Cultural Context

I would like to begin this blog post by saying that I now see how hard it is to conduct research on the “surface level” for a place like PNG. Given that Euro-centric penetration and colonization of this area is fairly recent, so to speak, compared to other countries of the world, it is extremely difficult to find publications on the Internet that provide not only reports or accounts (in addition to UCSD’s patrol reports, that is) of what kiaps observed and attempted to manipulate in different parts of PNG, but the context and backdrop surrounding specific regions of PNG in relation to specific periods of time. My assigned volume of patrol reports includes observations based on kiaps’ experiences in the region Yangoru, located in the East Sepik district in PNG. The East Sepik province is in the northeastern portion of PNG (Lea 1970:1). While it was difficult to find resources that spoke of the cultural context of this area in relation to the time period of my patrol reports, i.e., the early 1950s, I was able to learn about the inherent, indigenous characteristics and culture that characterized this region. Firstly, the language that is native to this region is the Manambu language (Newman 2011:176). It is a language that belongs to the Ndu family of languages (Newman 2011:176). Similar to other languages around the world, e.g., Spanish, the Manambu language reflects rigid gender identification and specificity (Newman 2011:178). This is a potential reflection of the inherent dynamics between individuals of the region, i.e., dynamics that reflect a rigid, black-and-white interpretation of gender, with little room for recognition of gender fluidity amongst individuals. Additionally, the inherent practices and culture of Yangoru are shaped by age-old war practices and territorialism (Roscoe 1996:651). These practices yet again reflect the rigid, black-and-white interpretation of gender, with men from different villages waging war against one other to seize women from other villages and accrue more land for their own villages (respectively) (Roscoe 1996:661). The defining features of this region, including the language and the history of war, influenced how the people of the Yangoru region viewed prestige and honor during the 1950s. When foreign contact with the region brought items such as shirts, shorts, and new metal supplies during this time, individuals used the inherent war practices and aggression to accrue more and more of these items to declare themselves as honorable and prestigious (Roscoe 1999:178). With foreign penetration, individuals also competed for gaining prestige through rice and peanut production (Roscoe 1999:178). In the wake of this culture rooted in competition for foreign items during the 1950s, many businesses in the region faced impending dissolution and oftentimes, failed (Roscoe 1999:178). These war practices made a comeback during the 1990s, when a huge “raskol” (or gang) culture emerged and individuals competed for items like VCRs and sodas (Roscoe 1999:178).

It was interesting to see how an amalgamation of sensibilities occurred during the period of my patrol report. While foreign items were brought to Yangoru, individuals used age-old practices to own these items and use it as a barometer for prestige and honor.

PNG Patrol Report: East Sepik District, Yangoru, 1953-1955


Lea, David A. M. & Ward, R. Gerard. & Ploeg, Marlous. & University of Papua and New Guinea. Department of Geography.  (1970).  An Atlas of Papua and New Guinea.  [Port Moresby]:  Dept. of Geography, University of Papua and New Guinea

Newman, J. (2011). The Manambu Language of East Sepik, Papua New Guinea (review). Anthropological Linguistics53(2), 176-179. University of Nebraska Press. Retrieved July 15, 2018, from Project MUSE database.

Roscoe, P. (1996). War and Society in Sepik New Guinea. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2(4), 645-666. doi:10.2307/3034301

Roscoe, P. (1999). The Return of the Ambush: ‘Raskolism’ in Rural Yangoru, East Sepik Province. Oceania, 69(3), 171-183. Retrieved from


  1. To my fellow researcher of this region during the same decade, I completely understand and agree with your argument that primary sources on the inner workings of Papua New Guinea are more sparse than I expected. Though the specific collection from the UCSD Library does provide insightful primary sources, I was met on the open web with many secondary sources that were not nearly as thorough or unbiased as the primary sources that I looked at, such as later patrol reports from the same region. I think your analysis not only of the region but also the ramifications of colonization’s presence in Papua New Guinea were well analyzed and corresponded with the information I encountered in my research!


    1. Hi Margo,

      It is nice to hear that we are treading the same path. I’m happy we get to work on this together and that we’re not alone!


  2. Great job following the breadcrumbs, Rukmini! It led you to Dr. Paul Roscoe’s writing.

    There are a few more publications on the area by him and others in the library catalog:

    And if you use Google Books, you will find a few good sources that we also have on the shelves of Geisel:

    The Sepik is well known for its arts. Here is a piece held at the Met Musuem:


    1. Hi Cristela,

      Thank you SO much for showing me these resources! I’m so happy that I just happened upon an expert in this area’s work. It’s quite humbling to know that my Google searches went in a fruitful direction!


  3. Rukmini, Great job navigating through the sources and discovering something about the culture and traditions of the region. It will be interesting to learn if there is evidence of the gender roles, war history, or forms of prestige in the patrol reports. You mention how things changed with foreign contact. When exactly did these changes begin and who introduced them (missionaries, kiaps, explorers, etc)?


    1. Hi Rachel,

      The changes that I noted in my blog post actually occurred during the early 1950s, but there were mentions about how foreign contact impacted the region in terms of the construction of plantations/natural resource production facilities during various times of the post-war period. I will have to double check my sources and let you know about this for sure. Thank you for your comments!


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