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Takwan: Secret Knowledge, Storage and Transmission in Wantoat, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea [2000] MLJ 2; [2000] 27 MLJ 37 (1 January 2000)

Takwan: Secret knowledge, storage and transmission in Wantoat, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea

Sam T. Kaima[*]


Traditional human societies the world over had always collected their traditions and kept account of their past activities. Wantoat is one such society in PNG where information has been created, stored orally and later disseminated to the next generation. This paper discusses the Wantoat concept of takwan literally translated to mean taboo, never to be seen, heard of by the uninitiated.”

Sacred and secret knowledge of the society was never to be released to any person without the consent of human information keepers. The human information keepers were experts in the trades that society may have ascribed to them during their life long processes. While restricting knowledge, it also acknowledges the traditional role of village skilled people or headman to store and transmit sacred, secret knowledge. It ensured that village ceremonies were held as prescribed and/or supervised by these village headmen who had acquired the knowledge and oratory skills. In return, the village headmen were given recognition and status in society.

Traditional knowledge of Wantoat had been difficult to reconstruct but is believed to be handed down from generation to generation; the only possible eyewitness of it being the ancestors of the people. Despite the lack of written records and documentation, huge bodies of knowledge had been transmitted through the word of mouth from one generation to the next to ensure that societal norms, religious values and belief systems continued to the next generation.


Information is empowerment. The ability to create it, and use it effectively no doubt contributes to knowledge itself. Traditional Wantoat experts have used takwan to control human behaviour and restore pride in society. Takwan can also be viewed as a means of empowerment status and prestige. Therefore Takwan is also a hierarchical system of initiation. To be admitted into Takwan, young people have to go through initiation rituals in order for information to be transmitted from the older generation to the younger generation. The issue of ownership of that knowledge, access conditions, and the rights to transmit the knowledge, are the main issues addressed in this article.

The adoption of introduced information systems in this country have been to date, slowly adopted and used by mostly educated people of this country. Because of problems associated with finance, infrastructure, geography and remoteness, many people in the country are not able to have access to these new information systems.

Modern libraries and archives are accessed and used by those of us who are able to read and write. While the world advances into information and communication technology, many preliterate cultures and societies are still in the process of adjusting to the fast changing electronic information superhighway. Many Papua New Guinean societies therefore do not have access to information and are consequently denied access.

We know of ancient Egyptians who have been writing their information on papyrus or animal skins to store and transmit information. Closer home, there are Australian Aborigines who have been using their artistic talents to draw on stones and cave walls to express their knowledge and perhaps store for the next generation. The societies use these mediums or methods to ensure that their traditional songs, chants and meaning they represent are transmitted from the present to the next generation. In modern societies, the publication of books and the development of libraries and archives addresses this concern: the preservation and transmission of information, and knowledge and for easy retrieval. The organization of library materials is itself a system that is being uses to store and disseminate information to those who may want it. Similarly in Wantoat the transmission of information is centered on the concept of takwan. Where belief in sorcery, witchcraft, garden making, hunting, etc requires specialized secret ceremonies before these activities are embarked upon. Takwan itself is therefore the medium of transmission but it relies solely on oral system of information storage and transmission.

Takwan is in effect, a system of traditional ‘archive’ or a body of knowledge based on oral cultures and stored in human memory and transmitted through the word of mouth from one generation to the next. Similarly, many traditional PNG societies have oral records preserved and transmitted in this manner. Systems like this were necessary to ensure that society continued to function as a unit, without which societies may not have survived difficult times.

The Wantoat traditional information system presented here discusses the sacred and secret knowledge that had to be passed. Some bodies of knowledge had to be transmitted in order for young to learn as they grow up. The skills and knowledge had to be passed on in order for the next generation to acquire and then to be able to perform duties effectively in society. This article is divided into the following parts: part one looks at oral traditions in Wantoat with reference to takwan. The second part looks at colonial contact, arrival and settlement of Europeans in Wantoat. The third part looks at current Wantoat information storage systems which have been developed as a response to introduced information systems. The final part discusses the issues involved in researching for information in present PNG context with reference to Wantoat society.

