Yangoru Boiken

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Yangoru Boiken

ETHNONYMS: Nugum, Wianu, Yangoru


Identification. The Boiken people of the East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea, occupy one of the most extensive and ecologically heterogeneous territories in New Guinea. Their boundaries encompass the islands of Walis, Tarawai, and Muschu in the Bismarck Sea and cut a broad swathe inland across the coastal Prince Alexander range before descending through fertile foothills into the rolling grassland north of the Sepik River. Coupled with their complex migrational prehistory, this ecological heterogeneity has conferred an extreme linguistic and cultural diversity on the Boiken, and consequently only one dialect group, the Yangoru Boiken, is described here. The Yangoru Boiken speak five distinct subdialects, each of which exhibits distinct subcultural variations; the data to follow are most representative of the north central subdialect speakers in the villagers of Sima, Kambelyi, and Kworabri. "Boiken" is the name of the coastal village where the first missionaries lived; "Yangoru" is the local name of the area in which Yangoru Patrol Post was located. Until European contact, the Yangoru Boiken had no conception of themselves as a single unit; local polities referred to themselves only as nina, which means "we all," or tua, which means "people."

Location. The Yangoru Boiken live between 3° 36 and 3°45 S and 143°14 and 143°22 E, around Yangoru government station in the southern foothills of the Prince Alexander range. Annual rainfall is about 175 centimeters.

Demography. In 1980, the Boiken numbered some 40,000 people. Of these, about 13,300 were Yangoru Boiken, though only about 9,600 were resident in Yangoru; the rest were living elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. This total represents a considerable increase over the 4,000 to 5,000 Yangoru Boiken estimated at the beginning of significant European contact in the 1920s. In 1980, overall density in Yangoru averaged about 51 persons per square kilometer; within the main population belt, however, it averaged 66 persons per square kilometer. The population growth rate is about 2.5 to 3 percent.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Yangoru Boiken have been classified as one of seven dialect groups of the Boiken language, Ndu Family, Middle Sepik Stock, of the Sepik-Ramu Phylum. The Boiken language is perhaps more accurately characterized, however, as two or more linguistically chained languages, with the Yangoru Boiken located toward the middle of the chain.

History and Cultural Relations

Thousands of years ago, Boiken territory was occupied by speakers of Torricelli Phylum languages. Subsequently, a large body of Ndu speakers from the Koiwat region north of the Sepik River infiltrated what is now southeast Boiken territory and spread northward to the offshore islands, linguistically assimilating the Torricelli residents as they moved. In consequence, the Yangoru Boiken appear to have a dual ancestry, Ndu and Torricelli, which may explain their close cultural affinities to the Torricelli-speaking Mountain Arapesh. First contact occurred around the turn of the century, but it was 1930 before missionaries, labor recruiters, and patrol officers began to have a significant influence on Yangoru Boiken culture. By then, steel had largely displaced stone, and warfare was in decline. By 1980, male initiation, all but the first stage of female initiation, and most traditional arts were defunct, currency had largely displaced shell wealth, and aluminum utensils had replaced clay pots and wooden plates.


The Yangoru Boiken live in villages of about fifteen to thirty-five hamlets, located mainly on the leveled crests of densely forested ridges. Most villages have between 150 and 400 people. In 1980, Sima village comprised twenty-eight inhabited hamletseach with an average of three dwelling houses and two food housesand 275 residents, with another 57 being absent in towns. Each hamlet is home to one or two patrilineagelike units called hring. Each village has several mandawia ("big places"), hamlets that clanlike congeries of related hring claim as the homes of their apical ancestors; here they build their spirit houses, conduct their exchange ceremonies, and hold major moots. There are two basic house structures: the pile house, which is raised a meter or so off the ground on stilts and is particularly common in the higher foothills; and the ground house, which is built directly on the earth and is more common in the lower foothills. Both are thatched with coconut-palm fronds or tiles of sago leaflets; they are walled with sago-bark shingles or sago-frond stems, and floored with limbum palm planks or cane.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The staples of Yangoru Boiken subsistence are yams and taro, cultivated separately under slash-and-burn horticulture, and a feast-or-famine dependence on the sago palm. Supplements include bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, greens, sugarcane, bamboo sprouts, and a wide variety of game, including pigs, cassowaries, a range of smaller ground and arboreal mammals, birds, grubs, and fish. During the Japanese occupation in World War II, game and fish supplies were seriously depleted and, following the introduction of shotguns and nylon netting, they remain depressed. In consequence, dependence on game and fish has decreased, while reliance on store-bought meat, fish, and rice has increased.

