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Pathways of change

Anton Ploeg

Chapter 6. Yali

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1The spelling I use here for the name of this ethnic group is the current, Indonesianised version. Older publications, including Koch 1974a and Zöllner 1977a, use the Dutch-inspired spelling Jalé, or Jalî. The term is an exonym, applied by both the Hubula and the Yali themselves, to the people living east of them. So far the Yali have accepted the term as a name for themselves (Zöllner, pers. comm. 2014).

2The Yali are the first people discussed in this book who live in the eastern highlands, just east of the Grand Valley of the Baliem. Their habitat is characterised by a large number of river valleys, often deep with steep slopes. It straddles the central divide. Silzer and Heikkinen Clouse estimated the number of Yali speakers at 30,000 (1991: 86). However their estimate postdates first contact by about three decades. They discerned three dialects within the language, running along a north-south axis (1991: 25, map 8). Siegfried Zöllner and Wim Vriend founded the first mission post among the Yali in Angguruk, north of the divide, in 1961. And in 1964-1965 the anthropologist Klaus-Friedrich Koch carried out fieldwork using the village Pasikni, close to Angguruk, as his base. At the time, there were no administrative posts among the Yali. Zöllner and Koch have become the main Yali ethnographers. Zöllner lived and worked among the people from 1961 to 1973, and made a return visit in 1975 (1977a: 14). His research into the Yali religion was helped by the mass conversion of the people in 1969. Both he and Koch published their research in doctoral dissertations in anthropology (Koch 1974a; Zöllner 2013: 198). Their work refers primarily to the Yali living in the catchment area of the upper Yahuli River and its tributaries, and speaking the central dialect of the Yali language. The authors estimated that their number then was about 10,000 (Koch 1974a: 3-4; Zöllner 1977a: 16-17, 390 n. 9, 1988: 4-5). I refer to these people as the Yahuli Yali. They lived at the eastern edge of the Yali territories in close proximity to and in close contact with Mek speakers (see map 3). As appears in this and the next chapters, these contacts led to many cultural adoptions.

3I focus here on the Yahuli Yali, since the ethnographers documented their way of life soon after first contact. While Zöllner focused on their pagan religion, Koch dealt with war and peace among them, so their books complement each other. In 1988 Jan Godschalk, who had carried out field research south of the main range with speakers of a Mek language, published in collaboration with Zöllner a shortened, edited English version of Zöllner’s lengthy German text. Zöllner added a chapter discussing the conversion of the Yali to Christianity, and Godschalk added further information in a short introduction. More recently Zöllner has published an autobiographical account of his work with the Yahuli Yali (2013). In 1996-1998, the French geographer Manuel Boissière worked with Yali south of the central divide (1999). Because his data do not refer either to the early contact period or to the Yahuli Yali, I use them only cautiously. In the late 1960s, the Yahuli Yali started converting to Christianity. As had happened among Me, Damal and Lani (Ploeg 2007), they burned their pagan sacra and revealed the secrets of their former religion, thus enabling Zöllner to document and analyse it in his thesis.

  • 1 Both Fahner and Heider used the name Pass Valley, however for different, although related valleys. (...)

4Other publications dealing with Yali speakers have made it clear that their way of life was not uniform. The Dutch linguist/missionary, Christiaan Fahner, and his wife, G. Fahner-Vos, worked with speakers of the northern dialect living in and near the Pass Valley, northwest of the Yahuli Valley system, and east of the mid Grand Valley (Fahner n.d. probably published in the 1970s).1 In books that both he and his wife have written about these people there appear cultural features that resembled the Hubula way of life. I mention their belief that an ancestor had instructed them to wage war so as to maintain the fertility of the land (Fahner-Vos n.d.: 119-120). Also the agenda of their “great pig feast” included initiation for boys and weddings (Fahner n.d.: 101; Fahner-Vos n.d.: ch. 6 & 7). Furthermore pairing occurred of “families”, given Fahner’s wording more likely clans or sub-clans, by exchanging women (n.d.: 75-76). With Hubula, and also Lani and Damal, the Pass Valley Yali shared the belief that their ancestors had come from underground, in an area “far to the south” (n.d.: 21). And, like Heider (1970a: 210-211, 300), Fahner (n.d.: 106-107) referred to a sun cult and to the abandonment of anthropophagy prior to first contact (n.d.: 83). Finally, also in attire Pass Valley Yali resembled Hubula more than Yali in the Yahuli Valley (Fahner n.d.: 70-71). Fahner’s information tallied with brief comments by Heider on the Yali (1970a: 29‑30).

5Fahner’s book appears to have been written primarily as a report to people back home about his life and work in the highlands of New Guinea. He did not quote sources, however he did appear knowledgeable about the extant highlands ethnography. Hence I presume he had read Heider’s 1970 monograph and had noticed the cultural resemblances between the Pass Valley Yali and the Hubula. I do not know how to account for the similarity. Since the two peoples spoke related languages, they both may have retained features of a common proto-Dani way of life. But this view raises the problem why both Lani and Yahuli Yali did not do so, or did so to a lesser extent. That issue seems equally problematic to me. I return to the problem in the concluding chapter.

