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ETHNONYMS: Olo, Wapei, Wapë, Wapi


Identification. "Wape" is a designation given by Western-ers to the culturally similar Olo-speaking people on the inland side of the Torricelli Mountains of Papua New Guinea. The term is derived from metene wape, which means a human being in contrast to a spirit being.

Location. The Wape are located at 142°3 E and 3°30 S, in the northwestern section of Papua New Guinea in Sandaun (or West Sepik) Province on the leeward side of the Torricelli Mountains in the Lumi Local, Somoro, and West Wape census divisions. They live in fifty-five villages between 390 to about 840 meters above sea level. The terrain, broken and rugged, is covered with tropical rain forests drained by many streams and small rivers. Earth tremors are commonplace. The humidity is high, there is little change in temperatures throughout the year, and rainfall is generally heavy, with an intense wet season occurring between October and April.

Demography. The Wape number about 10,000 with approximately 19 people per square kilometer. There are no reliable early population estimates.

linguistic Affiliation. Olo, the Wape language, is one of the forty-seven languages of the Torricelli Phylum. These Languages are divided into thirteen families and seven stocks, with Olo classified as being in the Wapei family (23,378 speakers) and the Wapei-Palei Stock (31,770 speakers). It is a complex language with six vowels, seven diphthongs, twelve consonants, six classes of nouns, four classes of verbs, and two tenses. Tok Pisin, the lingua franca, is spoken by most of the men, many children, and some of the women. Rudimentary English is spoken by those attending grammar school, while high school students are more fluent.

History and Cultural Relations

The linguistic and limited cultural data suggest that the Wape migrated from the north coast over the Torricelli Mountains to their present inland home several thousand years ago. The area was first claimed in 1885 by the Germans who were very active on the coast, but there is no evidence that they visited the Wape. After World War II, the Wape area became a part of the League of Nations Mandated Territory of New Guinea administered by Australia; the first government patrols into the area were probably in the early 1920s. The first known material on the Wape was collected in 1926 by E. A. Briggs, a zoologist from the University of Sidney. In the late 1920s and 1930s, labor recruiters and explorers for oil and gold also visited the Wape, who received them peacefully. The Wape were relatively undisturbed by Western intervention until World War II when a small military airstrip and base were established near Lumi village. This post was abandoned after the war; then, in 1947, two Franciscan priests opened a mission station by the Lumi airstrip, and shortly afterward the government established a patrol station nearby. Christian Brethren missionaries also have been active in the area and in the 1980s an indigenous evangelical church began winning some adherents. Nevertheless, most Wape continue to follow the rituals of the ancestors. Although various small-scale developmental schemes have been attempted by the missions and government, none have been very successful and the people remain subsistence farmers. To obtain cash to buy Western commodities, Wape men have relied on work as indentured laborers in other parts of the country. With this source of work no longer available, some Wape villages are being depopulated as families move to coastal towns to find work. In the 1980s an unpaved road reached Lumi from the coastal town of Wewak, but heavy rains and occasional blockades erected by angry landowners along the route make its use problematical.


Villages are usually situated on ridges and before contact were stockaded. Villages are comprised of two or more hamlets and clans with an overall population of several hundred. Houses are still made of forest materials and are either situated on the ground as traditionally or elevated a few feet on posts. The Interior of the house is restricted to family and close relatives while the veranda is used to socialize with neighbors and friends. Each house contains several small fires with sleeping benches on either side. Babies and toddlers sleep with their parents and sexual intercourse usually occurs in the garden areas. Menstruating family members remain within the house but sleep at a separate fire. If a man continues to eat his wife's cooking while she is menstruating, he will not hunt. In the center of the village is a dirt plaza where children play and Villagers assemble for ritual dancing and ceremonials. Each Village also has a men's house for sacred objects and one or two other houses where unmarried males live. Traditionally, Wape men were naked and women wore a string skirt fore and aft; today men wear shorts and shirts and women skirts and blouses purchased from the mission and private trade stores.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Although the sago palm is not indigenous to the Torricelli Mountains, the Wape plant it in wet areas and process the pith of the trunk into a starch that is their major staple. Sago is extremely low in nutritional value and is eaten with various greens from their slash-and-burn gardens in which root crops like sweet potatoes and yam are also grown as well as bananas, coconuts, sugarcane, and tobacco. The Wape also forage for grubs, mushrooms, frogs, and bush eggs. Small fish are occasionally speared by youths but are insignificant in the Wape diet. A few domesticated pigs are kept for ceremonial purposes and, increasingly, a few chickens. Hunting for wild pigs, cassowaries, marsupials, and birds is of great ritual and social importance to men. Unfortunately, the introduction of the shotgun has further decimated the animal breeding populations, and so most Wape meals are very low in protein; this diet has adversely affected their rate of maturation and size. Most villages now have indigenously run trade stores but they are usually padlocked and contain little or no stock.

