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Genealogy in PNG: Let’s find out about our ancestors while we can

Maria Kerua
Maria Kerua, early 1950s, daughter of Mt Hagen bigman Ninji


DUBLIN - Some years ago a happily married Mt Hagen woman, Maria, told me a story about her first boyfriend. 

They were from different tribes in the Western Highlands, they had just become friends and were interested in getting to know more about each other.

Then it happened that a great-grandmother of Maria, who lived some distance away, died and Maria went to the funeral, where she spotted her boyfriend.  She knew he was not from that place and asked him, “What are you doing here?”

He replied, “My old great-grandmother died and I am here.”

The two then realised with a shock that they were closely related and, in accord with tribal custom, they could not marry. They split up straight away and Maria later married a man from another tribe.

In the highlands of Papua New Guinea there were many reasons why it was important to know who your ancestors were.

Tribal elders knew full well about the dangers of inbreeding and were careful  to avoid any ‘wanblut’ consanguineous marriages.

If a tribe was small then one had to marry outside it; if the tribe was very large, one had to marry outside the clan or tribal segment. Incestuous relationships were prohibited.

This could be difficult. While in some cases clan elders did welcome women from enemy tribes, in other cases they were suspicious of them.

When asking about ancestry in the Hagen area, I found some knowledgeable people were able to trace back five or six generations. I can recall a Jika Muglmana tribesman, Thomas Berum, telling me he could trace back seven generations on his mother’s side of the family.

Kelye of  the Mokei  Akilika Ronimp  clan  1936This photo taken around 1936 is of Kelye of the Mokei Akilika Ronimp clan. It was taken at Kugumamp near present-day Hagen town. Informants were able to trace Kelye’s ancestors back six generations to his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Mainui.

Kelye’s  great-grandfather was a man named Moremi, who had a brother Dik, a great-grandfather of the well-known television presenter John Eggins.

Kelye’s son Kombra Kelye was a prominent councillor and one-time president of Mt Hagen Local Government Council

I attempted to research the genealogy of a few clans in the Hagen area. Double-checking sometimes revealed a generation had been skipped or some confusion about tribal affiliation.

Of course prior to 1933 there were no written records in the Hagen area, so there was no full certainty about a given genealogy. At the same time, when the same basic information came from several separate sources, one could assume a reasonable accuracy about that information.

In the western world Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots’ back in 1976 re-awakened interest in genealogy and ancestry.

Haley’s forebears had been brought from the west coast of Africa as slaves to the USA and ‘Roots’ is a story tracing his ancestry back to Africa. While some of Haley’s narrative was later proven not to be wholly accurate, the book stirred great interest in genealogy.

Nowadays much genealogical research can be done on the internet. There are TV programs dedicated to tracing ancestors. The tracking of genealogy through DNA can also be done readily – at a price.

However to trace ancestry in PNG it is vital to have access to oral tradition. And the problem nowadays is that many people grow up in towns or cities away from their ancestral roots, and may not be aware of their roots.

Some may even deliberately turn away from their roots, wanting to forget about old enemies and old folks’ tales.

A challenge for PNG writers is to investigate and transcribe what they know of their own ancestry. In some areas there may be written records. Churches may have kept lists of baptismal names or marriages. Other records may be available from the office of the Registrar General.

Anthropologists may have recorded genealogies. Social mapping in areas where mining was planned may reveal genealogies. Coastal areas may have greater recorded resources.

Readers may have further suggestions about genealogical research in PNG.

One of my mistakes in getting information was in not asking enough about the ancestry on the female side of the family. This information may at times be more difficult to attain in a patrilineal culture, but it is worth getting.

Tracing your ancestors can be interesting and it can be fun. It is important to respect privacy as you may sometimes uncover details that may be embarrassing to people still alive.

One hopes that in PNG more research of this kind is done before all those people who know the history of their own genealogy pass on.

Head photo: Maria Kerua, early 1950s. Daughter of Mt Hagen bigman Ninji of the Mokei Nampaka Milimp clan. Ninji was the son of Kama who was the son of Kielgui who was the son of Rum. Kerua married Kewa from the Nokpa tribe


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Garry Roche

Philip Kai, perhaps History departments at Universities could be encouraged to have students write up local history. I seem to remember an old publication from UPNG that encouraged "Oral History". I do not know if this is still going.

Philip Fitz, in some Catholic Church baptismal registers when the father of an infant was unknown, -or did not want to be unknown - the Latin word "Ignotus" (Unknown) was entered in place of "Father's Name". Some innocent with the name of "Ignatius" sometimes got the blame !
When trying to trace my own ancestry online I was not too successful but I did find a "Garret Roche" (among a 1819 list of "Irish Convicts to Australia" !
(Garry is short for Garrett)
Just by way of clarification, the Maria I refer to in the text is not the same person as the Maria Kerua in the photo.

Philip Kai Morre

PNG has a rich cultural heritage but our problem is we have not much written documents. ethnographers, anthropologist and linguists from outside have done so much but not much have been written. Oral testimony have limits and some times false information and misinterpretation are done.

the government must pour in money to do more research work and there is more to be done. Students at the universities must be encourage to do research work and publish books for the benefit of our future generations.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I, among many, helped an Adnyamathanha woman from the Flinders Ranges in South Australia record her whole tribal genealogy back in the late 1970s. Many, many elders were involved and it took several years to complete. Photographs and life stories were also collected along the way.

While arranging its publication I discovered there were actually two copies of the genealogy. There was one for publication which was an edited version with all the embarrassing bits, like close cousin marriages, marriages that contravened the matrilineal moiety system and births out of wedlock etc. taken out and an unabridged version with all the aberrations included.

The version with all the gory details was kept in a safe place and was the more valuable document.

A master was also kept where amendments were made as people read the published version and added bits of information or made corrections.

That battered old master is now a revered tribal resource and proved invaluable during native title negotiations.

Genealogies are a great idea but they have to be commenced as soon as possible. When Thomas dies a lot of valuable information could go with him.

The old census books kept at patrol posts would be another great source if they can be found. As would be the old village books.

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