1. Yahuli Yali economy

6In the early 1960s, the upper catchment of the Yahuli river was located just west of the territories of Mek speakers. Downstream and farther to the north, Mek speakers lived in the valley of an easterly tributary. In view of the differences between Dani and Mek languages, Yahuli Yali were linguistically closer related to their western than to their eastern neighbours. However both Zöllner’s and Heeschen’s accounts show that Yahuli Yali sourced central elements of their way of life in the east. Zöllner however argues that they had amalgamated these elements with others that appear to be part of their earlier way of life (1977a: 8, 389, n. 28, 1988: 2). In turn, their Mek-speaking neighbours had adopted cultural features of the Yali. So cultural adoptions went both ways. I discuss these topics in the course of this and of the next chapter.

7The altitudes at which Yahuli Yali lived range from below 1,000 to above 2,000 meters. Like the Ilaga Lani (see above), they distinguished between high, cool areas and low, hot ones, with the high areas being more densely settled. Zöllner gave two reasons for this: the high areas had better soils and they were healthier (1977a: 18-19, 1988: 5). The people were concerned about the viability of their agriculture. They had to make gardens on slopes that might be unstable and threatened by landslides. So crop failures were an eventuality, a permanent state of affairs which became a major theme in Zöllner’s book (1977a: 178-179, 1988: 53). Zöllner wrote, as translated by Godschalk, that Yahuli Yali agriculture “requires very strenuous and toilsome work which secures only the barest minimum to survive” (1977a: 386, 1988: 157). Susanne Reuter, the daughter of Zöllner’s successor, reported similarly about the period 1973-1980: “It seems as if the Yali were permanently hungry” (2008: 43). This mattered all the more since pigs were the main wealth item, used in life cycle prestations and compensation. Accordingly the demand for pigs surpassed the number raised locally, since Zöllner mentioned that additional pigs had to be imported (1977a: 429, n. 22, and pers. comm. 2014).

8Yet he approvingly quoted the agriculturist of the mission, who commented favourably on the efficiency of Yali agriculture (Zöllner 2013: 177). Food gardens on earlier cultivated land consisted of oblong, mounded beds separated by ditches, and composted with earth and vegetation taken from the ditches. Soil-retaining devices seem to have been slight (Reuter 2011: 48-49; Zöllner 1977a: 451, 1988: 10, 2013: pictures between p. 200 and p. 201). Judging from the pictures, the gardens resembled the slope gardens that Heider reported for the east central Grand Valley, even though he called them “slash-and-burn gardens” (1970a: 36-38). Reuter emphasised that the people used every available piece of land, however steep and dangerous to work on (2008: 43). Brookfield could not include Yahuli Yali agriculture in his overview of types of Melanesian agriculture, because at the time very little had been published about the people. It seems to me that he would have classed the ditched gardens among the intermediate “partially intensive systems”, along with, among New Guinea highlanders, Ngalum [Ok Sibil], Karam, Kaironk and Korofeigu (Brookfield & Hart 1971: 106, 109-110). The range of crops that the Yahuli Yali cultivated was similar to that of the other western New Guinea highlanders. Like the Hubula and the Lani, but unlike Mek speakers farther east, they ate sweet potato leaves (Zöllner, pers. comm. 2014).

9Apart from pigs, the Yahuli Yali procured more goods, including foods, by trade. In their own perception, they derived their wealth from trading (Zöllner 1977a: 179, 429, n. 22, 1988: 79-80). The existence of different ecological zones in the Yali habitat, with the varied produce, had promoted trade, but the people also traded with their easterly and westerly neighbours, including members of other ethnic groups (cf. Heider 1970a: 25-26). For Zöllner, that was the major trade in which the Yahuli Yali engaged (pers. comm. 2014). Heider wrote that the Hubula among whom he worked got by trade forest products from “Jalemo”, the Yali area: fibres, bamboo and timber, especially wood for their spears (1970a: 27).

2. Moiety and clan organisation

10Yahuli Yali divided themselves into patrilineal moieties and into a large number of patrilineal clans. The moiety names, Winda and Waya, resembled the names used by other Dani speakers (Hayward 1997: 45). Zöllner reported the existence of about 40 clans. Some of their names occurred also among Hubula in the southern Grand Valley (1977a: 27, 1988: 7). Oral tradition held that clans were once localised, but in the course of time became scattered due, Koch has written, to war, epidemics and famines (1974a: 55). The dispersal went so far that the men co-residing in a single men’s house might belong to several clans. A comment by Koch makes it questionable whether these clans were descent groups, because people acknowledged membership of a clan by referring to a common place of origin rather than a common ancestor (1974a: 55, 58). In partial disagreement, Zöllner commented that myths of clan origin were heterogeneous and might refer to a chthonic place of origin, or to a human ancestor, or to either a spirit or an animal (1977a: 27, 1988: 7).

11Pairing of local sub-clans on the basis of preferential marriage ties between them, a feature basic to the sociopolitical organisation of Hubula, Lani and Damal, seems not to have occurred among the Yahuli Yali at the time of contact. They did perceive themselves as organised in pairs, but phrased it primarily by alluding to the two moieties (Zöllner 1977a: 85-86, 1988: 25-26). When Koch discussed the wealth exchanges accompanying a wedding, he described them as exchanges between moieties (1974a: 55). The strictness of moiety exogamy among the Yali presented another contrast with the Hubula: different from what was the case among the latter (Van de Pavert 1986), violating moiety exogamy was punishable by death, or by some other serious sanction (Koch 1974b: 87; Zöllner 1977a: 85-86, 1988: 26), since the people were of the opinion that such violations might well result in a return of the primeval wasteland that they imagined their habitat once to have been (Zöllner 1977a: 86, 1988: 26). Koch called violating moiety exogamy “the cardinal sin” among the Yahuli Yali (1974b: 86). It is noteworthy that Heeschen reported that the people had adopted Mek words for father-in-law, mother-in-law and son-in-law (1992: 470). Such adoptions point to a revamping of kinship relations that may have included the intensification of the incest prohibition. As appears below, the Yali had adopted a wide range of words from their Mek neighbours.

