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ETHNONYMS: Haruai, Waibuk, Wiyaw


Identification. The name "Wovan," applied to a small, culturally distinct population in Papua New Guinea, is derived from the label that the people themselves apply to their language (wovan a mona, or "Wovan talk"). It is quite possibly an adaptation or corruption of the term "Kopon" (Kobon) applied to the larger ethnic group to the east.

Location. The majority of Wovan live in the Ararne River Valley in the Schrader Range of Madang Province, located at about 5°10 to 5°15 S and 144°14 to 144°18 E. The Ararne is a southerly flowing tributary of the Jimi River, and most of their dwellings are located on the southern fall of the range. However, the Wovan claim ownership of and control large hunting and gardening territories on the northern fall of the range extending almost to the Sepik lowlands. The area is ruggedly mountainous, with steep valleys cut by swift rivers. Wovan territory varies in altitude from about 2,100 meters above sea level at the top of the range to scarcely 200 meters above sea level at the confluence of the Jimi and Ararne rivers. It thus provides the Wovan with a variety of ecological zones from which subsistence may be extracted. Rainfall is distributed throughout the year but a wetter season may be discerned from December through February and a relatively dry season from June through August.

Demography. The total Wovan population as of 1980 was approximately 700 persons. About 53 percent of these were male and approximately 50 percent of the total population were under 20 years of age. The population appears to be relatively stable. linguistic Affiliation. Wovan is a Non-Austronesian Language and is classified in the Waibuk or Piawi Family, which also includes the Aramo, Pinai, and Wapi languages. It is still not certain whether or how this language family is related to already established, larger linguistic groups in New Guinea. While there is a great deal of language borrowing from Kopon into Wovan, it is uncertain if these languages are related at some more inclusive level. The closest linguistic neighbors of the Wovan are the Aramo people.

History and Cultural Relations

Cut off by a mountain spur that ran parallel to the Jimi River, the Wovan remained undisturbed by European-Australian contact until 1962, when a patrol led by J. A. Johnston, out of Tabibuga, in the Western Highlands Province, entered Wovan territory. While the Wovan treated the outsiders with considerable suspicion and caution, no hostilities were Reported. For many years large segments of the population simply avoided the yearly government patrols when they passed through the territory. Only 161 persons presented themselves at the first census in 1968. Village leaders (luluai, tultul ) were appointed by the patrol officers to act as intermediaries Between the people and the government. Government health and agricultural officers visited Wovan territory on a regular basis, encouraging changes in burial practices, improved hygiene, and the adoption of coffee as a cash crop. A government-sponsored medical aid post, staffed by a medical orderly, was established at Fitako in the mid-1970s. The Anglican church established a mission station, staffed by members of the Melanesian Brotherhood, at Aradip in 1977. The Church of the Nazarene, a fundamentalist sect, established outlier mission churches at Funkafunk and on the fringe of Wovan territory near Aradip. The conflict in Religious messages has engendered considerable confusion among the Wovan, leading a number of them simply to avoid the missionaries.


Despite government and mission pressure to relocate into convenient hamlets, the majority of the people still reside in the scattered homesteads that formed their traditional Residence pattern. The small hamlets (Aradip, Fitako, and Funkafunk) developed in the postcontact period. Homesteads were constructed on ridge spurs, giving residents control of the valleys below. Ideally, a homestead consisted of a set of married male siblings, their in-married wives, their married sons and their wives, and all their unmarried children. Homestead populations ranged in size from a single nuclear family of three persons to a large extended family of thirty-seven. Each house is internally divided into a male and female side with married couples residing in rooms located at each end of the main structure.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The homestead (hram diib, or "big house") is the basic unit of production and consumption. Swidden horticulture and pig herding, supplemented by hunting, form the basis of Wovan subsistence. Taro and sweet potatoes are the major crops but bananas, edible pitpit, sugarcane, beans, maize, and a variety of greens are also important in the diet. Tobacco is grown in almost all Gardens. A wide range of "wild" crops are harvested. Among the most important of these are betel nuts, marita pandanus, Pandanus nuts, and a wide range of fungi. Recently coffee has been planted, but it has not yet yielded significant harvests. The Wovan keep domesticated pigs, dogs, and fowl. Pigs are of central import both in terms of their contribution to the diet and in terms of their value as items of exchange. Dogs are used in hunting and are generally treated well. Recently introduced domestic fowl are proliferating but neither they nor their eggs are considered desirable food by the Wovan. Animal protein supplied by hunting or foraging is obtained from cassowaries, wild pigs, many varieties of birds and marsupials, frogs, various rodents, grubs, and megapode eggs. Eels are important both ceremonially and in terms of their contribution to the overall diet. Sago is obtained in trade from the Sepik River area but does not contribute substantially to the diet.

