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Pathways of change

Anton Ploeg

Chapter 7. Eipo

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1The Eipo are a small group of people living north of the main divide, in the valley of the Eipo River, the Eipomek (Helmcke 1983: 30). They are speakers of a Mek language and have become known to the outside world primarily thanks to a massive research project undertaken from 1974 by a sizeable group of German researchers. For some of them, it became a project that lasted for decades. It was set up and started by two anthropologists, Gerd Koch and Klaus Helfrich, but in the course of the years, the biologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, the linguist Volker Heeschen and the medical researcher Wulf Schiefenhövel – in alphabetical order – became the most prominent researchers of the team. Heeschen has spent over six years in the field (2017: 90), far longer than the other team members. Recently he wrote that over the years he became an ethnologist, in addition to being a linguist (2016). Whether the name Eipo will remain in use, is uncertain given that Heeschen has written: “Nowadays the Eipo like to speak of themselves and their language as ‘liknang’ (‘lik’ people) and ‘lik yupe’ (‘lik language’, using ‘lik’ (‘no’, ‘not wanting’) as a characteristic word of their language” (2017: 89).

  • 1 To avoid confusion with the name “Yalenang”, Yale people, Heeschen used the name “Angguruk” people (...)

2At the time the project started, direct contacts of the Eipo with colonial and post-colonial outsiders were and had been minimal. That was precisely the reason that Koch and Helfrich had selected the population of the Eipomek Valley for research (Koch 1984: ii). The researchers were the first such outsiders to settle among the people. They focused on about 570 Eipo living in nine settlements, all located in the upper part of the valley, hence at a high altitude, close to or at the edge of human settlement (Ploeg 2004a: 46). Whereas the Eipo lived north of the main divide in the centre of the areas occupied by Mek speakers, Heeschen extended his research to the Yalenang or Inlomnang, then the westernmost Mek speakers, and the immediate easterly neighbours of the Yahuli Yali.1 Inlomnang means “the people of the In river valley”, the In being an easterly tributary of the Yahuli, joining that river downstream from Angguruk. The term is an endonym (Heeschen 1984: 114 n. 4); however Heeschen has opted for Yalenang, meaning Yale people, “Easterners” (2017: 89 n. 1). “Yale” appears to be an exonym, given them by the Yali, who, as mentioned, have themselves become known by that same name, which is an exonym also for them. In Heeschen’s estimate, the Yalenang have lived in the In Valley for between 150 and 250 years (1984: 128, 1994a: 181; however in 1989: 66 he mentioned 100 to 200 years). Zöllner (1977b: 375) and Heeschen (pers. comm. 2017) reported that, in the 1960s, Mek speakers lived also in the Sosom Valley, upstream from Angguruk (see Map 3). Eipo and Yalenang spoke mutually unintelligible communalects, but in addition, Heeschen’s research showed telling cultural differences between the two peoples. These differences resulted, in his view, firstly from the contrast between a group that had been settled in the same valley for a relatively long period of time, as was the case with the Eipo, and a group of migrants, as was the case with the Yalenang. Secondly their migrations brought the Yalenang into contact with the Yahuli Yali, people following a different way of life and speaking a language belonging to a different language family. The contacts between these two peoples brought about extensive, two-way cultural adoptions. These are reasons that in this chapter I include the Yalenang in the discussion, although their ethnographic record is thus far much less extensive than that of the Eipo.

3In their language index, Silzer & Heikkinen Clouse tabulated an estimated number of 32,300 to 35,800 Mek speakers (1991: 19-20, 30). While Pawley includes the Mek languages in the Trans New Guinea phylum (2005: 93), their relations with the neighbouring languages of the Great Dani family and those of the Ok speakers farther east are distant, such that Heeschen heeded Wurm’s claim that the Mek languages may form a separate sub-phylum (1994a: 161, Heeschen et al. 2015: 15-16; see also Bromley 1990: 3-4). It is so far unclear how the geographic proximity of these distantly related language families has come about. Heeschen distinguished fourteen dialects within the Mek group, which he tentatively grouped into three, or four, clusters, together forming three chains of dialects along an east-west axis (1992: 467, 1994a: 161, 1998: 19). Hence different from what is the case with the Yali dialects, the chains follow the spine of the highlands. These dialects are closely related. Their distribution suggests dispersal or expansion of the Mek speakers away from what was also geographically the central area. In line with this suggestion, Heeschen reported recent migrations of the Yalenang to the west, whereas Pouwer and Hylkema reported migrations of Mek speakers to the east, into the territories of the Ok-speaking Ngalum. I discuss these eastward migrations in the next chapter.

