Introduction to PNG


Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a country located north of the east coast of Australia. PNG occupies the eastern half of the Island of New Guinea, along with other small offshore Islands, including Bougainville, Manus, Lihir, New Ireland and New Britain. The western half of the Island of New Guinea is known as the Papua province and is governed by Indonesia.

Map of Papua New Guinea

PNG’s total land area is approximately 463,000 square kilometres.

The capital of PNG is Port Moresby, which is located on the south-east side of the mainland. The country has a central range of mountains called the Owen Stanley Range which connects Port Moresby with the north coast of the country.


PNG has three official languages: English, Tok Pidgin and Hiri Motu. English is used throughout PNG educational institutions, government, Courts and in business.

There are also estimated to be over 800 different indigenous languages spoken throughout the country.


PNG’s population is currently approximately 7.3 million.

It is estimated that growth of the population is increasing by approximately 3.1% annually.

The population of PNG remains primarily based in rural areas and operates in a traditional, non-monetary barter economy. However, there is also a portion of the population that live in cities such as Port Moresby, Lae, Madang and Goroka.

Co-existing with the traditional communities is a modern economic system, involving mining, the production and exportation of petroleum products and other industries such as agriculture and fisheries.


Predominantly, the religion in PNG is Christian. However, traditional indigenous belief systems are also common, particularly in rural areas.

Customary laws are still commonly practiced and enforced across the country. Legislation also recognises Customary Law as part of the underlying law of PNG.


The unit of PNG currency is the Kina (PGK).

Time zone

PNG is 10 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time and is on the same time zone as Australian Eastern Standard Time. However, PNG does not have daylight saving.


The island of New Guinea, of which Papua New Guinea is the eastern part, is only one-ninth as big as Australia, yet it has just as many mammal species, and more kinds of birds and frogs. PNG is Australia’s biological mirror-world. Both places share a common history going back tens of millions of years, but Australia is flat and has dried out, while PNG is wet and has become mountainous. As a result, Australian kangaroos bound across the plains, while in PNG they climb in the rainforest canopy.

PNG – A Megadiverse Region

PNG is one of earth’s megadiverse regions, and it owes much of its diversity to its topography. The mountainous terrain has spawned diversity in two ways: isolated mountain ranges are often home to unique fauna and flora found nowhere else, while within any one mountain range you will find different species as you go higher. In the lowlands are jungles whose trees are not that different from those of Southeast Asia. Yet the animals are often startlingly different – cassowaries instead of tapirs, and marsupial cuscus instead of monkeys.

The greatest diversity of animal life occurs at around 1500m above sea level. The ancestors of many of the marsupials found in these forests were derived from Australia some five million years ago. As Australia dried out they vanished from that continent, but they continued to thrive and evolve in New Guinea, producing a highly distinctive fauna. Birds of paradise and bowerbirds also abound there, and the forest has many trees typical of the forests of ancient Gondwana. As you go higher the forests get mossier and the air colder. By the time you have reached 3000m above sea level the forests are stunted and wreathed in epiphytes. It’s a formation known as elfin woodland, and in it one finds many bright honeyeaters, native rodents and some unique relics of prehistory, such as the giant long-beaked echidna. Above the elfin woodland the trees drop out, and a wonderland of alpine grassland and herbfield dominates, where wallabies and tiny birds, like the alpine robin, can often be seen. It is a place where snow can fall and where early morning ice coats the puddles.

Flying into Port Moresby you’ll encounter grassland – a far cry from the eternally wet forests that beckon from the distant ranges. Such habitats exist in a band of highly seasonal rainfall that exists across southern New Guinea, and the fauna you’ll see there is much like that of northern Australia. Magpie geese, brolgas and jabirus occupy the floodplains, as do sandy-coloured agile wallabies, Rusa deer (which were introduced a century ago) and saltwater crocodiles.

Where the dry season is shorter, however, the savannah gives way to lowland jungles and there you are in another world. The largest native land animal you’ll encounter is not a mammal or a reptile, but a bird – New Guinea’s southern cassowary.

It’s the nature of rainforests that their inhabitants form intimate relationships, and the cassowary stands at the centre of an intricate web. It eats the fruit of rainforest trees, and it can fit objects as large as a grapefruit down its throat. Its stomach strips the pulp from the fruit but passes the seeds unharmed, and from them new forest trees can grow – unless a sinister-looking parrot is nearby. The vulturine parrot is a cockatoo-sized bird with the colours of an Edwardian gentleman’s morning suit – a sombre black on the outside, but with rich vermilion linings. Its head is naked and bears a long, hooked beak, hence its common name. Until recently no one knew quite why its head was so odd – then one was seen neck-deep in cassowary faeces. The bird specialises, it seems, in picking apart reeking cassowary droppings in search of the seeds, and for such an occupation a bald head (which prevents the faeces from sticking) and a long pincer-like beak are essential requirements.

