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Bone knives and daggers are used for hunting, fighting and for ceremony. Metal knives and bush knives have replaced bone for everyday needs, but bone knives are still made. Interesting bone knives and daggers are found in the Abelam area of the East Sepik Province and the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and in the Asmat area of Papua (Irian Jaya).
The Iatmul on the middle Sepik River make ceremonial bone or wood daggers topped with clay heads painted with clan designs. Razor sharp, temporary knives are cut from slivers of bamboo to butcher game or other jobs requiring an extremely sharp, renewable edge.
The thigh bone of the cassowary, a large, ostrich-like bird, is the most common bone made into daggers. Cassowary bone daggers are around 15 - 18 inches long (35 - 45 cm). Pig bone is used for smaller knives. Human bone daggers from slain enemies or deceased, powerful relatives are worn by warriors.
In the hill villages of the Abelam near Maprik, East Sepik Province, PNG, the daggers are carved with complex and beautiful clan designs. Geometric symbols, figures of birds, usually parrots or hornbills, and ancestor figures, both male and female, add power to the dagger and its owner.
Most people in New Guinea still live in bush villages. Almost everyone owns and routinely carries large metal bush knives. This seems a bit unnerving to outsiders, but it's normal and necessary.
When we drive out of Wewak, a common sight is a family emerging silently from the jungle onto the road. The husband clears the path in front with his bush knife, his dog follows at his heels, the wife walks just behind carrying the baby, bilums of firewood or produce and watching the children in between. They walk along the road for a bit before disappearing back along the almost invisible bush track to their garden or settlement.
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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/