Saturday, August 6, 2011

Culture of Oceania: Abelam


Abulas, Ambelam, Ambelas, Ambulas


Identification. The Abelam live in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea and are divided into several subgroups; the most prominent is the Wosera, who are so named after the area they inhabit. This is the southernmost group of the Abelam. The other groups are named for geographic direction: northern, eastern, etc. The whole region is called Maprik, named after the Australian administrative post established in 1937 in the heart of Abelam territory.

Location. From the Sepik floodplains in the south the Abelam extend to the foothills of the Prince Alexander Mountains (coastal range) in the north. The Plains Arapesh living there call their neighbors in the south Abelam. The Abelam live in two ecological zones, the hills (up to about 600 to 700 meters above sea level) and the relict alluvial plains. These zones are characterized by different landforms, altitudes, annual rainfall, and soil types. In the north, the foothills are covered with thick secondary vegetation; virgin forest has almost completely disappeared due to shifting cultivation and to the high population density that was also responsible in former days for many fights and wars over land.

Demography. The Abelam number over 40,000. Parts of the Abelam territory range, with 70 persons per square kilometer, are among the most densely populated areas in Papua New Guinea.

Linguistic Affiliation. Linguistically, Abelam forms, Together with the Iatmul, Sawos, Boiken, and Manambu, the Ndu Family of the Sepik Subphylum, which is classified as part of the Middle Sepik Stock, Sepik-Ramu Phylum. All of these language groups are located within the Sepik Basin, Except for the Boiken who have spread over the coastal range to the north coast.


In prehistoric times, the Sepik-Ramu Basin was flooded with salt water, this inland sea probably reached its maximum extent 5,000 to 6,000 years ago when it reached as far westward as Ambunti. The sea then began to drop gradually until it attained its present level around 1,000 years ago. During that span of time the Sepik Basin with its young floodplains began to develop and became separated from the Ramu Basin by the Bosman Plateau. Linguists point out that the Ndu Family of languages had a common ancestry, which suggests a common settlement history. Linguistic evidence also suggests that the Ndu speakers moved into the Sepik Plains from the south of the river. The Abelam evidently migrated northward during the last few centuries until after World War II, although there is much debate about where the Abelam came from and when they began moving north. Except for sporadic contacts with hunting parties from Indonesia, the first direct contact with the outside world occurred immediately before World War I, when the Abelam were discovered by the German ethnologist Richard Thurnwald who was traveling through Abelam Territory on his way over the Alexander Mountains to the north coast. Before long, European goods (and also diseases) had reached the Maprik area. Soon missionaries arrived as well, and by 1937 an Australian patrol post (Maprik) was established, land was cleared for an airstrip, and a road to the coastal town of Wewak was built. World War II brought drastic changes to the Abelam way of life; thousands of Japanese, Australian, and American soldiers fought bloody battles on Abelam territory using technology unknown to the Abelam. The establishment of further patrol posts, missionary stations, trade stores, and schools, the substitution of a cash economy based on wage labor for the indigenous subsistence economy, and the development of flourishing towns led Abelam life in new directions. In precolonial times the Abelam—not as a whole group but as many individual villages—had already had continuous relations with neighboring groups. Those with the Plains Arapesh were the most highly esteemed because the Arapesh villages supplied them with valuables, shell rings, and other shell ornaments in exchange for pigs. Relations with the Boiken in the east, the Sawos in the south, and different groups in the west were restricted more or less to border villages.


Throughout the Maprik area there were continuous population movements, not only the general south-to-north pattern but also minor movements within the region. These movements generally involved small kin groups who affiliated themselves with an already existing settlement or who formed new settlements elsewhere. Only after warfare ceased and peace was imposed did these movements stop and villages become relatively permanent. In the north, the Abelam probably absorbed many Arapesh people—or, rather, killed them or chased them off and took their territory. This high mobility is still reflected in the alliances of small groups in hamlets with other groups in other hamlets. Abelam villages vary in size. They are much smaller in the south with only 50 to 80 people. In the north, they now number up to 1,000 people. In the south, settlements are basically hamlets; in the north they are villages, preferably situated on a hill ridge, consisting of forty to fifty hamlets. Each is autonomous, at least concerning their relations with other settlements. Villages are Structured as an association of hamlets who have formed something like a localized league. The village territory is generally divided into "upper" and "lower" topographical units. The structure of villages in the north is complex. Through rituals for different root crops, yam festivals, and initiation, the different major hamlets—each of which has a special role within this network of rituals—are bound together. Buildings such as storehouses, sleeping and dwelling houses, menstruation huts, and the towering ceremonial houses are built on the ground in a triangular plan. They consist more or less of a roof with a ridgepole gently sloping down from the front towards the back. Most spectacular are the ceremonial houses ( korambo ) with a large ceremonial ground ( amei ) in front of it. Only major hamlets have a korambo, which may be up to 25 meters tall, with a painted facade. The korambo and amei are considered the village center but larger villages may have up to ten or fifteen such centers. The building material is timber and bamboo for the inner structure; sago palm fronds are used for the thatch. Lashing techniques are elaborate.

Learn more about Abelam from the site. Read topics about Abelam economy, kinship, marriage and family, sociopolitical organization, and religion and expressive culture. If you are interested in Abelam culture, the article includes a bibliography to get you started.

Hauser-SchÄublin, Brigitta. 2011. "Abelam". Every Culture. Posted: 2011. Available online:

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