Lihir is a matrilineal society. This means that clan membership, or descent, is traced through the mother’s side. Land rights and other property rights are primarily held within matrilineal descent groups: clans, sub-clans and lineages.
At the broadest level Lihirian society is divided into two ‘halves’, also known as moieties. In Lihirian these two groups are called Tumbawinlam (big people cluster) and Tumbawinmalkok (small people cluster). In Tok Pisin these are referred to as Bik Pisin (big bird) and Smol Pisin (small bird).
These two ‘halves’ contain the major clans and sub-clans. Both are known as tumbawin, which literally means ‘people cluster’, or ‘people group’. Clans and sub-clans are comprised of a series of lineages, or ‘branches’, known as bior, which usually form a hamlet around a men’s house.
According to the Lihir Mine Area Landowners Association (LMALA) there are 6 major clans, and at least 40 sub-clans within these major clans. The six major clans are: Tengawom, Tineltago, Unawos, Lamatlik, Nayal
People must marry outside of their clan group, ideally to another clan in the opposite ‘half’, or moiety. When people are born, they are immediately accepted as a member of their mother’s clan. Their mother’s brothers, or their maternal uncles, known as motung or kandrere in Tok Pisin, are also a member of this clan. Their father will belong to a different clan.
When people are born, they are also immediately accepted as a member of their clan men’s house, which is looked after by their maternal uncles. Their father will belong to a different men’s house for his own clan. These senior maternal uncles are the leaders of the clan, and the clan men’s house.
Membership of a clan carries both responsibilities and benefits:
Members of a clan are expected to contribute to clan activities, such as major ceremonial feasts and exchanges, and to contribute labour for garden work and other subsistence activities.
Members of a clan can expect to receive access to clan land and other resources that are required for subsistence. Younger clan members, especially males, will look to their clan leaders, their maternal uncles, for support, wealth, knowledge and access to resources.