The Ketengban live in the eastern highlands in the province of Papua, about 250 kilometers due south of Jayapura.  Initial contact with non-Papuans began in 1972 when airstrips were built.  Since that time there has been a significant shift in worldview, with many of the Ketengban converting to Christianity and adapting to Indonesian culture.

They live in approximately 60 hamlets that are dotted throughout the rugged jungle mountains.  Linguistically, the Ketengban has four dialects though all are mutually intelligible. It is rooted in the Mek family in the Trans-New Guinea Phylum  (Voorhoeve, Heeschen, 1978).

Their homes consist of small round thatched dwellings built on stilts one or two meters above the ground.  Traditionally dwellings were delineated as men’s or women’s houses but this has relaxed in recent years allowing for family dwellings.

Traditional Livelihood

The traditional Ketengban engage in agriculture, raising pigs and planting sweet potatoes, manioc and taro.  Since the 1970’s other crops have been introduced including papaya, jackfruit, maize, squash, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, peanuts and soya beans.  Today, many are engaged in government and other business related activities.

Family Struture

The family structure is patrilineal and patrilocal.  Men are traditionally involved in preparing the slash and burn sites by cutting the trees, burning the area and fencing it.  Women traditionally engage in planting, weeding and harvesting.  Sago is found in the lower elevations and is processed by women and men and protein is obtained from domesticated pigs and supplemented through hunting wild pigs, birds, marsupials and frogs.


The cosmology of many Ketengban is now largely influenced by Christianity but vestiges of traditional Ketengban cosmology remain.  They view the universe as being divided into four layers.  The top layer is where the sky beings live that have never had access to humans and where humans will never dwell. The second layer is where the sun and moon travel as siblings and what humans see are their celestial bodies of as they travel the sky by day (sun) and by night (moon). In the third layer the rainbows appear, the birds fly, the spirits travel and this is where most people find their daily existence.  When a person dies, their spirit may take the form of a bird and live in this third layer.  The fourth layer is the layer under the earth, where the major spirits travel though a vast labyrinth of tunnels made of hollow trees. The can come out of these tunnels and participate in the rituals of the tribe. This lower area is inhabited by the deity Bawa Bo who sleeps here; when he twitches there is an earthquake.

The Ketengban believe in a creator deity known as Doyap who created the universe, all flora and fauna and two very large bodies of water.  Arguments between these two bodies of water resulted in a flood that was apprehended by Doyap’s brother, Um Bo, who cut a valley into the mountains so the water could escape.

Um Bo is principally known as the one who mercifully came to the assistance during the first Ketengban initiation ceremony.  He saw the skin of the male initiates drying up because they were put up into a tree.  This was wrong he said and so Um Bo mercifully announced that he would sacrifice himself so the fat from his own skin could be rubbed on the initiates and their eroding skin.  This act of sacrifice restored the initiates and returned their skin to its natural state.  He then had a woman tie him up and allowed her to shoot him with a bow and arrow.  Instantly he became an enormous pig that bounded through the Ketengban area, eventually dying. His body was boiled and divided up to be eaten.  As the people held the parts of his body, a great wind blew up that blew the people to the areas where the Creator wanted them to live.  This clan legend is re-enacted during traditional initiation ceremonies by offering a pig during initiation followed by rubbing the fat on the skin of all new initiates.

Doyap , the creator god, assigned major spirits to each of the clans which are represented as totems (snake, bird, bat, python, cuscus, dog, pig, crown pigeon, cassowary).  All Ketengban people descend from these totems.  Each of the totems had two offspring, a male and female, which in turn produced the first humans of the clan.

Traditional Ketengban tribal structure among each clan ascribes power in the following order (from most powerful to least powerful): shamans and those possessed; ritual specialists, healers, sorcerers, initiated men, uninitiated boys, old women who assist or know some ritual, women and finally children.