New Guinea’s snake fauna includes some extremely venomous species, such as the taipan and king brown snake, which are limited to the savannahs. Generally speaking the higher up the mountains you go, the fewer venomous snakes there are.

Mountain Forests

The forests of New Guinea’s mountains, including its high-mountain elfin woodland, are, on first acquaintance, more sedate places. There is often a distinct chill in the air at dawn, and out of the mist you might hear the pure tones of the New Guinea whipbird, or the harsher calls of any one of a dozen birds of paradise. Just why New Guinea is home to such an astonishing variety of spectacular birds has long puzzled biologists. Part of the answer lies in the lack of mammalian predators on the island. The largest – a marsupial known as the New Guinea quoll – is only kitten-sized. Thus there are no foxes, leopards or similar creatures to prey on the birds, which as a consequence have developed such astonishing colours and spectacular mating rituals as to beggar belief.

If you can get well away from the villages, perhaps by accompanying experienced bushmen on a two- or three-day walk to distant hunting grounds, you might get to see a tree kangaroo. These creatures are relatives of Australia’s rock wallabies which, five million years ago, took to the treetops. There are eight species in New Guinea, but in the central ranges you are likely to see just two. Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo is a chestnut-coloured creature the size of a Labrador. Higher up you may encounter the bearlike Doria’s tree kangaroo. It is shaggy, brown and immensely powerful, and lives in family groups.

Where the woodland gives way to the alpine regions another world unfolds. There the tiger parrot calls from stunted umbrella plants. Rhododendron bushes and tufted orchids are covered with flowers, and any woody plants are festooned with ant plants. In a perfect example of the intimate ecological relationships that abound in the forest, the ant protects the plant, while the plant provides shelter for its tiny defenders.
You’ll see well-worn tracks winding through the alpine tussocks. Some are made by diminutive wallabies, others by giant rats. New Guinea is home to a spectacular diversity of rats, which comprise fully one-third of the mammal fauna. These distant relatives of the laboratory rat are spectacularly varied: some look like miniature otters and cavort in mountain streams, others resemble small, tree-climbing possums, while still others look, and smell, like rats from elsewhere.

In two of the highest mountain regions in PNG – the Star Mountains in the far west and Mt Albert Edward near Port Moresby – one of the country’s most enigmatic birds can be seen. Known as McGregor’s bird of paradise, it is a velvet-black bird the size of a large crow that makes a distinctive rattling sound as it flies. Under each wing is a large orange spot, and behind each eye a fleshy, flapping orange wattle of skin.

The People of PNG


PNG people are closely related to people from other parts of the Pacific. There are Papuans, the first arrivals; Melanesians, who represent 95% of people and are related to people from the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia; Polynesians, related to New Zealand Maoris, Tongans, Samoans and Hawaiian islanders; and Micronesians, related to people in the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Nauru.

Only 15% of people live in urban areas, while most of the rest are subsistence farmers. Nearly two million people live in the Highlands, the most densely populated part of the country.

Most cities have many people who weren’t born there. Many Highlanders migrate to Port Moresby and elsewhere, but few coastal people move into the Highlands. Melanesian people still identify more strongly with their clan links and their origins than with the people they come to live with, so enclaves exist in the settlement areas of the big cities, and there is a traditional distrust between Highlanders and coastal people.


Some people have typical urban lifestyles with cars and comfortable homes. Others inhabit remote areas and may never have seen a town or a white person. Urban or rural, they almost all chew buai (betel nut), go to church, worship dead ancestors and fear masalais (malevolent spirits).

Melanesians are laid-back, at least on the coast where it’s too hot to get overly fussed. Highlanders are a bit more feisty and passionate. Everyone seems to walk slowly, but they’ve got this climate worked out – cling to the shade, sleep through the midday heat and save physical exertion for village rugby late in the day.

By Western standards most people live very simply. In the bush people have very few possessions and often no cash income. In the cities a number of educated people lead sophisticated middle-class lives, but other people live in squalor in city-fringe settlements. PNG lifestyles range from the rarefied cold-weather climes of the Highlands to life on the coast in stilt houses above the shifting tide.

Both PNG and the Solomons are changing quickly and locals want development. Particularly in PNG, people have married outside their traditional clans and homelands, and tok ples (local language, pronounced ‘talk place’) is increasingly being replaced in the villages with Tok Pisin (the Pidgin language). Isolated communities are suddenly being confronted with huge mining and logging operations. These bring new roads and facilities and remote areas are opened to Western influences – both good and bad.


Fundamental to Melanesian culture is the idea of wantoks (meaning ‘one talk’ in Tok Pisin) and your wantoks are those who speak your tok ples (language) – your clan or kinfolk. Every Melanesian is born with duties to their wantoks but they also have privileges. Within the clan and village, each person can expect to be housed and fed, and to share in the community’s assets.

