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Identification. The Iatmul live along the banks of the Middle Sepik River in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.

Location. The Middle Sepik area is dominated by the meandering river that regularly floods the whole valley and continuously changes its course as it flows from west to east into the Bismarck Sea. During the wet season, extremely heavy rains raise the water level 4-6 meters, turning the whole region into a lake that extends far into the northern grasslands (turning them into swamp) and to the Sepik Hills in the south. Floating grass islands, sometimes with whole trees and birds on them, are typical for that season as the rising floodwaters tear off parts of riverbanks and carry them downstream until they get stuck somewhere else. Iatmul territory begins about 230 kilometers up from the mouth of the Sepik and ends about 170 kilometers farther upstream. The Iatmul lead an almost amphibian way of life within the two main seasons, wet and dry, each lasting for five months with two intermediate months in between.

Demography. The Iatmul number about 10,000, and classify themselves into three territorial subgroups: eastern (Woliagui), central (Palimbei), and western (Nyaura). During the last few years many Iatmul have left the Middle Sepik, with nearly 50 percent of the population today living elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, temporarily or even permanently. There are Iatmul colonies, sometimes of considerable size, in the towns of Wewak, Madang, and Rabaul (on New Britain).

Linguistic Affiliation. Iatmul is joined with Abelam, Boiken, Sawos, and other Papuan languages in the Ndu Family of the Sepik-Ramu Phylum.

History and Cultural Relations

The Iatmul believe that they all originated from a hole in the ground in Sawos (Gaikundi) territory. Other oral traditions tell of drifting down the river on rafts, having started somewhere in the west. The Sepik Basin is, from the point of view of geology, relatively young, having achieved its present character around 1,000 years ago. The whole area was flooded by the sea until about 5,000 years ago; only gradually, when the coastline withdrew until it reached its present location, did the alluvial plains form and marine conditions change to those of fresh water. Linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that the Ndu speakers came down into the Sepik Basin from a southern tributary. The Sepik River (called the Kaiserin-Augusta-Fluss during German colonial times) was a main passageway for colonial administrators traveling upriver by ship. During German rule the first official Sepik exploratory expedition took place in 1886, and it was followed by Several others. After World War I, when Ambunti Patrol Post was established, the new Australian administration tried to suppress head-hunting. They finally succeeded in the mid-1930s by publicly executing convicted Iatmul warriors. The pacification of the Iatmula culture in which much emphasis was placed on male aggression and head-hunting raidsbrought far-reaching cultural change from the outside world. Iatmul villages were in continuous contact with neighboring groups to the north and south, often in a symbiotic Subsistence relationship with the Iatmul trading turtles and fish in exchange for sago. The Sawos were regarded as nurturing mothers in this regard. Women conducted the trade while men were involved in joint rituals with neighboring groups.


Iatmul villages, containing 300-1,000 people, are built high on riverbanks. Villages often consist of three distinct sections, with a men's house in the center. Houses were often built in two rows, parallel to or at a right angle to the course of the river. The men's house was usually built in the center of an open space, the dancing ground. Older Iatmul men's houses, which were huge buildings up to 20 meters high and 40 meters long, are among the most impressive architectural achievements in New Guinea. They served as men's assembly houses in daily life and as religious centers during rituals. The dancing ground contained a ceremonial mound on which heads were displayed when brought back from a successful raid. Each section of the tripartite village owned a long war canoe that was a symbol of its cooperation during warfare, as was the ceremonial house for ritual life. The whole village usually constituted a defensive unit, whereas only a section of it may have made a raid on an enemy village. A village often was surrounded by fences and watchtowers. Traditionally, Iatmul houses were huge pile dwellings with the families of brothers living together in one house. Clans are classified into moieties, a fact that can be recognized in the layout of the village and the distribution of the houses there.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally the Iatmul were mainly hunters and gatherers, depending on fish and sago, with horticulture a secondary activity as the gardens on riverbanks are often inundated before the root crops (yams and taro) are ripe. Bananas and coconuts are regularly consumed. The hunting of game (wild pigs, crocodiles, and, rarely, cassowaries) is practiced only irregularly. Fishing is mainly women's work, using hooks, nets, and traps; when men fish they use spears. Among women there is an informal system of redistribution that provides fish to women who are unable to leave their houses because of illness, menstruation, childbirth, or old age. Although most Iatmul villages have sago stands, they have never been productive enough to guarantee a continuous supply. Therefore, Iatmul depend on sago produced by Sawos villages to the north and by some Sepik Hills villages to the south. Every few days Iatmul women transport fresh and smoked fish in their canoes to market places, most of which are located in Sawos territory. There, they barter fish for sago with women from bush villages. The women's trading expeditions take a full day and are carried out mostly by elderly women who are commissioned by younger women to do the bartering for them.