Industrial Arts. Wape men traditionally made wooden shields painted black with carved designs, wooden bowls, and shell decorations; they still make large wooden slit gongs, small dance drums, and bows and arrows. Women Traditionally made their string skirts and still make string.

Trade. Traditional trade was primarily with the coastal people on the other side of the Torricelli Mountains, with Imported and exported items usually being passed through nearby villages. The Wape traded sago, black-palm bows, and bird feathers, including those of the bird of paradise, for Pottery and the shells that Wape men then fabricated into ornaments used as bride-wealth and as personal and mask decorations in their large curing festivals. This trade has ceased and today the Wape are part of the international commodities market using scarce cash to purchase essentials.

Division of Labor. Men hunt, prepare gardens for planting, cut down the sago palms, build houses, perform curing rituals, and make their tools, ceremonial ornaments, and drums. Women forage, fetch water and firewood, make string, sell produce at the government market in Lumi, and cook. Men and women both participate in child care, garden weeding, and harvesting.

Land Tenure. Land is identified with lineages and transmitted patrilineally with the eldest brother generally having the most authority. The right to use garden land is sometimes given to others who come to live in the village. Men often plant a few food trees on another person's land, especially that of their mothers' brothers, and these trees are inherited patrilineally.


Kin Groups and Descent. Every Wape child is born into a named patrilineage that is identified by a special slit-gong signal. Its members usually live in a single village. These lineages are the most important economic and social units in Wape society. Patrilineages are combined into much larger named patriclans whose members reside in a number of different Villages. These clan ties provide access to others in time of hardship, although fellow clan members are not bound to assist as lineage mates are.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are of the Omaha type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. A person never marries a member of his or her patrilineage. Although marriage within the patrician also is not allowed, this restriction is sometimes violated. Even traditionally, women usually were given some say in their marriage choice. Bride-wealth is still required, but money is now used instead of shell wealth. Plural marriages are permitted but unusual. Postmarital residence is virilocal. Most marriages are amicable and wife abuse is very rare. In the unlikely event of divorce, the woman returns to her village while the children stay with the father's kin. If a woman's husband dies, she usually remarries a man of his lineage.

Domestic Unit. A husband and wife live in a separate house with their children. At or near puberty, boys move to a separate dwelling but usually take their meals with the family. Because the majority of men and women die of disease in their forties, it is unusual for a child to know her or his grandparents.

Inheritance. Inheritance of land and food trees planted elsewhere is patrilineal.

Socialization. Children are gently scolded and rarely struck. A temper tantrum is simply ignored. Today most Children have access to government primary schools with instruction in English but, as the tuition is expensive by Wape standards, some childrenespecially girlsdo not attend.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The visible social units are the Nuclear family and the village. Kinship ties to a father's and mother's lineages and clansand, by marriage, to those of one's spouse and one's children's spousesare still of Paramount importance in terms of mutual obligations throughout one's life. The strict exchange obligations of these relationships, supplemented by a general passion for gambling among men, make it almost impossible for a man, even today, to amass wealth and power over others.

Political Organization. Traditionally, each village was a minination composed of a number of patrilineages belonging to several different clans and, although some men were more influential than others, there was no custom of a village headman or chief. Ties to other villages were via these clan ties and the kinship ties of in-marrying women. These ties continue to be important although today the nation has imposed other political institutions including elected regional councils, the police, and courts. The Wape also participate in elections to send representatives to the House of Assembly, the nation's highest law-making body.

