The “Karawari” is actually a river which is a tributary of the Sepik River, the longest river on the island of New Guinea. The Karawari region is surrounded by an endless stretch of dense tropical lowland rainforest. The area is remote with flooded waterways and can be reached out only by local dugout canoe. This place is the home of various traditional semi-nomadic settlements.

The people at Karawari, represent their ancient culture and beliefs through their art. The upper reaches of Karawari serves a series of caves and rock shelters inspired by the traditional beliefs of Arafundi people. They are kind of cave-people who have been using caves as their shelters, ceremonial grounds, spirit houses, as burial ground, hiding grounds and much more.

The Nombokopi Rock shelter with its present owners and guardians


This is a marshy region distributed with lakes, rivers and valleys. The region is rich in ancient complex tribal clusters including Inyai, Auwim, Ewa and Meakambut people. These are the prime communities living in Upper Karawari and Arafundi region. Amongst them, Meakambut (around 68 people) remains the last semi nomadic tribe least influenced by the exterior foreign intrusions.

This Karawari- Arafundi region is culturally and historically sound. The upland people here are engaged in shifting cultivation of local crops like sweet potatoes, yams, taro and banana. The life of lowland tribes also changed after World War II. But Meakambut people remained secluded.

In 1900s anthropologist visiting the area learnt that the people here are still semi-nomadic. They are dependent only on hunting and gathering, wearing kina shell necklaces and cordyline plant leaves under a bark belt and the women dressed in grass skirts. The people follow christianity but still practice their unique ancient traditions. Ancestral spirits are important part of the Arafundi religion. Their life revolves around spirit beliefs.

Life along the Arafundi


Deep dark jungles of Papua New Guinea are home to an amazing community of Meakambut. These isolated people follows the old ways of living for generations. Theis small group have their own language – called Meambul momba ‘Meakambut language’, which belongs to the small Arafundi family of languages. Least touched by modernism, they still follow semi-nomadic lifestyle. They are dependent on hunting wild pigs, tree kangaroos, and cassowaries etc for their livelihood.

Caves are important part of Meakambut and other Arafundi people’s lives. They are actually a place to preserve the ancient art and culture of the Arafundis. The caves and rock shelters contains series of wooden carvings as old as 200 and 400 years old, making them the oldest well-preserved surviving examples of wood sculpture from New Guinea. These were created and used by Arafundi men including Ewe clan after their owners’ deaths. It was stated that one of the most important caves for the Meakambut people was ‘Aikaim’.


Kina shells’ are an important part of Arafundi people’s culture. Kina is the name for crescent-shaped clam shells of the yellow-lipped clam. They are worn by the men in the highlands of New Guinea as ornaments for the neck or chest and even to this day used as a means of payment (‘ancient money’) in the payment of the ‘bride price’. These shells were traded from the New Guinea coast into the highlands. Incidentally: even today, the currency of Papua-New Guinea is called ‘kina’.

There are rock paintings inspired by Kina shell. A kina stencil in a sacred cave known as ‘Limbot’ is said to have been worn by the spirit of the cave itself, named Wandak who is now inside the kina shell at Jimboin shelter.

(A) An actual kina shell ornament (photo courtesy: Juliana Fong, Queensland, Australia, 2020); (B) a kina shell ornament worn by a small boy in Auwim, East Sepik Province in 2018 (photo: Roxanne Tsang); (C) a similar kina shell stencil at Pundimbung rock art site (photo courtesy: Papuan Past Project, 2018).


The caves of Karawari are associated with the beliefs and customs of Arafundi people. They showcase the material aspect of Arafundi’s people lives. How the group of secluded clan use caves as a means of representing their physical and spiritual beliefs, can be well understood by seeing those caves. The rock art tradition made these caves practically equivalent to men’s spirit houses.

The cluster of caves in the three river tributaries, including the villages and hamlets in the upper Karawari-Arafundi region can be defined inclusively as the ‘Karawari Caves Precinct’. Anthropologists believes the caves of the Karawari and Upper Arafundi could constitute “the greatest example of rock art in the whole of Melanesia”.

Radiating stars shapes and concentric circles


The Karawari sculptures are the representations of the ancient beliefs. The oldest Karawari cave figures are approximately 400 to 200 years old. There are numerous variations in figures, depending upon the sculptors who created them. But in general, there are 3 types of carvings-


They are called “aripa“. The sculptors are thin male figures with one leg. They are helping spirits which help Arafundi men while hunting. They are a vital part of hunting magic. The tribal men maintains a contact with aripa and receives safety and success in hunting. They are kept in the men’s ceremonial house during the owner’s life and placed in a rock shelter as a memorial after his death.