Industrial Arts. In the past, villagers manufactured stone adzes, bamboo knives, carved plates, ceramic pots and bowls, wooden eating utensils, spears, war clubs, shields, slit gongs, and certain items of shell wealth. Nowadays, almost all industrial products are bought in shops.

Trade. Traditionally, the high foothill villages of Yangoru were linked in trade to coastal Boiken villages on the far side of the mountains. They exported smoked pork, tobacco, net bags, and clay pots and imported piglets, salt, and Turbo clamshells. Fashions, songs, and dances seem to have passed both ways. From the high foothills, salt, pottery, and Turbo -based shell wealth were traded to the low foothills in exchange for net bags and shell wealth. By the late 1960s, however, these networks were largely defunct.

Division of Labor. There is a distinct division of labor by sex. Men hunt and fish, clear and fence gardens, plant and harvest yams and sago, process sago, cook ceremonial foods, and build houses. In earlier days, they also conducted the fighting, made pots and plates, and created most of the artwork. Women rear pigs; plant, weed, and harvest the taro, bananas, and greens; help with weeding and harvesting the yams; do the daily cooking and most of the portering; fetch water; forage for firewood and bush foods; and do most of the child care. Both sexes manufacture ornaments, clothing, bags, and baskets. In modern times, this division has begun to crumble, partly under the influence of Western values and partly because the frequent absence of young men in urban centers forces wives to do their husbands' work.

Land Tenure. Land and domesticated trees are vested in the hring. The most influential man in the hring, its "father" (yaba ), nominally controls the disposal of its resources, but it would be unusual for him to dispute the wishes of his agnates concerning the resources they farm.


Kin Groups and Descent. The principal kin groups, known as hring, are patrilineagelike segments averaging about ten to fourteen members. Hring are usually linked by stipulated patrilineal descent into totemic, quasisubclan and quasiclan groups (also known as hring), and they sustain alliances to yet other hring based on affinal links, legendary connections, friendship, or common political interests. Recruitment to a hring is by birth to the wife of a male member or by use of its resources, the latter way being legitimized by assisting the group in its wealth, food, and pig exchange obligations. Wives become members of their husbands' hring at marriage. It is not uncommon for a man to belong to two or even three different hring; accordingly, kinship relations are often multiplex.

Kinship Terminology. There are two kinship terminologies. The first and more salient is employed principally in public and formal discourse and is essentially of the Omaha type. The second is used in private, informal discourse and, with due regard to age and sex, extends nuclear kin terms bilaterally, with the exception that maternal brothers are called "mother" and paternal sisters "father."

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although formal betrothal may occur during a girl's initiation at first menses, nowadays it is often omitted. There always has been considerable freedom of choice in marriage partners, and young people typically enter several "trial" marriages that dissolve before consummation. Once a wife has borne her husband a child, however, divorce is extremely rare. Ideally, a man should marry his father's mother's brother's sister's daughter or, failing that, his mother's mother's brother's sister's daughter, but such marriages are uncommon in practice. Marriage is proscribed with members of one's own hring, most more-distant agnates, and close maternal and affinal relatives. Marriage involves bride-wealth and initiates a flow of shell valuables from wife-receiving to wife-giving hring that is reciprocated with food, labor, and protection. The wealth is said to "buy" the "skins" or "bodies" of the woman's children; the food, labor, and protection reflect the "maternal" obligations of her natal hring toward her children. These exchanges continue until the woman's death. Marriage is usually virilocal, though uxorilocal residence occurs quite frequently. Since the early years of this century, the endogamy rate within Sima village has fluctuated between 38 and 56 percent of all marriages. Polygyny is less common now than in the past: in 1980 only 13 percent of Sima marriages were polygynous.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is a nuclear family, with the common additions of the father's parents and unmarried siblings. It occupies anywhere from one to all of the dwelling houses in a hamlet. Usually, the nuclear family shares a house, but the father and older sons sometimes live in a small dwelling separate from the mother and the other children.

