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Pathways of change

Anton Ploeg

Chapter 5. Ilaga. Damal and Lani

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1The Damal were a much smaller ethnic group than the Me, the Hubula and the Lani. Ellenberger (1996: 21) accepted Silzer & Heikkinen Clouse’s estimate of 14,000 Damal (1991: 45 [1984: 83]). This figure likely refers to the situation around 1980, hence almost 25 years after first settlement of Europeans among these people. Cook arrived at a slightly lower figure (1995: 45). She estimated that at the time of her research, in 1992, there were about 12,000 Damal. I take it that the number of Damal had increased since first contact. Given that Boelen counted around 43,700 Me in 1953, while Silzer & Heikkinen Clouse estimated a number of 100,000 Me in their 1991 language census, the number of Damal as reported by Ellenberger and Cook might also be larger than the number at first contact.

2Damal lived both north and south of the main range, near Puncak Jaya. Their territories north of that range were in Ilaga and, farther north, in Beoga, the valley of a west-east flowing tributary of the Ila River. They shared these valleys with members of other ethnic groups: in Ilaga, with Lani and in Beoga, with Moni, Lani and Nduga (Gibbons 1981: 299). From the upper end of Ilaga, a pass leads to the valley of the Kema River, while from upper Beoga a pass leads to the Dugindoga, the valley of the Duga River, with again an ethnically mixed population of the same ethnic groups (1981: 301). De Bruijn noticed numerous Damal enclaves in the Kema Valley during his patrols in 1939-1941 (1940: 263). South of the main divide, the people lived in a number of the narrow valleys running away from the main range to the south coast (Cook 1995: 46-47; Ellenberger 1996: 21-22). Lani encroachment, especially in Ilaga, was “undoubtedly a major cause” for Damal to move south of the range (Cook 1995: 66, 87). The same likely holds for their migrating to the west and north-west. Cook wrote that about 6,000 Damal lived south of the range and an approximately equal number to its north (1995: 45). That statement presumably referred to 1992, the time of her research.

3Conclusions about the family status of the Damal language disagree. For Ellenberger it is one of the two languages of a small family related to the Me-Moni-Wodani family (1996: 21-25). The other language in that family is Dem, spoken by about 1,000 people who live farther north, near the confluence of the Nogolo and the Doga rivers (Silzer & Heikkinen Clouse 1991: 46). They were contacted in 1926 by the Stirling expedition (Le Roux 1948-50 and esp. 94-95), but their way of life has remained largely unrecorded. In passing Ellenberger noted that Damal knew about the Dem and were in contact with them (1996: 258). Concerning Dem, his conclusion deviated from that reached earlier by Silzer & Heikkinen Clouse, for whom Dem is an isolate at stock level (1991: 24, 30). Their opinion followed Voorhoeve (1981: map 4). The editors of Ethnologue concluded similarly (Grimes 2000: vol. 2: 715-716).

4The first Europeans to settle among the Damal were the missionaries Don Gibbons and John Ellenberger and their families. Gibbons established a mission station in the Beoga Valley in 1956 (Gibbons 1981: 115; Hitt 1962: 204-205), and his wife Alice published a book about their work and about the way of life of the Damal (1981). Although she presented the first, ethnographic part of her book as faction, Cook (pers. comm. 1994) recommended it as a valuable introduction to the Damal way of life. Ellenberger was based in the Ilaga. His 1996 Ph.D. dissertation in missiology is in part an ethnography of the Ilaga Damal. The content of this dissertation pertains to a transformation scene that presented itself before he started his missionary work and thus added to the transformations: because the resident Damal had been in both friendly and hostile contact with the invading Lani for several generations, they were changing their way of life accordingly, as Ellenberger made it clear in his book.