1. Takwan as a means of preserving Wantoat beliefs

Amongst the Wantoat the concept of takwan denotes secrecy and sacred knowledge that is not to be shared by anybody publicly and without consent of those who possess the secret and sacred knowledge. There is a creation myth, which tells of a culture hero believed to have brought with him beliefs and values of the people. Schmitz[1] recorded a version of it, while McElhanon[2] records another version[3] and both were copied and used for my thesis mentioned above.

The creation story discussed in brief below is the start of these secrets in society that must be transmitted through to the next generation via initiation rituals. In fact the creation story is in itself takwan and is not discussed in public. In making it a takwan it makes it impossible for young and those without prior initiation ceremonies be told the creation story.

It is from this creation story that people have developed their own belief systems and daily activities. Examples of supernatural events as told in the story reveal linkages and beliefs in Wantoat witchcraft and sorcery. Thus, because the myth is sacred it then justifies the existence of Wantoat sorcerer and witch who is believed to perform extraordinary duties as believed. Furthermore because the belief is witchcraft and sorcery is sacred the young are brought up believing in Wantoat witchcraft and sorcery with question. It in a way controls human behaviour as young children are told what to do at an early age a means to control human behaviour in society. Therefore, a Wantoat sorcerer is feared, hated and or trusted to do what the clan may want him to do. Deaths or sicknesses for example are seen as caused by sorcery and nothing else. Often it is believed that is was the case of the victim to be sick and eventual death.

Young generation had to be ‘schooled’, be taught how to perform their duties in society so that functions and duties of society are carried on from one generation to the next. Like the formal education system today young children of Wantoat had to go through a series of initiation ceremonies as they grow up. It is not complete until one is considered a ‘full grown man’ – in the case of Wantoat a house is built and young man moves in with his newly married bride – that signifying a full ceremony. The male person is then considered to have ‘graduated’ and can be regarded as a man and an expert in his field of expertise. He is usually groomed for one specific purpose in society. Such skilled and knowledgeable men are referred to as pandet – the trainer. The pandets are specialist trained for specific duties in society. They can be sorcerers, rainmakers, hunters and experts in their own expertise.

What is considered takwan or sacred is taught and or learnt through series of initiation rituals that young Wantoats go through during his/her life. Nearly everyday activity in life is considered sacred and young men must learn the skills as they grow up. Even the processes of making a garden for example needs prior consultation with the ancestors to ensure success. The process of consulting ancestors is sacred and requires training for this purpose. Associated with these are general taboos that are supposed to be observed by young children of Wantoat.

With the influx of modern mediums of communication Wantoat elders may have lost status and power in villages. The status of elders and knowledge village men are in turn reduced, as the roles they played are no longer significant. This change is largely attributed to the impact of modern education and modernity in general.

The traditional methods of managing and transferring information are now seriously under threat. As a Wantoat myself, I consider this to be most unfortunate. This is because any traditional community whose information storage and dissemination is based on oral traditions, it must ensure system of continuity survive.

In Wantoat, traditional religious rituals have been used as a means to transmit bodies of knowledge from one generation to the next. Oral traditions in here include bodies of knowledge about society brought by cultural heroes during primordial times mixed with my theology. Oral cultures include legends, myths, and chants. These oral traditions are important to the people. In the essence they is perpetuate the existence of society. They ensure that tribes, societies and clans continue into the future. A myth in an oral society for example is not a made up story, but carries with it a lot of significance for the society. As functionalist anthropologist Malinowski writes:

Myth fulfils in primitive culture an indispensable function; it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief, it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man. Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human civilisation, it is not an idle tale, but a hard worked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom.[4]

The example of Wantoat creation story in effect defines and accords belief systems and daily activities of the people accordingly and it is based on this creation myth that people value their beliefs and societal norms. For example, codification of belief and rituals of people is simply a re-enactment of a theme of the creation story. The belief in supernatural events as told in the story reflects the present Wantoat belief in witchcraft and sorcery.

