Totemic Clans of Melanesians: Social System of West Papua


Meta Description: Melanesians of West Papua adopt totemism as their belief and social system. It is a belief about the mystical relationship between nature and humans.


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Melanesians are the people who inhabited West Papua. Its society has an extraordinary history. As a society, Melanesians have a unique form of social organization. They are not only limited to West Papua but the whole region of Oceania as well. 

According to Rivers (2017), Melanesians have four forms of social structure those are dual organization with matrilineal descent, an organization in totemic clans, clan-exogamy without evidence of totemism, and lastly, a social system without clan-organization but purely kinship. In this article, the author will talk about the totemic clans of Melanesians. 

First of All, What Is Totemism?

In general, totemism is about the relation between social groups with certain totems in the form of animals, plants, and other objects. It is a belief about the relationship between humans and an animal or plants. There is an interaction between the totem and humans which makes the relationship to be mystical. However, totemism is not classified as a religion. The understanding of totemism involves rituals and a mix of different beliefs. (“totemism | religion | Britannica”, n.d.).

According to Rivers (2017), there are three characteristics of totemism. First is the connection between social groups or clans with nature (animals or plants). Second, totemism is a belief in the relationship between nature and humans. For example, Melanesians believe that humans may be the descendants of animals and plants in the past. Third, totemism involves taboo and prohibitions as a sign to respect certain animal or plant species.

Totemism is very related to nature. It influences Melanesians to adopt a certain type of behavior regarding the totems. It spreads out all over Melanesian society, particularly among those who use hunting, farming, and gathering in their economics. The social group varies in forms, such as clans and tribes. Melanesians associate themselves with nature, such as plants and animals species and natural phenomena. The social group transmits the totems through patrilineal or matrilineal descent.

The Totems And The Clans

The tribes and the totems are clearly related to each other. The clan uses exogamy. However, if the people abandon the exogamy, they would unlikely abandon the totems. As a result, they would continue to associate themselves with other social groups in the long run (Rivers, 2017). 

The group selects the totems based on the people’s history of special moments or incidents. For example, when the ancestors have certain experiences with certain animals or plants, they ask their descendants to respect this particular animal and plant species. The totems do not necessarily have economic worth, but they can be derived from an ancestor. For example, the group believes that their ancestor was actually an animal or plant in the form of human beings. And that becomes the reason why they select certain totems. (Rivers, 2017)

Melanesians of West Papua Make Totems As Taboo

Melanesians regard the totems as taboo. They use certain totems as a symbol of social groups, which later becomes taboo. Totems can be in the form of animals, plants, or inanimate objects. Once they view it as taboo, they must not eat or use the totems. They do it to show respect for particular animals or plants. For instance, if the totem is an animal, the people must not kill or eat it. If it is a plant, they must not eat or touch it. The clans that select grass as their totems are not allowed to walk on the grass. This also applies to certain objects other than animals or plants, such as bowls. If the clan uses a bowl as their totem, they must not eat food in the bowl (Rivers, 2017).

This also applies to Melanesians in the other region outside of West Papua. For example, clans in the Ysabel would associate themselves with a totem, and they should not eat that totem in the form of certain animals or plants. However, this is not always the case. For example, members of Manukama of Florida are allowed to eat birds even though it becomes their totem. 

West Papua societies usually use animal totems such as fish. The totems can manifest in various forms, such as in figures and disguises. They believe they are descended from the totems. The totem animals also have the ability to awaken the souls of the dead, and thus Melanesians build a holy place for that. As mentioned earlier, the groups use either matrilineal or patrilineal descent to inherit the totem. The children will choose whose totems they will respect, whether it comes from their mother or father’s side. At the end of the ceremony, the member will mimic the totem.  (“totemism | religion | Britannica”, n.d.).


Totemism is part of Melanesian society. It is a belief that humans and nature are closely related. They form a mystical relationship with each other. The totems are in the form of animals, plants, or inanimate objects. Melanesians will make the totem taboo, and they must not eat or touch the totem as a sign of respect. 


Rivers, W. , H. (2017). The History of Melanesian Society. CUP Archive.

totemism | religion | Britannica. Retrieved January 5, 2022, from