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Pathways of change

Anton Ploeg

Chapter 8. Ngalum

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1The term Ngalum has several referents. Linguists use it to denote a language, the westernmost language belonging to the Ok family of languages. But the term also refers to people; however depending on who uses or used it, it may indicate different groups or categories of people. In this book I use the term for the speakers of the Ngalum language, and mostly for the minority of Ngalum speakers about whom ethnographic data are available. In their 1981 index, Silzer and Heikkinen Clouse estimated the total number of Ngalum speakers at 15,000 (1991: 69). That figure made them the largest Ok-speaking language group, and for that reason Pamela Swadling was of the opinion that the figure might be an overestimate (Swadling et al. 1983: 17). However, the editors of Ethnologue, published in 2000, also estimated that the Ngalum at the time numbered about 18,000 people, of whom about 10,000 lived in western New Guinea (2000 vol. 1: 480, 780). Notwithstanding their large number, they lived in small groups, in part due to the inhospitable terrain. But according to Hylkema, it was typical for the Star Mountains people that they lived scattered in small groups (1974: 12).

2The main ethnographers of the Ngalum speakers are Jan Pouwer and Sibbele Hylkema. Pouwer carried out five months of fieldwork among them in 1958, as a member of the Star Mountains expedition. Hylkema worked eight years among them as a missionary, from 1961, prior to his work among the Me. Both worked in the western periphery of the Ngalum territories: Hylkema in Apmisibil, on the eastern slope of the Ok Bi Valley, north of the main divide and bordering on territories of the Mek speakers (1974: 13); and Pouwer in several locations in and close to the Ok Sibil Valley, south of the main divide. Hence this chapter refers almost exclusively to these western Ngalum. As was the case elsewhere in the eastern highlands, valleys were deeply incised, with the notable exception of the Ok Sibil Valley. Pouwer’s and Hylkema’s field sites resulted from the possibility they afforded to construct an airstrip nearby.

  • 1 Below I refer to these chapters by “Pouwer n.d.”, followed by one of the numbers II, IV, or V. As (...)

3Pouwer published one paper about his field research (1964) and drafted three chapters of a projected monograph that he did not finish.1 Encouraged by Jan van Baal, Hylkema published a lengthy ethnography on the Apmisibil Ngalum (1974). At the time he called them Nalum. Hylkema’s and Pouwer’s accounts are in broad agreement, but in part they discussed different topics, so they supplement each other. While he had not joined the Star Mountains expedition, Kooijman discussed the artefacts that the expedition members had acquired (1962). His lengthy paper incorporates important data supplied by Jan Pouwer (Kooijman 1962: 16). In addition there are useful data collected by Nol Hermans, the colonial administrator who founded the Ok Sibil patrol post, and by his successor Jan Sneep, published in the account of the Star Mountains expedition (Brongersma & Venema 1960, 1963), and in Sneep’s memoirs (2013; see also Hermans 1996). Finally, I mention Reynders’ paper dealing with Ngalum agriculture, another outcome of the Star Mountains expedition (1962). Overall the published data concerning the Apmisibil Ngalum are more extensive than those published by Pouwer and his contemporaries at Ok Sibil. The data suggest great cultural similarity. But I do not know to what extent the content of this chapter is applicable to all Ngalum.

4The Dutch colonial administration had established a patrol post in the Sibil Valley in early 1958, in anticipation of the Star Mountains expedition (Hermans 1996). So Pouwer arrived there soon after first contact had been established. However in Apmisibil, Hylkema was the first European to settle among the Ngalum. And during the eight years of his stay, he remained the only European there. In his ethnography he did not mention direct interference by Dutch or Indonesian authorities.

