Flute Stopper

Date: late 19th–early 20th century

Geography: Papua New Guinea, Middle Sepik, Yuat River region

Culture: Biwat people

Medium: Wood, paint, shell

Dimensions: H. 18 1/2 x W. 11/16 x D. 5 1/4 in. (47 x 1.7 x 13.3 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968

Accession Number: 1978.412.1545


In the Sepik River region of northeast New Guinea, sacred flutes, used in initiation and other rites are, or were, among the most culturally important musical instruments. Sacred flutes were typically made from large stalks of bamboo and played, like a Western flute, by blowing through a hole in the side of the instrument near the upper end. The tops of side-blown flutes were frequently sealed with ornamental flute stoppers. Among the finest flute stoppers were those of the Biwat people, which typically depict stylized human images with enlarged heads with high domed foreheads. Although they portray human figures, the stoppers adorned ashin, flutes associated with crocodile spirits. Ashin flutes were used, in part, during initiation rites in which novices crawled into the mouth of a large crocodile effigy to be cut by its teeth. The teeth, actually sharp implements wielded by the initiators, made cuts on the novices' bodies that healed into permanent scarification patterns, marking them as initiated individuals.