1. Cultural adoptions

5In Ellenberger’s perception, the Damal were “wedged between the two giants of the highlands, the [Me] and the [Lani]”. Their way of life was “greatly impacted by these two vibrant cultures” (1996: 268). Ellenberger stressed the Damal “openness to other ideas and life ways” (1996: 25). Hence, without using the term, he characterised their way of life as another New Guinean “importing culture”, the term that Margaret Mead coined with regard to the Mountain Arapesh. As his statement indicates, he concluded that it was not only the close interaction of Damal and Lani during Lani encroachment in Ilaga that resulted in Damal taking over culture elements from their immediate neighbours. In my view, the ethnography makes it plausible that the Damal did indeed adopt cultural features from neighbouring ethnic groups, and did so over a long period of time. Nevertheless, this process has not prevented the Damal viewing themselves as a separate ethnic group, with its own way of life. Alice Gibbons, an outside observer, has written: “The Damals were a peace-loving quiet people compared to the aggressive [Ilaga L]anis, who seemed to thrive on war” (1981: 106). And according to Ellenberger, Damal perception of their separate ethnic identity hinged on three features: a common language, Tel ritual, discussed below, and taro cultivation (1996: 108).

6To start with the impact of the Lani: although the languages the two peoples spoke were only remotely related, in important respects their ways of life resembled each other, without, however, being always identical. I refer to the existence of moieties, the prominence of paired patriclans or sub-clans united by preferential marriage, and the importance of these pairs in the composition of confederations. Larson stated that also before the Lani settled in Ilaga, Damal settlements were composed of paired clan segments (1987: 352). But the mentioned culture elements were not completely similar in the two ethnic groups: Damal were more concerned about violating moiety exogamy than the Lani. For the Damal, the act put prosperity at risk, so they regarded it as a crime for which, unlike among the Lani, both parties were put to death by their closest relatives (Ellenberger 1996: 180, 420). Ellenberger reported the endogamy rate for a single local patriclan: 38% of the men of that clan had married within the confederation (1996: 119-120). For this author, the above-mentioned features were expressions of an encompassing idea held by the Damal, and not reported for the Lani, that “there [we]re two different kinds of everything, and that it t[ook] both kinds to make a viable whole” (1996: 99). He noted however that also in this more comprehensive idea there was cultural resemblance with Lani, since he quoted Hayward’s comment (1996: 102) that “The Mulia [L]ani share with other [L]ani speakers a pervading tendency for organizing their perceptions into complementary pairs” (1996: 43).

7Like many Lani groups, the Damal, too, feared lethal female witchcraft or sorcery, and they executed women whom they believed to have practised it (Ellenberger 1996: 124-125; Gibbons 1981: ch. 6, 249). Only women were witches. But on the basis of Ellenberger’s account, it is hard to decide whether women’s lethal acts were to be characterised as sorcery or as witchcraft as defined by Evans-Pritchard (1996: 124-125).

8Moreover the Damal tale of origin, as recorded by Ellenberger (1996: 430-431), Julianus Coenen (1957: 9-10) and, much later, by Cook (1995: 81-82), in slightly different versions, had a great deal in common with the Lani tale of origin, since it told that the earliest ancestors came from underground in the southern Grand Valley. Coenen was a Franciscan missionary who, from 1955, worked among Damal living south of the main range (Sloot 2010: 226). The agreement between his and Ellenberger’s versions thus makes it less likely that they represent an account that the Ilaga Damal had taken over from neighbouring Lani. The version that Coenen recorded mentions, in addition, that the Damal ancestors brought the sweet potato with them when they emerged “from the stone.” Accordingly, as was the case among the Me and the Ilaga Lani and among at least some Damal, there was no tradition that the sweet potato had been introduced at a point in time after their emergence.

9Larson’s chronicle of warfare in Ilaga from the early twentieth century onwards started with three wars between Damal groups, of which the earliest, according to his calculations, took place in 1910 (1987: 161). Hence by his estimate, they occurred not long after Lani had started settling in Ilaga (1987: 328, and above). In his accounts of these wars, he mentioned features such as ritual warfare, with an equal number of victims on each side, and failure to pay compensation for a killed ally. Accordingly, at that time Damal conduct of war resembled Lani warfare.

2. Economy

10In Ellenberger’s words the Damal economy “centr[ed] around raising pigs, trading shell money, and growing sweet potato and taro” (1996: 74), with pig raising as its “central and stable element” (1996: 184). At the time of Ellenberger’s arrival, the Damal used cowries as shell money but, as was the case among the Tiom Lani, the availability of sizeable numbers of cowries was a recent innovation, since “until the first quarter of the century” they had used “small shells”, presumably nassa (1996: 184), for this purpose. Gibbons reported that the Damal, like their Lani neighbours, graded cowries, but she did not clarify the extent of this practice (1981: 32). In the early years of this century, Yunus Omabak, himself an Amungme, or a Damal living south of the main divide, showed Kal Muller cowries that he had kept after the Damal had replaced them by Indonesian money. He told Muller that, as among the Me and the Moni, cowries had, or had had, greatly different values, depending on their physical properties (Muller & Omabak 2008: 52). The Amungme use of cowries seems to me to have resulted from their contacts with the Me. However it is noteworthy that, in contrast to what obtained among the Me at first contact, the Damal regarded pigs as their prime wealth item.

