Introducing The Highlands
The Highlands – dramatic and beautiful, with fertile valleys, turbulent rivers and seemingly endless, saw-toothed mountains – is the most densely populated and agriculturally productive region of PNG. It’s hard to imagine that only relatively recently did the outside world come face-to-face with the diverse and artistically inventive tribes that live here.
When European explorers made it into PNG’s rugged interior in the 1930s, they didn’t find the unbroken tangle of mountains they had expected. Instead they stumbled into broad, heavily cultivated valleys and a million-plus people. Ironically, it wasn’t the imposing topography but the cultural divide that amazed the participants of this unexpected ‘first contact’.
Today, the region is a dynamic part of PNG and a unique part of Melanesia. Its peoples’ lives are changing quickly, but many aspects of their traditional cultures remain. Clan and tribal loyalties are still very strong. Pigs and gardening remain the two most important things in life and tribal fighting is still a popular pastime.
Highlanders wear Western sekonhan klos (second-hand clothes) but during the celebrated Highland shows, the feathers, shells, bark, mud quills and skins come out. Only in an anthropologist’s wildest dreams could you see such a gathering of flamboyant tribes. The shows feature mud-men and snake-boys, wigmen and skeleton people, and star on tour-group itineraries.
The region’s five provinces – Eastern Highlands (around Goroka), Simbu (around Kundiawa), Western Highlands (around Mt Hagen), Enga (around Wabag) and Southern Highlands (around Mendi) – have the country’s most extensive road system and an ever growing economy based on coffee, tea, gold and copper.