12The ethnography does not make it clear what marriage preferences existed. Zöllner pointed out that Yahuli Yali married among friends (pers. comm. 2015). Almost casually Koch mentioned that the people did not favour sister or classificatory sister exchange: “Because no [Yali] wants to waste the opportunity to increase the scope of his exchange operations by his marriage”, a reasoning that fits a “Big Man logic” (1974a: 61-62). Koch pointed to the long duration of the exchanges occasioned by a marriage: “Exchanges of pigs and other gifts occur throughout the marriage, though in later years it is the husband’s sons who perpetuate this relationship with their mother’s kinsmen” (1974a: 53). The fact that they had exchange relations with their mothers’ agnates boosted, to use Barnes’ term again, dispersal of marriage ties. The primary wealth item used in marriage exchanges were pigs, “augmented by stones, bailer shells and looped nets” (Koch 1968: 91). The stones resembled the ceremonial stones used by Hubula and Lani (Zöllner 1977a: 316-317). Zöllner wrote that also cowry shell bands were among the goods transacted, as was the case among Hubula and Lani.

13While discussing the way of life of the Lani, I mentioned that Lani living in the North Baliem Valley, unlike all other Lani groups on record, did not follow a preferential marriage rule favouring multiple marriages between members of adjoining clans, but instead followed a prescriptive rule: find a spouse in the opposite moiety. Attempting to account for this anomaly, I supposed that these Lani might have adopted the practice from the Yahuli Yali. That has to remain a supposition: contacts between Yali and North Baliem Lani are not mentioned in the ethnography and are unlikely to have been frequent. Moreover the Lani concerned had married among enemies, in contrast to what was the case among the Yali.

3. Residence

14Most Yahuli Yali lived in sizeable villages, subdivided into wards (Koch 1974a: 36-37; Zöllner 1977a: 22-23, 1988: 5-6). Koch has provided a detailed account of the population of Pasikni village, his residence at the time of his research (1974a: 225-228). The data make it clear that residential mobility was such that, with regard to a few persons, Koch found it hard to decide where they resided, so he may have come up with slightly different figures. The village had nine wards at the time. An aerial view shows that they were built closely together (Koch 1974a: 38-39). However Zöllner wrote that this was not necessarily the case in other villages (1977a: 23). Koch reported that on, 31 December, Pasikni had 463 inhabitants, with the largest ward having 166 inhabitants and the smallest nine. Some wards had two or three men’s houses. In the largest ward, the three men’s houses accommodated the very large number of 66 males. With over one hundred houses, Pasikni appears to have been a large village. Koch mentioned that the number of its houses was the maximum he got to know about, with the minimum being “two dozen or fewer” (1974a: 36). In addition, there were what Koch called hamlets and homesteads near food gardens where people stayed, temporarily or permanently (Koch 1974a: 36-37; Zöllner 1977a: 24, 1988: 6).

Pict. 9. Yali country

Pict. 9. Yali country

Shown is the valley of the Sibi river, and the village Piliam. The picture was taken by Klaus Reuter in the 1970s. The Sibi valley is west of Angguruk. The picture gives an idea of the rugged character of the eastern highlands, and also the large size of Yali of a Yali village, compared to Hubula and Lani settlements.

Source: Klaus Reuter, in Reuter 2011.

15As mentioned in chapters 3 and 4, Hubula and Lani hamlets had far fewer inhabitants than Pasikni, and also fewer than its largest ward. Moreover in Yali wards and villages, the ground plan appeared to be unlike that of the Hubula and Lani hamlets. But house design was similar to that of Hubula and Lani. However usually at least some of the upright wooden boards of those men’s houses the people considered sacred or especially sacred were painted, both on the outside and the inside of the wall (Koch 1974a: 40; Zöllner 1977a: 300, 304, 456-457, 1988: 127; Reuter 2011: 35, 136). Koch’s and Zöllner’s accounts differ with regard to these sacred men’s houses. Zöllner wrote that there was one such house per village and that it was a ritual centre rather than a residence (1977a: 23, 1988: 6). These houses were individually named, and they contained sacred objects, including string bags with sacred contents. However according to Koch, all men’s houses were sacred, although some were “more sacred than others” (1974a: 16). Moreover their sacredness might increase over time (Koch 1974a: 37). How many of these sacred houses had painted wall boards, he does not make clear.

Pict. 10. Yahuli Yali men preparing an earth oven

Pict. 10. Yahuli Yali men preparing an earth oven

The men stand in front of the door of a sacred men’s house with its distinctive paintings on the upright wall boards. Present are only men, and a boy. Possibly the site was too close to the men’s house for women to take part. The pictures was taken by Klaus Reuter in the 1970s.

Source: Klaus Reuter, in Reuter 2011.

