Papua New Guinea | Culture, Facts & Travel

21/02/2024

The island nation of Papua New Guinea is interesting and unique in many ways. A small country by size, situated in the Pacific Ocean above Australia, Papua New Guinea has a rich and interesting history. It is the world’s third-largest island country and is populated mostly by tribal groups, with only around 13% of its people living in urban settings.

With so many tribal groups and a long history of overseas rule, Papua New Guinea has maintained a lot of its island charm. In fact, some areas are so remote that it’s estimated PNG is the home of many undocumented plant and animal species, simply because they’ve yet to be discovered by the Western world.

Papua New Guinea languages

One of the most fascinating things about Papua New Guinea is the sheer number of languages spoken. In fact, it is known to have more languages than any other country on earth. That’s quite a statistic, considering the country’s relatively small size and population, which is estimated to be around 11 million people.

Amongst those 11 million people, there are around 7,000 cultural groups who each speak their own language. Experts claim there are around 820 different languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, but with minor dialect variations among tribes, the real number is likely to be even higher. Interestingly, English is the official language used by the government and in the education system, but it isn’t widely spoken elsewhere.

Sing-sing is an annual gathering of tribes or villages in Papua New Guinea.
Sing-sing is an annual gathering of tribes or villages in Papua New Guinea.

Sing-sings and cultural shows

Because there are so many different tribal or indigenous cultural groups in Papua New Guinea, many people stay in their own villages for large parts of the year. However, at certain times throughout the year, tribal groups come together for cultural shows or sing-sings.

A sing-sing is a gathering of tribes where everyone celebrates their culture, often competing with other tribes in mostly light-hearted events. Groups take great pride in showcasing their traditional dress, dancing, music, food and culture. Some examples of larger sing-sings include:

Mount Hagen Cultural Show

Ambunti Crocodile Festival

Rabaul Mask Festival

Goroka Festival

Kenu and Kundu Festival

There are plenty more, but these are some of the more popular events. These gatherings happen all-year-round and are well-attended by tribal groups. Highlights include the war canoe racing at the Kenu and Kundu Festival, and the Baining Fire Dance ritual at the Rabaul Mask Festival. 

Sepik River Crocodile Festival highlights the importance of the crocodile and its cultural significance amongst Sepik River communities.
Sepik River Crocodile Festival highlights the importance of the crocodile and its cultural significance amongst Sepik River communities.

Connections between man and animal

One of the more unique festivals on the PNG calendar is the Ambunti Crocodile Festival. In the Sepik region, tribes believe that man holds a sacred connection with the crocodile. This bond symbolises strength, power and also marks a boy’s transition to manhood. It’s no coincidence that the Sepik River region of PNG is home to some of the world’s largest saltwater and freshwater crocodile populations.

This spiritual connection between man and animal isn’t unique to the Sepik River region, however it is certainly on full display during the annual festival. If you’re lucky enough to attend and experience this event for yourself, you’ll be treated to ancient traditions, songs, traditional dancing, and plenty of colourful tribal outfits. In some tribes, the crocodile is even used as a symbol during the scarification of young boys as they transition into men. Annual initiation ceremonies are a big part of Papua New Guinea culture.

It’s all about colour

When you travel to Papua New Guinea, make sure you bring some colourful outfits. Many Papua New Guinea locals still live a traditional, tribal life, and their colours are on full display when they come together. Tribes use distinct colours and clothing styles to identify themselves, and most are extremely bright and bold.

If you attend any of the life-changing cultural shows in PNG, you’ll be right in the middle of all this colour. From colourful headdresses and clothing to bright face and body paint, you can never accuse Papua New Guinea tribes of being dull.

Mount Wilhelm, the highest mountain in Papua New Guinea.
Mount Wilhelm, the highest mountain in Papua New Guinea.

Beautiful landscapes

There is a lot of focus on the sing-sings and cultural festivals that fill Papua New Guinea’s calendar. But if you travel Papua New Guinea, you can expect to see a lot more than colourful headwear and unique tribal dances. Papua New Guinea is home to around 600 islands, making it a beautiful spectacle for lovers of island life.

Rich, green forests combine beautifully with the crisp blue waters of the ocean. Glorious white sands next to dense rainforests. It’s like something out of a movie, and the country’s natural beauty is often forgotten. But for those who embark on tours of PNG, especially a Crooked Compass Ultimate Photography Expedition, you’ll see the splendour of this country up close and personal.

If you would like to expand your horizons and witness an entirely different way of life, beautiful Papua New Guinea awaits. Crooked Compass offers a wide range of PNG experiences, with something for everybody. From meeting with locals to participating in colourful sing-sings, there’s no better time to discover the beauty of Papua New Guinea.