2. Colonial Contact and European Settlement in Wantoat

The island of New Guinea was divided in the past and administered by several different colonial powers as they divided and fought amongst themselves for island colonies throughout the Pacific. The British annexed southern part of the island in October 1884 and the Germans annexed the Northeast plus the offshore islands a month later in November 1884. Meanwhile the Dutch East India Company took control of Indonesian archipelago, including what is now Irian Jaya.

What is now PNG has an interesting colonial experience, as it was transferred to different colonial powers during its history. After defeat of Germany in WWI German New Guinea became a Mandated Territory of the League of Nations to be administered by Australia in 1921. During the WWII there was the Japanese control over most of the two territories between 1942 and 1945. After the war, Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) was in control of the two territories and finally transferred to civil administration in 1949. This was the beginning of a future united country of Papua New Guinea. The Australian administration was to be in the country for 1949 up till political independence in September of 1975.

According to Wantoat mythology there was a prediction that a nguzit waak ‘son of the sun’, who incidentally had white skin and was hot as the sun, and was to return to the central place of creation – i.e. Wantoat, in the future. The different versions of the creation story tell of Wantoat being the centre of the universe. The universe as the people understood it then, was only Wantoat and nearby tribal groups with whom they have had contact. The rest of the people were then sent off from the place of creation to populate nearby areas. The existence of others outside Wantoat was never thought of until the arrival of Europeans. In fact the total cosmic environment of the people was Wantoat and those people living nearby, were only understood by the Wantoat.

The themes in the myth were changed at a time or soon before the arrival of Europeans and Japanese had been included before WWII reached Wantoat in 1942. The inclusion of the arrival of Japanese as ‘descendants’ of a baby (maggot) who sprang from the ‘yellow’ bamboo and ‘son of the sun’ who resembled descendants of white bamboo. The son of the sun was told as having superior power and superior goods compared to the people of central place of creation. The creation myth of Wantoat was used to re-enact Wantoat supremacy over others who returned to the ‘place of creation’ with more wealth and goods. Why then had the descendants of ‘white bamboo’ returned to their place of creation with all these wealth-leaving residents of Wantoat without it? After all those who were chosen to remain in the ‘place of creation’ were the chosen ones. The questions and queries no doubt led to the development of the so called ‘cargo cults’ or in the case of the Wantoat, money cults.[5]

The change of the myth to include Japanese in Wantoat mythos were possible as the Japanese used traditional trade route between Rai Coast and Wantoat during WWII. Fearing observation and fighting on battleships or planes, the Japanese used the route to come into Nadzab from Saidor through Rai coast territory into Wantoat before reaching Kaiapit on the Markham valley. As a result of this, many Wantoat young men have been assisting both allied troops and Japanese, depending on who arrived first in the village.[6]

Basing on the mythic psychology the people could not understand why the yellow people and the son of the sun (originally created in Wantoat) were at this time fighting each other. At the same time missionaries had been telling the people not to fight each other. Why then have these people originally created in Wantoat fighting each other? The consequences have been mind shattering for the people, as they did not really know whom to support during the war.

In realistic terms, changes in versions of the myths to allow for explanation of arrival of Japanese and Europeans will have been just before the arrival of the Europeans, but had to be used to fit in with the mythos of Wantoat. This had to be done so the Wantoat can define the arrival of these people according to their myths.

Despite changes in the myth, the Wantoat had to use themes of the myth to develop their belief systems and constructed their daily activities along with themes of the myth to fit in changing situations according to the myth. For example dam building ceremony, which is held regularly in the valley, is an episode represented in the creation myth.[7]

The arrival and settlement of Europeans in Wantoat began with the first missionary to Wantoat in 1927. He came with local evangelists from Kabwum and left them in large Wantoat villages to help spread the new religion.[8] Aside from spreading the new religion they also set up village schools to train local people to help spread the new religion. Like other village communities, Wantoat young boys and girls were taken away from traditional ‘schools’ in which information was transmitted orally through the initiation ceremonies.