4Yet on the basis of his research into the oral traditions of the Eipo and the Yalenang, Heeschen has hypothesised (1989a, 1990, 1992, 1994a, 2015: 45-46) a more complex account of the Mek speakers’ migrations. He concluded that, at some time in the past, the territories of the Mek speakers covered a larger area, both in the east and in the west, than was the case at first contact. In his view Yali and Ok speakers had subsequently pushed them back (1994a: 175-176, 2015: 16). As was the case with the Me, the Moni, the Damal and the Lani, the Eipo and the Yalenang trace their origin to the east. But while on their trek westward, away from their origins, some ancestors turned eastward again. Similarly the Mek speakers to be discussed in the next chapter believe that they migrated to the east. Furthermore it is hard to explain in this context that oral traditions contained references to sago plant material (Heeschen 1994a: 174), and that some of the sacred nets in the Eipo men’s houses contained remnants of sago leaves (Heeschen 1990: 98-99, 1998: 21), as if the people had arrived from or via the lowlands. As Heeschen pointed out, the accounts of origin were clan specific, in contrast to what was the case among the Yahuli Yali and also among most Ok speakers.

5As mentioned in the Introduction, the eastern highlands are overall lightly populated, and the area of which the Eipomek Valley is a part, is no exception. For the valley, Michel reported a population density of about 6 persons per km² (1981: 19), and Koch for Malingdam just over 6 as well (1984: 11, 17). Koch made it clear that he had included in his calculation the forest area belonging to the Malingdam people (1984: 11). Michel added that valleys to the east and the west of the Eipomek Valley were much more densely populated (1981: 19 n. 26). And it should further be taken into account that “[b]etween the inhabited areas there are immense stretches of uninhabited country used only for hunting and gathering wood, nuts, etc.” (Heeschen 1998: 18). However in contrast, at the time of first contact actual settlement in the Eipomek Valley was concentrated, with some villages housing over a hundred people (Röll & Zimmermann 1979: 6-7; Michel 1981: 19-20). And many villages were compactly built (plans in Röll & Zimmermann 1979: 9-11; Koch 1984: 18-19). Building locations were probably few given the steepness of much of the terrain, but the Eipo had not resorted to the dispersed mode of settlement that for instance the Me had opted for. Villages consisted of family houses, one or more men’s houses, and women’s houses used by women during child birth and menstruation. Often houses had many inhabitants, and it appeared that Eipo lived in close proximity by choice (Röll & Zimmermann 1979: 14). This pattern offered daily occasions for gifts, of food and of tobacco, and Eipo appreciated that interaction (Michel 1981: 25, 109; Koch 1984: 89). Heeschen contrasted this preference and the readiness to give and share among the Eipo with the tendency to live in garden houses and to avoid giving among the Yalenang (1984: 115-116).

1. Livelihood

6Eipo practised several modes of intensive agriculture, according to ecological niche. They drained swamp land by ditching; on moderate slopes they fashioned long beds following the slope and separated by drains; and on steep slopes they built “hanging gardens”, with retention devices as receptacles for soil (Röll & Zimmermann 1979: 16-17, Michel 1981: 56-59). As is the case with the Yahuli Yali, the Eipo data, too, postdate Brookfield & Hart’s 1971 classification of cultivation profiles. But given the “skills applied to the modification of the natural environment”, it seems justified to range Eipo agriculture among his “intensive systems” (Brookfield 1964: 114; Michel 1981: 150). The intensity of their agricultural techniques added to the compactness of their settlement. Compactness was further enhanced by the Eipo tendency to make new gardens on land, including grass land, that they had previously used for agriculture (Koch & Schiefenhövel 1989: 9).

Pict. 11: Eipo man preparing a garden bed

Pict. 11: Eipo man preparing a garden bed

Gerd Koch’s caption: “Kilyan of Imarin [settlement] building up, with his digging stick, a garden bed (yakna) on the slope down from Mumyerunde [settlement] 24.9.1974.”

