Museum of Ancient Inventions: Earthen Oven (Mumu)

Earthen Oven (Mumu), Papua New Guinea, 1700 CE

This is a recreation of a mumu, an earthen oven from the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The people of Papua New Guinea traditionally have no cooking pots: even in modern times, many of those who live in the bush have only one pot that they save for special occasions. Most food is roasted over a fire, which will do for a family but is an impractical way to cook for a larger party.

The mumu, on the other hand, is dug to fit the necessary specifications of available food and the number of people to be fed. In addition, it is an economical form of cooking in an area with diminished firewood resources. The oven cannot be constructed without the meal it is made to cook, and the term “mumu” encompasses both the oven and its layered feast, which is almost always a ceremonial feast of a ritually-slaughtered pig. Indeed, the development of the mumu has been traced to roughly three hundred years ago, when pigs large enough to be cooked became common in the country.

After the hole was dug, stones were heated in it by burning wood on top of them. Once the fire had burned down, all but a thin layer of the hot stones were carefully removed, and a layer of large leaves was laid on the base layer of stones to steam the food.

Then followed a layer of hard vegetables, including yams, corn, pumpkin and other traditional New Guinean vegetables. Over this was a layer of smaller, edible and aromatic leaves such as nasturtium.

Then came another layer of hot stones, directly under a specially-prepared pig. For a mumu, the pig was cut open, leaving the limbs intact and the backbone whole, the head was split in half to facilitate cooking, and the intestines were removed and cooked separately. Another layer of leaves covered the pig, and then the whole thing was covered completely with earth.

The pit would be left for several hours before the contents were dug up and eaten. The feast was most often a form of celebratory payment: either a bridal payment or a compensation payment as
reparation for a death in a tribal fight.



Method of Construction

Constructed by: Adrien Hansel ’98

This recreation of a mumu was constructed in the traditional way, but some of its ingredients differed, most notably in that there was no pig. I used broken bricks instead of stones, since I found no information on the relevant geology of Papua New Guinea and since I couldn’t find any stones strong enough to withstand the heat without cracking or exploding. I cooked yams, potatoes and several non-New Guinean vegetables (string beans, broccoli and parsley), experimenting with the depths at which I cooked them. I cut the vegetables to reduce the cooking time, since there was no pig to be concerned about cooking, and I used different kinds of leaves around the vegetables. Although I had none of the traditional New Guinean leaves that flavor the vegetables and meat, I did notice differences in the tastes of vegetables cooked in different layers of the mumu.

Sources, Resources and Links

Driver, Catherine. “A Highlands Mumu in Papua New Guinea.”¬†Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1988: The Cooking Pot. London: Prospect Books, 1988.


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