Posted March 8 ’12

I went to the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG) because I wanted to visit the Huli tribes, see their villages, meet the Huli Wigmen, talk to the women and learn about their way of life.  PNG is one of the last culturally intact places on earth and tribal culture has always made my heart beat fast.  When I close my eyes, I can hear the drums and feel the fierce energy of these warrior people.  New Guinea has over 700 different tribes, each with their own unique language and customs, but the Huli people standout as having exceptionally interesting traditions which have been passed down, unchanged, through the generations for hundreds of years.

Huli Wigmen

Exxon/Mobil is developing an extensive Liquid Natural Gas project in the Southern Highlands and has reportedly spent over 50 billion dollars thus far.   The area is changing very quickly.   Specialized workers from around the world are rushing to the Hela Province to mine and excavate precious natural resources.  Massive earth moving equipment tears into mountainsides, helicopters transport gigantic pipes over dense rain forest, trees are being cut, new roads built. Three weeks before I arrived in the country there was a huge landslide near the drill site that took out an entire village, killing an untold number of Papuan people.  It is a very tense situation in the Highlands.  I felt like I needed to get up there to see it before it was too late.

Landslide in Southern Highlands

I flew into Tari on a plane filled with Exxon/Mobil employees and was delighted to see that the airport security guard was dressed in traditional Huli clothing.  He wore strings of python vertebrae across his chest, kina shells around his neck, a cassowary beak on his back and a fierce cassowary dagger in his belt.  He was a welcome sight in amongst the engineers and executives.

The only tourist


The Highlands are spectacularly beautifully.   We stayed at a lodge in the mountains.

Ambua Lodge

There were no other guests during our visit.  Not even one.   No tourists.  I don’t know if that’s because of the military coup in January, the massive landslide, or the ferry disaster that killed about 100 people but we definitely had the place to ourselves.

Our guide Peter, who lived in a nearby village, explained that Huli life revolves around three things: land, women, and pigs.  Ownership equals power.  Wives are bought and paid for with pigs.  The traditional bride price is 30 pigs, payable to the woman’s family, and most of the men are polygamists.  Peter had two wives, five children, and was considering a third wife but confided that it was a lot of work keeping everyone happy and he wasn’t sure he wanted to take on another household.  Men live separately and communally in the Men’s House.  Women have their own houses where they raise the children and the pigs.  The pigs are valuable so they sleep inside the Women’s House.

Chief in the Men's House


















The women are not allowed to enter the Men’s House.  Ever.  They are not allowed to prepare or touch the men’s food because men consider women evil and dangerous.  Husbands and wives consummate their marriages out in the bush—literally.  Once a month, when the woman is most fertile, the man takes her off into the jungle and has sex with her.  Typically they’ll meet for a few days in a row and work towards conception.  Once the woman is pregnant, the man leaves her alone.  I asked the chief about women and he explained that they drain the men of strength and power and should therefore be avoided.  This chief and I hit it off and I was invited inside his Men’s House, which was an incredible honor.  Apparently it was okay for me to enter his home because I didn’t have Huli blood.  He told me they’d do a special cleansing ceremony to rid the place of my evil woman-ness when the visit was over.


Katie in the Men's House





























The fire on the dirt floor in the middle of the small house is kept  burning, night and day.  The place was very warm which is good because Huli men don’t use blankets.  It was very smoky inside and the ceiling was black with charcoal.  The wall was hung with pig bones and dried out hides.  Each body part marked a feast with a neighboring clan.  This was how they kept track of social obligation since there is no written language.

There are no chairs or furniture in the Men’s House and they don’t use beds but instead sleep on the bare dirt floor because it is believed that comfort makes a man soft and lazy.  Huli men are warriors and must be ready for battle at all times.  They only sleep a few hours a night and practice with their weapons everyday.

Clan wars are frequent.  Common reasons for battle include land disputes, stolen pigs or loss of honor.  Our guide Peter showed us two serious scars where he’d been struck by arrows.  People die in clan wars constantly.  It happens all the time.  Today.  Right now.

















There is a lot of ritual dance in this culture.  The Huli men are especially famous for their wigs made of human hair.

The men pay to go to the wig school where the wig master casts special spells and instructs their diet and behavior so that the hair will grow properly.  It takes about 18 months to grow an everyday wig.  The men have to sleep with their neck elevated on a log so that the hair will grow properly. If they don’t follow the wig master’s instructions exactly, the hair will not grow.

Once the hair is long enough and perfectly shaped it is cut and fashioned into the wig, then decorated with feathers or shells, and used in ritual dances.  It is not uncommon for a man to have several wigs.

Next up, the women…