Papua New Guinean Culture

Core Concepts

  • Reciprocity
  • Wantok
  • ‘Big Man’
  • Loyal
  • Diversity
  • Friendliness

The term ‘diverse’ does not quite capture the medley of communities and lifestyles that exists within Papua New Guinea (PNG). There are over 600 islands and roughly 830 languages spoken throughout the country. Moreover, the indigenous population encompasses several thousand separate communities, each with their own language, customs and traditions. The common categories in Papua New Guinea are Melanesian, Papuan, Negrito, Micronesian and Polynesian. It seems ‘Papua New Guinean’ is more accurately described as a linguistic group rather than an . In recent decades, significant efforts have been undertaken to unify the Papua New Guinean people under a national identity.

Identity and Wantok

In the period (following 1975), the formalisation of a national language was pivotal in helping formulate a unified Papua New Guinean identity. Among the vast linguistic differences between many of the country’s communities, ‘Tok Pisin’ (‘talk pidgin’) became recognised as an official language. In contemporary Papua New Guinea, Tok Pisin is a symbol of national identity as well as the preferred means of communication. State-sponsored efforts to construct a unified identity through the means of language have been successful. However, generally only some of the educated elite have started to feel significant attachment to the nation and national pride.

One’s ancestry, group and place of birth remain fundamental to how an individual understands their identity. Papua New Guineans primarily relate their identity to their ‘wantok’ (‘one talk’). A wantok is a person’s group or specific language group that they generally share ties with. Nowadays, the term is increasingly used to describe people’s social networks. For example, modern wantok networks may be based on language, geography, or personal connections. Individuals tend to be extremely loyal to these groups. Indeed, one’s wantok provides a social safety net for individuals and a sense of belonging.

Attempts to categorise the various social groups can be confusing as the traditional groups have evolved in response to changes over time. However, the oral tradition of passing down stories remains an important way to remember ancestry for some groups and communities. Some communities have been engaged in feuds with their neighbours for centuries in light of their linguistic and cultural differences. These feuds of ages past are no longer holding as much significance given that over half the population is 24 years old or under (approximately 54% according to the 2000 census data).


There are various ways manifests within Papua New Guinean culture. For example, individual land ownership is typically uncommon. Tenure to land is group based, with people perceiving their rights to land as a result of membership by birth into a or through some relationship to the group.

Another example is the way in which the notion of reciprocity plays a central role in forming and maintaining relationships. Assistance to others comes with the expectation that something of equal value is owed and will be returned. If someone does not reciprocate, they are frowned upon by others. There is an expectation that members from the same wantok will be willing and available to help one another. However, since reciprocity is nearly always expected but not always possible, barriers may be put up between individuals of differing income levels. Common ways Papua New Guineans engage in the reciprocity system is through the sharing of food.

Village and Town 

The village–town distinction affects the everyday experiences of many Papua New Guineans. The majority of the population live in villages, deriving their livelihood from farming. In these communities division of labour is determined based on gender and age. Meanwhile, labour in towns and cities is typically divided in accordance with specialisation. The common perception associated with the village–town distinction is a division between the ‘elites’ and the ‘grassroots’. The ‘elites’ are considered to be those who are educated and higher-income earners. Conversely, the ‘grassroots’ are thought to be villagers and the lower-income earners in town. Social interaction between these two ‘groups’ can be tense. However, distinctions of wealth based on place are deceptive since those living in villages are not necessarily poor.

This village-town division is becoming less prominent with the emergence of a middle class. Moreover, education and exposure to Western culture has led many of the younger generation out of the villages and into the towns seeking employment. The increase in internal migration of many rural migrants towards towns has sparked the creation of shantytowns known as ‘settlements’.

It is also important to note that these experiences are not necessarily universal. and development happened unevenly throughout the islands, with some areas resisting more than others, while some areas experienced development before others. Thus, the village–town distinction is not only more prominent in some areas, but also a dynamic that is constantly shifting.

Big Man

The status of ‘big man’ is well known throughout Papua New Guinean culture. The term is akin to ‘respectable’ or ‘wealthy’ man. A big man is distinguished from chiefs and other traditional leadership roles. The position denotes leadership, power and influence that is usually earned through demonstrating their ability to acquire and share property and other goods with their or wantok. While this understanding of big man is still common, the concept is being expanded in light of the changes in society.

Big man in contemporary society is commonly used to describe a business person or politician who sustains their position of leadership through providing resources and patronage to their constituents, such as their wantok. While most of the microsocieties in Papua New Guinea approach decision making on a consensual basis, it is the big man who shapes the consensus. Frequently, men in significant positions of power, such as members of parliament, are often big men in their own wantok, or a close relative of a big man. In bigger cities, these structures may be hidden yet remain significant factors in interactions between people.

The concepts described above, such as wantok and big man, are often more influential than formal institutions and rules in Papua New Guinea. However, it should be reiterated that the dynamics of these informal networks vary between communities. Papua New Guinea is extremely diverse in terms of geography, language, , traditions and development. While warmth, friendliness and jolliness are common attributes of the Papua New Guinean character, this great diversity has to be recognised to gain a deep understanding of the culture.

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