Industrial Arts and Trade. Most Iatmul villages specialize in the production of different kinds of goods that are used for trading. Aibom is well known for pottery, which traditionally was traded for sago throughout the Iatmul area; today it is sold for money as well. Chambri, a non-latmul border village to the south, specializes in firmly plaited mosquito bags manufactured by women. In all Sepik villages, where mosquitoes and malaria are endemic, these bags are used by entire families sleeping in them communally. Tambunum is renowned for its plaited bags, also produced by women, with various Colored patterns. Iatmul carvings are among the most artistic in New Guinea. Men began producing them in large quantities when they found early travelers and art dealers interested in them. Anthropologists argue that Iatmul attained superiority and control over their neighbors by being a "cultural factory," producing sacred artifacts, spells, and knowledge and then exporting them. However, no reliable information confirming this can be found, except for an exchange of ritual items that must have taken place in both directions as indicated by Abelam paintings collected by early German explorers in Iatmul villages. As far as can be determined, irregular trading expeditions took place up southern tributaries and vice versa, with paint, edible earth, and bark used for medicinal purposes imported from these areas. Shell rings, turtleshell ornaments, and other valuables arrived in the Middle Sepik through the Abelam and Sawos regions and also from the upper regions of the Sepik River. Stone blades as well as pearlshells came from the highlands to the south.

Division of Labor. Subsistence activities, mainly the gathering of fish and sago, are carried out by women. Men make almost all implements used for subsistence (canoes, paddles, and tools for sago production) except fish traps, nets, and bags. Men build the houses and are also the ritual specialists.

Land Tenure. Lagoons and the open river are considered the property of the villages. Clans own rights to specific fishing and gathering locales. Garden land is also owned by clans or lineages and is allotted among the male members of the clan at the end of each flood season.


Kin Groups and Descent. Iatmul patrilineal clans (ngaiva ) are the organizational basis of the social order. Most clans are organized into pairs, with one considered the elder brother and the other the younger, both tracing their origin to a pair of brothers who are the founding ancestors. Genealogies are important evidence of landownership, the right to produce and possess ritual paraphernalia and ritual knowledge, and the right to perform specific ceremonies. Clan membership also determines a man's place within the men's house. Within clans there exists a further differentiation into pairs of lineages, with the senior lineage having some authority over the junior one.

Kinship Terminology. Different terms are used for matrilateral and patrilateral kin. In each generation siblings of the same sex are classified together as are parallel cousins, and in the parent's generation affinal relatives are addressed in terms used also for consanguineal kin.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Three rules of marriage are reported: marriage with iai (father's mother's brother's son's daughter), marriage with na (father's sister's daughter), and sister exchange. But, marriages with other categories of women also took place. In marriage ceremonies the asymmetric relationship between wife givers and wife takers were acted out by an unequal exchange of goods (shell valuables, classified as male, and household goods, classified as female). Postmarital residence was patrilocal.

Domestic Unit. Several closely related nuclear families live together in a single dwelling. Each family has its own section and within it husbands and wives have their separate compartments. Cowives and wives of brothers are supposed to form a corporate unit for daily subsistence activities.

Inheritance. Inheritance of land and ritual knowledge follows rules of seniority insofar as the eldest son usually inherits knowledge, and thus power, that his siblings are denied. In rare cases a daughter may become the heir if a man has no son. In former times, the girl was then initiated with the men. Later, her sons inherited the knowledge from her father.

