Ethnographic studies of the Maclay Coast (the northeastern coast of the island of New Guinea) have long-standing traditions in Russian ethnology. In the second half of the XIX century, the Russian scientist, traveler and public figure N.N. Miklouho-Maclay conducted research here. During his three visits to this coast of New Guinea (1871-1872, 1876-1877, and 1883), he collected extensive material on the culture of the Papuan ethnic group Bongu (Bonguans), who lived in four villages (Bongu, Gorendu, Gumbu, So-Banglu). It should be noted that Miklouho-Maclay was the first representative of the outside world to be seen by the inhabitants of these villages, so the research of the Russian scientist is of great importance for ethnological science, since he studied the traditions and customs of people of the “Stone Age” who had not yet fallen under the influence of Western culture. Moreover, the scientific works of Miklouho-Maclay had a great influence on the development of Russian oceanology.

In 1971 and 1977, the research vessel “Dmitry Mendeleev”’s 6th and 8th voyages took place, during which Soviet scientists established that the indigenous people of the Maclay Coast retained many of the main features of their original culture, and the colonial orders and elements of Western culture were superimposed on the traditional way of life.

After the two Soviet expeditions to the Maclay Coast, there was a 40-year information gap in the field of ethnography of this New Guinea region, because Russian researchers did not have an opportunity to go there, and foreign ethnologists and anthropologists paid more attention to other regions of the island. Fortunately, the situation has changed for the better in the second decade of the XXI century. In 2017 and 2019, the Miklouho-Maclay Foundation organized research expeditions to the North-East of New Guinea under the leadership of his descendant and full namesake following the footsteps of the world-famous humanist scientist and traveler N.N. Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888).

The first reliable information about clothing and adornments of Papuans (indigenous people) was brought to Russia by N.N. Miklouho-Maclay. It happened in 1882 at the first “Maclay Readings”, which were attended by thousands of residents of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Now, thanks to the valuable evidence collected during modern Russian expeditions, we have a unique opportunity to get acquainted with the real life of the indigenous people of  the Maclay Coast and Papua New Guinea in the XXI century.

Contrary to the popular belief that the everyday clothing of the indigenous people of the Maclay Coast has not changed over the past 150 years, the expedition showed that today New Guineans wear European-style clothing: men wear shorts, T-shirts and short-sleeved shirts; adult and elderly women prefer long dresses, and girls mostly also prefer T-shirts and shorts. Some men wear hats and caps. Unlike the 1970s, shoes, which are no longer considered a prestigious element of clothing, are now widely used. The braided sagiu bracelet, worn by representatives of both sexes on the arm above or below the biceps, is the only traditional everyday accessory that has been preserved.

However, the festive clothing and accessories of the Bonguans have hardly changed since the times of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay. For example, during the dance and pantomime performances, men wear dark orange bast loincloths (mal), and women wear a skirt (nai) made of fringe formed by threads of plant fibers attached to the belt.

As for men’s adornments, the most characteristic are bul-ra (made of tusks of a wild pig or carved from a shell), gubo-gubo (made of two large shells and braided leaves, vaguely resembles a dumbbell in shape; it is squeezed between the teeth during the dance), forehead adornments, narrow wooden planks lyop-lyop (thrust into the sagiu bracelet). Bunches of leaves and grass are attached to the belt. Bodies and faces are painted. The only difference from the outfits of the past eras is the absence of the head adornment piece made of magnificent bird feathers. It was caused by the current depletion of the local avifauna. At best, two or three feathers are attached to the headbands.

Now moustaches and beards are quite common among young men, and they do not cut their hair short, unlike in the 1970s. Women stopped shaving and cutting their hair short too. And some young fashionistas even wear intricate hairstyles.

150 years ago, men pierced their nasal septums and earlobes. Oblong rocks, pieces of shell and bamboo sticks were usually used as male nasal adornments. Men wore wide tortoiseshell or wooden earrings, bamboo sticks, oblong rocks or flowers in their ears. None of these traditions have been preserved, but in 1971, some men still wore earrings during festive events.

In the Miklouho-Maclay Online Museum you can see items of clothing and adornments of the indigenous people of the Maclay Coast that are identical to the items collected in the XIX century. Not all of them are used in everyday life, but nevertheless they are carefully stored in families, and traditional clothing is always worn on holidays. The traditions in the villages of the North-East of New Guinea are very strong and, as the Bonguans themselves say, little has changed since the times of Maclay.