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Axes and Clubs, New Guinea Weapons

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[Papua New Guinea Highland ax with stone blade: 5k]

Steel trade store axes have replaced stone axes in most of New Guinea. Stone was traditionally traded down from Highland quarries on both sides of the island to the rivers, swamps and coastal areas where any stone is scare.

Figure 1: Hagen ax with patinaed wood handle showing use. Many contemporary Hagen axes have fancy bindings incorporating yellow orchid vine. Some axes have slogans woven into the designs.

Until recently, warfare was so pervasive, that a man would not travel outside of his own group's territory except on a raid, so trade items like stone were handed along through many different groups on the route. Each group traded the stones on down to the next, perhaps receiving shell coming up from the coast in return.

Stone axes are still used in Papua (Irian Jaya). When Ron and Frank traveled up the isolated Brazza River in 1989, the "tree house" men would only trade a stone ax in exchange for a steel ax. They needed their axes on a daily basis and could not easily replace the stone. Money, tobacco or other trade items wouldn't do. We found that shields from the Brazza River area are still shaped on the back with the distinctive dish-shaped marks of stone axes or adzes, even though the front designs are carved with metal tools.

[Papua New Guinea Highland ax with stone blade: 5k]

Figure 2: Highly polished green stone ax head from Papua (Irian Jaya), Indonesia.

Stone implements are used only for ceremonial purposes in Papua New Guinea, but many types of prehistoric stones are dug up in village gardens. The National Museum prohibits exporting stone objects from PNG, with a few exceptions like contemporary Hagen axes. Pamela Swadling is doing extensive research on the prehistory of New Guinea and feels allowing any stone to be exported would encourage looting of archeological sites. Stone tools may be exported from Papua (Irian Jaya).

Figure 3: Ceremonial ax head collected near Wamena, Papua (Irian Jaya), Indonesia. These large, flat black stones, which sometimes come in wrapped sets, are said to be used for bride price payments, funerals and other ceremonies. The wrapping is orchid vine and bark string with bark string fringe.

[Ceremonial stone blade collected near Wamena, Papua (Irian Jaya): 5k]

More people are killed in New Guinea by ambush raids in the early morning when villagers are asleep or when only a few people are on the path to their gardens, than in open battle. The Angu (Kukukuku) are feared all over New Guinea for this style of raid using their star-shaped stone clubs. Simpler clubs are made from flat staves of heavy wood.

A more contemporary style of ambush is the use of felled trees for roadblocks. We ran a roadblock of tree limbs in the Wosera in the late 1980's and everyone jumped back in huge surprise to get out of the way of the flying branches. They were probably trying to get us to stop to buy artifacts, but we didn't go back to check since our local man had overheard young men on another road the day before planning to rob us if we came back. The rascals (as criminals are called in PNG) have gotten much better at constructing these roadblocks. Trucks on the Highlands highway are routinely stopped and the cargos off loaded into the bush.

[Angu (Kukukuku) warriors at the Mt. Hagen show, PNG: 5k]

Figure 4: Angu warriors carrying two of their distinctive star-shaped stone clubs at the 1997 Mt. Hagen Show.

A few years ago outside Mt. Hagen, we were riding with Terry Leahy when we found an old car chassis blocking the dirt road. Luckily, we were in his mother's tribe's territory, the Jiga.

The Jiga had lost three people to an ambush the day before at a PMV (bus) stop on the road. The rascals had taken a pickup off three Kiwi (New Zealand) expats on the main road, gone down the side road, shot the three people dead and, amazingly, returned the pickup to the Kiwis.

The Jigas were now out on a raid to even up the score. They had blocked the road into Jiga territory to stop any pursuing enemy warriors. After talking to the men at the roadblock, we decided it was a good time to turn around and go back to Hagen.

Some groups took heads during raids. Raids are more often to secure good hunting or gardening territory, even the score in a long-running payback system, to capture or destroy pigs or other valuables, or to capture women and children. In some areas the infant mortality is so high that raiding more prosperous groups for young children was an accepted way to increase your family. These captured children, whose parents were murdered in the raid, were adopted by the clan and brought up the same as the biological children.

Figure 5: Large stone ax collected near Wamena, Papua (Irian Jaya). It is approximately 3 feet (1 meter) long and quite heavy.

[Stone axe collected near Wamena, Papua (Irian Jaya): 5k]

Excerpts on stone axes and clubs from Traditional Arts and Crafts of Papua New Guinea, an interesting, but out-of-print pamphlet compiled by Tara Monahan in conjunction with Haus Poroman Lodge for the 1988 Mt. Hagen Show Haus Culture.