4. Yahuli Yali religion

16In contrast to the geographic scale of Yahuli Yali political organisation, the scale of their religious practices was far larger than among Hubula and Lani. Among the ethnic groups discussed in this book, Yahuli Yali were exceptional in that their religion was similar across political boundaries. As reported by Zöllner (1977a, 1988: ch. 2, section 3), their religion centred on two myths, which existed in various versions that he chose to name, in the German title of his 1977 monograph, Lebensbaum und Schweinekult, “Tree of Life” and “Pig Cult”. Heeschen reported that these two myths were “generalised” myths of origin of single clans of Mek speakers (1984: 127, n. 6). Moreover Godschalk pointed out that “many sacred and secret expressions in Yali religion [were] in fact Mek words” (Godschalk 1988: viii-ix; see also Zöllner 1977a: 136; and Heeschen 1992: 470). It is also noteworthy that for the Yahuli Yali the two myths are not clan specific. I return to this topic in the next chapter in my discussion of the ways of life of the Eipo and Yalenang, each speakers of a Mek language.

17The first set of myths accounted for the current state of the environment in which the Yali lived. Like the Me, the Yahuli Yali believed that their territories had once been inhabited by another people who, in this case, had perished during catastrophic earthquakes (Zöllner 1977a: 57-58; 1988: 18). Yet in the perception of the Yali, these same destructive events had led to the making of their habitat when ancestors succeeded in chopping down an enormous tree, Yeli. That took a great effort, but finally two men, one from each moiety and helped by two tree kangaroos, managed to fell the tree. In line with the reports of Heeschen and Godschalk mentioned in this paragraph, the people located, at the time of Zöllner’s research, the event in the valley of the Tap River, east of their current habitat, in country that at that same time was inhabited by Mek speakers (Zöllner 1977a: 58-60, 85, 1988: 18-19, 25; Godschalk 1988: ix; Heeschen 1994a: 178-179). After the Yeli tree had been felled, it turned into an enormous pig that divided into several parts and travelled to the west: one part followed a route north of the central divide, another trekked south of it, while a third travelled in the middle, through the country of the Yahuli Yali. Thus Yeli crossed what became Yali country from east to west, creating mountain passes and planting trees and shrubs that stabilised the slopes with their roots. At what became the terminus of his travel, he turned into a mountain located in the southern part of the Grand Valley of the Baliem. Yahuli Yali attributed many features of their habitat, including its relative stability, to Yeli’s work while travelling west.

18Ethnographers of speakers of Ok languages, much farther to the east, have characterised these peoples as “Children of Afek” (Craig & Hyndman 1990), a mythical woman, a “transformer” (Brumbaugh 1990: 54) who travelled from east to west giving the habitat of her “children” its current shape. These children came to belong to a number of ethnic groups. But unlike Yeli, Afek doubled back and then travelled east. Jorgensen argued that she was believed to have established cultural items, such as the men’s cult, during the west to east leg of the journey (1983: 134). Analogous to the Ok speakers, the Yahuli Yali appeared to see themselves as descended from that primeval pig or that primeval woman (Zöllner 1977a: 356, 1988: 148). This conception of clan identity betokened little inclination among them to institutionalise worship of the ancestors of separate clans or sub-clans, as was the case especially among the Hubula.

  • 2 Susanne Reuter, the daughter of Zöllner’s successor, has written that, in the early 1970s, her fat (...)

19The second set of myths, too, dealt with origins: in this case they provided an account of how the Yahuli Yali and their clans had come into being (Zöllner 1977a: 60-61, 1988: 19-20). The myths existed in many versions, which Zöllner groups into an eastern and a western mode. But in both modes, the Yahuli Yali located the events in the eastern part of the upper Yahuli catchment, in the Sosom Valley, near the confluence with the Inalik River, hence in the east, but not as far east as the location of Yeli. In that same area was also the location of the men’s house that the Yali deemed to be the most sacred.2 Relics of both Yeli and the primordial pig were kept in various other men’s houses. In both modes of the myth or myths, people, divided over clans, emerged from parts of either a woman killed upon her request by her son or of a killed tree kangaroo. When the woman was killed, she turned into a pig, the primordial pig, parts of which transformed into people, divided into clans. People were conscious of their descent from that primeval pig, or from that tree kangaroo (Zöllner: 1977a: 356, 1988: 148). The origin of the moieties was not accounted for in the myth of the primordial pig; however in the Yeli myth, their existence was assumed, since the two men who felled Yeli belonged to different moieties (Zöllner 1977a: 58, 85, 1988: 25). The overall impression that Zöllner created in his ethnography is that their environment, their rituals, and items of their material culture kept Yahuli Yali aware of how they had come into being.

20It seems plausible to me that the two sets of myths over time would have fused had the colonial intervention not occurred. That is because Zöllner pointed out that elderly Yahuli Yali were adamant that the Yeli myths and the primordial pig myths related different sets of events, but that younger people were inclined to see them as one (1977a: 64, 371, 1988: 20). Michael Gunn and Niesje Manembu seemed to suggest similarly when they wrote (1995: 130) that, in 1989, the time of their fieldwork, Yali told them that Yeli was their ancestor.

21In his analysis, Zöllner explicitly chose to adhere to the cultural categorisations that the Yali, at least his closest collaborators among them, appeared to make (1977a: 4, 1988: 1). As regards the origin myths, he followed the view of the older people, current at the time of his research. He classified each of the two sets of myths with one of the two most important Yali rituals: Yeli with the healing rites, the salam, and the primordial pig with the complex of the mûrûwal rites, which included initiation and fertility rites. In part he did so because he sees in mûrûwal, a proper name, a linguistic reference to the primordial era (1977a: 124, 1988: 45), and in salam, also a proper name, a reference to a tree species planted by Yeli (1977a: 213, 1988: 87) during his travels west. The Yali had adopted at least the term mûrûwal, and possibly also part of the content of the rituals concerned, from Mek-speaking eastern neighbours (Zöllner 1977a: 124, 411, n. 82). Zöllner denied its occurrence among the Hubula (1977a: 411, n. 82 & 83, 460, 494-495, 1988: 45; also Godschalk 1988: viii-ix, 45).