Inheritance. As each son comes of age, his father usually confers on him an exchange partner together with land and domesticated trees sufficient to support his future family. Pressure on resources is sufficiently high, however, that the father's holdings commonly are exhausted by the time younger sons reach maturity. Consequently, these young men must seek resources elsewhereusually from a classificatory brother, a mother's brother, or a wife's brother. Shell wealth, utensils, sacred relics, and ritual knowledge are inherited patrilineally by men and from mothers-in-law by women.

Socialization. Children are raised primarily by their mothers. From an early age, girls are taught the virtues of hard work, nurturance, and the care and protection of the hring's children. Boys lead a rather carefree life until their early teens, when their male elders begin to recruit them to men's work and start to inculcate the virtues of energy, strength, calculation, and controlled minacity esteemed in an adult male.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The basic social divisions in Yangoru society are by sex and age. Men command the formal political arena, and middle-aged men are the major political players. By the time a man reaches his sixties, he usually has retired from active political life, but his counsel still may be very influential.

Political Organization. The basic political unit is the hring. The modern village, which comprises between ten and forty hringSima had about twenty-sevenconstitutes the basic political unit of the nation-state as it impinges on Yangoru. Nowadays, village boundaries are territorial; in precontact days, however, they were more socially and situationally defined. Depending on their location, precontact villages also belonged to one or other of Yangoru's two great war confederacies, "Samawung," or "Dark Pig" and "Lebuging," or "Light Pig." The members of most villages are divided between two moieties, also called Samawung and Lebuging. Adult males inherit an exchange partner (urli or gurli ) from the opposite moiety with whom they exchange pigs and yams on a competitive basis into their late middle age. In north-central Yangoru, a phratry organization crosscuts village and moiety lines, organized under the totems "Homung," or "Hawk," and "Sengi," or "Parrot." Groups of hring descended from a common ancestor recognize a hwapomia, an elder ideally descended by primogeniture who is their ceremonial leader in pig exchanges and, in earlier days, was the ceremonial master of their military actions. In other respects, however, the Yangoru Boiken represent a typical Melanesian big-man political system: men achieve renown principally by the number and size of the pigs they give to their exchange partners and by the promptness and generosity with which they meet financial obligations to maternal and affinal kin. These capabilities, in turn, stem from the skillful manipulation of social relationships aided by oratorical, histrionic, and affective ability. Although women are disenfranchised from formal political life, there exist big-women who build influence and reputation among other women by their eminence in small-scale wealth exchanges and their energy and ability in women's tasksin particular, food production, cooking, and child rearing. Through other women and through their male relatives, such women also exert some influence over the community's formal politics.

Social Control. The formal means of social control is the moot, in which parties to a dispute meet to talk out their differences. Frequently, issues remain unsettled through several moots, and a significant number of disputes peter out unresolved. Informal means of conflict resolution include gossip, sorcery threats, and even flight.

Conflict. Until the mid-1930s, warfare was endemic, common causes being land, the abduction of women, and revenge. War was waged primarily against villages in the opposite confederacy, as either ambushes or confrontations across traditional battlefields located on confederacy frontiers. Neither men, women, nor children were spared. Although fights often broke out within a confederacy, murder was proscribed. By clandestine subterfuge, nonetheless, a rival within a person's confederacy frequently could be delivered into the hands of enemies beyond. In north-central Yangoru, the Homung/Sengi phratry organization complicated matters, and frequently hring from the same village would face one another across the battleground; in these confrontations, however, weapons were used in a manner that would inflict injury but avoid death.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The constituents of the Yangoru Boiken universe are viewed either as "given" or as the creations of the culture heroes; they are believed to be influenced by ancestral spirits and wala spirits but most of all by magical forces. The principal supernaturals are human fiends that stalk lone villagers at certain seasons, the spirits of the ancestors, and the wala spirits. The last include the great culture heroes of time past, some of them nowadays incarnated as local mountains; the others are male and female spirits of the bush and stream. All wala are believed to be formed by the mystical union of ancestral shades, and each hring is associated with a male wala of the stream, where the ancestral shades of its male members are believed to congregate and unite as the wala. There is some difference of opinion over whether a woman's spirit goes to her husband's or her brother's wala.

