February 14, 2024 | Kaddy Gibson

The Huli Wigmen Of Papua New Guinea


Meet The Huli People

Famous for their striking wigs, the Huli people have a vibrant culture that has captivated the interest of anthropologists and travelers alike.

Let's glimpse into the lives of this eccentric tribe.

huli wigmen

Where Do They Live?

The Huli people live in the Tagari River basin which is in the Hela Province of Papua New Guinea. 

They also live on the slopes of the mountains around the river, with some settlements being as high as 1,600 meters above sea level.

Huli Wigmenanuradhac, Flickr

How Many Are There?

The Huli are one of the largest Indigenous groups in Papua New Guinea. More than 250,000 Huli call the country home.

huli wigmen boy in traditional clothesNatalia Golovina, Shutterstock

Huli Wigs

Huli men are renowned for their elaborate, colorful headdresses, known as "Huli wigs". The wigs are made from bird-of-paradise feathers, which have all been carefully selected and arranged to create a bold display. 

The wigs symbolize status and masculinity and have led the Huli to be called "Wigmen".

Huli wigman in traditional clothesRon Knight, Flickr

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Women's Wigs

Huli women also wear wigs. Women's wigs are made from human hair and are decorated with shells and feathers. 

These wigs are often passed down through generations and can signal a woman's marital status and social standing.

huli tribe women in traditional clothesNatalia Golovina, Shutterstock

What Do They Wear?

Traditionally, Huli men wear red string aprons that are tied around their waist and hang down to their knees. 

They may also wear leaves over their buttocks, and jewelry made of beads and shells. Women wear long grass skirts and smocks across their chests. 

Women tend to wear less jewelry than men, but they decorate their hair with feathers and shells.

huli wigmen in traditional clothesNatalia Golovina, Shutterstock

Huli History

The Huli have maintained an extensive knowledge of their history, which is evidenced in their oral traditions and awareness of family lineages. 

Based on their oral histories and archeological evidence, the Huli have been living in the Tagari River basin for thousands of years.

Huli wigman in traditional clothes and wigRon Knight, Flickr

What Do They Eat?

The Huli are farmers, and sweet potatoes are their staple crop. Rice and fish are other common foods, but sweet potatoes are so popular among the Huli, they usually carry a bag of them wherever they go.

Huli tribe, man in traditional clothesRita Willaert, Flickr

The Importance Of Pigs

Pigs are incredibly important in Huli culture. The Huli use these animals as a form of currency for everything from dowries to ritual payments. Having many pigs is a symbol of wealth in Huli communities.

Huli womenJourneyman Pictures, A Bride for Barter? Traditional Customs of the Huli (2004)

Initiation Rites For Boys

At the age of 14 or 15, Huli boys leave their homes to live in a secluded school that will teach them their responsibilities as men in the tribe. During this time, the boys take special care of their hair, so they can make their wigs.

Huli Wigmen Tribe boy in traditional costumeJohn Crux, Shutterstock

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Initiation Rites For Boys (cont'd)

Three times a day, the boys wash their hair with sacred water and sprinkle fern leaves in it while chanting spells. The boys cannot eat fatty or spicy foods, which is to help their hair grow strong. 

After about 18 months, the boys shave their hair off and it is woven into a traditional wig.

man from  the Huli tribeRita Willaert, Flickr

Initiation Rites For Boys (cont'd)

Colored clays and bird feathers complete the wigs. Some of the wigs are worn every day, while others are for ceremonies or made to be sold at market. 

The boys may repeat this process several times, as the Huli believe that only hair from unmarried young men can be used to make their wigs.

Huli boy in traditional clothesNatalia Golovina, Shutterstock

Huli Society

Huli society is organized into clans that are controlled by chiefs. Clans are very interconnected, and everyone takes part in aspects of daily life, like sharing resources and making important decisions. 

It is also quite common for the whole village to celebrate individual achievements like a marriage.

huli wigmen in traditional clothesNatalia Golovina, Shutterstock

Huli Chiefs

Huli chiefs come into power based on how skilled they are in combat and how well they can mediate disagreements among villagers. 

The number of pigs and shells that a chief has are also signifiers of his power, as these things are highly valued by the Huli.

Huli Wigmen in traditional clothesRich Lindie, Shutterstock

Vengeance

When it comes to settling disputes, the Huli may be more likely to seek vengeance than peace. 

Historically, when perpetrators would receive an injury from their victims in return, they would seek a sort of counter vengeance rather than see their injury as an act of justice or retribution.

huli wigmen in traditional clothesNatalia Golovina, Shutterstock

Vengeance (cont'd)

Because it's easy for people to get stuck in cycles of vengeance, most civil wars among the Huli have typically started as personal disagreements between individuals that then gain the attention of others in the community who choose sides.

