The Huli People of Papua New Guinea
(Copyright ©1998 G. C. J. Lomas)
(Photos copyright © 1998 Malachy McBride, ofmcap.; Drawings copyright ©1998 Alphonsus Mariot)

The Huli people live in the central mountains of Papua New Guinea, at a latitude of six degrees below the equator and at a mean altitude of about 1500 meters above sea level.  They number over 65,000 (Kloss & McConnel 1981), grouped in clans (hamigini) and subclans (hamigini emene) throughout the area they now claim as their own.

The present day inhabitants employ a system of shifting cultivation whereby virgin bush is cleared and the soil tilled as need arises, leaving old worn-out tracts of land to recuperate through natural re-afforestation.  The secondary forests that then appear become available for clearing and recultivation within the space of two to four generations, although in higher and less fertile regions cleared areas tend to degrade into grassland rather than return to their original state.

Some Huli origin myths speak of ancestral kinship ties with neighbouring language groups, while genealogies and oral traditions suggest there have been migratory movements within the Huli area.  They have probably been living there for 600 to 1,000 years (Blong 1979), or even longer, given that the Highlands of Papua New Guinea have been inhabited for at least 25,000 years (White & O'Connell 1982: 176).

Undecorated Huli man

Huli man in casual everyday dress.

He wears a string apron, or dambale, around his waist.  Stuck in his belt is a hongoia bone knife, made from a cassowary bone.  He's holding this with his right hand. 

He carries a nu string bag slung over his shoulder and knotted across his chest.  In this he would normally carry possessions such as mundu tobacco and the instrument needed to smoke this, his mundu be bamboo pipe.  He would also carry some cold baked hina sweet potato, and probably a fragment of iba waea mirror and a comb.  Any money he has will be there, too, either wrapped up carefully in leaves or secure in a wallet bought at a trade store. 

Strings of small red plastic beads can be seen around his neck, probably bought at a trade store.  Traditional dress would use dange dogs' teeth shells here. Just below the beads he wears a half-moon halepange mother-of-pearl shell, almost de rigueur for a Huli man.

The restricted population movements induced by this cyclical pattern of agriculture are largely responsible for the fact that the Huli have no remembered contacts with language groups other than their immediate neighbours before the early 1930s, when the Fox brothers took a prospecting patrol through the area.

In 1935 an Australian administration patrol led by Hides and O'Malley made its way across the southern edge of Huliland, camping above a huge intermontane basin.  This basin they came to call Tarifuroro when an old Huli gestured toward the valley and said this (Hides 1939: 91).  It seems likely that what the Huli said was Tagali porogo (tha'ali phoro'o) - "I'm going to the Tagali (river)".  But whatever the case, this 'name', shortened for convenience to Tari, was eventually given to the largest government administration centre to be set up in Huli country.

Huli man in traditional everyday dress.

This photograph shows an older Huli man, posing with an aju axe over his right shoulder and a set of gulupobe panpipes in his left hand,  which he is playing. 

On his head he wears a traditional manda wig, woven from human hair and decorated with aulai everlasting daisies.  On top of the wig, just visible, is a plume of jari cassowary feathers. 

His dambale string apron includes a woven and dyed pupai sporran, and is trimmed with nogo erene pigs' tails.  The generously spread pajabu cordyline leaves he uses to cover his buttocks are visible. 

A hungoia bone knife is stuck in his belt. 

He wears a halepange mother-of-pearl shell around his neck.

Man with panpipes

Geographical Setting

The land in which the Huli people dwell is one of contrasting scenery, notable for its rugged mountain ranges and fertile, swampy valleys.  The rivers that drain the area are subterranean in sections, and there are numerous caves and potholes in the limestone rock formations.  In places, the rivers run swiftly through deep gorges, while elsewhere they take a less hurried course through swamplands in the wide, expansive intermontane basins.  The slopes of all but the tallest of the mountains are covered in dense rain forests, with here and there an outcrop of white limestone cliff or a patch of light green sword grass.  The rain forests provide timber, vine and bamboo for the construction of dwellings and the crafting of artefacts, while pandanus palms in the high bush yield crops of nuts, rich in protein and harvested each year.
Young girls ready to dance
Young Huli girls dressed for traditional dance.

These young girls have used manufactured paint to decorate their faces, in place of the more traditional ambwa yellow clay.  Their bodies are covered in mbagwa tree oil, and they are wearing traditional hurwa grass skirts.

Nowadays, young girls such as these take part in mali dances in place of igirigija boy initiates of the once flourishing haroli bachelor cult.  These igirigija used to dress up as girls as part of a long initiation ceremony, called tege pulu.  Young girls now dance this role, which has spilled over into the Mali  The female dancers cover their breasts - probably a carry over from the tege pulu, when igirigija wore hurwa grass skirts and wrapped nu string bags around their chests to feign femininity. 

Note the rugged mountain ranges in the background, and the jagged peaks that surround the intermontane valleys.

There are many areas of volcanic soil ideal for the cultivation of sweet potato, the staple diet of the Huli.  Arable land is to be found along the higher ridges of the swamps and on mountain knolls and the smaller high plateaux where people plant their gardens and husband their pigs.  Small game animals, such as pigs, possums and cassowary, provide protein, and are also hunted for their pelts and feathers.

The success of Huli subsistence economy is linked to the climatic conditions, especially to the high annual rainfall.  Persistent and heavy rain always brings the threat of flooding and crop damage, while even short periods of drought can bring frost to the higher regions.  Some people live at heights as great as 2,000 metres above sea level, while others dwell in the deeper mountain valleys and in lower areas of the central cordillera at altitudes of only 1,000 metres.  Consequently, temperatures across Huliland can vary considerably, although the main body of the population  -  in the Wabia-Lumulumu-Burani-Goloba region  - enjoys a daily temperature of about 20C and an average nightly temperature of around 10C.  This temperate climate persists throughout the year.

The climate, the rugged terrain, the flora and fauna: all are important environmental factors in Huli life.  They are constant referents in Huli poetical expressions (cf  Pugh-Kitigan 1975: 191) and function as a significant form of communication, both phatic and ritual.  Such environmental factors are also determinants in Huli structural and behavioural patterns, and in Huli technology and ideology.