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New Guinea's extremely rugged terrain encouraged the development of many different tribes who constantly competed for control of the best land. Warfare was intermittent, but common until after the World Wars, when the colonial governments began to pacify the island.
Figure 1: Old New Britain shield with cane cross-weaving. This shield is stone carved with the detailing finished with rat tooth and metal tools.
Shields provide defense against weapons which include bows with bone or bamboo-tipped arrows, sharp wooden spears, stone axes and bone knives. Contemporary additions are metal bush knives, steel axes and guns, some homemade or smuggled in the black market drug trade between Australia and New Guinea.
Figure 2: Detail of the New Britain shield figure accented with lime.
Many groups fought primarily by ambushing their opponents in their gardens or in early morning raids on villages. In the Highlands, certain fields were considered fight grounds and opposing tribes and their allies met to even scores or to make temporary truce arrangements. The long bows and arrows used in New Guinea are relatively slow-moving and a quick warrior can dodge and protect himself, especially if the arrows are shot from a distance on the fight field. Multiple arrows shot from ambush and infected wounds are more effective killers.
Figure 3: Back of shield showing cane handle.
Shields come in all sizes from large planks that a bowman or spear thrower can shelter his whole body behind, to smaller breastplate ones. The woods used are generally lightweight like the roots of mangrove trees. Most are single planks, although a New Ireland style uses three narrow planks lashed together. The backs have cane framework handles. Body armor was also common in the West Sepik and Western Provinces in PNG and is still used in the Highlands of Irian Jaya.
Photos of Body Armor
Figure 4: Biwat River shield with two faces and a sawfish (sigak) on the front, topped with small carving of a head.
Figure 5: New Ireland shield made of three panels lashed together with cane.
Designs vary from tribe to tribe. Geometric designs are common in the PNG Highlands. The tribes along the Sepik River and its tributaries typically use clan/ancestor faces and wildlife totems like the bone fish on this Biwat shield. In areas where tribes are at peace, shields are still important and powerful in a ceremonial context.
The war canoes of the river and coastal tribes visually project the physical and spiritual power of the clan and tribe. On the Sepik River and in the Asmat, truly powerful images can defeat an enemy just by being shown. Conversely, these images are dangerous to handle and their rituals have to be strictly observed by the Big Men who are the fight leaders.
Figure 6: Keram River war canoe shield. These shields are placed in the forehead of the dugout canoe. The arrangement of three bark panels and the central mask is typical.
Next: PNG Highlands Shields | Upper Sepik River Shields | Ramu River Shields | Asmat Shields
Figure 7: Biwat River shield with stylized, geometric motifs.
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