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Tribe culture of the Insect Tribe - Sepik, Papua New Guinea - Part 1 of 2

The Sepik River region in Papua Guinea, especially The Upper Sepik part, offers a diverse tribe culture. One of the most fascinating tribes who live there is the Insect tribe. The hunt crocodiles better than anyone else in the world, but not without taking risks.

Photo. Carved crocodile figure from a canoe. Spiritual figures - amazing carvings from the Insect tribe, Papua New Guinea. In addition to crocodiles, they worship dragon fly, sago beetle, praying mantis and other insects, and have excellent carving skills. These carvings reminds me of wonderful experiences together with the Insect tribe.

A journey through wild tribe culture
Hey Ho, Lets Go, as the Ramones sings! Help, we are on holiday! It was no time for returning back. We have to go whole the day before we hopefully returned. Me and my friend ventured into the Upper Sepik part in 1999 eager to explore the tribe cultures. These people have had less contact with outsiders. Especially were we curios about the "insect cult" people and their customs. We wonder about that they still live up to the ferocious reputation they earned in former times.

The Insect Tribe were unknown to the outside world until the 1950s. This tribe belong to the indigenous tribes of Papua New Guinea. They still live fairly isolated and have their own language. They hunt crocodiles with spears and catch wild boar with bows and arrows. They speak their own language, Ngala, and worship their glassy-eyed totem – the praying mantis.

The Insect tribe lives in a village that sits above the waters of the Sepik River, east of the April River, named Sawagap, and far from the main stream. The tribe sustain from fishing and hunting other animals in the jungle, but their main source of income comes from crocodile skin.

The Sepik saltwater crocodile can grow to 7 metres in length, but so big crocodiles are rarely to spot today because of extensively hunting. The Swagup area must be a perfect place for Crocodiles to live in, with in swamps and marshes, slow-moving water with a lot of mud and vegetation. The biggest crocodiles today can still reach 3.5 metres long.

Through a narrow inlet with muddy smelling water (side river), we approached the Insect tribe`s village. The villagers were running out to welcome us and soon the activities started.

Read our article: Dramatic crocodile hunting in Papua New Guinea! 

Into the mind of the crocodiles
Do you know what do crocodiles call human? Fast food! They are opportunistic predators and eat whatever they can catch. They don`t spend time on cooking or other things to the prepare the meal. You are never safe where the crocodiles live. Crocodiles typically target prey near the surface of water and attack in areas very close the shoreline. The crocodiles will even venture onto land to find prey. They are so quick that it almost impossible to escape if you get too close.

Photo. Beware of saltwater crocodiles: they still found on the Sepik, and they are hungry.

Sometimes it looked like the crocodiles are smiling, but don`t get lured by their "friendly" looking face. Maybe it`s just a trick? If you get too close, you might not have time to look into a crocodile`s mouth. Anyway it will be the last thing you see. They snap you in a moment. Everything goes so quick.

The problem with water attacks is that you rarely see them coming. Crocodiles are masters of "staying quiet and staying hidden" until it's time to attack. The best thing to do is avoid the crocodiles in the first place by keeping your arms and legs into the boat if you're on the water.

Large crocodiles have so huge mouths that can easily swallow the head of a man. The enormous jaws will cut through your bones like knife in a butter. Crocodiles have between 60 and 72 teeth which they use to tear flesh apart. Compared with a human, a normal adult mouth has 32 teeth. Crocodiles do not chew their food, but instead swallow large portions of their prey. They have no conscience: the only tears they cry are "crocodile tears". Just to let you know! But not worry too much: It only eat you once! 

Tribe culture in East Sepik
East Sepik (pronounced sea-pick) is a province in Papua New Guinea. As shown on the map above, it lies in the northern part of the country. East Sepik people devote themselves greatly in spiritual power in crocodiles. Some young men cut their skin in initiation rites to depict the crocodile skin usually with hundreds of incisions on back, chest and buttocks.

The Insect Tribe, also called the Swagap people, or Ngala in the local language because they specialise in carvings of sago beetles, dragonflies, and praying mantis. They worship the praying mantis. They also worship crocodiles, but it doesn`t mean than they are good friends. Crocodilians typically do not include humans in their diet, but in truth they will eat just about anything if given the opportunity. They will also defend their territory vigorously, especially during mating season.

There are more than 200 members in the Insect tribe, who live in huts standing on poles. The building are constructed to escape from the heat, mosquitoes and ants. The tree houses height is also for protecting against flooding during heavy rains and in times of conflict. 

Papua New Guinea - the last frontier
Papua New Guinea is one half of the island of New Guinea in the South Western Pacific Ocean. Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern part of the world's second largest island and is prey to volcanic activity, earthquakes and tidal waves. It is one of the most diverse countries in the whole entire world with many different tribes, languages and cultural traditions.

The island is one of the least explored countries in the world due to its dense rainforest, and there are many undiscovered species! It`s also believed that there are still some few uncontacted tribes there.

Papua New Guinea remains a land dominated by tribes: more than 800 are recognised, each with its own language. Linguistically, it is the world's most diverse country. Some 80% of Papua New Guinea's people live in rural areas with few or no facilities of modern life.

Today the tribes struggle to keep their traditions in a modernising world. Some of the villages we visited in the area of Upper Sepik River have stood firm against the invasion of Christianity. They still have their Haus Tamarans and practice their customs including the initiation and scarification on young boys that depict the crocodile as a symbol of power and strength.

The carvings are created to be inhabited by spirits and are intended both to help the people meet the challenges of everyday life and to ward off the influences of unfriendly spirits. Many of the carvings are also used in ceremonies and rituals that mark the important stages of life.

Each tribe has its own beliefs and the people recognize spirits, deities, totems and ancestors unique to their clans. Tribal life centres on the Haus Tambaran, or Spirit House, the most important building in each village. Some of these structures reach 25 metres in height and emerge above the forest canopy. An array of carvings including masks, statues and figures are kept inside the Haus Tambaran. Traditionally only initiated warriors are allowed inside, under penalty of death.

The Sepik River is one of It is part of the largest uncontaminated freshwater system in the Asia-Pacific region and with little development on its banks is a time capsule thousands of years old. It contains not one but two eco-regions identified by the World Wildlife Fund as worthy of special conservation and is home to some of Papua New Guinea’s rarest plants and animals. More than a dozen of its 76 mammal species are unique and some of the world’s largest freshwater and saltwater crocodile populations are found there.

Read more in Tribe culture of the Insect Tribe - Sepik, Papua New Guinea - Part 2 of 2.

Stein Morten Lund, August 2001 updated article 13th May 2017


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