Image: Dave Schreier
Image: Dave Schreier
The skeletons are moving. Yes, the ghastly figures shuffle slowly forward, twisted at alarming angles, as if they have just clawed their way out of the earth. As they come closer, though, it becomes clear that these are not the undead but, rather, tribesmen – painted head-to-toe in black, with a vivid white coating outlining the head and body to give the impression of bones. Even so, this formidable sight may well be enough to make anyone think twice about advancing on a tribe deep within the Chimbu Province of Papua New Guinea.
The Chimbu people live at an altitude of as much as 7,800 feet, high up in the mountainous New Guinea province of their name. This is, however, just one of a handful of facts known about the group, who have remained largely a mystery to the outside world. Still, perhaps this only makes the Chimbu’s penchant for supernatural-like body paint even more fascinating.
In fact, it is difficult to even say exactly how many individuals make up the group. It has been estimated that some 60,000 or so live in areas traditionally occupied by the Chimbu people. A 2011 census, meanwhile, states that the entire province of Chimbu has a population of over 376,000.
Despite the Chimbu people’s relative obscurity, however, some fortunate photographers and tourists have managed to capture images of tribe members in their skeletal body paint as they prepare to perform at celebratory cultural festivals. This unique custom is believed to have begun as a technique to invoke fear in adversaries such as other tribes. And the people’s spooky-seeming actions while in these guises may also be a recreation of a legendary vision supposedly once seen by a young Chimbu male.
The Chimbu tribespeople had no contact with Westerners until 1934, when Australian explorers Michael Leahy and James Taylor happened upon them during a mapping excursion. The Australian government then stepped in to attempt to establish administrative influence and keep the peace in the area.
Indeed, life for the Chimbu people was often turbulent, with violent unrest between clans occurring following disagreements and instances of petty stealing. As a result, one of the key goals of the Australians in Chimbu Province was to implement a diplomatic, altercation-free solution to such disputes.
Once the foreigners achieved a measure of rapport with the Chimbu people, a judicial system was established that saw convicted men locked up for offenses like affray and murder. Initially, though, tribespeople would not always accept the rulings as the end to any conflict, meaning that tensions between Chimbu folk sometimes continued after sentences were laid down.
Despite these early setbacks, instances of tribal aggression did eventually fall as a result of the new laws. Colonization did not, though, greatly alter the Chimbu people’s values – and the tradition of painting skeletons on their bodies, for example, continues to this day.
Nowadays, visitors can witness this eerie-looking custom at the cultural shows held in the Papua New Guinea hills. Known as “sing-sing” festivals, these occasions celebrate the rituals and traditions of many local groups, including the Chimbu.
Among Papua New Guinea’s annual sing-sing festivals are those in Goroka and Mount Hagen, located in the Eastern Highlands and Western Highlands provinces, respectively. The Mount Hagen festival began in 1961, while the Goroka event first took place in 1957, and both shows are billed as accessible, and indeed enjoyable, ways to celebrate the tribes and their otherwise alien customs.
The Mount Hagen sing-sing convenes in mid-August, while the Goroka festival follows about a month later. Between 60 and 100 tribes contribute to the spectacles, including those who take part as skeleton dancers. And those wanting to witness proceedings first hand can now travel to either show – or indeed both – as part of an organized tour.
Visiting Papua New Guinea, though, may not exactly be straightforward, given the relative lack of provision for tourists to the island nation. Moreover, attempting to find the Chimbu people in their native mountain territory will likely be trickier still – as not only does their homeland lie between 4,500 and 7,800 feet above sea level, but it’s also an area that receives substantial rainfall.
However, while the Chimbu group’s location is certainly remote, evidence suggests that the Pacific nation’s highland regions may have been populated since as far back as 30,000 years ago. Meanwhile, it’s thought that agricultural systems have been in existence there for 8,000 years.
Indeed, the Chimbu people depend on agriculture for food. Sweet potatoes are the main yield here, with the vegetable making up approximately three quarters of locals’ diets. Further sustenance, meanwhile, is gained through crops such as beans, nuts and fruit.
The Chimbu people primarily speak Kuman as a language – one of the over 800 native tongues in Papua New Guinea. In fact, the name “Chimbu” derives from the Kuman word “simbu” – a term that signifies awe, and one which was voiced by the tribespeople upon meeting the initial Australian explorers. This led to the Westerners giving the group the moniker by which it is now known.
In terms of working life and gender roles, Chimbu men look after things like politics and defense in addition to being the main breadwinners, while women are responsible for domestic matters and selling fresh produce, usually vegetables, in nearby villages.
Among a tribesman’s most valuable items, meanwhile, are his pigs. A butchered family pig is often cooked and presented to a peer to commemorate a life event like a wedding, birth or death – and this represents an important way for a Chimbu tribesperson to establish and maintain bonds with fellow members of the group.
Previously, tradition dictated that men and women belonging to the Chimbu group lived in separate dwellings, with the former residing together in large abodes in order to protect their villages. Spouses and their children, meanwhile, lived in houses closer to the families’ crops.
Today, though, protection has taken a back seat to monetary concerns, such that it is becoming increasingly normal for Chimbu families to live together under one roof. Their homes are also likely to be situated close to coffee plantations – a primary source of income for many.
Furthermore, despite the influence of the Australian government many years ago and the arrival of tourists to their region in the present day, the Chimbu people continue to pursue time-honored customs and traditions – including that skeleton dance, with the fearsome, slightly macabre body paint that accompanies it.