Source: Koch (1974: 91)

7Like the Me, the Eipo spread the risk by extending their garden plots over different ecological niches. However, when in 1976 a heavy earthquake destroyed many of their gardens and they were forced to rely on outside help to survive, it appeared that they had not anticipated a disaster of this magnitude, notwithstanding their apprehension of landslides (Michel 1978). Given that sweet potato was their main crop, they avoided soils with high moisture content, such as often obtains with land just cleared from primary forest. The researchers found that the Eipo had been moving up valley, since they appreciated the cool climate and probably since they considered land there more suitable for sweet potato (Röll & Zimmermann 1979: 16; Michel 1981: 19-20; Koch 1984: 11; Heeschen 2015: 8). Part of the harvest was used for trading purposes. On the other hand, the Eipo owned few pigs, so they did not need larger harvests. In April 1976, Michel counted thirteen pigs, among which four adults, in Moknerkon, and 52 inhabitants in June 1976 (1981: 19, 77-78; for corresponding figures: Röll & Zimmermann 1979: 27). Koch emphasised the religiously based and “deeply felt respect for pigs” that the Eipo experienced (1984: 83). They named their pigs, at least the adult ones (Michel, 1981: 78), yet they were reluctant to utter these names (Koch 1984: 83).

8At least one reason for the small number of pigs is that pork consumption was taboo for many Eipo. However the people who were not allowed to eat pork were nevertheless allowed to keep pigs (Koch 1984: 80; Koch & Schiefenhövel 1989: 11). I return to this point below. Another reason may have been that harvests were not, or not always, ample: after the Eipo had converted to Christianity and the taboo on eating pork was discontinued, pig herds became larger and put a strain on the food available for their owners (Heeschen 2015). And Michel reported that the inhabitants of one village helped neighbouring villagers out when they were short of food (1981: 98-99).

9As most highlands peoples have done, the Eipo, too, have taken up sweet potato cultivation. At the time of the research project, it was their main staple. I mentioned that their reliance on this cultigen induced them to move up valley, to an area with a cooler climate and possibly also a bit farther away from enemies. However I wonder in what ways the larger harvests from their sweet potato gardens have – in conformity with Watson’s analysis – “revolutionised” their way of life. Given the size of their pig herds in the 1970s, Eipo had not intensified their pig husbandry to any extent. As I hypothesised for the Hubula, the Eipo may have used the larger harvests to intensify their ritual life. Another element that they may have boosted were the formal, delayed exchanges between villages, since on these occasions also gifts of food figured prominently. In their own perception, the intensification of these contacts may have been a major change.

  • 2 The various authors used a number of names for this area and for the quarries there. As shown on m (...)

10Eipo did not engage in a great deal of intertribal trade and lived away from the main trade routes (Michel 1990: 3). Michel distinguished between trading by individual men with partners who might live several days’ trek away (ibidem), and trading by groups. Group expeditions with trading as their main aim occurred only occasionally. Michel was told about two such events during which people had travelled to the north, descending to a different ecological zone. One had taken place in 1960, sixteen years before his fieldwork, the other a “bit later”. He related how, to his surprise, people appeared to remember that they had taken five axe blades, eight bows and three large nets along during this second expedition, which they had traded predominantly for feathers and other pieces of finery, of which they remembered the amounts, too (1983: 110). It was up to the trader to hand on the items (1983: 110), and Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Schiefenhövel & Heeschen reported that pieces of finery were included in bride-wealth prestations (1989: 184). The Eipo were dependent on trade to obtain such a basic tool as stone axe blades. An important source for these was the Langda area, due south, across the main divide (Pétrequin & Pétrequin 2006: 271-272; Swadling et al. 1983: 86).2 Michel argued that their own habitat provided the Eipo with few special goods that would make them desirable trading partners (1990: 3). Yet he mentioned a specific brand of axe blade and red earth, such as Ngalum men, whose way of life I discuss in the next chapter, used for self-presentation. Moreover they acted or could have acted as intermediaries in step trade.

  • 3 Koch’s comments count, since he had earlier done field research in a range of Pacific communities (...)

