Papua New Guinea: its people, culture and history


A brief guide to the people of Papua New Guinea, their languages, cultures and history.

Mt Hagen Show. Credit: Tourism Promotion Authority/David Kirkland


Papua New Guineas population is among the most ethnically diverse in the world, although it can be broadly geographically divided into four groups: New Guineans, Papuans, Highlanders and Islanders.

The UN has estimated the July 1, 2020 population of PNG at 8.947 million.

Worldometer says the annual population growth rate is 1.95% and the median age is 22.4 years. Life expectancy at birth is 65.2 years of age for both sexes.

World Population Review notes that the growth rate has been slowing in recent years, but the country still has what is known as a ‘youth bulge’, meaning there is a high number of young people not yet old enough to work.

The majority of PNG’s people – 87% – live in rural areas.


About 850 indigenous languages are spoken throughout PNG, making it the most linguistically diverse country in the world.

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The three official languages are English, Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu.

English is the language of government, the education system and business. Tok Pisin is the most widely spoken language.


The hundreds of distinct and separate communities that make up PNG’s population are divided by language, customs and tradition. Despite these differences, traditional PNG societies have key things in common: they generally operate in a subsistence economy, recognise the wantok system of social obligation, allow for status to be attained rather than inherited, and have a deep attachment to communally-held land.

The wantok system is a complex arrangement of obligations, which can require Papua New Guineans to assist other members of their extended tribe through the redistribution of income and wealth. This can mitigate against the amassing of personal wealth.

The management of land is intrinsically linked to Papua New Guinean culture. About 97% of PNG’s land is held under customary ownership. This can provide a challenge for those seeking to secure land for commercial ventures. There is therefore an ongoing process of land reform in PNG.


It is believed that PNG’s first colonisers arrived some 500,000 years ago from the islands now comprising Indonesia.

Different groups of settlers arrived separately and lived in isolation from one another, developing their own languages, tribal cultures and rivalries. Archaeological evidence points to the settlers in the Kuk Valley in the Highlands region being among the first humans to develop agricultural systems, around the same time that gardening was first evolving in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and well before the famous rice terraces of Luzon in the Philippines.

In the late 16th century, the Portuguese explorer Don Jorge de Meneses sighted New Guinea Island and named it Ilhas dos Papuas. The term ‘New Guinea’ was applied to the island in 1545 by Spanish navigator, Íñigo Ortiz de Retes, due to a perceived resemblance between the New Guinean people and those found on the Guinea coast of Africa.

There is evidence of the presence of Chinese traders on the Central Province coast in the 15th century. In the mid-1800s, European missionaries and traders began to settle along the coast of New Guinea Island. However, the Highlands region was not explored by Europeans until the 1930s.

A German presence in the northern part of PNG grew in the late 19th century as part of a trading network. In 1883, the Queensland government in Australia annexed the south portion of New Guinea Island, in a bid to pre-empt a German annexation attempt. Great Britain then established the area as part of the protectorate of British New Guinea. Australia assumed administrative responsibility in 1901, and in 1906 the territory was named Papua. At the start of World War I, Australia occupied the German north-eastern section of the island.

New Guinea was also the site of territorial manoeuvring and warfare during World War 2. Japanese forces occupied the northern half of New Guinea and got within 56 kilometres of Port Moresby. However, by January 1943, Australian and US forces had driven Japanese soldiers out of New Guinea.

Following World War 2, the United Nations gave Australia a trusteeship over Papua and New Guinea, and united the administration of the two areas.

The move towards independence began soon after the war.

On 1 December 1973, the territories of Papua and New Guinea became the self-governing area of Papua New Guinea. The country became an independent state on 16 September 1975.

In 1988, the province of Bougainville attempted to secede from Papua New Guinea. A nine-year conflict followed, with an estimated 20,000 people dying in the conflict. It ended with the signing of a peace agreement in 1997. Bougainville currently has an autonomous government and four members in the PNG National Parliament. However, at the end of 2019, Bougainvillians voted overwhelmingly for independence from Papua New Guinea in a plebiscite.

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