Tag Archives: Irian Jaya

What do we call this place?

Indonesia, New Guinea, Papua, West Papua?

The name Papua was used well before contact with western peoples, but its etymology remains a matter of hypothesis. One theory suggests that the name comes from the language of the eastern Indonesian island of Tidore, whose sultanate controlled parts of the Papua’s coastal region. The name derives from papo (to unite) and ua (negation), which mean not united or territory that is geographically far away and thus not united. Another theory suggests that the word derives from the Malay word papua or pua-pua (frizzly-haired), referring to the curly hair of the area’s inhabitants. Yet another possibility suggests that the name comes from the Biak phrase sup i papaw (land below the sunset), referring to island groups to the west. Whatever the origin, Papua was the name known to the Portuguese during their colonization in this part of the world.

With the arrival of the Spanish explorer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez in 1545, the name New Guinea became used, referring to the similarities of the indigenous people’s appearance with the natives of the Guinea region of Africa.

The Dutch who first arrived called it Schouten Island, but later this name became used only to describe islands along the north coast of Papua. It was when the Dutch colonized the area as part of Netherlands East Indies that they called it New Guinea.

Indonesians referred the island as West Irian and the Indonesian province as Irian Jaya. The name Irian is taken from the Biak language, meaning to rise, or rising spirit, and was used until 2001 when the name Papua became favored. The name Irian, though originally favored by ethnic Papuans, became considered a name imposed by authority of Jakarta.

Ethnic Papuans refer to the area as West Papua, though that name has not been officially recognized. In a conciliatory effort with the Papuans, the Indonesian government agreed to rename the province Papua in 2002. Adding some confusion, in 2007, the western third of the province – the “Bird’s Head” peninsula of New Guinea – was officially designated West Papua to distinguish it from the rest of the western half of the island. Officials now refer to the province when they say West Papua; ethnic Papuans mean the whole of western New Guinea.

Many of the native peoples who live in the region and who seek distinction from Indonesia, currently refer to the region as West Papua. This is noteworthy considering that there are several hundred indigenous groups living on the island. Most contemporary mountaineers and missionaries also use West Papua.

Historically, the naming of peaks and places around the world has always been a charged topic, and not so simple at all. No different here with “Carstensz Pyramid” in “West Papua.” Very understandable considering the rich history, diverse cultures, and myriad of people groups and interests in the area. Grappling with these type issues should be an important and enjoyable part of any visitor’s preparation. After all, if we want to visit, we also want to be culturally sensitive and respectful. I welcome your insights as I continue to comment on the physical and cultural topography of this amazing region.

As an intro to the physical topography, check out the gallery for a few interesting maps of the area.

As an intro to the cultural and ethnic diversity, check out the following two websites.

Check out the Dani warrior at Bugboy Travel Guides. Enter “Dani” in the search box for great photos of the Dani people.

And visit the amazing photography of George Steinmetz as he captures some of the lives of the Korowai and Kombai people.