Papua New Guinea

The High Life

by Chadd McGlone
Chapel Hill, NC, United States

Imagine that you have embarked on an expedition to explore the world’s largest tropical island — New Guinea. You begin on the eastern half of the island, Papua New Guinea, home to a majority of its population. Despite being in a relatively populous area, you are unlikely to find many convenience stores or apartment buildings.

Papua New Guinea is larger than the state of New York, but it has only 3 cities and very few roads. Natives travel infrequently, and they use jungle trails when they do. In fact, interactions between communities occur so rarely that over 825 languages are spoken in the country.

The Kombai

While exploring, you happen upon a settlement belonging to the Kombai people. Approaching the small tree house village, the clan leader meets you first. It is a traditional mandate that he protect the community while the women and children hide in the tree houses.

Tree Houses

Once you assure the clan leader that you mean no harm, you might be invited to spend the night safe from the insects in one of the tribe’s tree houses. Without ropes or nails, the Kombai people construct one-room dwellings nearly 80 feet above the ground, too high for insects to reach.

The Kombai home has 4 walls and a roof and is, on average, about 16 feet by 10 feet. The trees used for the house are cut down using a stone axe head tied to a bamboo handle with twine made from grasses.

To enter the home, you need to climb a bamboo pole with notches every 36 inches or so for your feet and hands. All members of the family as well as their dogs spend the night in the home. You watch mothers making multiple trips to carry children and animals from the jungle floor to the treetop homes. Falling is always a danger. Young children are tied to the house with twine.

On the Menu

The women in the family also carry nourishment, such as food and water, to the house. Water is stored in 4-foot bamboo flasks. For a meal, as an honored guest, you might be offered freshly gathered grubs, fish, birds, or sago, the starchy, spongy center of the sago tree. Meals are cooked in the homes over fires that flicker on the floors, which are covered in a thick layer of clay to prevent the house from burning down.

Have a change to suggest for this story? We’d love for you to submit it!

Math Questions

  1. Given the dimensions in the story of the average Kombai home, how much area does it cover in square feet? How about in square inches?
  2. Dr. Jones was a visitor to the Kombai tribe who tried to live as they do. She arrived weighing 145 pounds and spent 3 months with them. She lost an average of .25 pounds per day. How much did she weigh when she left?
  3. If the pole to a house has notches every 36 inches, and the house is 60 feet off the ground, how many notches will its pole have?

Write your own math question and submit it here

Social Justice Question

How do you feel about the pursuit by some Westerners to “research” the Kombai’s way of life? Do you think they are better off left alone? What about the advances in nutrition and health care that could help them live longer and healthier lives?

Write your own question and submit it here

Lesson Downloads

The Kombai have a unique way of counting. In fact, many cultures in the world use strategies to count that don’t involve numbers. Here is a worksheet that asks students to imagine being part of such a culture.