Industrial Arts. The most significant items produced include black-palm bows, arrows, net bags, pandanus-leaf mats, and elaborately carved bamboo combs. Wovan men invest considerable energy in producing elaborate dancing finery. This decoration includes large "busby" hats decorated with beetle shards, opossum fur, and, nowadays, cloth. These hats are crowned with rings of eagle feathers, cassowary plumes, and bird of paradise plumes. The Wovan produce kundu drums, small panpipes, and bamboo Jew's harps.

Trade. Trade has always been important both to provide access to desired goods and to solidify friendships and alliances. As well as trading items of their own manufacture, the Wovan acted as intermediaries in the long-distance trade networks that extended from the Sepik River area into the Central highlands. Wovan black-palm bows and net bags, as well as ax heads that the Wovan had obtained from their central highlands trading partners, were highly valued among Lowlanders to the north. They, in turn, supplied the Wovan with tobacco and shell valuables. These shells and a wide range of marsupial pelts and bird of paradise plumes were traded to the highlanders to the south for ax heads, for salt, and, increasingly in the postcontact era, for cash.

Division of Labor. A division of labor is evidenced in most activities, but, as in many areas, the Wovan tolerate considerable overlap. Men and women cooperate in gardening. Men fell the trees and build fences to prepare the plots. Men and women both plant crops. Women do the daily harvesting and garden maintenance. Coffee is almost exclusively a male-controlled crop. While men are the nominal owners of pigs, women tend them on a daily basis and no man would kill a pig for exchange without obtaining his wife's agreement. Females are more likely than males to be accused of witchcraft but both males and females may act as shamans.

Land Tenure. Theoretically, land is owned by corporate patrilineal descent groups. An individual's rights to both Gardening and hunting land are derived from membership in these patrilineages. Parallel-cousin marriage and flexibility in affiliation, however, allow the Wovan considerable room to maneuver. Actual gardening and hunting decisions are made at the level of the homestead rather than the patrilineage.


Kin Groups and Descent. The term yam is applied to all social groups, irrespective of whether these groups are based on recognized genealogical relationships or not. When qualified by the name of a senior male, the term designates a Nuclear or extended family. When qualified by the name of a place, it designates a coresidential or local group or a group of people who believe themselves to be derived from a particular locale. Despite an ideology of patrilineal descent, group affiliation is flexible. Fulfillment of the obligations of kinship is frequently of greater importance than actual genealogical relatedness in establishing and maintaining kinship.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is basically of the Iroquois type, with generational skewing of both the Paternal and maternal same-sex senior sibling.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Wovan are monogamous by rule, although a few isolated instances of polygyny do occur. They state a rule of preferential parallel-cousin marriage with sister Exchange, but genealogical manipulation to achieve the desired relationship status after the fact is common. The majority of marriages are the products of elopement rather than arrangement, with women taking an active role in initiating marital transactions. While fathers play a prominent role in disputes over their daughters' marriages, brothers (whose own marital futures are dependent on their sisters) take the leading role in all marital arrangements. Bride-prices are small and men boast of not paying. Postmarital residence is patrilocal (both ideally and statistically). Wovan marriages are remarkably stable. In the first month following elopement, relationships are very unstable, but once a domicile has been established, one can expect a permanent relationship. Normatively, Divorce is impossible; even infertility is not considered grounds for divorce.

Domestic Unit. The householdconsisting of an extended family (or minimal lineage) of brothers, their wives, and unmarried childrenforms the basic domestic unit.

Inheritance. Inheritance of land rights is through the patriline, and, theoretically this is immutable. Numerous cases of affiliation through matrilateral connections can be demonstrated. Individually owned wealth is also inherited in the patriline.

