Mundugumor Tribe: Culture & Overview

Instructor: Diane Davis
Study the Papua, New Guinea, tribe called the Mundugumor and learn about its traditions, culture and history. At the end of the lesson, test your understanding with a quiz.

Overview of the Mundugumor Tribe

Papua, New Guinea, is a country in Oceania that occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. It is located in the southwestern area of the Pacific Ocean. Mundugumor is an old name given to the people who lived along central Yuat River in the East Sepik Province of Papua, New Guinea.

The total population of the Mundugumor at the beginning of this century was probably about 1,000 people, and the villages were founded by people coming from the west. Land and environmental resources were ample to support such a population, and their environment includes the rainforest.

Villages and Trade

The Mundugumor region was composed of six villages: four along the banks of the Yuat River and two in the bush. Village size was less than 200 people. The villages had a monopoly of land which was both high and fertile; all the land for many miles around was a vast grassland swamp.

Villages were a series of hamlets associated with one another. Traditional houses were made from natural materials of sago ribs and leaves, oil-palm bark, and substantial posts. Houses were built approximately five feet above the ground. Each family had a garden of fruit and vegetables and at least three tree crops: coconuts, betel nut and sago palms. Some of the families also had tobacco plots.

The river provided plentiful fish to the Mundugumor. The rainforest nearby offered varieties of game, wild foods and spices, as well as ochres and feathers for ritual. It also offered timber for musical instruments, house and canoe building, and for making spears and shields for head hunting and cannibalism.

Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea

Betel nuts and tobacco were important crops that gave the Mundugumor domination in the regional trading system. Tobacco and betel nuts are still important as commercial crops, but cash crops such as coffee, rubber, copra, and rice are also important. All the material culture items Mundugumor people needed in their daily lives they got by trading their tobacco to the villages that surrounded them.


In 1929, the Australian Administration outlawed war, headhunting and cannibalism. Little was known about the history of the Mundugumor before 1931. In that year, anthropologists Margaret Mead and Rio Fortune traveled to this region and studied the customs and culture of this tribe.

Mundugumor power and abundance did not produce a peaceful, united society. Instead, it was a competitive one. Mundugumor men and women alike were violent and aggressive; woman were actively masculine, and without any of the softening and mellowing characteristics that are often attributed to that sex in other cultures. Sons were alienated from fathers, brother stood against brother, and neighbors distrusted one another.

Influence of Tobacco

Tobacco lay at the center of these disputes. A man's only chance of power and prestige was in having extensive tobacco fields and enough wives to work them. But obtaining a wife among the Mundugumor required brother-sister exchanges. So any man wanting a wife, or another wife, needed a sister to marry the brother of his future wife.

Consequently, men struggled to control the disposition of their sisters, while fathers attempted to manipulate their daughters. Each male in the polygamous family aimed for greater tobacco production, more wealth and prestige, and swelling numbers of followers.

Division of Labor Based on Sex

There was an informal division of labor by sex. Men conducted most of the ritual events, cleared the land for gardening, hunted, and did the major work in the house and canoe construction. Men also conducted warfare and intergroup raiding. Women were in charge of day-to-day living and did most of the subsistence labor. They gardened, fished, cooked, and cared for the children. Sago processing required the participation of both men and women - men to cut and women to scrape.


Marriage formed the basis for Mundugumor social organization because the bond it created provided the structure for all significant exchange transactions for several generations. Brother-sister exchange was the preferred way to marry. A man carefully guarded rights to his sister against both his brothers and his father, who might try to use her in an exchange for a wife for themselves.

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