5In view of the distribution of the Ok languages, it seems plausible that the ancestors of the Ngalum speakers arrived at their current habitat from the east, from the Telefomin area. Hyndman & Morren supported this view (1990: 21-22; see also Hyndman 1989: 7-8). However the Apmisibil Ngalum themselves traced their origin to mountains in the southwest. Hylkema mentioned Gunung Mandala, formerly called Juliana Mountain, and Puncak Digul, but which the Apmisibil Ngalum called Afom, and Aflim, a mountain farther west (Hylkema 1974: 1, 330, 422-423). Elsewhere in his book however, he referred to the Ok Ngangul area, east of Apmisibil, as the “cradle of man” (1974: 369). Ok Sibil Ngalum told Pouwer that they hailed from Mount Aburop, yet another mountain, north of Gunung Mandala, and had spread from there to the east and northeast Pouwer n.d. IV: 5-6).

6Both Pouwer and Hylkema found that, in addition to the speakers of the Ngalum language, speakers of another language lived in the areas where they did their field research. The linguist Joop Anceaux, also a member of the Star Mountains expedition, accompanied Pouwer during the first part of his research, and he noticed the resemblance of this other language to what had become known of the language of the “Goliath people” living farther west (De Kock 1912; Godschalk 1999). As mentioned in the previous chapter, their communalect formed part of the Mek language family. Pouwer noted (n.d. IV: 2-3) that some of these Mek speakers understood the Ok language of the Ngalum, could speak it a bit, but were far from fluent. Hence they might be recent migrants.

7The Ngalum speakers at Apmisibil referred to the resident Mek speakers as “Kupel” or “Kufel”, a term that, according to Hylkema, is a Ngalum exonym denoting people living to their north, whether or not they were Ngalum speakers (1974: 7-9). The migration of Mek speakers among Ok speakers demonstrates that the migrations of the Mek speakers reported by Heeschen were continuing well into the twentieth century. Hylkema’s account suggested that in Apmisibil there was greater integration between the two language groups than in the Ok Sibil area. He wrote that the invasive Kufel had adopted the language and the rituals of the Ngalum, while retaining their own rituals: “integration stops at the exclusiveness of the men’s houses” (1974: 354). The process resembles what happened after the Lani invaded the Ilaga, with the Damal retaining the Tel ritual as a mark of identity. Similarly Marrie Altena wrote about Mek speakers living near Langda, due south of the Eipomek Valley across the main divide, that they distinguished their own way of life from the practises of the people at Ok Sibil by pointing to the “kwit” initiation ritual and to two hair appendages, all unknown in the Ok Sibil area (1994: 8). Hylkema reported the existence of two separate ritual groups among the Apmisibil population (1974: 8). The people called these groups Basin and Tukon, after the names of the different initiation rituals for boys that they practised. They identified the Basin with the Mek speakers and the Tukon with the Ok speakers, although Hylkema observed that this rule did not always hold (1974: 8). Pouwer learnt the Ok language during his research. And Hylkema also appears to have used the Ok language, of which he made a dictionary and a grammar that have remained unpublished (Ploeg 2000b). He did not write about the language of the Kufel.

8In the late 1950s, the staple crops of the Ngalum were sweet potato and taro. Of the two, sweet potato was the main crop, in contrast to what obtained among most other Ok speakers (Hermans, in Sneep 2005: 89). Hylkema wrote: “Although taro is assigned an important role in myth and in ritual, in daily life sweet potato gets most attention” (1974: 402). Ellenberger’s comment, referred to above, that for the Damal taro was the prestige food while sweet potato was the food of subsistence, appears to have held for the Ngalum as well (1996: 139). Their ethnography does not mention an account of prehistoric introduction of the sweet potato. On the contrary, Hylkema reported a Ngalum myth that mentioned that the creatrix bore the crop (1974: 423-424).

9The Ngalum owned pigs, but in small numbers. In Apmisibil people were not prepared to answer Hylkema’s inquiries into the number of pigs they owned. He estimated that there was less than one pig, presumably one adult pig, per adult woman (1974: 445). In his view the number was so small since the animals had to forage (1974: 445). In passing Hylkema mentioned the occurrence of food shortages, when old gardens had been depleted and new ones did not yet yield (1974: 410). So it might have been that the Ngalum fed their pigs little of their sweet potato harvests because they had little to spare. At the same time, it remains unclear why foraging did not provide pigs with much food. It is not that the Ngalum had few pigs because the animals were not important in the Ngalum way of life. On the contrary, Hylkema argued that pigs had a “key position” among the people. I come back to this point below.