These plank-like sculptures represents ancient mythical women or female ancestor associated with the founding of the village clans. The figures are broad, flat female structures identified as representations of two primordial sisters who helped to shape the world or the founders of particular clans. Here is how it looks (LINK).


The small wooden heads also represent female associations. It is the “mother” of the men’s ceremonial house where all three types of figures were kept while their owners were alive.


These figures generally lived or practically placed in haus tambaran or “spirit houses” where they were activated through incantations and magical practices. When the owner of a figure died, the carving was moved to the caves serving as a memorial. This practice protected the cave figures from harsh environment and weathering, offered protection for the memorial, and preserved the craftsmanship and ceremonial tradition of the Ewa people for future generations.

The other remains found inside caves are sculptures, paintings, human heads, bones, haus tambarans, carved wood and stone figurines, bark paintings, stone axes etc. The findings provide real insight into the culture and life of the semi-nomadic peoples who inhabited the caves. Here is the Example of sago bark painting-

Example of sago bark painting


Not only sculptures, but the caves often displays amazing hand paintings on rocks by the clan people. The upper reaches of Karawari consist of as many as 300 caves and significant rock outcroppings, each with the evidence of human habitation. Some caves contained more than 500 hand stencil motifs painted with ochre or clay.

The paintings on the walls of rock shelters are made by blowing, spraying or spitting a mouthful of the earthy pigment onto ones outstretched arm creating numerous handprints. Other prints includes stencils of kina shells, cassowary feet, extreme ritual motifs, geometric designs, radiating stars and concentric circles.

Panels of cave art in Pundimbung Cave

The paintings are monochrome and polychrome both. Mostly the pigment is ochre, a natural clay earth pigment, ranges in colour from yellow to deep orange or brown. But, at Pundimbung Cave, for example, stencils of hands were predominantly made with red, white and yellow pigments. It appears that the ochre was mixed to obtain the ‘right colors’.


The carvings and other sculptures from the Karawari caves were unknown to the outer world for a long period of time. In 1959, the late British anthropologist Anthony Forge was one of the earliest to visit the Upper Karawari region to purchase artefacts for a museum. Forge was particularly impressed by comments and stories about objects found in caves of the Karawari mountain country. There were shell ornaments, cassowary daggers (some made from human femur bones), nose ornaments, necklaces of cowrie shells and an armband of green snail shells.

Few decades back, Arafundi people especially Ewe tribes have came in contact with the wider world outside. They started to sell their carvings and other stuff from the caves to the Westerners for money. They tend to be upgraded from their old belief system and lifestyle. As a result, today these astonishing pieces of art from the caves of Karawari can be found in museums and private collections throughout the world.

Shell and nose ornaments

At present the tribal community living at the forest edges, sell not only sculptures, but, incredible masks, drums, baskets and kina jewellery, bark paintings inspired by their daily life and animist beliefs. Village tours and outside residents allow visitors to observe master carvers at work and purchase from a selection of finely handcrafted artifacts.


The conversion of large numbers of tribal people into Christianity destroyed the spiritual spirit of ancestral wood carvings. In the 1960s the first anthropologists and collectors entered the region looking to bring artifacts back to museums. It actually helped them preserving their heritage and get world’s admiration. In the past two decades groups have started working with the peoples of the Karawari River Region to protect the carvings that remain in Papua New Guinea and better-control access to the region’s caves.

The indigenous Arafundi tribes still live off the land, weaving baskets to catch fish and gathering their staple food from the sago palm and hunting. However, now the place gets visitors and tourists who reached there by boats. The people are allowed to visit traditional homes, witness ceremonial dances and celebrations, and get a glimpse of everyday life. As a part of adventure, the lodge can arrange a stay in a nearby traditional village.

There are Karawari tour packages offering you to stay at lodges and an authentic ‘haus tambaran’, or spirit house, containing the dining room, lounge area and bar, and has a large collection of Sepik carvings. The wellings are all eco-friendly, created without destroying the natural habitat and beauty of Karawari. These are constructed using materials gathered from the rainforest.

Snapshot of the daily life of the villagers, Sepik besin


The ‘Karawari Caves Precinct’
of the Sepik River Basin,
Papua New Guinea



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