22Under the heading mûrûwal, Zöllner discussed first two initiations for boys and “transition” rituals for girls. The first initiation for boys introduced them into their men’s house and also to the sacred men’s house of the village where they lived. Its performance concerned small numbers of novices, to be introduced to a single men’s house. It lasted two days. One of the two names of the proceedings was malik wit pal-eneptuk, “to give the status of wit to the boys” (Zöllner 1977a: 94, 1988: 29). As already mentioned, a number of ethnic groups in the highlands of western New Guinea used this term for initiation, or, in the case of the Yahuli Yali, in the context of initiation. Many Lani used the term to refer to initiation, and, as appears below, so did the Eipo. In the concluding chapter I return to the use of this term. The “transition” rituals for girls took place primarily at first menstruation. Like the first initiation for boys, it was a small-scale event.

23However, the second initiation for boys was of much larger scale. Its organisation was consistent with Jorgensen’s conclusion that “the reproduction of wider structural relations between units is a function of men’s ritual activities” (1991: 264). This statement referred to Godelier’s Baruya ethnography, and Jorgensen also referred to Fredrik Barth’s work on Mountain Ok peoples (1971) and Bruce Knauft’s more general discussion of ritual change (1985). The Yahuli Yali performed this second initiation at intervals of around one generation, and celebrated it with an entire village. Villages did so in a series; in the event they were at war, they formally made peace with one another before starting the ritual. Compared to the first initiation, there was a larger number of novices, of varying age, the ritual took more preparations, and it was of longer duration, lasting for several weeks. Yahuli Yali called it mûrûwal (Zöllner 1977a: 124-125, 1988: 45), thus, in my view, pointing to its prominence among this category of rituals.

24As was the case with the Hubula initiation, the mûrûwal was a rite de passage that excluded the novices from their villages for weeks. At the beginning of the ritual, when they entered a specially built forest settlement, their initiators put on a frightening show and started imparting secret knowledge almost immediately. For Zöllner, the transmission of that secret knowledge was the main rationale of the ritual (1977a: 136, 1988: 51). Its Yali name was lukuram, hence a name different from the hal, the secret knowledge of the healers. After the novices had gone through the mûrûwal, people regarded them as knowledgeable, in contrast to those not initiated: women and children. Lukuram knowledge was to remain restricted to the initiates. Revealing part of it was punishable by death, hence by means of the same harsh sanction as in the case of violating moiety exogamy. Zöllner was not able to observe the ritual, and I suppose that is why he was short on other ritual events that might have taken place during the lengthy seclusion of the novices (1977a: 124-126, 1988: 45-46).

25The mûrûwal among the Yahuli Yali differed in several respects from Hubula initiation: it was performed less often; it entailed co-operation between groups that on other occasions fought each other; while the Hubula initiation was part of the “pig feast” celebrated by an entire alliance. The celebrations expressed the current political unity of that alliance. Moreover a result, if not an intention, of the Yali mûrûwal was to separate the initiated, with their newly acquired secret knowledge, from the other members of the group. The Grand Valley initiation did effect gender and moiety separation, but it separated initiated and non-initiated men to a lesser extent. For the Yahuli Yali, initiation served to introduce the novices to a body of secret lore as part of a stratagem to gain control over a freakish and threatening environment.

26Zöllner continued discussing the other mûrûwal rituals. First he dealt with four rituals that he saw performed in a series, taking a number of weeks. They occurred in late December 1966 and January 1967, after food had been short for several months, and they were occasioned by a land slide that destroyed a number of food gardens. The rituals aimed at securing food sufficiency, if not abundance (Zöllner 1977a, 1988, ch. 4). Next he discussed rituals dealing with pig husbandry and with applying and wearing the various hair appendages (Zöllner 1977a, 1988, ch. 5). They were carried out by the male inhabitants of a village, in part inside its sacred men’s house, hence unlike the mûrûwal initiation, within the village. Zöllner distinguished three types of appendages and provided drawings of each and also their names (1977a: 458; not included in the 1988 translation). One of the types resembled an assemblage worn by Ok peoples; another was similar to a Mek assemblage (Craig, pers. comm. 2011).

27In chapter 6 Zöllner turned to the salam, the healing rituals, performed mainly by healers while attempting to treat diseased persons. Zöllner associated them with the Yeli myth complex, since healers sang a version of the myth in the course of their healing treatment. In addition they knew a number of other songs, each attuned to the treatment of a specific disease. In many cases healers had been formally trained in small groups. The training included learning to sing with an altered voice, imitating the spirits responsible for the illness and thus acquiring power over them. Part of the healers’ paraphernalia was a string bag containing an assortment of sacred objects. For the Yahuli Yali, the healers’ practice was sacred because it dealt with influencing the spirits. Hence they discontinued it when they converted to Christianity. In the course of that process, one of the healers disclosed, to the dismay of his audience, that his treatments had included deception (Zöllner 1977a: 219-220, 1988: 89, 2013: 282-283). Lemonnier argued that, in societies in which either Leaders or Big Men function, shamans have lost status (1990: 156). This did not appear to be the case among the Yahuli Yali, I suppose on account of their association with the Yeli myth.

