I had the incredible opportunity to visit the Huli Wigmen tribe near Tari, Papua New Guinea. The Huli Wigmen are a proud and unique people, famous for their intricate wigs and face paint, and for their tradition of pig killing.
Our journey began when my colleague Robert and I arrived at Tari Airport, greeted by our local guide, John, and police protection on the roads. We set out on an adventure through the beautiful highlands of Papua New Guinea, eager to learn more about the Huli Wigmen and their fascinating customs.
As we arrived at the remote village, we were immediately struck by the vibrant colors and intricate designs of the Huli Wigmen’s traditional dress. The Huli Wigmen are known for their elaborate wigs made of human hair and decorated with feathers and other adornments. They also paint their faces with a variety of colors and designs, creating an awe-inspiring spectacle of beauty and power.
While exploring the remote village, we came across a fortune teller who caught our attention. He had a unique way of fortune telling that involved using the skull of his father to communicate with his ancestors.
The fortune teller spoke to the skull in his native language and asked if our trip would be successful and without any incidents. It was an eerie experience to witness, but the news was positive and gave us a sense of comfort and reassurance.
The Huli people are subsistence farmers and grow crops such as sweet potatoes, taro, and sugar cane. They are also known for wearing large wigs made of human hair decorated with yellow and red daisies. The Huli population is estimated to be around 38,000, and their territory covers an area of over 2,500 square kilometers in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Their culture is unique, and when the first white men visited the Huli, they discovered a society quite different from any previously known in Papua. They found light-skinned, stocky warrior farmers, who lived in garden settlements scattered across the open grass. There were no villages, but there were bark coffins of the dead held up on platforms by bush timber pens. Great trenches, up to five meters deep, were also a common feature in the Huli culture. Men could secretly move along these trenches, which were used in tribal warfare, to control the movement of pigs, and delineate clan land boundaries.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Huli Wigmen’s culture is their tradition of pig killing. The Huli Wigmen believe that the blood of the pig has a powerful spiritual significance and is essential for good health and prosperity. During our visit, we witnessed a pig killing ceremony, which was a surreal and intense experience. The tribe members used traditional weapons and chants to kill the pig.
The Huli people did not have access to steel, and the shells they wore as ornaments were generally of poor quality. The isolated country of these wigmen was at the very end of the great traditional trade routes from the coast, and only the least desirable shell found its way through the avaricious hands of the intervening trading communities to the country of Huli. When the first patrol arrived in the Huli country, they were attacked by arrow-firing warriors, forcing them to use their rifles in self-defense. Warfare was the dominant interest of Huli society, and from the day of his birth, the Huli boy was taught that his finest destiny was to become a warrior, to defend and extend the interest of his family and clan by armed force.
Clans would commonly enter temporary alliances with neighboring groups, but the allies of today could well be the enemies of tomorrow. Such temporary alliances were often openly mercenary, and there was no chivalry in this warrior society. Payback, the savage custom found throughout the Highlands, was also present in Huli society. If an injury was done to a clan, then that injury must be repaid, either by property settlement or by retaliation. This custom produced a history of involved, interlocking feuds, and ensured that at any given time, a number of unresolved feuds would keep a given district in a state of armed tension.
We also had the opportunity to photograph the Huli Wigmen using our Godox AD600 and AD300 lights, capturing stunning portraits that showcased their unique beauty and power.
After spending time in the village, we headed to the Ambua Lodge to see the nearby waterfall. Unfortunately, the mist and fog made it difficult to take clear photos, which was a shame as we were hoping to capture the beauty of the Huli Wigmen in this stunning natural setting.
As we continued on our journey, I even had the chance to dress up in the traditional attire of the Huli Wigmen, complete with a wig made of human hair. Robert continued to take photos, capturing the essence of this amazing culture.
The Huli people did not scorn the use of poison and magic, with appropriate ritual and preparation, to even their scores. In any serious dispute, such as unrequited deaths, women, land, or pig troubles, open warfare involving pitched battle between opposing armed groups was usual. Huli wars were fearsome, with a major war involving up to a thousand or fifteen hundred screaming bowmen, marshalled into squads by recognized fight leaders. Such a war could last for months and result in scores of deaths. The Huli fought to destroy and showed no mercy to their enemies, slaughtering women, and children, the sick, and the aged alike. They showed no mercy towards the property and lands of their enemies and burned houses, killed pigs, slashed down food trees, and destroyed gardens whenever possible. The Huli was an enthusiastic proponent of the scorched earth policy long before Western nations.
Deaths and injuries suffered in wars had to be paid for if future outbreaks were to be avoided. The pig, as prized by these Wigmen as by all the peoples of the Highlands, played its vital part in stabilizing social relationships. Among the Huli, it was usual for the opposing sides to exchange several sides of slaughtered pigs as a token that hostilities were concluded. Payments of pig-sides were made for death and injury, with as many as a hundred pigs required to compensate.
In conclusion, visiting the Huli Wigmen was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget. Their customs and habits are rich in history and meaning, and their culture is a testament to the power and beauty of human diversity. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to witness and document their incredible way of life.