11The small extent of external trade as reported by Michel appears to me to have resulted from the Anspruchslosigkeit, the unpretentiousness, of the Eipo (Koch & Schiefenhövel 1989: 11). Another result was that it is hard to see the effects of the shift towards sweet potato cultivation with its greater yields. And yet another, that their houses were lightweight constructions (Leichtkonstruktion) (Koch 1984: 38, 138), with walls that had cracks (Steinzeit - Heute, sheet 20). Roofs often leaked, and houses continually needed repairs (Michel 1981: 27-28). Many were crowded with inhabitants (Michel 1981: 25). Yet another sign of unpretentiousness was that Eipo did not own many items of finery (Koch 1984: 27-38).3

2. Marriage

12As regards marriages, monogamy prevailed (Koch 1984: 17, 125; Koch & Schiefenhövel 1989: 11). Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Schiefenhövel & Heeschen concluded that, among the Eipo, bride price was not practised (1989: 184). This was the case in so far as a marriage was not brought about or sanctified by a once-only transfer of wealth. However bride-givers and bride-takers engaged in a long series of mutual prestations. Included in these was on occasion – the authors did not clarify how often – that men soon to be married and recently married men provided bride service to the parents of his wife (Heeschen 1984: 121; also Michel 1981: 46). Alternatively a girl might take up residence with her future in-laws (Heeschen 1984: 121). The prestations included in addition transfer of material goods. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Schiefenhövel & Heeschen mentioned (1989: 184) goods with use-value such as axe blades, bows, string bags, various items of personal finery, and also glass beads that the researchers had introduced and had used as a means of payment. Koch added that glass beads had been traded in from valleys where missionaries had introduced them (1984: 31). In contrast to what obtained among the peoples in the western highlands that I discuss in this book, the Eipo did not use items that had primarily exchange-value. The glass beads may have been a novel exception. In another paper, Heeschen wrote that, in addition, pigs were among the goods transferred (1984: 121). He gave the impression, in this paper, that pigs were the major component of marriage prestations. He furthermore contrasted what obtained among the Eipo with the wedding proceedings among the migratory Yalenang. Among the latter, a bride price included a larger number of pigs than among the Eipo, and Heeschen added (1984: 121) that relations between bride-givers and bride-takers often languished, thus preventing the build-up of a series of mutual prestations.

13Oral traditions collected by Heeschen mention clan exogamy and the exchange of women between kin groups as constitutive of the social order (1994a: 169). Among the Yalenang, exchange of brides occurred as a means to end wars (Heeschen 1984: 120-121). In view of this context, the exchanges occurred between groups of people, most likely local clans or sub-clans. In those cases, they exchanged classificatory sisters. However there is no evidence that Eipo and Yalenang practised preferential exchange of women between pairs of local clans or sub-clans, as was the case among Hubula and Lani.

3. Ancestor worship

14The Eipo appeared to have had several traditions about the origin of themselves and of their habitat, a state of affairs not uncommon among New Guinean peoples. Here I present what appears to have been the dominant tradition, reported by Heeschen, a tradition in line with the prominence of ancestor worship in Eipo religion in the 1970s. For the Eipo, their country was a sacred domain, an artefact that patrilineal ancestors had “transformed” so as to make it suitable for human habitation (Heeschen 2017: 95-96). Heeschen has characterised Eipo country as a “mnemotope”, a term he derived from the work of the Egyptologist, Jan Assmann (Heeschen 1994a: 175-176). His Eipo and Yalenang collaborators told him that their ancestors had emerged from mountains located east of their current habitats. Mount Mandala, situated in what was then the south-east part of the territories of the Mek speakers, is one of the mountains mentioned. At the time it was conspicuous because of its year-round snow and ice cap. Most of these mountains were visible from the Eipo habitat (Heeschen 1994a: 166-167). Emergence was followed by “transformation” (2017: 95-96):

The beings that the mountain lets go and separates out, the ancestors, are occasionally incomplete, small, and dirty, have the appearance of animals and are in need of help. They are carried by specific species of cuscus, but also by sacred objects…, they co-habit with animals…, but it is the construction of a men’s house and the depositing of relics… that secure a stay and that create the inhabitable world suited for agriculture (1994a: 167).