Initiation was traditionally governed by the northern and southern solstice and took about eighteen months from preparation to completion; it therefore happened only every four to five years. Initial preparations took six months after which the Kwet Initiation began.  The Kwet initiation time was kept a total secret from all non-initiates.  At the onset of the southern solstice, a pig would be passed around and fed and cared for by all to the clans involved in the initiation.  This big has two names, one secret name (Ore) used by those already initiated, and a public name (Molkaya) given to all non-initiates. This pig represented the brother of the creator deity, Doyap.

During this initiation period, sweet potato, taro, sugar cane, pigs and smoked cuscus were collected in preparation for offerings and consumption.  New spirit houses were constructed in the areas that Um Bo had suffered while in the agony of dying from the arrow wound.  The houses were fenced off as taboo and all non-initiates were forbidden to enter.  Breaking the taboo and entering the area was met with a brutal death.

As the initiates were led with great fanfare around the area, their heads were covered in net bags to conceal their faces, allowing only enough light to allow them to walk. When they entered the spirit house the clan leaders reanacted Um Bo’s body being cut up.  Finally, the initiates are given the taboo totem, the sakale cuscus mixed with taro to protect them from powerful evil spirits.

All night the boys encircle the fire ensuring they sweat profusely as the men sing, chant and snap their bowstrings around them.  The noise and dancing can become so frantic that some of the boys soil themselves.  During this time the initiates constantly look skyward awaiting the arrival of the great spirit in the form of a piece of sugar cane.  The boy who grabs it first is guaranteed great blessing and honor, so when it arrives there is a frantic scramble to ensure possession.

The initiates may not eat or drink during this day, incurring Um Bo’s wrath should they disobey. Finally, just before dawn the boys are given their first sip of water from the spring where the creator god, Doyap, used to live.

After their first drink the boys are brought to a prepared pool dammed up from the wood of s certain kind of tree.  The head shaman immerses them in water while saying an incantation over them.  After emerging from the pool, the initiate is scrapped with the same kind of wood that dammed the spring to cleans him from his associations with women, and the women’s houses.  He is now ready to live with the men in the men’s house.  After the baptism, the boys are rubbed with leaves and then rubbed with fat from the Ore pig which is mixed with red clay and rubbed on the initiate’s skin – this in turn helps them to live well.  The death of the Ore pig represented the sacrifice of Um Bo, the creator god’s brother, who had saved the initial initiates from their disastrous initial initiation ceremony (where their skin was drying out in the trees).  The boys are then led into the sun to have the fat and red clay dry on their bodies.  This ‘red’ is the most admired color among the Ketengban.  Once dry, they are led back into the second spirit house where they may finally sleep, but only after one of the elders lies down first.

The next morning and on subsequent days during the next six months they are taught the sacred songs which must only be sung in the deep jungle, away from the ears of women. Finally after living in the initiation house six months, the closing phase of the initiation begins.

The closing ceremony begins with the collection of great amounts of food and the lighting of great pyres of wood that heat up rocks for pit cooking.  Incantations and the secret names of Um Bo are invoked over the food while the food is cooking. Food is eaten immediately and shared with initiates from villages who could not attend. Everything that is not eaten is burned and what is not consumed in the fire is buried to hide any sign of the initiation.

Word is sent to the villages that the boys are coming home and large quantities of food are placed along the trail to honor the boys, honor the spirits as well as the spirits of the dead ancestors who will be traveling with the initiated boys. Finally after going through the hole in a ritual fence, erected across the main path, the boys meet the head spirit man who offers them cooked pandanas.  As the boys receive the inner membrane of the pandanas, the head spirit man declares their new name.  These names were previously chosen by their families in consultation with the head spirit men.  The final initiation is completed when the boys are reintroduced to their mothers and sisters with their new names.

Besides this major life cycle event there are many others rituals meant to nurturing prosperity, ensuring protection from crop failure, curses, death and spirits.  Still other rituals are practiced to inflict punishment, revenge, death.


Andrew Sims. 1991. Of Red Men and Rituals: The Ketengban of Eastern Irian Jaya.  Irian: Bulletin of Irian Jaya. pp 39-90.

Ann Sims.  1991. Myth and Metaphor in Ketengban Pregnancy and Childbirth Practices.  Irian: Bulletin of Irian Jaya.  pp. 91-106.