The Huli live in the Tari Basin in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG). The region had little outside influence before the 1940s when plane travel allowed Westerners to bypass the nearly impenetrable coastal swamps and rugged inland mountains.
PNG is a country located in the western half of the world's second largest island, New Guinea. The island is situated just south of the equator and due north of Australia. Its name comes from Spanish explorer Inigo Ortiz de Retes who believed that the people resembled the inhabitants of Guinea in western Africa. The island is divided into two nations. The eastern half is known as Irian Jaya, which was annexed by Indonesia in 1963. The western half was granted full independence from Australia in 1975 under the name "Papua New Guinea".
It is believed that the first Papuans migrated to the island over 45,000 years ago. The stocky, bearded highland people are closely related to the lowland Papuans and more distantly to the Melanesian populations of the Solomon islands. Today, over three million people live in the highlands of New Guinea. The harsh terrain and traditional inter-tribal warfare has lead to village isolation and the proliferation of distinct languages. Over 750 languages are spoken in New Guinea!
The Huli subsist primarily on a diet of yams, manioc (also known as "cassava", a plant with a large starchy root) and on occasion meat from village raised pigs, wild cassowary (a large flightless bird related to the emu) or other forest game (such as tree kangaroos and cuscus - a marsupial with a yellow nose and prehensile tail). The first Westerners to visit the highlands in the 1920s were astounded to see vast valleys of carefully planned gardens and irrigation ditches.
The Huli live in rounded grass huts; the two to four huts in each community are surrounded by split-wood and mud walls. The compound walls serve a dual purpose of keeping domesticated pigs in the compound and away from the gardens while keeping enemies and evil spirits out. Traditionally, the men sleep in one hut while the women and pigs (both considered the property of the men) sleep in a another. This practice has been discouraged by western missionaries, and today most villages keep pigs in a third hut. Villagers cover their bodies with pig-fat grease and ash to keep warm during the cold mountain mornings. At night, a small fire is kept inside the hut so that the heat - and smoke - fills the hut and keeps the occupants warm.
Westerners are often surprised by the traditional highland apparel. While women wear grass skirts, men wear nothing but a koteka, or "penis gourd." The gourd is tied under the man's genitals and around his waist with two pieces of string. While very few villagers in PNG still wear traditional clothing, many inhabitants of the Balem Valley in Irian Jaya proudly maintain this custom.
Traditionally, the Huli are animists who abide by strict ritualized offerings to appease the spirits of their ancestors. Sickness and misfortune are thought to be the work of witchcraft and sorcery. Today, the PNG government states that 66% of residents are Christian and 34% "pantheist," though most village "Christians" who attend Sunday church services maintain a strong respect for resident spirits.
Tribal warfare is a common occurrence among the highland tribes of New Guinea. Though national authorities and missionaries have helped to reduce the fighting, skirmishes between villages persist. Highland tribes honor a "payback" system where punishment for a wrongdoing must be more severe than the original misdeed. To forgive and forget would be an unthinkable crime.
The photographer witnessed a peace ceremony (brokered by regional authorities) to end a feud that erupted when a stray pig from one village ate yams from a neighboring village garden. The dispute escalated to the point where two warriors were killed during a fight with spears and arrows. To end the bloodshed, the village that had killed the warriors slaughtered and cooked 120 pigs for consumption by the second village.
Factoid: How to welcome a New Guinea highlander.
Want to shake hands with a New Guinea highlander? The western "handshake" has only recently been adopted by locals. The traditional greeting is for one person to extend a bent forefinger which the other person pinches between his fore and middle fingers. Both hands are then rapidly pulled apart, causing the fore and middle fingers to make a "snap" sound. The process is then repeated with the roles reversed.
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