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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. Wooden shields provide defense against enemy weapons which include bows with bone or bamboo-tipped arrows, sharp wooden spears, stone axes and bone knives. Woven cane body armor was also common in the West Sepik and Western Provinces in PNG and is still used in the Highlands of Irian Jaya.
Figure 1: Asmat war shield, collected on the Brazza River, Irian Jaya, Indonesia. The design may represent shell nosepieces or fish stomachs. It is a bold, but complex positive-negative design.
Figure 2: War shield collected in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea near Mt. Hagen.
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 and the backs have cane framework handles.
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. 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. In areas where tribes are at peace, shields are still important and powerful in a ceremonial context.
More photographs and information on New Guinea shields
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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/