L.G. Vial took the first colonial patrol in 1936 that then encouraged the people to move together to larger villages and issued them village books. Censuses were taken for the first time in many villages and brief reports of his visits written. The dam building ceremony itself being takwan the people refused to release details to L.G. Vial. After finally convincing Iminana with a bribe (bush knife) Vial was able to win favour over Iminana to get the information. As in many sacred ceremonies of the Wantoat, Vial was never to see the ceremony itself. Having promised to show Vial the ceremony Imainana secretly arranged for the ceremony, when Vial returned after few days of patrol the ceremony was already over. [9] This shows the reluctance of the pandet to show the uninitiated person. He would have done the same to another other uninitiated Wantoat in this case.

Despite this there had also been travels along Leron River in search for labour. The young men taken to work on contract labour on Markham valley were later to become useful for new colonial administration, as they were able to speak ‘tok pisin’ and act as intermediaries and interpreters.

The colonial expansion and activities along coastal areas of German Territory was not really felt by hinterland dwellers, especially the Wantoat who lived amongst the mountain terrain of the Finnesterre and Saruwaged Ranges. The arrival of WWII disrupted most of the work of both missionaries and colonial rulers of the territories. As a result Wantoat missionary and colonial activity was ceased. Much of the activities of colonial regime and missionaries were to resume soon after then end of WWII.

Few years after the war, in 1949 James Sinclair was sent from Kaiapit Patrol Post to rebuild the airstrip and prepare for new patrol officer to be sent to Wantoat. It was not until 1955 that patrol post was officially set up and the first Kiap posted to Wantoat. The luluai of Gwambongwak village told Sinclair that the people wanted an English school rather than Bible schools which often teaches the young children only Bible stories’.[10] The English school requested then never eventuated in Wantoat until 1957. This was the beginning of colonial expansion and creation of new methods and forms of information creation and dissemination. The patrol post saw the introduction of new school system in which English school was set up. Schools started both by missions and colonial administration had an impact on traditional means of creating, storing and transmission of information in Wantoat society. The schooling of young children to read and write meant they were not in villages to be transmitted traditional information through initiation ceremonies and imitation of elders.

The people with traditional wisdom and knowledge lost their status and importance in village society. The movement of young people to schools and eventually to urban centres meant they had to loose ‘contact’ with traditional knowledge. Role and duties of traditional village leaders also declined as their functions declined. The particular loss in status of traditional village leaders was when the Kiap selected men to be tultuls and luluais. The tultul was the man who was able to speak Tok Pisin and that Kiaps thought they will be intermediaries between village people and colonial administration. The Luluai was village chief or headman. Because the Kiap had power and authority, traditional leaders could not enforce their traditional roles and order in villages-thus leading to a decline in status and functions of traditional villager leaders. In many cases demands by the Kiap and church workers meant a reduction in traditional ceremonial activities in the villages.

3. Impact of Contact on Traditional Information Systems

Like most rural communities in the country today the means and methods of transmitting information in Wantoat are very limited. Information sources and means of transmitting information are both scathy and needs further investigation and research. Urban centres now have modern data storage systems and methods of transmitting information. The same cannot be said of Wantoat. Amongst the main hindrance to communicating information in the area are mountainous terrain, rugged river systems and lack of efficient government services to transmit information at a faster rate than usual. The road linking Wantoat with the Highlands Highway was only opened in 1986. Before that travel to Lae was by a 30-minute plane ride or else two days of walking to Leron plains to catch a truck to Lae.

Radio communication through Radio Morobe is the only massive means of communication to people of the valley like many hinterland areas of the province. The road network to link Lae is recent and communication systems developed as a result of opening of this road is yet to be tested and analysed. The area uses wireless radio for quick communication to Lae and back. There is no telephone service to link the area with outside world. The introduction of television is also another urban centred medium; it has yet to have an impact on the people of Wantoat.

