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Visit the indigenous Huli People of Papua New Guinea

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The Huli (or Haroli) are an indigenous people who live in the Tari region of Papua New Guinea. Though Papua New Guinea is home to approximately 312 diverse indigenous tribes, with a population numbering around 90,000, the Huli people are one of the largest cultural groups by far.

The Huli people are also often referred to as the ‘Huli Wigmen’, due to one of their rather interesting, wig-based traditions. Read on to discover more of these fascinating traditions and beliefs, as well as amazing snippets about the history and language of the Huli...

A thousand years of history

Though the Huli people were not known to Europeans until the 1930s, they have actually inhabited their region for over 1,000 years. They were extensive travellers (mainly for trade) in both the highlands and the lowlands of their homeland, and they can recount lengthy oral histories that relate to both individuals and the history of their clans and ancestors. All clan members consider themselves as one person descended from a male, common ancestor named Huli.

Hello in Huli (Ha’a, agua pe?)

The Huli language is a Trans-New Guinea language (spoken by the Huli people). Ha’a is a general greeting, and agua pe? is an approximate translation for an informal how are you?

One of the most interesting things about the Huli language is that it features a pentadecimal numeral system, meaning that their numbers are based on multiples of 15 (ngui means 15, ngui nk means 15x2=30, ngui ngui means 15x15=225, etc.)

The Huli people also speak Tok Pisin, a creole language spoken throughout Papua New Guinea that combines words and influences from English, German, and indigenous Melanesian languages. It likely developed out of trade between local inhabitants and Anglophones traders, and is often referred to as ‘New Guinea Pidgin’ or ‘Pidgin English.’ And some words show their influences a bit more obviously than others! Here’s a little vocab lesson…

  • Bagarap: Broken/To break down (from ‘bugger up’)
  • Gut: Good
  • Pisin: Bird (from ‘pigeon’)
  • Hausboi: A male domestic servant
  • Haus moni: A bank (from ‘house money’)
  • Haus sik: A hospital (from ‘house sick’)
Paying in Pigs

Tradition is very strong amongst the Huli people, who support themselves through hunting and agriculture. Two of the most important things to this indigenous group are gardening and pigs. In Huli culture, wealth is counted by how many pigs one person owns. The pig is a common exchange used to pay a bride’s dowry, death indemnities, and other ritual payments.

To forgive and forget is not an option

Huli clans have no chiefs, leaders are instead determined by their war-mongering and dispute-solving abilities (and by their wealth of pigs of course). These abilities are important because the Huli choose to live a life of vengeance and warfare rather than peace and settlement.

Tribal warfare is a common occurrence among many highland tribes of Papua New Guinea due to the fact that they honour a “payback” system, whereby the punishment for a misdeed must be more severe than the original wrongdoing. This often created a never ending cycle of escalating vengeance, meaning most Huli war originate from personal disputes between individuals. Regional authorities once had to broker a peace ceremony to end a dispute that first started when one stray pig from a village ate yams from a neighbouring village. This led to two warriors being killed with spears during a fight, which eventually led to one village slaughtering another village, and cooking their 120 pigs for consumption!

Yellow clay (ambua) is commonly used as body decoration, and considered sacred by the Huli. Though this sacred body paint is also often combined with bright red face paint (and some rather intimidating axes) in order to frighten and threaten rival groups.

Boys to (Wig)men

One of the most fascinating traditions of this tribe is the unique process that boys go through in order to prepare to become adults. After living with their mothers until they are around eight years old, boys then go to live with their fathers to learn to become men (in Huli tradition, men and women live and sleep separately, in different houses). Then, at around 15 years old, they progress to bachelor school to learn about the ritual and biological processes of becoming a man, this time in ‘school’ can last from 18 months to up to three years! During this time, any contact with women (including their mothers!) is completely forbidden.

A males hair growing abilities are an extremely important part of his transition from boy to man. In order for the boy’s hair to grow extra quickly, it has to be sprinkled three times a day with holy water, this is combined with magic and spells. There are also particular diet restrictions (no pig’s heart or spicy foods) and a special neck rest is used for sleep so that hair is not squashed while sleeping. As a young man’s hair grows, it is shaped using a band of bamboo, then at the end of his time of transition, it is cut away and harvested to be stitched into a traditional Huli wig by the wig master. Some wigs are for the every day, and others are used for ceremonies, fashioned with various adornments such as parrot feathers, or dyes made from charcoal, red clay, and pig fat. All of a man’s wigs must be created before he is married. They can also be sold to men who don’t want to grow their own (with special ceremonial wigs selling for up to £390!)

Read more about the Huli here... 

Huli Tribe - Papua New Guinea, Who are the Huli Wigmen?, Greetings in more than 3000 languagesFive Fun Facts about the languages of Papua New GuineaExploring the Culture of the Huli Wigmen Tribe, Meet The Huli Wigmen of Tari Highlands, and Huli Wig Men, Papua New Guinea: Tales of the Unexpected.

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