Understanding the culture of West Papua is perhaps far from easy. Majority of people would say that the region does not have a culture whatsoever, but it’s far from the truth. Collectively, the culture may be considered nonexistent. But when we talk about cultural diversity, perhaps no land on earth can compete with this remote territory.
Yes, the fact that West Papua is the home of more than 250 different tribes contributes to this confusion. Every single tribe in the region has its own specific custom, culture, language, and more. Each of the culture variety is unique and has zero relation to the other, making it one of the richest region in the world. Not only in natural resources, but also cultures and traditions.
The only common ground that makes each of these great varieties seem related is none other than their genealogy relation. Even then, the relation is mostly disordered. To add to that, large number of different languages spoken by these incredibly diverse tribes also makes it more confusing. Understanding the West Papuan cultures may be challenging, but it does not necessarily mean impossible.
Rich in cultures
The West Papuans are Melanessians, yet despite their shared Melanosoid characteristics nothing about them is the same. From languages, to traditions. To make things a little bit easier for us to understand, the people of this region are generally grouped according to the area they live in. This practice is also used to help identification of other groups living in the Papua province as well.
For example, West Papuans living in Cendrawasih beach and Cendrawasih area in general are grouped as residents of North Mangrove. Then there are other groups such as the residents of Jaya Wijaya highland, and residents of the South Savannah area. Some of the existing tribes in the aforementioned groups have been identified. A few of the popular identified tribes are the Agat, the Yali, and the Dani.
The Agat, the Yali, and the Dani have their own language variety, distinctive economic system, as well as social system. Art and culture, along with tradition are also extremely different from one another. Each serves as an identity of the tribe and what they believe in. These tribes used to be a part of the uncontacted indigenous tribes which live in the deep forest.
However, the relentless attempt of the Indonesian government to civilize them ended to be fruitful. The Agat, and the Yali tribes were successfully coaxed into settling in one land. Not only that, the government along with Indonesian migrants also taught them to cultivate their lands. All of these combined resulting in a new way of life. One that is more civilized in this era of modernization.
Different tribes aside, West Papua in general also has an extremely distinctive language of its own. Despite being categorized as Melanesian, West Papuans are a stark contrast to its Melanesian counterparts. Austronesian, the spoken language is largely spoken in areas situated within the Madagascar and Paas Island of the Pacific Ocean, and then to the north areas near Taiwan border.
Unique society, extraordinary way of life
The exact number of tribes and ethnic groups living in West Papua may not be known for sure. However, according to researchers, there are at least 250 of different ethnic groups living across this remote region. This difficulty in pin-pointing the exact number is largely due to their nomadic way of living. Since around 300-years ago, these tribes have been constantly on the move.
However, no matter how deep and impenetrable the rainforest, they always live along the river or the shore. Such tradition of migrating from the highland area to the beachside still remains up to this day. While on the highland areas, these ethnic groups would build their unique settlement in the deep end. Some of the tribes even built a temporary tree house.
While on the beach or somewhere near the source of water, they would build their settlement either on the marshy area or behind the sand dunes. During the Dutch colonialization in 1920, some of these tribes were relocated by force. A total of 24 settlements were relocated into a controlled facility and was used as an opportunity to observe. The results were nothing short of surprising.
In 24 settlements, keen observers found that the spoken language of these tribes could be grouped into seven different languages. All of which were identified to own all of the characteristics of Melanesian spoken languages. The observation period lasted for 23-years, starting in 1940. During the time of observation, the spoken language was not their only finding.
Birth rate was surprisingly incredibly low during this observation period, which resulting in the decreasing number of population. Despite the declining population, the observed tribes of the Northern Shore found a new way of life. Started by the Dutch government, they started cultivating copra and coconut meal as volunteers. A legacy that we can still experience along the West Papua oceans today.