Examples of How Stone was Quarried
At Dom in 1939 a large conical excavation was recorded, by a Patrol Officer, made in the side of a small hill with woven matting laid down to prevent lose earth from running in. In the centre of the cave was a 2 x 6 rectangular opening to a 10 metre deep shaft, solidly propped up with timber (the remains of 20 or more filled in and overgrown shafts lay nearby). Cracks were produced in the solid rock partly by hammering it with wooden billet and partly by alternately heating it with fire and then pouring cold water on it. Wedges were next forced into the cracks and blocks broken free. With the help of vines these blocks were raised to the surface.
Another type of quarry at Ganz River was situated on a hillside with a water race leading to the top of it to wash ground away and expose and loosen the rock.
At Mbukl an outcrop of good quality stone was exposed on the steep side of an stream-head gully.
The above three quarries and about ten others, in more remote areas, supplied most of the Highlands areas together with adjoining lowland areas from the Gulf of Papua to the foothills south of the Sepik River and to Mt. Michael in the east - an immense area.
Axe blades were worked at a special grinding place which had a constant water supply, sandstone blocks and a shady place to sit.
In the 1960's, a few old men still had considerable knowledge of the different kinds of stone. One man was capable of identifying rock fragments representing each of the eleven named sub-categories of the three main rock types at his site
The Three Main Ax Types
Ceremonial axes generally have a blade length of 30 cm and a thickness of 0.8 to 1.5 cm. Grinding is meticulously carried out and gleaming polished varieties of stone with coloured bands are often seen. The hafting is distinctive and decorated. Most famous of those axes is the Mount Hagen axe. The stone is quarried, and most of the axes made in the villages in the Jimi Valley, north east of Mount Hagen.

A prestige item, they were carried or worn in the belt for adornment on special occasions such as sing-sing and moka exchanges. Because of the risk of breaking the thin blade they were only used for cutting off fingers as a sign of grief and sometimes in close combat. They were also used as money to buy other commodities like salt, body oil, shells, brides, etc.

The axes produced today are identical to those made in the past, except that most of the stone used now is softer and more fragile as it is easier and quicker to work.
Bridal axes are characterized by their uncommon size. The blade can be 45 cm long and 15 cm broad. Although highly polished and sharpened it is not done with the same care given to a ceremonial blade. The blade is mounted on an enormous, rough wooden haft, which is usually black and shiny from years of storage in the rafters of the smoke filled houses.
Work axes are distinguished by a thick and powerful blade with a coarser simpler, plainly woven haft. The work adze has a smaller, and usually badly worked blade set in the same type of hafting.
Stone Weapons
Stone Club weapons were used only by a very few groups in Papua New Guinea. The most notorious users were the Angu (Kukukukus), the dreaded "little killers in bark cloaks." The men were experts in the manufacture of ball, disc, star and pineapple shaped club heads. The various clubs were decorated with stripes of ochre and yellow clay. The clubs were tucked into the back of their belts, hidden by the bark clocks, ready to be pulled out in an instant to club a person down.
The Mokolkol, a small group of mountain people in East New Britain were also notorious for their use of a long handled stone axe which they wielded with great ferocity and efficiency. They had no other weapons except the axe. The Kiwai of the Gulf Province valued stone clubs and men carried them with their bows and arrows wherever they went.

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Melanesian art TOC | Map of art areas of Melanesia
Papua New Guinea: Highlands: body art - Bundi tapa - jewelry/dancers | Karawari and Blackwater Rivers: masks - carvings - map | Massim: artifacts- Trobriand Kula - map | Kula canoe | New Britain: Baining - Sulka - Tolai dukduk | New Ireland: Malagan | Ramu River: masks - carvings - map | Sepik River: masks - carvings - villages - map | Papuan Gulf: masks - carvings - map - Gogodala - Kukukuku
other areas: Asmat | Solomon Islands: crafts - jewelry - map
art and craft:
barkcloth (tapa) | body art | cane and fiber figures | canoes and prows | jewelry/dancers | masks - Middle Sepik | phallocrypts | pottery - Chambri | shields | story boards | suspension hooks | weapons | yam masks - fiber | yam masks - wood

Indonesian art TOC | Dyak baby carriers and masks | furniture | Java folk art | Lombok baskets | Lombok lontar boxes | masks from Bali and Java | puppets

China: Bai textiles/art TOC | baby carriers | baby hats | woodblock prints

Collecting New Guinea art in the field since 1964.

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Artifacts on this site were collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. 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. by Carolyn Leigh is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0