility of markets. Some of the vegetables, such as maize, tomatoes, and cabbages, are still grown for local consumption. More successful was the introduction of the Singapore (Chinese) taro, which is now preferred over local varieties. The government introduced the cultivation of coffee, and with the construction of airstrips in the Wantoat and Awara valleys, coffee has become a viable cash crop. The recently completed road link to the coast should increase the marketability of all locally grown produce.

Industrial Arts. For the most part, each local group of people was self-sufficient and able to produce all the necessary tools and utensils from local resources. From bamboo they made containers for carrying water and baking by knocking out all but the last node. Men carved basins and war shields from wood, used the inner bark of a tree for loincloths and protective cloaks, carved bows of black palm, and used cane for arrow shafts with points made of bamboo, black palm, or animal bones. Women wove string bags from twine rolled from the leaves of an indigenous shrub. They made skirts from the fibers found on the inside of banana plants and plaited armbands from rattan.

Trade. What was not available from local resources was imported through trade contacts. Shells and other sea products came from the Rai coast to the north via the neighboring Nankina and Yupna peoples. Pandanus leaf mats came either from the coast or from the Atzera people of the Markham Valley to the south.

Division of Labor. Members of each sex manufacture the artifacts concerned with their roles. Men make the loincloths, drums, ornamental frames for the dances, items for hunting and warfare, lime gourds, and spatulas. Women make grass skirts and string bags. Whereas the men clear the land, the women prepare the gardens and care for most crops except bananas, sugarcane, pandanus, and yams. Women carry food, firewood, babies, and almost anything that can fit in a string bag. Men carry the heavier items such as beams and planks. The introduction of European material culture has not affected this dichotomy of sex roles.

Land Tenure. There is no concept of private Landownership, and apart from the limited amount of land purchased by the government to establish offices and schools, all land in the Wantoat area belongs to patrilineal clans.


Kin Groups and Descent. The largest functioning unit in Wantoat society is the patrilineal, exogamous clan, whose members claim descent from a common mythical founder. The clan was the context for religious activities. In times of conflict or stress the individual turned to the clan for refuge and support. Today the clan still functions in this way, although increased individualism has weakened the authority of the elders.

Kinship Terminology. The system is characterized by bifurcate-merging terms for aunts and uncles and Iroquois terms for cousins.

Marriage and the Family

Marriage. Marriages are generally arranged between participating clans to maintain a balance in the exchange of women. The preferred exchange was by men exchanging sisters. Although marriages were often arranged prior to the girl reaching puberty, the pattern was for postpubescent girls to marry men who were several years older. If a period of premarital residence of the woman with the man's clan proved her acceptability, the families exchanged gifts. Then the couple entered a new house, ceremonially rekindled a fire, and the wife cooked her first meal for her husband. Divorce was rare. Polygamy used to be common, but with the increase of available men due to the cessation of warfare and the prohibition of polygamy by the missionaries, it has largely given way to monogamy. Arranged marriages are less frequent because the youth meet potential mates at school, and the young men are able to earn their own bride-payment through outside employment. Such independence has resulted in an increase in divorce.

Domestic Unit. The men and the initiated male youth used to live together in a men's house, while the women and children lived in separate residences. Men who were polygamous maintained separate houses for their wives, daughters, and uninitiated sons. When not staying with one of their wives, they would join the initiated young men in the men's house. With the trend to monogamy the primary unit has become the nuclear family, and the married men only infrequently move in with the young men.

Inheritance. Since land rights belonged to the clan and the people did not manufacture durable goods, there was little personal inheritance. Shells, pig tusks, and other personal adornments and utensils, however, did have the potential of embodying the power of previous owners. As such these heirlooms were inherited by a man's offspring, primarily his sons.

Socialization. Parents were permissive in raising their children, particular in the case of boys. Children learned their roles by working with their parents. Girls helped their mothers with gardening, child care, and domestic chores. Of all the rites of passage, the most complex was that of male initiation. Boys were initiated by their maternal uncles who explained the religious beliefs and gave them their first taste of yams and pandanus. Thereafter they worked with the men in clearing brush, building structures, and hunting. Adulthood came with marriage. When the missionaries arrived, the initiation ceremonies were replaced with confirmation classes, and the responsibility of teaching was transferred to pastors from outside the Wantoat area. In modern times the maternal uncles often provide for the educational expenses of their sororal nephews and nieces.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Prior to European contact Wantoat society had no class distinctions, although the most successful warrior was the most influential person. A man's strength was considered to be evident in the number of his children, so nearly one-third of the households were polygamous. With European influence and the growth of individualism, a person's status is frequently determined by material possessions, particularly motor vehicles.