Socialization. The arrival of the Anglican church in 1977 introduced a mission school for the first time. Prior to that, socialization was accomplished by the explicit teachings of parents and elder siblings, as well as the imitative strategies of children. Children may occasionally be reprimanded verbally and even more occasionally be subjected to a cuffing, but physical punishment of children is rare.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The social system is characterized by a great deal of flexibility despite an ideology of patrilineal Descent. The rule of parallel-cousin ("sister") marriage provides added flexibility in terms of landownership and access to Forest resources. Homesteads in many, though not all, cases recognize their membership in larger landholding units and their consequent kinship with members of other homesteads with whom they co-own hunting and gardening lands. Genealogical depth is shallow, with only six of forty-eight "big houses" claiming relatedness through connections as distant as or more distant than father's father's father. Kinship and social relations are forged by a continuous flow of gifts and counter gifts, by cooperative gardening relationships, and by the construction of ties of partnership either through ritual or exchange.

Political Organization. The Wovan lack the big-man phenomenon so prominent in the central highlands. To them, all men (especially those who have completed their initiation cycle) are big-men (numbe diib ). Despite the fact that some men are recognized as better hunters, some as better traders, and some as better orators, shared initiation and other Experiences are used to ensure that men continue to regard each other, and behave in relation to each other, as equals. Elders have authority over juniors and males in general have authority over females, but the dominant character of the political organization is egalitarian. The homestead (hram diib, or "big house") group was the only unit over which any particular Individual could claim authority.

Social Control. While it was expected that members of the same minimal lineage would not normally use violence to solve disputes, traditionally there were never any restrictions that extended the peace community to the whole Wovan People. Disputes could be solved peacefully by public moots wherein anyone might express an opinion. Restitution payments were offered after public opinion had been heard and evaluated. In cases where the defendant suspected that the punishment would be violent, he or she could choose flight and take up residence with kin among the Kopon or Aramo people.

Conflict. Internal and external conflict took the form of small-scale ambushes and retaliatory raids. Permanent relations of enmity existed between particular Wovan kin groups and some Wovan would align themselves with non-Wovan against their Wovan enemies if the opportunity arose. Raiding ceased immediately after contact. The Wovan assisted both Kopon and Aramo neighbors in conflicts against more distant people.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Wovan religious life, as one finds Generally on the northern fringe of the highlands, focuses on the spirits of the dead. The spirits (souls) of deceased relatives are rarely far away. These spirits inhabit stagnant water pools and large trees but venture into the village during the Ceremonies surrounding initiation. Animal and forest spirits also affect the fortunes of humans, particularly in relation to the hunt.

Religious Practitioners. The Wovan do not appear to be overly concerned with the supernatural on a daily basis. They lack religious specialists and concede that the Kopon to the east possess more powerful sorcery than they do. A few men are regarded as having influence over the weather. Most, if not all, adult men are familiar with spells and incantations that protect them and their children from attack by malicious ghosts. Men's most important religious and ritual obligations revolve around the initiation of young men.

Ceremonies. The Wovan have an elaborate set of initiation rites through which all males must pass. The first of these takes place when the boy is about 5-7 years old and the last may occur when he is already in his forties. Adolescent (hamo ) rites are the most elaborate in this ritual calendar and take several days to complete. All such rituals are accompanied by the ceremonial distribution of pork and by dancing.

Arts. Arrows, drums, combs, and Jew's harps are decorated by abstract designs. Considerable energy is devoted to body decoration during festivals and dancing celebrations. All dancing is accompanied by singing and drumming and some Wovan men have gained reputations as being particularly inventive songwriters.

Medicine. Witchcraft and sorcery are pervasive as sources of illness and other misfortunes, though the Wovan deny that they are particularly adept sorcerers or shamans. The use of stinging nettles, medicinal herbs, and tobacco are important among Wovan shamans, who are able to treat some illnesses effectively. Serious illnesses require the intervention of specialists from among the Kopon people to the east.

Death and Afterlife. The Wovan conception of the soul is complex, consisting of both a shadow and a life force. These things have very different careers after death. The shadow departs to life in the land of the deada place of uncertain location accessed through pools of water and in which the order of the world is largely inverted. The life force remains close by and continues to have an impact on the lives of living human beings. It is these spirits who are placated by the performance of male initiation rituals that form the core of Wovan Religious life. These spirits also assist men in hunting. Death, Except in the case of the elderly or in the case of violence, is never accepted as the result of anything other than supernatural forces.


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