11Ellenberger wrote that taro was the prestige food of the Damal, while sweet potato was the food of subsistence (1996: 139). They viewed themselves as taro people, and the neighbouring Lani as sweet potato people (1996: 109). Taro cultivation was the work of men. There is an historical aspect to this practise, since, up to the introduction of sweet potato cultivation, taro was likely the main staple, probably in part cultivated also by women. I suppose therefore that women’s exclusion from its cultivation created another “distinct sphere of masculine action… by specific forms of garden work”, as identified by Jorgensen. He viewed the tendency to create such “disjunctions” as pertaining to “Great Men logics” (Jorgensen 1991: 263, 266, 270). In the Damal case, taro cultivation was prestigious work, since it provided people – men and women – with a prestige food. It is not clear to me from Ellenberger’s ethnography whether men acknowledged women’s contribution to pig raising, owing to their sweet potato production. Gibbons intimated that they did not. She wrote that the main female character appearing in her factionalised account reasoned that “at least part of the meat from the pigs belonged to her because she had raised them”, but that her husband did not acknowledge such a right (1981: 55-56).

12The taro cultivation practised by the Ilaga and Beoga Damal appears to have been very intensive, on Brookfield & Hart’s scale as well:

Usually it is planted without bedding to facilitate irrigation to control a phalanx of bugs, bores and worms which attack the maturing tubers. Irrigation is accomplished by diverting a stream from higher ground by an ingenious engineering feat involving ditches, culverts, hollowed-out tree-trunk viaducts, and sluice gates (Ellenberger 1996: 147; see also Gibbons 1981: 275 and Muller & Omabak 2008: 58, discussing also other water control devices).

13Larson wrote that in the Ilaga the Damal had held on to fertile lands that were under “nearly continuous cultivation, much of it in taro” (1987: 87). The work was done by men. “Being a successful taro gardener is part of being a self-respecting Damal man” (Ellenberger 1996: 150), a statement that recalls Jorgensen’s comment on Telefol men, for whom “industry is a central virtue” (1991: 265), although their way of life was characterised by Great Men, unlike what obtained among the Damal. Until Lani settled in Ilaga, Damal appear to have spent much less time working on sweet potato cultivation, since Larson wrote that the Damal adopted “the more intensive [Lani] methods of farming”, which, however, did not include the engineering work that the Damal employed in their taro cultivation (1987: 90-91, 331). Feasts, involving the pooling of agricultural resources, pigs, taro or other crops, constituted an important confederation affair. Ellenberger referred to this under the heading “the bond of feasting” (1996: 121). Given the respect a man earns by successfully raising pigs and growing taro, it seems most likely that men competed with regard to the size of their contributions.

3. Leadership

14Ellenberger emphasised that, among the Damal, men became leaders by successfully creating and manipulating wealth, that is to say, by raising pigs, by converting shells into more pigs, and by creating dependents by lending them wealth (1996: 185-186). Apparently they used both “production” and “finance” strategies to advance their careers (Strathern 1969). The recent adoption of cowries as a means of exchange likely allowed Damal ascendants to elaborate their career strategies. In these respects, Damal leaders acted like Big Men, in contrast to Lani leaders, and more in conformity with tonowi, Me leaders (Ellenberger 1996: 120-121). It is all the more noteworthy that Ellenberger did not mention warrior hood as a qualification for gaining leadership, since, during his stay among the Damal, the people had for decades been entangled in a series of wars of increasing intensity (see above; and Larson 1987: 271-272, 430). Whereas it seems plausible that the Damal derived their cowries from the Me, Ellenberger did not attempt to establish whether the character of Damal leadership resulted primarily from internal dynamics or instead from adopting foreign elements, most likely Me elements.