10A crop that I mention in addition is tobacco because of its role in trading and feasting. In valleys with soils that favoured its cultivation “great tobacco festivals” were held, which Pouwer, in a personal communication to Kooijman (1962: 30), likened to the Muyu pig feasts described by Schoorl (1957: 88-89, 1993: 99-100) and by Robert Welsch (1994). Pouwer stressed the commercial character of the festivals, which drew visitors from far afield. Briefly and tantalisingly, he referred to a “tobacco Big Man”, without clarifying his role and without providing further information (pers. comm.). Nevertheless his use of the expression suggests that, among the Ngalum, men could acquire prominence, if not power, by transacting tobacco. It was traded to the southern lowlands against items such as drums and bows (Kooijman 1962: 17). Like the other eastern highlanders, Ngalum in the Ok Sibil Valley owned and used drums, but in small numbers. Most of these were not made locally but were imported from the Muyu, Ok speakers in the southern lowlands (Kooijman 1962: 28-29; Pouwer n.d. IV: 12-13). Pouwer comments that drumming was part of a dance introduced by migrants from the southern foothills, and so may have been introduced along with the dance.

11Like sweet potato, tobacco, too, is a post-Magellanic introduction, and Hays, having plotted the geographic distribution of local names for the crop, argued (1990) that it reached the “Mek-Ok region” at an early stage, from the north coast, and that it spread from there farther south. The tobacco festivals of the late 1950s might well be cultural elaborations of that earlier trade of a novel crop. In any case, the appearance of a “tobacco Big Man” is also a post-Magellanic phenomenon, much like the flourishing of Big Men in the historical sequence postulated by Godelier and Lemonnier.

1. Settlement

Pict. 13. Ngalum man in front of a sacred men’s house.

Pict. 13. Ngalum man in front of a sacred men’s house.

Mangoljondokrar, the man shown, was one of the oldest men in the Apmisibil during Hylkema’s stay there. He resided in that men’s house. Ngalum houses, whether profane or sacred, were ‘oval to round’ (Hylkema 1974: 307), but had a saddle roof. This seemingly incongruous combination occurred also among the Eipo (Koch 1984: 38). The floor of the houses was raised and in the case of men’s houses the area under the floor was screened off.

12The Ngalum lived in what Pouwer described as neighbourhoods or parishes, consisting of a cluster of hamlets, one of which was a central place since it contained a sacred men’s house (1964; 134, n.d. II: 1-2). The parish was the largest “territorial unit with corporate functions” (n.d. II: 1) As regards the Apmisibil, Hylkema mentioned “villages” and “hamlets”, applying the latter term to settlements without a sacred men’s house. Settlements varied a great deal in size. He counted 507 inhabitants in the valley in August 1968. At the time, the largest village there had 163 inhabitants, a number larger than the membership of any of the political entities that Pouwer came across during his fieldwork south of the main divide (Hylkema 1974: 10-11; Pouwer n.d. II: 1-2). Given the variety in size that both ethnographers reported, I use here the overall term “settlement”. Settlements contained at most four categories of buildings: family houses, women’s houses, men’s houses and dance houses.

13Pouwer reported (n.d. II: 1-2) that, following Ngalum preference, family houses tended to be the dwellings of nuclear families. Men’s houses had variable ritual status. Pouwer distinguished three grades: secular “club houses”, accessible to all men and grown-up boys, sacred houses, accessible to initiated men only, and iwol, to which access was even more restricted (1964: 134). Iwol did not occur in every settlement. Pouwer described these houses as “the cosmological centre par excellence of an area” (n.d. II: 20) that includes a number of political entities. And Hylkema wrote of the sacred men’s houses that they were:

On the one hand the centre towards which all houses are oriented, on the other isolated from these houses and shrouded in a haze of secrecy, is the sacred men’s house the tangible embodiment that the group is more than its [current members] (1974: 240).