4. The current sources of information in PNG

The Euro-American based information systems have been adopted in the country since colonial days and these systems are now being used. In terms of libraries, archives and other sources of information, these systems are now being used. More recently, television, telephones, radios and World Wide Web (WWW) have been introduced.

In terms of research and analysis of information sources for present rural societies, traditional knowledge and sources of information cannot simply be left out or be forgotten, as many people in rural parts of the country still use traditional methods of preserving and transmitting information. The problem starts when researchers are conducting research in rural communities that have not much published records about them. The need to use both traditional, modern and future means of information sources will become necessary as there will be a need to supplement information from all these different sources in research. The traditional information in societies will have to be used in order to collect balanced information about oral cultures in many parts of the country.

5. Researching for information on a national scale

The Wantoat methods of creating and transmitting information have been discussed above, which no doubt have strong resemblance of most rural communities in the country. However, urban centres and modern Papua New Guinea are now using modern means of communication and storage and transmission of information.

The role of information on national scale is slowly having an impact on our people who are able to read, write and communicate. Mediums and methods of creation, storage and dissemination of information now are libraries, radio service, newspapers, telephones, television and very recently the electronic media. The newspapers have been a main medium for many urban workers in the country and are easily accessible in mornings every working day, as there are two papers in circulation. Both papers; the Post Courier and National; are in English and will require one to understand the language to be able to read it. Already, for example the two newspapers are in the Net[11] and decisions will have to be made in the future to either stores the paper version of the papers or the electronic version of it.

The libraries of the country are also present in urban centres of the country where only a minority of people benefit while the majority are left without the use of this service; let alone lack of understanding the concept of libraries. The National library Service operates but again functions as an urban dominated resource amidst lack of funding and manpower to support work of libraries in the country. Libraries being a foreign concept have yet to have an impact on majority of the people.

The National Broadcasting Commission’s Radio service seems to be the most effective service for majority of people of the country despite continual problems of staff, poor management and funding for better services. Telephones, television and other modern means of communication are again for minority of people living in towns and cities of the country. However, because of the expenses many of these services are not affordable for most of the urban dwellers in the country.

The impact of modern communication and information technology will be another step the nation will have to cope with and adjust to in the future. As modern computers make it possible to communicate and transfer information at a faster rate, the traditional methods of communicating information will slowly cease to operate in many parts of the country. The majority in rural areas of our country will slowly catch up with these changes and embrace them. This will of course put at great, if not serious risk, our traditional means of information storage, transmission and transaction.


In oral preliterate societies written records were only exposed to the people with arrival of Europeans. Much of the information before that had always been transmitted through word of mouth from generation to generation. Most of rural PNG communities today remain illiterate and information is often communicated through the word of mouth.

In collecting data to write a history of preliterate societies one must take into account inevitable use of oral sources in order to construct a story of an event that took place in the past. Thus, oral and written sources must be used and be seen to complement each other in order to write an accurate account of an event that took place in the past.

The justification of the concept of takwan in Wantoat reflects the role of Wantoat mythology and belief systems. The daily activities and beliefs of the people had been developed as a result of ‘my themes’ as told for example in the creation story. The creation story is sacred, and therefore one has to sanctify beliefs and values of the society, thus, while fearing takwan the information is preserved and transferred to select few: Those properly initiated and therefore have the right of access to it, like the Wantoat specialists: those trained to be sorcerers, witchdoctors, successful hunters, and gardeners. They also have responsibility in ensuring the society functioned according to norms, beliefs and values of the people.

The concept of takwan in Wantoat, thus, has two main functions or roles to play in society. Firstly, secrecy and sacredness of the information contained in society was meant for the people to abide by rules and mediums of transmitting sacred knowledge of Wantoat from one generation to the next.

Secondly, the preservation of information in Wantoat society has been transacted from generation to generation through initiation rituals. In fact the rituals followed in these ceremonies resemble the themes in myths and legends as passed on from generation to generation.