15In their interacting, Damal required “equivalent” responses (Ellenberger 1996: 168-169). But for Ellenberger this term did not mean identical responses. Like the Lani, the Damal combined the exchange of brides between paired patriclans or sub-clans with the payment of bride-price (1996: 119, 183), consisting of pigs, shells and other goods. I gather from Ellenberger’s account that pigs and shells were the main wealth items. In warfare, the equivalent response to a killing was a revenge killing, in others words, the response was to be identical (1996: 105). Only after that response could the relatives of the first victim offer sacrificial pork to their ancestors (1996: 171). Allies had to be paid ample compensation in the event one or more of them had been killed or wounded (1996: 171). Like the Lani, as discussed in the previous chapter, the Damal staged large-scale, festive transfers of such payments. What furthered the perceived equivalence of these non-identical responses was that, for the Damal, pigs had become an “alternate” (1996: 182), a “symbol” (1996: 184) of humans. This symbolisation appears to have become more intense over the years, since Ellenberger reported (1996: 184) that, in the 1930s, the Ilaga and Beoga Damal had replaced the sacrifice of a man or a woman, in the event of an epidemic or a drought, by the sacrifice of a pig. The symbolisation underscores Lemonnier’s observation that pigs could only then constitute payments “for the loss of a person, in the case of a wedding or a homicide” when they were considered “the principal equivalent of human life” (1993: 36). Furthermore, as mentioned in my discussion of the Moni way of life, Lemonnier views this notion as a necessary condition for the emergence of a Big Man complex (1993).

16As I mentioned briefly in the preceding paragraph, the threat of drought and famine was of great concern to the Damal (Ellenberger 1996: 180, 198; see also Ballard 2000) and, reversely, their search for ailim, a concept that Ellenberger, quoting the Gospel of John, transcribed as “life in all its fullness”: health, longevity, children, absence of toil, abundant harvests and large pig herds (1996: 73, 176). To achieve ailim, people observed a range of taboos and carried out a range of rituals so as to maintain or attain harmonious relationships with the spirits, especially with what Ellenberger called the “guardian spirits” (1996: 85). These included ghosts of both male and female clan ancestors and especially Tel, moiety ancestors, the first to surface when the primeval ancestors of the Damal emerged from underground. The Ilaga Damal viewed them as stern and capricious spirits, and worshipped them with valley-wide rituals, held every two to three years (Ellenberger 1996: 109, 191).

17Ellenberger wrote: “To my knowledge, no foreigner has ever witnessed this ritual” (1996: 191), suggesting that they were not allowed to attend. However he did not make this explicit. He himself relied on second-hand information for an account of one Tel ritual. It lasted one day and took in part place on a specially cleared ceremonial ground, oriented such that it encompassed the entire Damal habitat in the Ilaga Valley. The proceedings included a large meal with pork, dancing, a cleansing ritual and appeals to Tel to bring abundance. Ellenberger’s account shows that these rituals were, like the Hubula ebe akho discussed above, rites of intensification. Shamans were in charge of the proceedings. Hence what qualified a man for leadership in this ritual were religious qualities. Even if these shamans were simultaneously Big Men, as mentioned, that capacity appears not to have been essential. Given that warriors, too, seem to have been a separate category of leaders, Damal leadership showed, in my view, a measure of the dispersal, the compartmentalisation of roles, that Godelier (1991: 282) and Lemonnier (1990: 148) viewed as characteristic of a way of life with Great Man leaders. This state of affairs shows, for me, that the various institutions making up the ways of life characterised by Big Men, Great Men or Leaders have a larger degree of mutual compatibility than is implied by Godelier’s term “social logic.” Lemonnier appears to have reached the same conclusion when he observed that Godelier’s link between initiation and marriage by sister exchange has to be abandoned (1999: 317, 2002: 105). He also questioned Godelier’s reverse proposition that initiation was usually absent in ways of life in which people practised marriage by bride wealth (Lemonnier 1999: 317, 2002: 105).

18Tel ritual distinguished the Damal from the neighbouring Lani. As mentioned above, it appears to have been a mark of their ethnic identity. On the other hand, they did not practice initiation, while the Lani did. In Ilaga some Damal and some Lani adopted practices that were part of the way of life of their ethnic neighbours. For the Damal, Tel ritual and Lani initiation were mutually exclusive (Ellenberger 1996: 167, 224 n. 6). In contrast, the Ilaga Lani admitted, maybe only occasionally, Damal to their initiation also in the event they had taken part in Tel ritual (1996: 192). Larson commented that the Ilaga Lani had “recently… assimilated Tile [their name for Tel] into the highest echelon of [L]ani spirits.” Hence cultural assimilation between Damal and Ilaga Lani went both ways (1987: 53).