Religious Practitioners. Knowledge of many magical and ritual practices is diffused widely through the community so that a hring usually can call on a member or close relative for most services. Nowadays, the main practitioners hired from beyond this circle are sorcerers, including earth and rain magicians, and those whose magic combats these powers. In traditional times, the hring also would have to cast beyond close relatives for specialists in carving and various ritual services associated with male initiation.

Ceremonies. The main ceremonies are associated with the life cycle, spirit houses, the wala, and the pig exchange. Birth, initiation, marriage, and death are, or were, observed for both sexes, with women also observing a few simple menstrual taboos to avoid polluting men. Traditionally, initiations were the most elaborate ceremonies, celebrated around puberty, again in the late twenties, and finally in the early to midforties; nowadays, however, only the first stage of female initiation endures. In western Yangoru, initiations were conducted in and around elaborately decorated spirit houses (ka nimbia ); in north-central Yangoru, however, ka nimbia were divorced from initiation and constructed instead as a statement of political strength. In bygone days, if the wife of an important man insulted the sexuality of her husband, she would be disciplined by "the wala," a group of men swinging a bullroarer who would destroy her and her husband's belongings. Nowadays, the most elaborate ceremonies are the pig exchange festivals in which one moiety en masse confers pigs on exchange partners in the opposite moiety. (In western Yangoru, some villages recently have adopted the long-yam cult of the Abelam and the Kaboibus or "Plains" Arapesh.) Since contact, the Yangoru Boiken have earned considerable notoriety for their millenarian movements.

Arts. Traditional graphic and plastic art included wooden initiation statues; the painted facades, carved crosspieces, and other ornaments of spirit houses; shell-wealth basketry masks; plaited armlets; ornamented spinning tops; and dogs'-teeth and shell necklaces and headpieces. Items such as bullroarers, weaponry, and cooking and dining utensils were sometimes incised with abstract designs, often said to be the "face of the wala." Some productions, such as spirit dance masks, were only temporary, constructed for a specific ceremony and then dismantled. The main musical instruments were hand drums and monotone flutes. Nowadays, hardly any of this art is still produced. Songs and oratory were and still are the major ephemeral productions.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to ancestral spirits, wala spirits, human fiends, pollution by females or younger adults, infractions of ritual and taboo, protective magic on property, and in particular sorcery. Some epidemic diseases supposedly were decreed by the culture heroes.

Death and Afterlife. The deaths of all but the very old are attributed to sorcery. There is considerable doubt about the afterlife, but normatively the spirit of the deceased spends the first days of its existence around its hamlet before departing to its hring's wala pool. Spirits from throughout Yangoru are also said to go to Mount Hurun, the peak overlooking Yangoru, where they become Walarurun, the great culture hero associated with the mountain. Nowadays, countries such as Australia, America, and England are also variously identified as the place of the dead. At death, relatives are summoned on the slit gong, and the deceased is mourned with funeral dirges for a day or two. In the past, the corpses of eminent men were sliced and placed in trees to decay; others were buried in or under houses. The bones, especially the jawbones, later were retrieved for use in garden magic and occasionally sorcery. Nowadays, the deceased are buried in graveyards adjacent to the main ceremonial hamlets, and their bones are no longer retrievedthough graves are still opened after about six months to diagnose the perpetrators of the death.

See alsoAbelam, Mountain Arapesh


Gesch, Patrick F. (1985). Initiative and Initiation: A Cargo Cult-Type Movement in the Sepik against Its Background in Traditional Village Religion. St. Augustin, Germany: Anthropos-Institut.

Roscoe, Paul B. (1988). "The Far Side of Hurun: The Management of Melanesian Millenarian Movements." American Ethnologist 15:515-529.

Roscoe, Paul B. (1989). "The Pig and the Long Yam: The Expansion of a Sepik Symbol Complex." Ethnology 28:219-231.

Roscoe, Paul B. (1989). "The Flight from the Fen: The Prehistoric Migrations of the Boiken of the East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea." Oceania 60:139-154.