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Karawari River Carvings, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea

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[Detail of head of weathered Karawari River wanleg: 10k]

Figure 1: (right) Detail of head of Karawari River one-leg (wanleg in Pisin English). The statue is about 9 feet (3 meters) high. Large statues like this are often called kamanggabi.

[Karawari River yipwon with matched projecting points around a small central point: 4k]

The carvings in the famous Seized Collections and Caves of Karawari are from the Ewa people. The figures are called Aripa by the Ewa, but are often referred to as Yipwons, one-legs, wanlegs or Karawari cult hooks in the literature.

Figure 2: (left) Yipwon figure, probably a male, about 3 feet (1 meter) tall.

Aripa are considered living beings who communicate with men and animals. Male Aripa help initiated men in hunting and warfare. Some are owned by individuals and some by clans. The sculptures may have been placed in the caves in memory of their owners or to accompany the bones of the deceased along with other bone mementos from successful hunts and wars.

Before a hunt, a man smears his carving with his own blood and animal excrement. Red betel nut juice might be spit on the carving. These actions appeal to the Aripa for help. That night, the invisible soul of the Aripa hunts. If the hunter's plea was successful, the Aripa will later direct him to his prey. The hunter presents the Aripa with bits of the meat after the kill. Similar rituals were used for war.

Also in the caves were female Aripa which Smidt understood to be kept there exclusively and associated with a pair of female ancestors.


Figure 3: Yipwon figure, possibly female, about 3 feet (1 meter) tall.

[Karawari River yipwon with three projections surrounded by linked rib structure: 4k]

Yipwon (Yip'won) is the term used by the Yiman people (Yimar) who live near Yimas Lake in the middle and upper Karawari River areas. Their sculptures are similar to the Ewas, but more regular. Both the Yipwon carvings and the wanleg figures found in the adjacent Blackwater River area may have come from the Aripa sculptures.

Most are two-dimensional, but a few show three-dimensions. Opposing concentric points may represent ribs with the central area representing a heart. Other interpretations include bird's heads, fish bones or spears to help the hunters. Most of the carvings offered for sale are unpainted, but some in the caves had traces of paint.

The Yipwons are said to have sprung from splinters left over from carving a slit-gong drum. Traditionally, they were seen only by initiated men. Small Yipwons are carried as amulets. Larger ones are kept in the men's houses.

The Yiman people also carve a soft stone from a local quarry into small heads and figures that resemble prehistoric stone carvings. Although the PNG National Museum knows they are new, they prohibit their export.


[Map of the Blackwater River, ESP, PNG: 8k]

Another story about the creation and loss of the one-legs:

Adventures of the Sun Hero from Caves of Karawari: After a narrow escape from a ghost, Moon and her sickly son, Sun, went to live with her sister, Yirkaba. Yirkaba cured Sun and made him into a strong man.

Sun carved slit-gong drums (garamut) from trees near the village, but none of them had a good sound. One night, Yirkaba changed herself into a tree and sent a leaf to tell Moon. Moon told Sun to hollow out a garamut from that tree.

Sun cut a beautiful garamut from the tree. They named it Kabribuk, decorated it and brought it into the men's house in the village. It had a wonderful sound that carried very far. The splinters left from the drum became Yipwons. They lived as Sun's children, but stayed hidden in the men's house.

One of Sun's relatives heard the drum, so he traveled to visit, but Sun was out hunting. The man went into the men's house to wait. The Yipwons tricked him and speared him as he looked into the garamut. He ran outside, but the Yipwons followed and killed him. They drank his blood and cut him to pieces.

Moon was in a tree nearby picking leaves. She heard the noise and turned to see what was happening. The Yipwons realized they had been caught. They ran back into the men's house, stood against the wall and stretched up trying to look inconspicuous, stiff with fright. This is how they look today.

When Sun returned and saw his dead relative, he was very angry. He decided to leave. The people returned, but too late to change his mind. He left them the Yipwon figures to bring magic spells for hunting and war. Then he climbed into the heavens, leaving the people in sadness.

Karawari River and Blackwater River Map | Blackwater River Carvings

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Diary entry, December 1967 to early 1968: Karawari Hooks Come Out

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Artifacts on this site are collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. More background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. Carolyn Leigh, P.O. Box 85284, Tucson, AZ 85754-5284 USA, Art-Pacific at http://www.art-pacific.com/