14In accordance with Pouwer, he added further on in his book: “Togetherness is experienced most intensely among the group of… relatives assembled round a single sacred men’s house” (1974: 387). Iwol were well maintained and permanently guarded “by the ritual functionaries and their deputies” (Pouwer 1964: 135). Non-authorised visitors were not allowed in, since their presence there was believed to endanger the welfare and well-being of the local group. “The actual creation of new iwol is admitted reluctantly, if not denied outright” (Pouwer 1964: 135). Hylkema noticed (1974: 316f) in the Apmisibil a similar tri-partition as regards the men’s houses, with the added complication that each of the two ritual groups had their own sacred men’s houses. He, too, commented that, in the perception of the people, an iwol should never be demolished. An important aim in warfare was to burn down the enemy’s “sacred men’s house”, including its sacra (1974: 278). This aim shows a striking contrast with what obtained among the Yali (see p. 163).

15Women used the women’s houses only when they were menstruating, when they gave birth, and for the seven days following the birth. The dance houses, finally, were the largest structures that the Ngalum built. They had sprung floors and were the centres of the apparently frequent dance feasts that the people held. I return to these feasts below.

  • 2 It is probably on account of conceptions such as these that Van Baal referred to the “perplexing m (...)

16The small scale of territorial and political organisation among the Ngalum was combined with several features of wider scope however. One of these features was the presence of several “central beings”. One was Seramki, in Hylkema’s expression the “tribe’s father”, as among Eipo (1974: 43). Ngalum imagined him as a grumpy old man, ready to punish people, and seated in the back of many, maybe all, iwol (1974: 43). Another was Atangki, a more genial character, who joined people in their daily undertakings. A third was a female, people’s “eldest sister” (1974: 43-47).2 Other such features of wider scope were the dance feasts and the tobacco festivals. Yet as with the Mek, it is hard to gauge the unifying impetus of these features.

2. Geographic mobility

17Both Pouwer and Hylkema noticed extensive population mobility, both long term and short term, among the people they worked among. As I wrote earlier, the geographic distribution of the Ok languages suggests that the Ngalum speakers moved to their current territories from the east, from across what has become the border with Papua New Guinea (Ploeg 2013b: 53). Hyndman & Morren seem to have argued similarly (1990: 21; see also Hyndman 1989). They saw the area nowadays called Telefomin as a, if not the, centre of expansion of the Ok peoples and related their expansion to the adoption of sweet potato cultivation. The expansion reached into mid-altitude areas and into the interior lowlands. Pouwer agreed: in his opinion the ancestors of the Muyu, speakers of an Ok language, moved from the central mountains south to the interior lowlands (Pouwer & Haenen 1989: vii). Schoorl, who did fieldwork among the Muyu, supported this argument (1989: 43-44).

18While the above reasoning seems plausible to me, Pouwer’s data complicate the migration history (n.d. IV: 4-6; Kooijman 1962: 36). As mentioned, discussants in the Ok Sibil Valley put their place of origin in the northwest, in the Aburop, a mountain north of the upper course of the Ok Cop and north of the source of the Ok Sibil (Reynders 1962: 71, Map). They detailed several routes along which their ancestors had moved to their current locations (Pouwer n.d. IV 5-6). Pouwer was also told about frequent, bloody wars among the densely settled population of the Ok Sibil Valley, upstream from Mabilabol, that had led to out-migration from there, also in northerly and easterly directions (Brumbaugh 1990: 58). Pouwer noted that the upstream section of the valley offered excellent opportunities for taro cultivation, while elsewhere in the southern Star Mountains, opportunities were mostly poor. However Pouwer’s data, it seems to me, refer to more recent events than the migrations away from Telefomin and those from the Star Mountains to the southern lowlands, as hypothesised by respectively Hyndman and Pouwer himself. Hylkema reported that at Apmisibil people saw Afom, the local name of Gunung Mandala, with Aflim, an adjoining mountain, as the site that bore their ancestors and “everything” else (1974: 86, 422-423). Hence they, too, associated their origin with mountains, moreover mountains located south of their current habitat and in the vicinity of Mount Aburop. As mentioned in the previous chapter, Heeschen has written that Mek speakers, too, traced their origin to Gunung Mandala (1994a: 167).