28For Zöllner, the salam was, with the mûrûwal initiation, and the sweet potato, the pig husbandry and the hair appendage rituals, one of the five major rituals that the Yahuli Yali enacted (1977a: 341; 1988: 141-142). Hence the concern with bodily health, which among the Lani and Damal was a motive driving their revitalisation movements referred to in the previous chapters, was among the Yahuli Yali the emphatic subject of a major rite. Finally Garry Trompf has commented about Melanesian religions that they were more concerned with “prosperity and group vitality” rather than “bodily health” (1991: 20; also Van Baal, pers. comm.). However Yali ritual life is both wealth and health oriented.

5. Yahuli Yali material culture

29The Yahuli Yali used pigs, their main wealth item, for exchange, trade and sacrifice (Koch 1974a: 42). The animals were, in addition, the source of the pig fat that men used to make their skin shiny. More importantly, pig fat was the outstanding ingredient used in ritual and in treatments to reinvigorate sacred objects (Koch 1974a: 42, Zöllner 1977a: 308-309, 330, 383; 1988: 138, 156). Hence the demand for pigs must have burdened sweet potato production, and, as mentioned, demand had to be met to a small extent by importing pigs (Zöllner 1977a: 429, pers. comm. 2014). At the time of first contact, the people did not accord cowry shells exchange value. “They were finery”, and people did not manufacture bands set with cowries (Zöllner pers. comm. 2015). Koch related that, when he started his field research in October 1964, just over three years after Zöllner had settled among the Yahuli Yali, people expected payments in bailer shell or in steel axes (1974a: 13-14). Both Zöllner (1977a: 31) and Carl Triesch (2003) emphasised the attraction that shiny objects, including bailer shell, had for the Yali.

30The Yahuli Yali used stone artefacts resembling the ye or yao the Hubula and Lani and derived from the same quarries (Pétrequin 1993: 249, 2006: 229). They distinguished several categories and used them for both ritual, including healing ritual, and in exchanges. One category they saw as chips produced when Yeli was felled. Some were painted, like the boards of sacred men’s houses (Pétrequin 1993: 210, 2006: 255). But Zöllner denied that they had the importance that Hubula accorded them in their rituals, and many Lani in their exchanges (1977a: 316-317, 441-442). The Yahuli Yali usually traded over short distances, so it seems plausible that they obtained these stone artefacts via intermediary traders (Zöllner, pers. comm. 2014).

31Several elements of Yahuli Yali material culture made these people different from almost all other western New Guinea highlanders, other Yali included. First, male attire included, in addition to penis gourds, cylinders consisting of a great many coils of rattan vine and covering a large portion of the body. Moreover usually at least some of the upright wooden boards of their sacred men’s houses were painted, both on the outside and on the inside of the wall. As mentioned, Yali also painted some of their stone artefacts (Zöllner 1977a: 317, 1988: 133; Pétrequin 1993: 210). As I discuss in the next chapter, they shared these elements with the Mek-speaking Yalenang, their eastern neighbours living in the eastern sections of the Yahuli catchment. The occurrence of such paintings contrasted with the “meagreness” of graphic art among the Hubula, as noted by Heider (1970a: 189-190), and among the Lani. I return to this issue in the final section of the next chapter, a section dealing with the western Mek speakers.

32Comparing Zöllner’s and Fahner’s ethnographic reports, the Yahuli Yali might appear to have been oriented to the east, and the Pass Valley Yali to the west. But Zöllner hinted at a more complex situation. He referred to an eastern and a western orientation among the Yahuli Yali. For instance, with regard to men’s houses and axe blades, the people distinguished between eastern and western types (1977a: 19-21, 1988: 5). Furthermore the two moieties were somehow linked with east and west (1977a: 329). And the texts of the many spells and songs he included in his book mentioned east and west as their main geographic orientations (1977a: 179, 1988: 64). As mentioned, the texts included Mek words (Godschalk 1988: ix; Zöllner 1977a: 415, n. 13). I also mentioned the eastern association of two of the hair appendages.

33In the eastern part of their own habitat, the Yahuli Yali used shield-like objects for ritual purposes (Zöllner 1977b; Gunn & Manembu 1995). In the adjoining areas farther east, groups of Mek speakers, but not all, used similar objects (Heeschen 1994b). I discuss these in the next chapter, dealing with the Eipo. Furthermore, in common with other eastern highlanders, the Yahuli Yali had hand drums. As far as we know, those eastern highlanders who used them owned them in small numbers (Simon & Royl 1978, for Mek speakers). In contrast, western highlanders had none. While Zöllner wrote (1977a: 323-324) that Yahuli Yali did not include their drums in the category of sacred objects, they nevertheless kept them in their sacred men’s houses and destroyed them with their sacra as part and token of their conversion to Christianity. Zöllner reported that most were hour-glass drums, unlike those shown in Kooijman’s discussion of Ngalum artefacts, collected during the Star Mountains expedition of 1959 (1962: 28-29, fig. 46-49).