Socialization. Growing up in Iatmul culture is a gradual process of learning and experiencing tasks performed by adults. Children participate actively in the subsistence economy. The acquisition of a new skill and the first performance of a gender-specific task are celebrated for each girl and each boy individually. These ceremonies, naven, were carried out spontaneously by the mother's brother and/or his wife. Children spend much of their time in independent and autonomous groups. Girls grow gradually into women's roles. Boys, on the other hand, have to undergo an initiation which severs them from the women's world and forces them to adopt a male life-style.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Local organization mirrors the social division into moieties, with named clans represented in many villages between whom relations are traced. The moieties are classified into "sky" (nyaui ) and "earth" (or "mother," hnyamei ). Each moiety is responsible for carrying out the initiation for the boys of the other; thus, boys get scarified by men from the other group. Iatmul men are classified also into an age-grade system, with four to six different degrees, depending on the village. Among the eastern Iatmul there exists a second nonlocalized moiety system that works as a competitive exchange system.

Political Organization. The men's houses are not only the religious center of Iatmul life but the political center as well. There discussions are held concerning all public matters on which a decision has to be made or action taken. Discussions are usually led by influential men who occupy the structural position of being endowed with ritual knowledge, a prerequisite for political leadership. Among men there is considerable competition and rivalry for political leadership. Speech making is an important factor in the decision-making process, and oratorical skill is a necessary condition for leadership. Speeches are delivered near the ceremonial "chair," a totemic representation of a founding ancestor whose judgment is solicited as a warrant for the truth. Another means to political leadership was to have a reputation as a powerful sorcerer or to be talented as a chanter.

Social Control. Traditionally, the men's house was also the center of jurisdiction in quarrels between members of different clans. Within a clan conflicts were settled by its own influential men. Women had informal power in social affairs; for example, a wife could refuse to provide her husband with food, and in serious matters she could call on her own family, mainly her brothers. At the community level, women were feared for their supposed polluting capacities, which were considered responsible at least in part for sorcery and witchcraft.

Conflict. Warfare was an important male activity and head-hunting was part of the initiation rite. Most attacks were against other Iatmul villages, particularly in the east.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The men's house is a condensation of Iatmul religion, and it also reveals the connections between clans and their founding ancestors. In former days the house posts were beautifully carved, depicting parts of clan mythology and constituting thereby the foundation not only of the house but, symbolically, of the whole society. The building on the rectangular dancing ground represented the first grass Island floating down the Sepik River as it is described in a myth of world creation. At the same time it represented the first crocodile, the primeval ancestor who emerged from the bottom of the flood. Today, the ground level of the men's house is used in everyday life by initiated men. It contains slit gongs, fireplaces, and sitting platforms as well as ritual objects of minor importance. The upper floor is used mainly for rituals, and the long flutes and other sacred paraphernalia are kept there. Iatmul culture is rich in myths that constitute the ideational background explaining how everything came into being. Myths in Iatmul culture are known by many people but only a few know the names of the actors and of the places. Names range among the highly valued secrets of clans. Myths can become reactivated through rituals, whereby the primeval time becomes the present and the dancing ground and the men's house become the original stage.

Religious Practitioners. The Iatmul acknowledged men and women who gained personal status through their knowledge and use of supernatural powers for healing and as intermediaries with the supernatural world.

Ceremonies. The men's house was the focus of different types of rituals: initiation, celebration of successful headhunting raids, performances by masked figures, and celebrations of death ceremonies for important persons. In initiations boys were scarified, receiving the distinctive marks of a crocodile, the symbol of a ritually mature man.

Arts. Iatmul art is well known for its superb carvings, which were usually painted in a curvilinear style. Almost all art objects were used in ritual contexts and only through such use did they receive meaning. Also famous are the skulls overmodeled with clay and then painted. Apart from such preservable artifacts, Iatmul art consists of ephemeral art, such as body painting and decorations made of leaves, flowers, and feathers.