15The works of the ancestors during the creative preamble to Eipo society and to Eipo history had also instituted a range of food taboos, such as the ban on eating pork. Other taboos were gender- and age-specific. Further elements of ancestor worship were sacrifices and the anointing of ancestral relics with pig fat. Eipo deemed ancestral support necessary to the continuing fertility of people and land. In their conception, men’s houses became the centres of clan territories, a situation that had obtained ever since the origin of human society. According to the term used by Wiessner & Tumu, ancestor worship among the Eipo was a cult of “sedentism” (1998: 186). However many if not most Eipo clans were split into localised sub-clans, and Heeschen’s account appears to refer to sub-clans (similarly Koch & Schiefenhövel 1989: 11). Moreover the inmates of a single men’s house regularly included men from several clans (Heeschen 1984: 117).

16Men’s houses were individually named. They contained sacred, ancestral relics. Rebuilding them was an act of great, enthusiastic revitalisation. The team witnessed and filmed the reconstruction of the house called Binalgekebnaik, in the village of Munggona, in the Eipomek Valley. Beforehand people had readied the building materials. This enabled them to complete the job in one day, so they minimised the period of time they were obliged to do without their men’s house. They re-used building elements from the old house, to create continuity. Moreover a men’s house might have regional significance, for reasons that have remained unclear to me. Binalgekebnaik appeared to be known far beyond Eipomek. After having worked among the Eipo, Michel did fieldwork among a group of Nalumin, speakers of an Ok language, who lived just across the national border, in Papua New Guinea. In this book, I refer to these people as Ngalum. Michel reported that his Nalumin fieldwork collaborators knew about Binalgekebnaik, but he did not elaborate (1990: 5). Hence, as was the case among the Yahuli Yali, among the Eipo, too, some men’s houses were more sacred than others. In addition, the back of a men’s house was the more sacred part of the building. It was the part where sacred relics were kept. Access to that part was restricted (Michel 1981: 42, Koch 1984: 20).

17Ancestor worship was prominent among both Eipo and Hubula. So it seems instructive to compare the two institutions. The data for the Eipo are fuller, since Heeschen investigated – and is still investigating – the oral traditions of the Eipo (1990, 2015), while the ethnographers of the Hubula focused on what they could observe of their social life. Whereas the Me and the Moni believed that their ancestors had originated far away from their current habitat, for both Hubula and Eipo their origins were close by, in country that was known to them. But the obligation to wage war, which in the perception of the Hubula their ancestors had obliged them to do, was not part of the Eipo way of life. Their worship focused on the “men’s house”, if not “temple”, the building that made the work of their ancestors visible and tangible. The Hubula had assigned that role to the ritual stones kept in their men’s house.

18The work of the ancestors has turned the Grand Valley in to a highly productive place, to the benefit of later inhabitants. Whether and, if so, how that is reflected in oral traditions is so far not known. However the valley of the Eipo River is a much less secure habitat, given the occurrence of landslides and earthquakes. In the case of the Yahuli Yali, I was tempted earlier to argue that an ancestor cult was less likely to occur among them, since the habitat that Yeli had bequeathed them had remained geographically unstable and yielded meagre harvests. So the work of the ancestors of the Yahuli Yali had left fewer benefits to their descendants than was the case among the Hubula. But the occurrence of an ancestor cult among the Eipo, like the Yali living in an unstable environment, makes such an argument less persuasive.

Pict. 12. Working party of Eipo men

Pict. 12. Working party of Eipo men

A working party of men, repairing the men’s house Bimduweik, in Kapcedama settlement. The picture shows the habit, if not the preference, of Eipo to congregate in close proximity.

Source: Koch 1984: 61.

4. Initiation

19The Eipo practised several initiations. The most elaborate one was the wit, or kwit, initiation for boys. While that name was also in use among Yahuli Yali and among Lani, for male initiation or in the context of male initiation, the rituals concerned differed considerably both in content and in scale. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Schiefenhövel & Heeschen identified three initiations, but kwit was the only one in which a group of boys was initiated together (1989: 186-187; also Michel 1981: 42-43), as was the case among the Hubula. Some of them were very young: Heeschen mentioned three years as the lower age limit (1990: 116). The ritual was held at intervals of five to ten years and lasted about two months. The novices spent about one month away from their settlements in a house specially built for the occasion; there they were taught secret names related to the creation of Eipo society and its habitat. Clan ancestors were ritually appealed to. The boys initiated together formed a named group, as in the case of an age group. Having gone through the wit ritual allowed them access to the men’s house. It is noteworthy that they were often members of several (sub-)clans and were to become inmates of several men’s houses that were separate centres of worship. Hence the fact that they had different ancestors did not prevent their being initiated in a single ritual. Heeschen mentioned the occurrence of a “generalised” ancestor, recognised as such by members of at least several clans (1984: 124). That betokens a sense of common identity among Eipo, but the unifying force of this idea does not become clear.