6. Political organisation and leadership

34The scale of Yahuli Yali political organisation was smaller than the size of villages might suggest. The groups of men inhabiting a single men’s house formed the basic political units, and armed intra-village fights occurred (Zöllner 1977a: 24). Koch confirmed Zöllner’s comments, since in his discussion of group quarrels and fights, including intra-village fights, he often mentioned the men’s house group as the acting unit (1974a: 68, 70-73). These groups formed the primary security circle. But fights also occurred among its members (1974a: 70-73). According to Koch, wards had their own “big men”, the term used by the Yali themselves to designate leaders (1974a: 63). These men had distinguished themselves by “physical fitness, persuasive eloquence [and] a superior ability to provide pigs” (Koch 1974a: 63). As mentioned, pigs were the primary wealth item of the Yahuli Yali. Zöllner added the possession of secret knowledge as a qualification for leadership (1977a: 23). Beyond the village, political organisation was brittle (Zöllner 1977a: 25, 1988: 5).

35Koch’s exposé of Yahuli Yali leadership entails that the men concerned had to achieve their prominence by demonstrating their capacities. Given the small size of wards and the much larger scale of some of the conflicts, fights and wars in which the Yahuli Yali embroiled themselves, Koch’s statement that some of their men’s houses were more sacred than others must have applied also to those men whom they themselves called “big men”, in the sense that some of those “big men” were bigger than others, but he did not elaborate. Zöllner, who had spent time among Hubula in the Grand Valley and who had trekked from there to Angguruk (2013: 51-52), denied (1977a: 24, 26) the occurrence of “headmen” (in his German text: Häuptlinge or Anführer) among the Yahuli Yali, whereas in his view they did occur among the Hubula (1977a: 391, n. 17). In the abridged English version of his book he stated: “a ‘Big-Man’ institution [his inverted commas] is not present” (1988: 6). Nevertheless, apart from the small scale of leadership, the qualifications that both Koch and Zöllner mentioned show that these Yahuli Yali leaders resembled Leaders, small-scale Big Men, as conceptualised by Godelier and Lemonnier.

36The situation is complicated, however, by the prominence of the healers, or shamans, specialists in treating illnesses but also called upon to perform reconciliation rites (Koch 1974a: 181-182), and hence to end a “social illness”, in other words a disturbance of social relationships that people wanted to set right. The office of healer often passed from father to eldest son, but it might also go to a sister’s son. Possession of secret knowledge, as emphasised by Zöllner, owed less to achievement, since it depended in part on someone else’s willingness to impart it. A novice’s training was sometimes undertaken by another, experienced and successful healer. Usually there were several healers in a village. Their knowledge had a special name, hal, and Yali associated their status with the Yeli myth. Hal was expressed in words different from those used in lukuram, and it included lengthy songs that the healer sang during the treatment. That feature of their performance evinced, in my view, a specific mode of eloquence, deemed powerful. It was an expert version of an art that Yahuli Yali liked to engage in. In Koch’s words: “the [Yali]… love to sing and have an admirable talent for instant composition of new lyrics to go with their old tunes” (1974a: 15). Healers’ training terminated with a formal induction of a group of novices (Zöllner 1977a: 216-217, 258, 1988: 89-90). Their secret knowledge lent healers power; they formed a category of “Wise Men” (Lindstrom 1984) among the Yahuli Yali. As I mentioned in the Introduction, Lemonnier commented that highlands ways of life may have changed in ways other than by “the development of competitive exchanges and the emergence of big men” (1991: 27). He cited specifically “[s]etting up power founded on ritual knowledge” (1991: 27). It seems to me that the Yali appear to have combined these roads. They provided an instance of dichotomised or dual leadership, a term I use in contrast to the multiplicity of leadership as it occurred in a Great Men “social logic”. Also the Tiom Lani appear to have set up a dichotomised leadership that resembled the Yahuli Yali version. Whether they adopted it from the Yali or whether it was an independent elaboration remains unclear to me. It is the result of the limits that Lemonnier has applied to his analysis that the dual leadership of the Yahuli Yali and the Tiom Lani appears to be outside the leadership types and the leadership transformations that he and Godelier have devised.

7. Armed conflicts

37Conflicts and their settlement were Koch’s main concerns in his 1974 book. He attributed the prevalence of violence among the Yahuli Yali, notwithstanding their pronouncements that such behaviour was regrettable (1974a: 66, 1979: 201), to the absence of an overarching authority, able to dispense judgement and to have it enforced (1974a: 120, 1979). Thus Koch attempted to explain the occurrence of one culture element, in this case the frequent use of violence, by the absence of another such element, an organisation such as a superordinate authority with the capacity to hand down a judgement regarding the conflict and have it enforced. He presented its absence as a lack (Koch 1974a: 90, 166). However I am inclined to argue instead that the Yahuli Yali, like the Me and probably like other highlanders, had not instituted such an authority, because they were not inclined to do so, because it went against their conception of political freedom. The Yahuli Yali had devised, perhaps adopted, institutions that enabled them to end hostilities, such as formal peace offers, reconciliation ceremonies and compensation (Koch 1974a: 81-83, 181). Although they used these institutions (1974a: 82-86), they were, in Koch’s view, ineffective (1970: 44, 1974a: 159). However, notwithstanding the resulting prevalence of fights among the Yahuli Yali, Zöllner concluded that, in comparison with the Hubula, warfare was peripheral to the Yahuli Yali way of life (1977a: 336, 443, n. 4 & 5; 1988: 141).

