Flute figure

early 20th century

Object Place: Yuat River, Papua New Guinea


21.5 in. h x 5.75 in. w x 5 in. d

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Wood, conus shells, metal (New Guinea Head Tax Coin of 1928-29), pigment, fiber

Not On View


Africa and Oceania, Musical Instruments



Men of the Mundugumor and their neighbors customarily owned sacred bamboo flutes of up to eight feet in length, precious heirlooms preserved by families. During feasts and ceremonial occasions such as initiations of young men into the ashin, or crocodile, cult (one of the few cults anthropologists observed among the Mundugumor), men played the flutes sideways. When not using the instruments, owners wrapped them in mats and inserted wooden stopper figures to protect the upper end of the bamboo tube close to the mouth hole. Many such figures reside in museums and private collections, and this one closely resembles the others. The dwarfed body with dangling arms is overpowered by the prominent head, which the Mundugumor consider the most sacred part of the body. A carver created the wooden part of the stopper, and members of the community attached prestigious materials such as feathers, hair, and shells to the holes around the high-domed, bearded head. All of the attachments have disappeared except the ear ornaments of shell and metal 1928-29 head-tax token of the territory of New Guinea. The dark overall coloring, which may have been applied after the work arrived in Europe, emphasizes the white shell eyes.


1932, acquired in Papua New Guinea by a German expedition aboard the Herzogin Cecilie, and taken to Europe [see note]. May 20, 1985, sold by Wayne Heathcote (dealer), New York, to William and Bertha Teel, Marblehead, MA; 1991, partial gift of William and Bertha Teel to the MFA; 2014, acquired fully with the bequest of William Teel to the MFA. (Accession Dates: January 22, 1992 and February 26, 2014)

NOTE: According to information provided by the dealer in 1985.

Credit Line

Gift of William E. and Bertha L. Teel