20The other two initiations took place later in life. Both were small-scale events and both concerned the donning of male attributes: in the first, a penis gourd, pandanus and rattan belts; and in the second, a hair appendage. It is not clear whether the two rituals required the presence and performance of ritual experts (Koch 1984: 20; Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Schiefenhövel & Heeschen 1989: 136-137, 188-189).

21Among the Eipo, wit was the institution with the greatest social span. A second institution linking people from different valleys was kinship and marriage. Heeschen reported that he heard several Mek dialects spoken in the Eipomek Valley by married women who hailed from elsewhere (1998: 20, 2015: 21). Inter-valley contacts were further boosted, since bride-givers and bride-takers engaged in a long series of mutual prestations (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Schiefenhövel & Heeschen 1989: 183). A third institution linking villages was exchanges between them. Members of the research team observed one such visit in 1976. A return visit took place two years later (Heeschen, pers. comm. 2002). They were carefully planned. The hosts entertained their guests generously, but in this context, too, they avoided giving amounts that the guests might be unable to return in equal quantities when their turn to reciprocate came. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Schiefenhövel & Heeschen contrasted this feature with the “competitive giving as we find it in the Trobriand-Massim societies or among the Hagen tribes” (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Schiefenhövel & Heeschen 1989: 181-182, Heeschen 1990: 224-225). I deliberately write “exchange partners in the host village”, since the transactions were simultaneously both between villages and between inhabitants of these villages (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Schiefenhövel & Heeschen 1989: 151). The visits were marked by fine attire of the participants, oratory and dancing, which added greatly to the occasion, since Eipo associated dancing with the deeds of the ancestors. Heeschen commented that the events were “highlights” in an Eipo’s life (1998: 22).

5. Leadership and modes of exchanges

22Among the Eipo, most exchanges rested on principles of equivalence, while the goods exchanged might be dissimilar. As Lemonnier reminded me, this feature of the Eipo way of life is compatible with Godelier’s “Great Men logic” (pers. comm. 2018). Most categories of goods exchanged had use-value, besides their use, their value, in exchanges. As mentioned, in village exchanges also principles of equivalence obtained. And as regards warfare and fighting, Eipo distinguished between fights between members of traditionally hostile communities and those within a community. They saw the first category as “normal”, as an intrinsic part of human social life (Heeschen 1990: 260-261). In their case, these traditional enemies lived nearby, in the valley of a tributary of the Eipomek River. In the perception of the Eipo, fighting with these enemies was recurrent, with the aim of retaliation. Compensation did not occur. Instead, killed enemies might be eaten. However allies who had suffered losses were compensated, an example of dissimilarity in exchange (Schiefenhövel, pers. comm. 2002).

23To become a leader, an Eipo man had to show several capacities, which Heeschen has ordered into three or four categories (1984: 118, 2015: 139-140). The first concerned their ability to take the initiative, to get things going, with among them common undertakings. Hence they also needed the eloquence to persuade others.

A good speaker is he who in a pleasant, witty and engaging way tells the truth, discusses the matter at hand knowledgeably and pays attention to other points of view (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Schiefenhövel & Heeschen 1989: 42).

24Moreover these men “gave quickly” and “gave freely”, and urged others to contribute gifts, in part out of their concern for the continuity of exchanges, and those between groups of people. Finally they had to be war leaders. Their task was not to fight, although they were not cowards, but they had to call for war, and for peace, to mock and taunt the enemy by their pronouncements, thus showing eloquence, and they had to organise compensation, if required. By carrying out their tasks well, also women could become leaders. Such women spoke in public, “in the midst of men” (Heeschen 2015: 142). Heeschen’s comment recalls Van der Horst’s reports about female Moni leaders (n.d.: 84). Possibly other highland peoples recognised the capacity of women to lead, but I have not found ethnographic statements to this effect. Heeschen’s use of the expression “Great Men” attests that he perceived a multiplicity of leaders among the Eipo. He also pointed out that Eipo characterisations of their leaders showed that they visualised them as functioning in primary groups: “leaders are they who look at the others” and “leaders are in the centre” (Heeschen 2015: 140).