38Yahuli Yali distinguished between wim and soli wars (Koch 1970: 47, 1974a: 79-80). Wim could occur between wards of a single village, or even within a ward if its members temporarily lived apart. Typically they were fought with bow and arrow in battles on open ground. In this they resembled the “ritual” warfare described above for Hubula and Lani. Once a warrior was seriously wounded or killed, his kinsmen sought bodily revenge. Koch’s account suggests that Yahuli Yali found it difficult to accept compensation for a killing, since they were inclined to opt for an equivalent response rather than a non-equivalent one (1974a: 82). Soli wars were fought against enemies who lived farther away. They often consisted of raids. Family houses might be burnt, however sacred men’s houses, and the men inside, were to be spared (1974a: 79-80). Lemonnier has pointed out that this convention restricted the severity of war (1990: 93). “[T]o obtain the body of a slain enemy [for anthropophagy] is a true objective in soli warfare” (Koch 1970: 49). Whereas, as mentioned above, for the western highlands anthropophagy has not reliably been reported as occurring at the time of first contact, its occurrence was widespread, perhaps general, in the eastern highlands. It was practised by the three eastern highlands ethnic groups discussed in this book. In each case it concerned primarily slain enemies (Hylkema 1974: 265-266).

39Yali religion entailed that the inhabitants of a village co-operated in the enactment of ritual, celebrating events like initiation together. Nevertheless, on other occasions they might fight, wound and even kill each other. Quarrels between wards of a single village regularly escalated into armed fights (Koch 1974a: 70). Men’s house groups often consisted of men who were members of different clans, so they were primarily local groups. That was due to the dispersal of clans away from the areas where, according to oral tradition, they had first settled. Among the Bokondini Lani, the localised sub-clans, with often several scores of men, rather than residential groups formed the primary security circle. The Yahuli Yali men’s house groups were considerably smaller. For instance in the large village of Pasikni, 180 men and initiated youngsters lived in 16 men’s houses. Hence I accept Koch’s conclusion that Yahuli Yali “leadership is extremely limited in scope and power” (1974a: 62).

8. Concluding remarks

40I return first to Koch’s comment that marriage arrangements and initiation were “the two critical processes that maintain the traditional organisation of [Yahuli Yali] society” (1974a: 62). Accordingly transgression of the marriage arrangements, and disclosure of the secret knowledge that initiation gave access to were to be harshly punished. What in my view is pertinent here is that Koch reported that members of a clan referred to a common place of origin rather than to an ancestor (1974a: 55, 58). He did not mention ancestor worship either, and the fact that he did not do so points to an important contrast with the way of life of the Hubula. Instead religious life among the Yahuli Yali focused on how habitat and society had come into being and how people could safeguard the continued beneficent existence of both. Originally an organisation into clans had been given. However clans became scattered, and the effective operating units that Koch and Zöllner came across in the 1960s were the groups of men co-residing in a single men’s house, which often comprised members of several clans. In Zöllner’s words: “not descent but residence is the deciding factor” (1977a: 445, n. 19). In the same vein Koch wrote: “residence rather than descent… [c]onstitutes the basis of concerted political action” (1974a: 62).

41Furthermore ritual boundaries exceeded political units. All Yahuli Yali shared the Yeli and the primeval pig myths, together with their various associated rituals. Performing some of these rituals required co-operation between men belonging to different men’s houses, and even to different villages. This was another contrast with the Hubula, since among them political and ritual boundaries coincided.

42Yet another contrast is provided by the ways the two peoples had shaped their ways of fighting. The main political groups among the Hubula were conglomerates of paired sub-clans; their territories formed contiguous blocks. Hostile relations were long lasting and were rarely terminated. Among the Yali, hostilities and warfare were intermittent. Fighting units, often villages or village wards, were smaller. The people made use of the institutions designed to end hostilities. The 53 case records that Koch presented in his 1974 book included many skirmishes and raids precipitated by sometimes very minor incidents, but much less of the self-perpetuating “ritual warfare” that seems to have been so prominent among the Hubula in the late 1950s and early 1960s. To a certain, but to me unknown, extent, the differences were likely to result from the strikingly different physical properties of the habitats of the two peoples, including those properties that they and their ancestors had brought about. But these properties do not seem to explain the small scale of political groups among the Yahuli Yali, given the large size of their settlements which meant that co-villagers on occasion fought each other.


1 Both Fahner and Heider used the name Pass Valley, however for different, although related valleys. Heider referred with that name to the valley of a easterly tributary of the Baliem River (see maps in Heider 1970a: 26, 300); Fahner to the valley across the pass (n.d.: map on inside back cover). The river in this valley drains to the north.

2 Susanne Reuter, the daughter of Zöllner’s successor, has written that, in the early 1970s, her father was told not to enter that men’s house. This happened after people had started converting to Christianity (2008: 64-65).

Table des illustrations

Titre Pict. 9. Yali country
Légende Shown is the valley of the Sibi river, and the village Piliam. The picture was taken by Klaus Reuter in the 1970s. The Sibi valley is west of Angguruk. The picture gives an idea of the rugged character of the eastern highlands, and also the large size of Yali of a Yali village, compared to Hubula and Lani settlements.
Crédits Source: Klaus Reuter, in Reuter 2011.
Fichier image/jpeg, 873k
Titre Pict. 10. Yahuli Yali men preparing an earth oven
Légende The men stand in front of the door of a sacred men’s house with its distinctive paintings on the upright wall boards. Present are only men, and a boy. Possibly the site was too close to the men’s house for women to take part. The pictures was taken by Klaus Reuter in the 1970s.
Crédits Source: Klaus Reuter, in Reuter 2011.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,5M

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