Huli wigman in traditional outfitullstein bild, Getty Images

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Huli Face Painting Traditions

Face painting is an integral part of Huli cultural expression. Ochre from red clay and Ambua (meaning "yellow clay") are sacred to the Huli. 

Traditionally, Huli warriors would use these colors to differentiate themselves from other tribes. The upper part of their face is usually painted yellow while the lower part is red from the ochre.

Huli man in traditional clothesRita Willaert, Flickr

Their Marriage Customs

Huli marriages involve negotiations between the whole family. Whether they are arranged or a love match, the couple must go through a betrothal process that includes rituals like a pig sacrifice, feasts to honor the ancestors, and ritual dances.

Huli womanullstein bild, Getty Images

Their Marriage Customs (cont'd)

The marriage only proceeds once the prospective groom has paid a bride-wealth, to be paid in up to 20 pigs. The groom contributes most of the bride's wealth, and his extended family pays the rest.

The wigmen of the Huli peopleRita Willaert, Flickr

Polygamy

Huli practice polygamy, with men being able to have up to six wives. The man must first enjoy a period of marital bliss with his first wife and acquire enough pigs to pay for other wives.

Having multiple wives is linked to a man's social status, since each new marriage allows the man to have more children, more help to tend livestock, and more social connections via the woman's extended family.

Huli wigmen greet Australian Prime Minister Kevin RuddAFP, Getty Images

Their Origin Story

The Huli believe that they share a common ancestor who was also named Huli. He is said to have been the first person to farm on the Huli's traditional homelands.

huli wigmen in traditional clothesNatalia Golovina, Shutterstock

Their Musical Traditions

Traditional Huli music consists of drumming and chanting. Musical performances plays a crucial role during rituals and celebrations. 

Music is also a way passing down knowledge and oral histories to the younger generations of Huli.

Huli Wigmen DrummingDrew Douglas, Flickr

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Huli Gender Roles

Huli society is patriarchal, with men getting the final say on decisions about the clan. Men also spend more time working outside and take center stage at public ceremonies, though women also perform with wigs. 

Huli women help take care of livestock and are fully responsible for childcare and cooking in the home.

young Huli tribes womanDesign Pics Editorial, Getty Images

Their Language

The Huli people speak their own distinct language, named after the group. Many Huli are also fluent in English and Tok Pisin, the official language of Papua New Guinea.

Huli people in traditional clothesValerie Hukalo, Flickr

Huli Spiritual Practices

The Huli practice animism and believe that divine spirits can be found in the natural world around them, like trees and rocks. 

The Huli have many ritual ceremonies and dances to honor these spirits and seek guidance from them.

Huli Wigmen in traditional outfitsRita Willaert, Flickr

Their Healing Practices

The Huli use herbs and certain types of grasses to make their traditional medicines. They also perform spiritual rituals to help cure ailments. Healers are usually well-respected in Huli communities.

The men of the Huli tribe in Tari area of Papua New Guinea in traditional clothesAmy Nichole Harris, Shutterstock

First Contact 

The Huli didn't meet Europeans until November 1934. Two explorers called the Fox brothers went to the island in search of gold. They found the Huli instead. The encounter was bloody and ended with at least 50 Huli dead.

Men from the Huli Wigmen tribe (R) welcome Australian Prime Minister Julia GillardAFP, Getty Images

The Missionaries

In 1948, the arrival of Lutheran missionaries marked an era of religious conversions—and conflicts—in Papua New Guinea. For the most part, the Huli resisted attempts at conversion. Today, there are a significant amount of Huli who have embraced Christianity, or who mix Christian beliefs with their traditional spiritual beliefs.

Huli Wigmen in traditional clothes and make upDrew Douglas, Flickr

The Goroka Festival

Every year, the Huli take part in the Goroka Festival, an internationally renowned festival that showcases the culture of Papua New Guinea's Indigenous communities. The Huli are one of the many tribes who take part in the festival, showcasing their traditional dances and music.

Huli Wigmen in traditional clothesRich Lindie, Shutterstock

Tourism

Despite their reputation as fierce warriors, the Huli are known for being welcoming towards tourists. If you want to immerse yourself in their culture, there are many tour companies in the Hela Province that can help arrange a safe, guided tour to Huli villages.

Huli wigman  in traditional clothes and touristsRon Knight, Flickr

The Future Of The Huli People

In the face of challenges and change, the Huli people have held steadfast to the cultural traditions which continue to fascinate tourists. Performing a balancing act of tradition and modernity, their story offers a glimpse into one of the world's boldest Indigenous cultures, and will continue to enchant people for years to come.  

Huli tribesman Luke TajabeTORSTEN BLACKWOOD, Getty Images


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