Social Control. Ancestral ghosts and the demons resident on one's land are perceived as being very active forces in everyday life. Since these spirits are omniscient, a person offends them at her or his peril. Lineage mates also keep close track of one another and any social infractions are met with disapproval. Fear of sorcery as a reprisal for offending others is also still an active concern.

Conflict. The Wape generally are a pacific people who dislike conflict and work hard to prevent it. When a villager is deeply offended they go to the offender's house and, standing outside, give a haranguing lecture. If a problem escalates, the village is called together to hash out the dispute and reach a consensus decision. Villagers generally avoid using the courts for recourse when possible. Traditionally, pay-back killings with enemy villages did occur, but sometimes there were intervals of several years between killings. Some villages had abandoned feuding even before visitations by government patrols.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. All things are believed to have a spirit. When in distress, one calls to a strong ancestor, often a dead father, for help. The spirits of the recently dead and demons are especially dangerous. The introduced Western religions have many nominal adherents but, because the indigenous religious beliefs are anchored in an extensive exchange system that establishes one's worth, the two belief systems comfortably coexist in the thinking of most Wape. While belief in an omnipotent Christian God might be acknowledged, he seems far removed and irrelevant to most Wape crises.

Religious Practitioners. Indigenous curers are known as numoin and wobif. The former is a feared shaman-witch with magical powers to both kill and cure, who is said also to have the power to become invisible and to fly. Although no longer trained by the Wape, the numoin sometimes uses the services of those who live in the societies south of the Wape. The wobif, whose powers are more benign, is expert at massage and sucking out bad blood and bits of tabooed food that cause illness. The glasman, a Tok Pisin word, is a more recent type of practitioner who is clairvoyant, a diagnostician with second sight but with no curing skills. All three types of Practitioners receive nominal payments.

Ceremonies. There are no important puberty or marital rites but curing festivals are of great social significance, sometimes bringing together many hundreds of people from diverse villages. The spirit fish-curing festival is the largest and most important of these. It is held in stages by each village every few years and involves an extensive network of economic exchanges among the relatives of the host village. The mani festival is second in social importance and is held either to treat disease or to promote successful hunting.

Arts. Dancing and most music are associated with curing festivals. Dancing, restricted to females and youths, is mostly a shuffling step circling the dance plaza to the beat of the booming slit gongs and hand-held dance drums. Chants are melodically restricted to a few notes and sung by both sexes at the curing festivals and by men at hunting festivals. Masks of various shapes are constructed and painted with designs for curing and hunting festivals. Women also compose words to a traditional chant lamenting their departure from their natal village at marriage, and these songs are later sung by both men and women when they are relaxing or at work.

Medicine. Various plantsfor example, ginger and stinging nettlesare used in the Wape pharmacopoeia; however, as all serious illness has a supernatural causefrequently, the intrusion of demonsexorcism is of greater importance in effecting a cure. Western medicine and procedures administered at medical aide posts and the hospital in Lumi also are popular as treatments, but they are mostly utilized after indigenous exorcisms or other procedures have been performed and are rarely given credit for a cure.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the spirit leaves the body via the anus and becomes a rapacious ghost who eventually retires to his lineage lands as a protective vengeful spirit. Traditionally the body was smoked in the village for many days while attended by mourners night and day, then finally buried. Today, by government law, the body is buried the day of the death but relatives still come from surrounding villages to mourn.

See alsoGnau


McGregor, Donald E. (1982). The Fish and the Cross. Goroko: Melanesian Institute.

McGregor, Donald E., and Aileen R. F. McGregor (1982). Olo Language Materials. Pacific Linguistics, Series D, no. 42. Canberra: Australian National University.

Mitchell, William E. Mitchell (1973). "A New Weapon Stirs Up Old Ghosts." Natural History 82:74-84.

Mitchell, William E. Mitchell (1987). The Bamboo Fire: Field Work with the New Guinea Wape. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Mitchell, William E. Mitchell (1988). "The Defeat of Hierarchy: Gambling as Exchange in a Sepik Society." American Ethnologist 15:638-657.

Wark, Lynette, and L. A. Malcolm (1969). "Growth and development of the Lumi Child in the Sepik District of New Guinea." Medical Journal of Australia 2:129-136.