Within the Ripley collection of rare artifacts and curious treasures are a few oddities that would make some of us blush, but as our Vice President of Exhibits and Archives explains, there’s nothing funny about penis sheaths from New Guinea.
Penis sheaths, known as koteka, are not related to sex. They are worn by male tribesmen in New Guinea to shield themselves from insect bites in the dense jungles.
The Dania tribe wears Koteka, like having many hats, pants, shoes, or shorts. In New Guinea, men have many penis sheaths to choose from, creating a varied collection in their wardrobe.
The sheaths themselves were either made from gourds, woven materials, or a combination of both. Some were plain, but others are decorated with paint, feathers, and cowry shells—much like other artifacts from New Guinea.
The gourds used in koteka-making are specially grown near the houses of villagers so they can be constantly watched. If a long, straight gourd is desired, they’ll even tie stones to the plant as it grows, carefully molding it into the desired shape.
Despite their apparent lack of lascivious intent, the Christian values of visiting tourists to the island of New Guinea have long made koteka inherently interesting to outsiders. Penis sheaths have been exotic souvenirs for close to 100 years now, and the tradition itself is slowly disappearing.
We didn’t know a lot about the tradition until the 1960s. During that time, Karl Heider, a British anthropologist, conducted a study on them. He spent over two years researching and observing the tradition. He noted that the koteka weren’t just for protection, but were also incorporated into their language.
The loud sound of their nails flicking their gourd was sometimes used to communicate messages, ranging from fear to excitement.
Believe it or not, some tribesmen even used empty spaces in their penis sheaths to store money or tobacco. Despite cold conditions and even snow, many Danai continue to just wear their koteka, affording them little pocket space.