Finally the advances of modern information flow and use of modern mediums of spreading information had downgraded role and functions of traditional elders who had the required knowledge in society. The consequences of schooling and subsequent migration of young Wantoat population has now resulted in rapid decline in the value of traditional society and the means of storing and retrieving information. Traditional knowledge and information systems must be recorded and preserved as part of overall information systems in the country. The Wantoat concept of takwan which was used to create, store and disseminate information to next generation is one of the many information systems that have to be discussed and its value captured and preserved for next generation.


Kaima, Sam 2000. Ammak Tapduk: Kaiapit to Saidor via Wantoat during Second World War. A paper presented at the Pacific War in Papua New Guinea: Perceptions and realities conference, Australian National University October 19 – 20.

Kaima, Sam. Archives and Records relating to education in Papua New Guinea: Past, Present and Future. Ph.D. Thesis. Department of Librarianship, Archives and Records, Monash University. (In Progress)

Kaima, Sam. Creation myths: The Impact on the Belief Systems and Daily Activities of the Wantoat, Morobe Province, and Paua New Guinea. B.A. (Hons.) thesis. History Department. UPNG 1986

Kaima, Sam. 1987. “The Rise of Money Cults in Wantoat”. Catalyst. 17 (1): 55-70.

Kaima, Sam. 1999. “Dam building in Wantoat: Its effect on Culture”. Catalyst 29 (2); 148-165.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1971. Myth in Primitive Psychology. Westport; Conn: Negro University Press.

McElhanon, K.A. 1974. Legends from Papua New Guinea. Ukarumpa: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Schmitz, Carl. 1964. Wantoat: Art and Religion of the Northeast New Guinea Papuans. The Hague : Mouton.

Vial L.G. 1937 The Dangagamun Ceremony of the Wantoat. Oceania 7:341-345

Vial L.G. 1936 “The Dam Builders of New Guinea”. Walkabout 5 (1): 39-43

Wagner, Herwig and Hermann Reiner (eds.) 1986. The Lutheran Church in Papua New Guinea: The First Hundred Years; 1886-1986. Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House.

[*] Senior Lecturer, Library Sciences and Archives, University of Papua New Guinea.

[1] Schmitz, Carl. 1964. Wantoat: Art and Religion of the Northeast New Guinea Papuans. The Hague Mouton. Pages 58-59

[2] McElhanon, K.A. 1974. Legends from Papua New Guinea. Ukarumpa: Summer Institute of Linguistics. pp.207-211.

[3] I had difficulty even trying to get local people to tell the creation myth of the Wantoat as I myself was not initiated and that the myth is takwan itself. The villages had thought it was possible only to tell the foreigners in the belief that no Wantoat will be able to read the creation myth in the future.

[4] Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1971. Myth in Primitive Psychology. Westport; Conn: Negro University Press.

  1. [5] Kaima, Sam. 1987. The Rise of Money Cults in Wantoat. Catalyst. 17 (1): 55-70.

[6] Kaima, Sam 2000. Anmak Tapduk: Kaiapit to Saidor via Wantoat during Second World War. A paper presented at the Pacific War in Papua New Guinea: Perceptions and realities conference, Australian National Unviersity October 19-20.

[7] Kaima, Sam. 1998. The Significance of Dam building in Wantoat, Morobe Province, PNG. A Manuscripts awaiting publication.

  1. [8] Wagner, Herwig and Hermann Reiner (eds.) 1986. The Lutheran Church in Papua New Guinea: The First Hundred Years; 1886-1986. Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House.
  2. [9] Vial L.G. 1937 “The Dangagamun Ceremony of the Wantoat”. Oceania 7:341-345 and The Dam Builders of New Guinea. Walkabout 5 (1):39-43.
  3. [10] Sinclair, Op.cit. page.59.
  4. [11] The homepage of the Post Courier is: http//; while the National can be located on: http/www/

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