Medicine. Illness and difficult childbirths were treated with spells designed to invoke the powers of ancestors or Supernatural forces such as the sun or moon. Healing often focused on symbolically casting off the illness.

Death and Afterlife. Legitimation of the present out of the past was accomplished through the preservation of relics (bones) of ancestors and through eating scrapings from them. Death meant crossing the border between the present and the past. The corpse was handled only by women. If the deceased had been an important man or woman, a Representational figure was erected and his or her merits displayed. Occasionally after interment the skull was exhumed, modeled over with clay, and then installed during a special ceremony as an influential ancestor. Ghosts of recently dead relatives are relevant in shamanic seances as mediators between the living and the dead.

See also Abelam, Chambri


Bateson, Gregory (1936). Naven. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Rev. ed. 1954. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Behrmann, Walter (1922). Im Stromgebiet des Sepik. Berlin: A. Scherl.

Lutkehaus, Nancy, et al., eds. (1990). Sepik Heritage: Tradition and Change in Papua New Guinea. Durham, N.C.: Carolina University Press.

Reche, Otto (1913). "Der Kaiserin-Augusta-Fluss." In Ergebnisse der Südsee Expedition 1908-1910, edited by Georg Thilenius. II Ethnographie; A., Melanesien, vol. 1. Hamburg: L. Friederichsen.

Roesicke, Adolf (1914). "Mitteilungen Füber Ethnographische Ergebnisse der Kaiserin-Augusta-Fluss-Expedition." Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 46:507-522.


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LOCATION: Papua New Guinea

POPULATION: Approximately 10,000

LANGUAGE: Iatmul; Nyara; Tok Pisin; some English

RELIGION: Traditional Iatmul; Christianity


The art of Iatmul people is the most well represented of all the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea. However, few people have much knowledge or understanding of the complex culture that produced these appealing sculptures, carvings, and masks. The Iatmul were cannibals and headhunters in the times before contact with European missionaries in the 1930s. The violence in traditional Iatmul society was necessary for males to gain status. However, after the arrival of the Europeans, Iatmuls who practiced cannibalism and headhunting were labeled as murderers. After some of the men were publicly executed, these violent practices ended.


The total Iatmul population is about 10,000 people. The homeland of the Iatmul is along the middle course of the Sepik River in the country of Papua New Guinea. The Sepik is a river that changes with the seasons. During the rainy season that lasts for around five months, the river may rise dramatically and flood the surrounding lowlands. Iatmul villages become a cluster of houses perched on stilts situated within a body of muddy water. All movement has to be done by canoe during this time.

The Iatmul's location in the middle reaches of the vast river has been advantageous to them. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, they were able to serve as brokers in the extensive trade networks of the Sepik River Basin. The location still serves them well, as they are able to attract large numbers of tourists to their villages due to the relative accessibility of the area.

A large number of Iatmul have left the Sepik region and now live in other parts of Papua New Guinea. Emigration from Iatmul villages may be as high as 50 percent.


The Iatmul language is classified by linguists as a Papuan, or non-Austronesian, language that belongs to the Ndu language family. The Papuan languages are spoken throughout the island of New Guinea and on a few smaller neighboring islands in Indonesia. There is very little information on the Iatmul language. The Iatmul refer to their language by the word nyara. The language has two dialects. Iatmul children and many adults are also fluent in Tok Pisin (an English-based pidgin language), one of the national languages of Papua New Guinea.


Iatmul mythology states that they originated from a hole in the mud in the present-day territory of the neighboring Sawos people. Some groups tell stories of a great flood. The survivors floated down the river (the Sepik) on rafts or pieces of grass-covered ground that became lodged in the river. The piece of land that this created became the site of the first men's house for the Iatmul ancestors. The present-day men's houses are supposed to be representations of the original piece of earth that was became the Iatmul world. Other myths tell of the formation of the heavens and earth from the great ancestral crocodile that split in two, with his upper jaw becoming the heavens and his lower jaw becoming the earthly realms.


