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Papua New Guinea – Weapons and warfare

The weapons in Plymouth's Papua New Guinea (PNG) collection include bows and arrows, spears, clubs and shields.

Warfare between local groups was commonplace in pre-colonial New Guinea. For men, it was almost a form of sport – the foundation of traditional men’s prestige. Their weapons were fearsome, but did not match the power of European firearms. When the colonial authorities forced local warfare to stop, this undermined the power and prestige of local men.

Black and white photo of a hunting expedition

[1] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 33428)

Different weapons were used for hunting animals, also by men. Prowess in hunting big game, too, was important for male prestige. The men in the photograph [1] are setting out from the village on a hunting expedition, carrying their equipment – bows and arrows, spears and nets.

Use the links to see all of the different types of weapons from PNG in Plymouth’s collections.

Many of our catalogue records were created in the past and have yet to be updated. Some of the historic wording may now appear outdated and even offensive. Please be aware that the database may include records for objects that are considered secret or sacred by some communities. If you see anything that concerns you, please get in touch with us.

Bows and arrows

arrow from Papua New Guinea

Arrow (PLYMG AR.1983.1077)

Bows and arrows were the main weapons used in both warfare and hunting. The bows in Plymouth’s collection are made of black palm-wood, with a notch at each end to attach the bowstring. Originally, each would have had a bowstring made of split cane, and bows were sometimes decorated with wisps of feather near the top end. The bows at Plymouth have no decorations, and just one of them has a small piece of bowstring attached. Some of the bows at have small designs carved at each end.

View bows and arrows in the collection

PNG bows are usually about 1.8 metres long. The more elaborate the carved design, the more important the job that the arrow or bow is designed to do – fighting other men, or hunting wild pigs or cassowaries. Arrows for hunting smaller game are plain, or decorated with the simplest designs, carved using a blade made from a rodent’s tooth. The incised areas are often filled with white chalk and red ochre, so that the raised areas of black palm-wood stand out.

Black palm-wood is a lowland material, so bows are traded to the highlands while arrows were traded all over PNG. Any man could make a basic arrow, but the more elaborate ones were made by specialists, and could be commissioned, traded, or taken as spoils of war. Designs, too, were copied by different groups. When bows and arrows were collected, then, it was not necessarily from the place that they were made or used.

Black and white photo demonstrating a bow and arrow

[2] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 33303)

The photograph [2] shows a man demonstrating the use of a bow and arrow. The man in the photograph [3] is ready to go hunting, with an axe, a bow and a bundle of bamboo-tipped arrows over his shoulder. He is also carrying a net bag.

Black and white photo of a man going hunting

[3] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 34395)

PNG arrows are usually about a metre and a half long, and have neither nocks nor feathers. The arrows in the Plymouth collection are made in three sections. They have a hardwood or palm-wood point, socketed into and bound to a light reed shaft (Miscanthus floridulus) with fine plant fibre string or a basketry ring, secured with sticky tree resin. Some of the arrows are elaborately carved and their patterns are highlighted in white. Some have a barb at the base of the head, made of a cassowary claw or sharp piece of animal bone – this is designed to detach in the victim’s body.

Another sort of arrow in the Plymouth collection was previously categorised as spears – these are arrows, because they would have been used with a bow. They have a light reed shaft, a foreshaft made of softwood, and a pointed, scoop-shaped bamboo blade. The point is socketed into the end of the shaft and bound with string made from bark fibres, or with finely split lengths of bamboo or cane, secured with tree resin. There are also arrows with several prongs, and others with a blunt knot of wood instead of a blade, used to stun or kill lizards and birds without damaging their skin.

Some of the bows in the Plymouth collection came from Dauncey, but the arrows are unprovenanced – we do not know whether they were Dauncey’s or not.


spear from Papua New Guinea

Spear (PLYMG AR.1983.1068)

Spears

Spears are used in hunting and in dancing. There are two main types – one is made of dark, polished hardwood, sometimes with a carved panel. There is one fishing spear in Plymouth’s collection. These can be up to four metres long. This type is used for hunting pigs, and to beat rhythmically against the shield in dances. The other type is a spear for catching fish, which has several prongs bound into the end with rattan.

Most of the objects that have been labelled as ‘spear’ in the Plymouth collection are probably actually arrows – that is, they would have been used with a bow.

View the fishing spear in the collection

Black and white photo of mending or making a fishing spear

[4] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 34350)

The man in the photograph [4] is making or mending a fishing spear with multiple prongs.


club from Papua New Guinea

Club (PLYMG 1909.429cx)

Clubs

Clubs were used for fighting. The ‘clubs’ and ‘club-heads’ in the Plymouth collection are very varied. Some clubs in Plymouth’s collection are made of palm-wood, paddle shaped or flat and pointed. Many of these have elaborate carved patterns highlighted in white, similar to those found on lime spatulas, drums and bark belts. Some of them have hand-straps made of bamboo strips.

Other clubs in the collection have wooden shafts with a ball, disc, spiked or star-shaped stone head slotted onto the end. Two of these are decorated with tufts of feathers at the tip of the shaft. The heads of some are held in place with a ring of bamboo strips. One club – not one of Dauncey’s – is more elaborate – it consists of a star-shaped stone head on a hardwood shaft, decorated with bundles of brightly coloured feathers.

View the clubs in the collection

Black and white photo of a warrior with a club

[5] Courtesy and copyright Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI 34253)

The warrior in the photograph [5] is resting a club on his shoulder.


shield from Papua New Guinea

Shield (PLYMG AR.1983.1215)

Shields

Shields were used in warfare, but also in dance and display. Dances could be aggressive, asserting the strength of a group of men intent on dazzling their opposition. In some parts of the Pacific, teams of warriors danced with woven shields to celebrate success in warfare. There are two shields in the Plymouth collection, which may or may not be Dauncey’s. Each is a basketry covered, softwood ‘figure of eight’ shape, decorated with feathers attached by fine plant fibre strings. Each area of New Guinea has a different form of shield. In some areas, wooden shields are carved only by men, and are kept in the men’s house and associated with ancestral power.

View the shields in the collection