Political Organization. The clans are the largest political units, each led by an elder who, in the past, demonstrated prowess in battle and successfully performed the religious rites. Marital connections between clans entailed mutual support in times of conflict. Prior to European contact, villages were small with clan members generally living in more than one village. As a result, there were occasional alliances between villages for ceremonial purposes or for battle. With the trend to larger settlements, modern villages usually consist of two such clans that cooperate in economic ventures. Political control is exercised by a committee of the most respected clan elders.

Social Control. The responsibilities of kin relationships and the dependence of members upon their clan for support entailed an acceptance of the clan's values and social constraints. Men traditionally kept their cultic ritual secret, and today men readily admit that by this secrecy they were able to control the women. With the arrival of the Europeans came the cessation of hostilities, greater mobility, private wage earnings, and the demise of the cultic religionchanges that have made individuals more independent and less responsive to the wishes of other clan members.

Conflict. Loyalty was primarily to one's clan, so that Wantoat society was heavily fragmented. An externally imposed peace has resulted in much latent hostility, particularly in matters of landownership.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. A complex mythology, comprised of three major tenets, accounts for the origin of the people and their culture. First, the center of creation for all the peoples of the world, including the more recently encountered Europeans and Japanese, is the Wantoat Valley. Second, at the time of creation the gods provided the people with all the necessary plant and animal life, all the elements of culture, and, most importantly, all the knowledge necessary for their use. No cultural trait or artifact, or the knowledge of its use, has a human origin. Included were sacred stones from which one could through ritual draw power for fertility, healing, and success. Third, because all the other peoples migrated out of the valley, the Wantoat people alone became the chosen people and the repository of the knowledge and rituals by which one maintained life and enjoyed its material benefits. This belief system, however, was somewhat shaken by contact with Western peoples. When the Europeans arrived with an obviously superior material culture, the Wantoat people wished to acquire the knowledge by which they could enjoy the same material culture and standard of living. When they failed to grasp the concepts that the Europeans attempted to teach them, they assumed that the Europeans were withholding knowledge of the secret rituals that accounted for their wealth. Life became centered on the quest for these secrets. A creator god retreated to the sun and maintained contact via insects. Yam gardens were dedicated to it and rats were sacrificed. Culture heroes supplied the people with their culture, and when they died, various useful and edible plants grew from their bodies. Today malevolent spirits inhabit springs, deep pools, and other unusual physical features.

Religious Practitioners. The men formed a male cult from which the women were excluded. Ritual knowledge was relegated to the men, and the more successful cult members became the practitioners who performed sorcery as well as fertility and curative rites. When missionaries introduced the Christian religion, it was readily assumed that it would be the men who would be educated to perform the new rituals and learn the secrets.

Ceremonies. Many ceremonies related to the productivity of the gardens which were planted on steeply terraced slopes and so were always in danger of being washed away by heavy rains. Every few years, as many as 3,000 people would gather to witness a distinctive Wantoat ceremony, the breaching of the dams. The men would build more than thirty shallow dams along an ascending mountain ridge for several hundred feet, and with precise timing they would breach the dams in sequence to form a cascade of water. Other fertility ceremonies involving the use of sacred stones and the reenactment of creation legends were performed when the gardens were planted.

Arts. Traditionally, there was little art apart from the elaborately painted bark-covered bamboo frames carried on the backs of men in the cultic dances. These works of art either decayed or were destroyed when the ceremonies were over, so that new ones had to be built each year. Today, musical instruments are few. The cadence for the dances is maintained by the men with hand-held drums. Panpipes used to be blown during the horticultural rituals.

Medicine. Major illness was thought to be caused by either sorcery or by offended malevolent spirits. Sorcery was rendered harmless by the practitioner performing the appropriate ritual. Evil spirits could be either tricked or placated. When Christianity was introduced, people often regarded illness as punishment by God.

Death and Afterlife. According to traditional beliefs, at birth every person receives as his or her personality a particle of creative force from a general reservoir. After death, this particle becomes an ancestral spirit, then a spirit of the dead, and then it returns to the reservoir to be directed to another person as another personality. To increase the potency of their own particles, a person's surviving relatives used to exhume the skull of the deceased and keep it on a shelf at the back of the house. Under the influence of Christianity, the people now bury their dead in cemeteries.


Schmitz, Carl A. (1955). "Zur Ethnographie der Huon-Halbinsel, Nordost Neuguinea." Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 80:298-312.

Schmitz, Carl A. (1960). Beiträge zur Ethnographie des Wantoat Tales, Nordost Neuguinea. Kolner ethnologische Mitteilungen. Köln: Kölner Universitäts Verlag.

Schmitz, Carl A. (1963). Wantoat: Art and Religion of the northeast New Guinea Papuans. Den Haag: Mouton. Reprint. 1967. Melbourne: Paul Flesch.


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