Traditional religious beliefs of the Iatmul people centered on the spirits of the rivers, forests, and swamps. There was also a concern for the ghosts of the dead and the harm they could do to the living. Many myths explain the natural and supernatural world for the Iatmul clans. Important in these myths are the people and places where events took place in the mythological past. Different clans (groups of people with common descent) have secret knowledge of the names of the characters and events in their particular collection of myths. Clans would try to learn the secret names of other clans; to do so was to gain power over that group.

Missionaries have been active among the Iatmul since the 1930s. There are many converts to Christianity along the Sepik River. Some missionaries went as far as to burn the men's house and the artifacts and art that it contained. An enormous amount of cultural information was lost in the process.


Christian holidays are celebrated by converted Iatmul. Holidays like Christmas (December 25) and Easter (late March or early April) do not have the degree of commercial emphasis found in the United States. National holidays of the country are recognized, but since there are no banks or post offices in the area, these holidays have little meaning.


Male initiation was a common practice among the Iatmul. It involved extensive ceremonial activities that ended with the scarification (ritual scarring) of the upper back and chest of the young initiate. The patterns that are made are said to resemble the skin of the crocodile, the most important animal in Iatmul folklore and mythology. Very few men still undergo this practice, not because of the pain involved, but because of the expense. It costs a few hundred dollars and several pigs to hire someone to do the scarification.

The Iatmul also celebrated important events in the lives of males and females. For example, the Iatmul would celebrate the first time a girl made a sago (starch made from palm trees) pancake or the first time a boy carved a canoe. These celebrations were called naven. Naven ceremonies have all but disappeared from Iatmul culture today.


Traditional greetings between men of different villages who traded with each other consisted of formal ceremonial dialogues where men had well-defined roles. The style of interaction between adult Iatmul men is often described as being aggressive. Tourists are often perplexed because Iatmul men put on a very fierce face instead of a smile when they pose for pictures. Iatmul women were in charge of the trade that took place with the Sawos and Chambri, two neighboring groups. Iatmul women exchanged fish for the sago (starch) produced by women from these neighboring groups. While men were aggressive, combative, and quick to anger, Iatmul women maintained harmony within the community and relations with outside communities. The Iatmul have been exposed to Western culture since the 1930s, and as a result they have adopted some of its aspects. Greetings are Westernized and consist of the use of stock phrases and handshakes.


Iatmul villages vary in size from 300 to 1,000 people. Villages traditionally centered on a men's house, which was the architectural centerpiece of the village. These buildings were massive structures elaborately decorated with carvings and paintings. They also housed the majority of religious items including drums, flutes, and sacred sculptures. At the present time, most men's houses are warehouses for the storage of artifacts that are sold to tourists and art collectors. They also serve as meeting places for adult men.

Electricity and running water are not available in Iatmul villages. Without plumbing, dishes are washed in the Sepik River, as are clothes. The Iatmul also rely on the Sepik to bathe. When the river is swollen but not flooded, bathing is a challenge. A person will walk upstream, get in the river, and then wash while the current carries them to the place where they started. Getting out of the river and staying clean are also a challenge, since the banks of the river are mounds of knee-deep mud.


Women play important roles in Iatmul daily life. Women are responsible for catching fish to trade with neighboring villages to obtain the sago flour to make pancakes. Women are also the primary caregivers.

In traditional Iatmul society, marriage partners were determined by strict rules. Acceptable marriage partners for a man included his father's mother's brother's son's daughter (a second cousin), his father's sister's daughter (a first cousin), or a woman that he would get in exchange for a sister he would give to another man. Anthropologists refer to this last type of marriage as "sister exchange."

A married couple takes up residence in the husband's father's house. The house will also be occupied by the father's other sons and their families. Each nuclear family has its own space within the large house. Each family also has its own hearth for cooking. Husbands often sleep in the men's house.


Most Iatmul men dress in Western-style clothes consisting of athletic shorts and a T-shirt. Shoes are rarely worn. Women's dress is more varied and depends on what type of activity they are engaged in and who is around at the time. It ranges from Western-style dresses to the use of the wrap-around laplap (a sarong-like cloth) to cover the body from the waist down. Children tend to dress like adults, but small children go naked.