Some say that the wantok system is the best and worst thing about PNG and the Solomon Islands. For villagers, it is an egalitarian way for the community to share its spoils. In rapidly changing circumstances, the village and the clan provide basic economic support as well as a sense of belonging.

When these ideas are transposed to politics and social affairs, it becomes nepotism and, at worst, corruption. Candidates don’t get to run without the support of their fellow bigmen (important men or leaders), who expect that when ‘their’ candidate is elected, their generosity will be repaid. The wantok system is also the greatest disincentive to enterprise.

The wantok system is a microcosm of the battle being waged between the modern and the traditional in PNG and the Solomons. It is so deeply entrenched that some educated youngsters choose to move away from their families to avoid the calls for handouts. And without it, life would be much harder for many others. Just saying ‘no’ to a wantok is rarely an option.

Traditional Lifestyle

Ownership in the Western sense didn’t exist in traditional societies; instead ownership was a concept tied up in family and clan rights, controlled by the male elder.

In traditional Melanesian culture there are three main areas of everyday importance – prestige, pigs and gardening. A village chief shows wealth by owning and displaying certain traditional valuables, or by hosting lavish feasts where dozens of pigs are slaughtered. Bigmen (important men or leaders) don’t inherit their titles, although being the son of a chief has advantages. Bigmen must earn their titles by accolades in war, wisdom in councils, magic-practice skills and the secret arts that are tambu (taboo) for women. Particularly in the Highlands, people have to be made aware how wealthy bigmen are, so ceremonial life in this region focuses on ostentatious displays and in giving things away. There are various ways in which this is formalised; it’s part of a wide circle of exchange and interclan relationships. Wealth is never really given away in the Western sense. Your gifts cement a relationship with the receiver, who then has obligations to you. Obligation and payback are deadly serious in Highlands culture; Melanesia has no privileged classes, but individuals still inherit land through their parents (often their mother). Village life in PNG and the Solomons is usually egalitarian, and ownership continues to be a concept tied up in family and clan rights.

Pigs are extremely valuable; they’re regarded as family members and lactating women sometimes suckle piglets. People can be seen taking their pig for a walk on a leash, patiently waiting as the pig grazes and digs by the roadside. Large pigs can be worth K1000. Dogs, on the other hand, are mangy, fly-blown creatures left to scavenge for food.

Animism, Christianity & Spirit Houses

People in both countries still maintain animist beliefs. Despite the inroads of Christianity, ancestor worship is still important. The netherworld is also inhabited by spirits, both protective and malevolent, and there are creation myths that involve animal totems. This is stronger in certain areas: islanders from Malaita in the Solomons worship sharks while some Sepik River people revere crocodiles. Christianity has a tight grip on most people, but it hasn’t supplanted traditional beliefs. They coexist – Jesus is alive in people’s hearts and minds without conflicting with their traditional ideas.

Men’s cults are widespread throughout Melanesia and involve the ritualised practice of ‘the arts’ and ancestor worship in men’s houses and haus tambarans (spirit houses). This can involve the building and display of certain ceremonial objects, song and dance, and the initiation of boys into manhood. It manifests in different ways in different societies, but it is very secretive and deadly serious – in the Sepik boys are cut with crocodile markings as part of their initiation, while Tolais boys are visited by dukduks (spiritual costumes) to perform their initiation rites. It’s ironic and hard to fathom for outsiders, but while men’s business and haus tambarans are tambu for women, men’s cults and their initiation rites are all about rebirthing – the haus tambaran is like a womb and in some places its entrance is actually shaped like a vagina.

Sexual politics is complicated in traditional Melanesian society. In some places in the Highlands husband and wife don’t live together at all, and sexual relations are not to be taken lightly. Some Melanesian men have two or more wives. In many belief systems women are considered dangerous, especially during menstruation. Women often live in a house alone with the young children, or with sisters and their nieces and nephews. In many places land rights pass through the mother, and older women can wield great power in the villages.

Women carry kago (cargo) in bilums (string bags) home from the market while the man walks unburdened. Women do most of the food gardening, although men grow magnificent decorative gardens. Traditionally, men practise arts that are exclusively their domain and, although these can sometimes be shown to women travellers, they are still tambu for local women.


PNG’s arts are regarded as the most striking and varied in the Pacific, and Solomon Islanders, being great carvers, are part of the same cultural tradition. The lack of contact between different villages and groups of people has led to a potent array of indigenous art.

In traditional societies, dance, song, music, sculpture and body adornment were related to ceremonies. Art was either utilitarian (such as bowls or canoes) or religious. Since European contact, art has become objectified. There have always been master carvers and mask-makers, but their role in traditional cultures was to enable the ceremonies and rituals to be performed correctly, and to serve the clan and chief.

The production of artefacts is itself often ceremonial and ritualistic. On some of the islands, secret men’s societies build dukduks or carve malangan masks (totemic figures honouring the dead). Women are forbidden to look upon a dukduk or malangan until it is brought to life in a ceremony by a fierce anonymous character.