25Heeschen illustrated his account with vignettes of two elderly Eipo leaders whom he got to know. The first portrays a man who is proud of the gardens he has made in the course of his life. He told Heeschen to which persons he had given part of the harvests, who could expect produce from his current garden, and how he had transferred sacred knowledge to two of his sons. Heeschen characterised him as the “Great Gardener” of his village. Gerd Koch, too, observed that prominent Eipo men used to demonstrate their status with first-class garden work (1984: 90). The other leader had been the “first in war and in performing rituals”, and he told Heeschen about the generations of boys whom he had initiated, which rituals he had performed to ward off natural disasters, which men’s houses he had inaugurated, which gardens he had sanctified, which spirits he had chased off, and in how many wars he had taken the lead.

26In Heeschen’s opinion, both men looked back upon what they saw as a full life, the one as “the first in giving”, the other as “the first in knowledge”, including the knowledge of how to perform ritual (2015: 144-145). Although he did not indicate whether he could have provided one or more additional leadership vignettes, that seems plausible to me. In this context the fame of some of the composers and singers of songs, apparently always women, is intriguing (Heeschen 1990: 305). Like the Yahuli Yali, the Eipo greatly enjoyed singing (Heeschen 1989b). Referring to Godelier and Lemonnier, Heeschen called Eipo leaders “great men”, and he added that, “on the scale from ‘great men’ to ‘big men’, the Eipo are far away from ‘big men’ systems” (2015: 139-140). The characterisation implies specialisation among leaders, but his data are ambiguous in this regard. In his exposition of the personal qualities that an Eipo leader must possess, he implied that he had to have them in combination, whereas the two vignettes demonstrate in addition a degree of specialisation of leadership. Furthermore it would not do, in my view, to characterise the Eipo as having followed a way of life that included Leader-ship. I heed Lemonnier’s proposition that, in a Leader way of life, the eminent person is a warrior or an organiser of ceremonial exchanges, or more often both at the same time (1990: 123). That description does not apply to the Eipo. It is also clear that they had not brought about a Big Man society either (similarly Michel 1981: 149; Koch & Schiefenhövel 1989: 11).

27But there is also a reason that I hesitate to characterise the Eipo way of life as a mode of “Great Men logic”, and that is Lemonnier’s point that, in a Great Men way of life, not only leadership was compartmentalised, but also exchanges, and that specific types of wealth items were used in specific exchanges (2008: 161, 168). This feature is not apparent from the Eipo ethnography. As a result I conclude that the Eipo way of life did not correspond in a straightforward way to the “social logics” Godelier and Lemonnier have identified.

6. Yalenang

28In the final section of this chapter, I assemble the data on cultural adoptions such as they appear to have occurred among the Yalenang and the Yahuli Yali. I mentioned in the previous chapter that the Yahuli Yali located the mythical events that founded their habitat and their way of life in the eastern part of the Yahuli catchment, hence at the eastern edge of their current territories. The myths were at the same time founding myths of two Mek clans. In addition the Yahuli Yali had adopted many words that formed part of their sacred lore from one or more Mek communalects. In their record of Enga prehistory, Wiessner & Tumu mentioned the frequent inter-tribal adoption of rituals. They argued that “people sought ever new ways to overcome their environmental problems”, thus adopting new cults (1998: 195-196). They also observed that these new ways “were often obtained from higher areas with harsher climates, because these were the areas that formed natural boundaries between linguistic groups”. Moreover “[c]ults were readily transmitted across linguistic boundaries when (1) donors and recipients faced comparable problems… and (2) the owners of the cult were perceived as being successful” (1998: 195-196). The first two of these three conditions applied, since the Yahuli Yali traced the origin of the Yeli and the primeval pig myths to an upper catchment area, while both they and the Yalenang had to deal with an unstable physical environment. Whether the third condition applied remains unclear so far.