The Iatmul diet consists primarily of fish and the edible palm tree called sago. Iatmul houses do not have tables; everyone sits on the floor. The midday meal is likely to be the only meal that the family eats together. At other times of day, people eat whenever they get hungry. The food for the day is stored in a woven basket that hangs from a carved and decorated hook near each person's sleeping area. Dried fish and sago pancakes are placed in the basket in the morning. Fruit and greens are sometimes collected from the forest. Canned curry from Indonesia and Malaysia has now become popular, as well as rice and tinned fish. These products are expensive and sometimes difficult to come by.


Traditional education is still important to the Iatmul. Boys and girls are trained to become competent adults able to perform the tasks that men and women do to keep the village functioning. Western school is an option for children whose parents want to send them. However, very few communities have their own school and typically children have to travel to other villages if they wish to attend.


Music is an important part of Iatmul ceremonial life. Today, ritual music is still performed at festivals and during special ceremonies.

Men play sacred flutes during initiation rituals, which are carried out less often today than in the past. The sacred bamboo flutes are stored in the rafters of houses or in the men's house itself. The sound produced is supposed to be the voices of the ancestral spirits. Women and children were traditionally forbidden to see the flutes.

The sacred flutes are also played after the death of an important man in the village. A pair of flutists plays during the night under the house of the deceased. During the day, the female relatives perform a kind of ritual lament that had a definite musical quality.


Work was traditionally divided along lines of sex and age. Adult women were responsible for fishing and gardening. Women also prepared the fish they caught, preserving a great deal of it by smoking it. Men were responsible for hunting, building, and performing most religious rituals. Girls and young boys would help their mothers with her chores. However, boys who had passed through initiation would not consider performing women's work. During initiation, boys would learn aspects of male work and ceremonial life. In the present, these patterns have remained the same with the exception that very few boys undergo initiation. Men often seek wage labor outside the village. Some men rent their canoes and conduct tours along the Sepik River.


For the Iatmul who still live along the Sepik River, sports are relatively unimportant. Boys make slingshots to shoot hard, dried mud balls at birds and other living targets. Men who have moved to towns and cities are more likely to follow rugby and soccer teams.


In an area without access to electricity, television, videos, and movies are virtually unknown. People who live in towns and cities with electricity go to movies, and some houses have television. Traditional entertainment consisted of storytelling, ritual performances, and music.


Artistic expression in traditional Iatmul society was completely utilitarian (designed for usefulness rather than beauty). Every item of daily use was decorated with carving or painting. Tourism has changed art production and appreciation in Iatmul society. Producing art for tourists is an important money-making endeavor for the present-day Iatmul. Masks and sculpture are the most sought-after items in the tourist art market.

In men's houses in Iatmul villages, there was an important ceremonial item referred to as a "debating stool." This was a free-standing sculpture with an oversized, stylized human head supported by a small body. On the back of the sculpture was a ledge that looked somewhat like a stool. The stool was used in debates that were held to settle disputes that might otherwise have ended in bloodshed. Debaters from each clan would beat a bunch of specially chosen leaves while they made their points. These stools are now produced for outsiders. While a debating stool purchased from an Iatmul on the Sepik River might cost around $100, a stool purchased from a dealer in Australia would cost around $1,500. Iatmul art has become a very profitable business for dealers in foreign countries.


Cultural change and emigration are major problems for the Iatmul today. Young people are the most likely to emigrate, and as a result, they do not learn about their culture. They move to cities and towns and begin using Tok Pisin as their primary language. Tourism has brought major changes to the Iatmul traditional way of life. Wage earning has become important. Western items such as tennis shoes and toothpaste are becoming important items for the modern Iatmul.


Bateson, Gregory. Naven. 2d ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1954.

Lutkehaus, Nancy, et al., ed. Sepik Heritage: Tradition and Change in Papua New Guinea. Durham, N.C.: Carolina University Press, 1990.


Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Papua New Guinea. [Online] Available, 1998.

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