19Pouwer drafted his unpublished account in the early 1960s, before Watson had launched his ideas about the occurrence of a “sweet potato revolution” in the New Guinea Highlands in papers published in 1965 (Ballard 1995: 11-12; 2005: 7). The account supports Watson’s argument. Indeed since Watson and Pouwer were in contact during the drafting of the special issue of the American Anthropologist dealing with the New Guinea Highlands (1964), which Watson edited and to which Pouwer contributed his Ngalum paper, Pouwer’s account may have helped Watson formulate his ideas. As mentioned in the introduction, the post-Magellanic adoption of sweet potato cultivation in the New Guinea highlands is one of the few prehistoric complexes of events in that area that a large majority of scholars agrees on (Ballard 2005: 8-9). Because the prehistory of the highlands is so little known, it is hazardous, yet tempting, to use the sweet potato revolution as the master key for explaining the course of past events. In this case, however, it is plausible to suppose that the migrations of the Star Mountains people recorded by Pouwer were inspired by the opportunities that the new crop offered in the rugged environment around the upper Ok Sibil Valley. Reynders reported (1962: 51, 56) that, in the late 1950s, sweet potato was the most important crop in the Sibil Valley. About the Atbalmin, the eastern neighbours of the Ngalum, Hyndman & Morren reported similarly (1990: 24). In their case, too, the predominance of the crop was possibly due to the steep terrain in their habitat. Reynders entitled his paper “Shifting cultivation in the Star Mountains area” and did not mention terracing or draining of the fields. Neither did Hylkema, in a short account of garden making (1974: 406-409). He focused instead on fence building. Finally Pouwer claimed that the Ngalum had “little knowledge of water regulation” (1964: 133). So it seems that Ngalum did not practise water control to any extent.

20Also in the late 1950s and 1960s, mobility among the Ngalum was still considerable. As mentioned, Hylkema concluded that Apmisibil had become settled more recently than other valleys in the area. The Ngalum speakers among the population told him that they had arrived there from various directions, especially from the far west and the south (1974: 241-242, 336-337). He also reported that, during his residence among them in the 1960s, the inhabitants were of the opinion that not enough people lived in the area (1974: 403). Clearing forest to make a new food garden was a prestigious undertaking (1974: 405-406). But people also kept moving within the valley. Hylkema wrote that when he left the area in 1969, the inhabitants had abandoned all the settlements that existed on his arrival in 1961 (1974: 304). Moreover, they had regrouped.

21Other Ok speakers practised “village endogamy” and sister exchange (Jorgensen 1991: 263-264). In Barnes’ term, which I mentioned while discussing Lani marriage, marriages among these Ok speakers were “concentrated”. However, although such concentration seems not to have occurred among the Ngalum in the 1960s, I doubt whether their current practise amounted to “dispersal” either. Pouwer wrote that “direct exchange of sisters” was not allowed (1964: 142). The exogamous unit was, in his perception, “the group of close bilateral kin based on the nuclear family and/or sibling relationship” (1964: 142). Hylkema formulated several prescriptive marriage rules: partners should not belong to the same “clan”; members of some, not identified, clans should not intermarry, and marriage with FZD and MZD, or, from the perspective of women, with MBS and MZS, was ruled out (1974: 125). Further on in his book, he qualified these rules: clan exogamy “concurs only to a very restricted degree with reality” (1974: 251). He mentioned a marriage between members of the same sub-clan, commenting that other clan members disapproved of the union, but let it happen, since the couple and their parents were not influential people (1974: 251). Hylkema found that at the time the “larger half” of the men had married women from Apmisibil (1974: 251). He also found that people were inclined to “actualise” relations between the various clans or sub-clans by contracting mutual marriages. At the same time, a marriage partner might come from a considerable distance, for instance from a different valley. Hence marriage added to the geographic mobility.

