The Papuans are one of four major cultural groups of Papua New Guinea. The majority of the population lives in rural areas. In isolated areas there still remains a handful of the giant communal structures that previously housed the whole male population, with a circling cluster of huts for the women. The Papuan people are Melanesian people composed of at least 240 different peoples, each with its own language and culture. Sago is the staple food of the Papuan supplemented with hunting, fishing and small gardens.
Papuans may be related to the Iatmul on the Sepik River and to the Asmat and Marind-anim farther west along the coast. There the cultures share concepts of village “big men”, great longhouses, huge dugout canoes, headhunting and, in some areas, cannibalism.
Ancestors are important, but not necessarily revered in Papuan culture. The important quality is called “imunu”, the power that pervades things, including ritual objects. Imunu is personified in the masked ceremonies. Most representations are of humans or ancestors, not plants or animals. Traditional cultural ceremonies on a large scale existed into the 1950s, but declined as Christian missionaries converted the villages.
The Christian church has been extraordinarily influential. Most Papuan people regard themselves as Christians. The largest denominations are Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and United Church. Pantheistic beliefs are also widespread and traditional rituals are important in Papuan culture. For example, people who live in danger of crocodile attacks are likely to give crocodiles an important role in their culture, while farming communities often place greater emphasis on the weather, accordingly celebrating fertility and harvest. Placating the spirits of ancestors is a dominant theme in traditional beliefs while the fear of sorcery and witchcraft is also widespread. Most Papuans manage to create a personal theology that seemingly blends Christianity with the finer points of their traditional religion.
Papuan art forms are as diverse as they are distinctive. In a country where language varies from village to village, it can be expected that artistic expression will differ in style just as dramatically. Pottery, weapons, carvings, basketwork and musical instruments are produced by different people in different places, according to their traditional skills and beliefs. Most provinces specialize in different kinds of weaponry. Bows and arrows are traditional in several areas. Shields have a decorative and spiritual role just as important as their defensive purposes. Gope boards are believed to possess the spirits of powerful warriors or to act as guardians of the village. Before hunting or war expeditions, the spirits were called upon to advise and protect the men. Story boards are a modern version of the fragile bark carvings villagers used to make. The boards illustrate incidents of village life in raised relief.