They have a striking appearance and an image of being fierce warriors but in fact, they are among some of the most hospitable people in the world. The Asaro “Mudmen” from the area of Goroka in Papua New Guinea’s eastern highlands have for decades been known for their ghoulish clay masks with pigs’ teeth and shells.
The Asaro, also known as the Holosa (which translates literally as “ghosts”), are among several tribes in Papua New Guinea’s Highlands who still live an ancient way of life, with little contact with the outside world. But the Asaro Mudmen, being one of the most recognizable, have in recent times appeared on ads on European TV and in print. Their image has also been on two musical albums and they also featured in the film “La Vallee”.
Since the 1950s, they have also had the Goroka Show, an annual dance started by Australian patrol officers to give warring tribes the chance to interact peacefully.
With their frightening masks, the Mudmen believe that if they can cause fear, then they do not have to go to war. And that is how they wore the masks to avoid battle. There are many theories about their history. There is no written history and so it’s unclear when the Asaro started making masks. It is however believed that the practice has existed for four generations. Klinit Berry, a former administrator at the University of Goroka in Papua New Guinea (PNG), told BBC one story of the origin of the mask.
“One of the Asaro got married and everyone wore their traditional costumes. But one man had no costume, so he took an old bilum (a string bag), cut two holes for his eyes, dipped it mud and also covered his skin with mud, and that was his costume. But when he arrived at the wedding, all the others thought he was a ghost and so instead of celebrating, they fled,” said Berry.
Due to the reaction of the guests at the wedding, the man realized that he could use his costume to win a protracted tribal war with a neighboring tribe. He asked his brother and his friends to disguise themselves with masks and mud. “So they covered themselves in mud and attacked the tribe, and that is how they won. The enemy thought ghosts were coming and they ran away without firing a single arrow,” Berry said.
Another theory highlighted by Georgi Bonev states that: “Several generations ago Asaro had been hunted by a stronger enemy tribe. They were about to lose the war. At that moment, an old man from their village had a dream in which he saw terrifying gray spirit. Next morning, he woke up with the idea to make a mask out of mud that resembles the image from his vision. Once noticed, enemies fled scared and Asaro were saved. Ever since Asaro Mudmen mastered how effectively to use the power of human imagination and the fear of unknown in order to stay alive.”
One study also says that white clay was used during attempted tribal assassinations in the late 1800s. Clay was used to mask the identities of attackers.
Today, no two masks are alike. As stated by Geographic Expeditions, “each [mask] springs from the imagination of its maker. They might have horns or tusks, ears or a gigantic nose, be partially painted, or have messages etched inside. The original intent was always to strike fear into one’s opponent.”
Special clay that does not crack when it dries is used for making the masks, and the process can take days. Masks produced after are heavy, with some weighing upwards of 20-25 pounds.
Although the Mudmen perform at Papua New Guinea’s two big two annual shows in Mt Hagen and Goroka, tourists say it’s best to see them in their home environment near Goroka where they perform a haunting show to visitors and then show them how they make their masks. Sadly, other tribes in Papua New Guinea have plagiarized the Asaro tradition for commercial gain.
“The government does not recognize or protect our ownership rights and everyone in the highlands is now claiming to be a mud man,” Kori, who traveled to Sydney’s Australian Museum in October 2016 with three other Mudmen for a new exhibition, told BBC. “But it’s our story and the others have copied it from us. It is a big worry for us because we don’t have any copyright protection.”