The Tribes of Papua New Guinea

Where many different cultures face a common challenge

By Ephemera documentary

Angelo Chiacchio

Grass house wall (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Papua New Guinea is a magical place that is incredibly rich in culture and far removed from modernity. 

The island is home to nearly 7,000 different cultures. Each has its own distinct language, weaponry and approaches to dance, music, body painting and clothing. Today, this priceless heritage is starting to get lost in the modernization of the country. 

Aerial view of Papua New Guinea Highlands village (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

In April 2018, photographer Angelo Chiacchio - on his journey to the world's most fragile places - visited two villages in the New Guinea Highlands.

New Guinea Sheep Station (1949-02) by Eliot ElisofonLIFE Photo Collection

Papua New Guinea’s impenetrable rainforest allowed many indigenous tribes to develop in total isolation from the modern world. Their lifestyles have remained unchanged for thousands of years. 

Aerial view of Papua New Guinea Highlands (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Welcome in the Highlands

Numerous tribes have thrived by settling along a chain of mountain ranges and river valleys on the island’s eastern edge, known as The Highlands. This region provides the best opportunities to experience Papua New Guinea’s immense cultural diversity. 

Locals collecting carrots (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Here, local communities know they can count on the fertile land to provide various types of vegetables and the traditional staple, the sweet potato.  

A woman near her house in Papua New Guinea (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Ainanani has just returned from working her crops and will soon prepare a traditional dish called “mumu.”  

Cooking of traditional Mumu (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

An earthen pit is formed and filled with hot stones.  Banana leaves are used to cover the stones.  Then layers of vegetables and meat mixed with coconut milk are added and cooked.  

Tribal show in Papua New Guinea (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Members of the Chimbu tribe perform a traditional ceremony in the nearby village of Moroma. 

Tradtional Papua New Guinea dance (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Man and woman playing traditional drums (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

People of the Moroma tribe are known for the hourglass shape of their drums and their huge headdresses made of feathers from birds-of-paradise.

Tribal costume (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

A mix of mud, clay, plant-based oil and pig fat covers their bodies.  It makes their skin shiny and helps regulate their body temperature during cold spells. 

Portrait of woman with modern clothes (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Like so many other tribal communities throughout the world, the Chimba mostly wear modern clothing and their traditional dress has become a costume used for traditional ceremonies.

Pollution in Goroka (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The capital of the region, Goroka, lies further along The Highlands.  The island’s ancient way of life has been disrupted by the inflow of modern consumer goods. Trash piles up in the streets and puts the public’s health at risk.

Children of the Highlands (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The children of The Highlands still maintain their ancestral bond with the natural environment.  But like children in other fragile places, this generation of The Highlands will be faced with existential challenges in the near future.

School in Papua New Gunea Higlands (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Remarkably, schools on the island have found a way to provide these children with a basic education through middle school.  

Young boy as Nokondi man (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Stable local education allows the youngsters to grow up in their communities where they can also absorb their cultural heritage. This boy is reenacting the legend of the Nokondi man, a ghost who possesses only half of a body. Local men believe that painting their body in this fashion helps to scare off their enemies.

Night in the Highlands (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Tradtional Papua New Guinea song

Another day in The Highlands has ended.  Like so many times before,  a fire cooking sweet potatoes from inside a hut illuminates a village and guides locals on their way home under the night sky. 


In Papua New Guinea, globalization and industrialization are threatening the natural homes, and cultural integrity, of some of the most well-preserved indigenous tribes in the world. Will Papua New Guinea be able to confront these challenges through education and conservation efforts aimed at saving these fascinating vestiges of the roots of mankind?  

Terra by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Explore more

Discover also the story about the Women of the Himba tribe.

Partnership by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

This story was created with the support of Art Works for Change, a nonprofit organization that creates contemporary art exhibitions and storytelling projects to address critical social and environmental issues.

Credits: Story

Written, shot and produced by Angelo Chiacchio
Copy editing: Al Grumet, Rajesh Fotedar

With the support of: Google Arts & Culture, Art Works for Change

Thanks to: Sonia Edward, Bonny Waine.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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