29Other cultural adoptions were readily apparent in material culture. Firstly, like the Yahuli Yali and unlike other Mek speakers, the Yalenang wore rattan vine cylinders. Given that the Yalenang were relative newcomers to the In Valley and so had only recently become neighbours of the Yahuli Yali, it seems more likely to me that they adopted this feature from the Yahuli Yali than vice versa. Secondly, like the Yahuli Yali, the Yalenang and also other Mek speaking groups painted the upright boards of their men’s houses (Heeschen 1994b: 136). Not all Mek speakers adopted the practice, for instance the Eipo did not. Whereas the picture in Heeschen’s 1994 paper suggested that, among the Yalenang, the drawings were less elaborate than among the Yahuli Yali, pictures by Mitton and his statement about art in the Nalca-Korupun area (1983: 122-123) made it clear that this stricture did not apply to all Mek speakers.

30Pierre and Anne-Marie Pétrequin were of the opinion that the Yali, the Yalenang and other Mek speakers got the idea for these paintings directly or indirectly from Asmat living inland, just south of the ranges (1993: 210, 2006: 45-47, 268-269). In their view, there were stylistic correspondences with the painted shields of these groups of Asmat (2006: 46; Konrad 1993). Contacts could have taken place when these highlanders had walked to the Sela quarries, or even farther south, to search for stone suitable to be fashioned into artefacts. Also Mitton, who had travelled from the lands of the Yali and the Mek speakers to the south coast via Asmat territories, wrote that he was “convinced” that both modes of art had a common origin, with the lowlands forms showing more “development” (Mitton 1983: 125). Given the location of the Sela quarries in the upper catchment of the Brazza River, the practices of painting house boards is more likely to have been adopted first by Mek speakers and only later by the Yahuli Yali. That implies that, in the highlands, the direction of change in this case was from east to west. I note that also speakers of Ok languages painted the boards of their men’s houses. But current evidence does not make it likely that Mek speakers and the Yahuli Yali adopted the practice from them, given its absence among the Ngalum.

31Another instance of cultural adoption is shown in a 1994 paper by Heeschen. A picture that accompanies the paper shows perforated stone discs hanging on the outside wall of a men’s house, to both the left and the right of the entrance. As reported by Heider (1970b), Klaus-Friedrich Koch collected similar disks in his field base Pasikni, where Yahuli Yali used them in the same way. Heider observed that they had not been reported farther west. He added that farther east such stones were also used, and for the same purpose, among the Ngalum (Kooijman 1962: 28, fig. 45), in Telefomin (George Morren, pers. comm. to Heider) and perhaps among yet other Ok speakers. In this case it therefore seems plausible that the Yahuli Yali adopted their use from their easterly neighbours. A similar argument applies to the drums, of which the Yali were the westernmost users. So in view of present evidence, it seems that in these two cases as well the direction of cultural adoption was from east to west.


1 To avoid confusion with the name “Yalenang”, Yale people, Heeschen used the name “Angguruk” people for the people I call Yahuli Yali (1994a: 178).

2 The various authors used a number of names for this area and for the quarries there. As shown on map 3, Langda and Larye are names of mission stations, located in the catchment of the Heime River. Swadling used the name Mumyeme Valley quarry, the Mumye River being a tributary of the Heime (1983: 86); the Pétrequins used Langda; and Michel, Larye (1981: 107-108).

3 Koch’s comments count, since he had earlier done field research in a range of Pacific communities (

Steinzeit – Heute, Stone Age – Now, was the name of an exhibition held in the anthropology museum in Berlin in 1979, which showed results of the research among the Eipo. Team members had written leaflets with additional information. The author of leaflet 20 is not mentioned.

Table des illustrations

Titre Pict. 11: Eipo man preparing a garden bed
Légende Gerd Koch’s caption: “Kilyan of Imarin [settlement] building up, with his digging stick, a garden bed (yakna) on the slope down from Mumyerunde [settlement] 24.9.1974.”
Crédits Source: Koch (1974: 91)
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M
Titre Pict. 12. Working party of Eipo men
Légende A working party of men, repairing the men’s house Bimduweik, in Kapcedama settlement. The picture shows the habit, if not the preference, of Eipo to congregate in close proximity.
Crédits Source: Koch 1984: 61.
Fichier image/jpeg, 425k

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