4. Revitalisation movements

19The Damal realised that performing their rituals did not safeguard “life in all its fullness”: healthy, prosperous and free from toil. In this context, Peters’ statement, quoted above, that the Damal he had worked among south of the main range viewed the Grand Valley, “abounding” with pigs, as a paradise, acquires special salience. However the Damal were of the opinion that beyond the rituals that they knew about, another, or others, existed that would secure them hai, “the ultimate source of ailim” (Ellenberger 1996: 208-209, 258-259). Their opinion recalls Hylkema’s statement that for Me it was the “genuineness, authenticity and originality” of their artefacts that mattered, whether concrete or abstract (2012: 124). In their conception, the survival of a specimen that they regarded as original was necessary for the continuation of all that somehow derived from it. And it also recalls Heeschen’s comment, which I quoted in the Introduction, in which he posited that the Eipo way of life that he got to know in the first stages of his field research was, before their conversion to Christianity, “Maybe… not more than a passing attempt to put an end to disease, fears, worries and the whims of nature”, an arresting statement in which he appeared to identify a way of life, with its connotation of longevity, and a passing social movement (2016: 18).

20Again and again, Damal believed to have found the road to hai and tried it, only to be disappointed. Ellenberger has documented thirteen such revitalisation movements in the space of one century, both before and after first contact (1983). His list is not complete, since Ballard reported the occurrence of 30 hai movements during the period from circa 1870 to 1978 (n.d.). He argued pointedly that the tragedy that occurred on the return of the expedition of the British Ornithologists’ Union from the highlands to the south coast, in 1913, was another instance of a hai movement (2001a: 122; see also Cook 1995: 132). On this occasion, a group of Damal followed the expedition down to the coast, and a considerable number of them died en route. Wollaston, the leader of the expedition, concluded that their deaths were due to starvation. Also several of the movements reported by Ellenberger, led to people dying of starvation (1983: 105-106). An undated and un-signed document in the possession of Van Nunen listed three more movements that the Damal had adopted from Me in the 1930s and in the 1950s. This document as well as Ballard’s accounts show the readiness of Damal to “import” culture elements. It is not clear to what extent movements originated with the Damal and spread to their neighbours.

21Ellenberger (1996: 209) and Ballard (n.d.) pointed out that Me and Lani, too, entertained hopes for an age of abundance. Yet as regards these two ethnic groups, there is no record of a series of movements to achieve that abundance, notwithstanding the extensive ethnography. Its absence appears to be a matter of differences in cultural elaboration: either the movements did not occur, or they were less prominent than among the Damal, and so escaped the scrutiny of ethnographers. After missionaries had settled in Ilaga, the first to convert to their teachings were the Damal. The Lani followed, after having ascertained there were no adverse effects (Ploeg 2007: 275). It puzzles me, moreover, that the lengthy series of movements does not appear to have transformed the Damal way of life to any great extent. And it is equally puzzling that the conversion to Christianity lasted, while to all appearances it did not bring ailim.

22Since I suppose that speakers of closely related languages in the past shared both a proto-language and a proto-culture, a situation such as obtained among the Tiom Lani, whose way of life deviated in several important respects from the way, or ways, of life of other Lani groups, needs explanation. With the Damal, at least the northern Damal, the reverse occurred. They had important culture elements in common with the Lani, while the languages they spoke were dissimilar. That was a state of affairs that equally needs to be explained. That the Ilaga Damal adapted the Lani methods of sweet potato cultivation, more intensive than their own (Larson 1987: 347), and Lani round house architecture (Ellenberger 1996: 76) most likely resulted from common residence and close interaction in the first half of the twentieth century. However adoption of features such as dual organisation seems to me, perhaps mistakenly, to depend on longer stretches of interaction than Larson discussed. His brief reference to earlier Damal migrations suggests that the people had other opportunities to interact with members of other ethnic groups and for the “importation” of important cultural features before they settled in Ilaga.

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