  • 3 As written in the beginning of this chapter, Hermans was the colonial administrator who founded th (...)
  • 4 Don Gardner carried out fieldwork among people he formerly called the Mianmin, but now prefers cal (...)

22However efforts undertaken by parents to bring about a desired order in marriage relationships by arranging the marriages of their offspring were obstructed, to an unknown extent, by initiatives taken by both the male and the female marriage candidates themselves (Hylkema 1974: 127-128). An institution that facilitated such initiatives were the frequent dance parties that might last for more than one day, or rather night. In contrast to the iwol, with their sharply restricted access, these were open and festive, drawing large crowds of men and women, often not yet married, and in part from considerable distances (Hermans, in Sneep 2013: 853; Brongersma & Venema 1960: 117, 194-195; 1963: 130, 209-210; Pouwer n.d. II: 7; Hylkema 1974: 121-122). As mentioned, they centred on dance houses with sprung floors. In earlier chapters I mentioned the occurrence of such dance houses with sprung floors among the Me and the Moni. However in the valleys in between Moni and Ngalum such buildings did not occur. Craig notes that they did occur among other Ok speakers, though not all, and also farther north in the middle Sepik area (pers. comm. 2016).4 In Craig’s opinion, Malay traders and bird-of-paradise hunters on the New Guinea north coast may have acquainted local New Guineans with these structures. This view accords well with their presence among Me and Moni, given that Hylkema ascribed the ample presence of cowries among them to contacts with traders, in his case Chinese, while Pospisil pointed to the adoption by the Me of their sexagesimal counting system employing Austronesian terms as a result of their contacts with people living to their north (1989: 20-21). As mentioned, the acquisition of an extended counting system with new counting terms must have required intensive contacts over a period of time, as did learning how to build sizeable dance houses with sprung floors.

3. Marriage and compensation payments

  • 5 Brongersma was a biologist (Wentholt 2003: 115).

23Contracting a marriage led to exchanges, or further exchanges, of wealth. Hermans, quoted by Brongersma & Venema, noted that the composition of brideprices changed almost immediately after the Ngalum had started acquiring western goods (1960: 195-196, 1963: 210-211). Brideprices came to contain steel axes and bush knives, in addition to, or instead of, New Guinean goods such as bows, cowry and nassa shells, and bands set with such shells, pigs, “rats”, string bags and head bands. From what Brongersma5 & Venema wrote, I conclude that the term “rats” referred to small mammals, excluding the marsupials (1960: 93-94). They added that, in the late 1950s, the value of western goods was inflating. Hylkema confirmed both trends when he provided the composition of three brideprices for marriages contracted in Apmisibil in the 1960s (1974: 292-293). They contained parrots – I suppose on account of their feathers –, axes, bush knives (in Dutch: kapmessen), string bags, bows, and nassa and cowry shell bands. I take it that the axes had steel blades, but Hylkema was in only one case explicit about this. In only one price were shell bands numerically the main item. Hylkema commented that the number of cowry and nassa shells had recently increased, because he had paid Ngalum with these valuables (1974: 294). Two prices included kabong, according to Hylkema “marsupials”. What I suppose mattered was that both the “rats” and the “marsupials” had to be hunted. Strikingly Hylkema did not mention pigs. The majority of items tended to consist of utensils, in other words objects with use-value instead of merely exchange-value (Gardner 1990: 22). Often they had to be imported. With the exception of pigs and, possibly, string bags, which constituted a minority of the items, the rest were items procured and/or produced by men. As mentioned above, the Eipo also used utensils in this way.

24The Ngalum used cowries and nassa shells as means of exchange (Hylkema 1974: 294; Kooijman 1962: 33, and as regards cowries, Hermans, in Sneep 2005: 89). Previous to settlement by Europeans and their followers, the Ngalum appear to have owned few cowries (Kooijman 1962: 19), although Hermans wrote that it “is the only object that is regarded as true money” (Hermans, in Sneep 2005: 89). But, like the Me, they viewed the pre-contact cowries as the really valuable ones. Most likely they had acquired these via trade with the Muyu and adjoining groups. Craig & Swadling argued that the Torres Strait reefs were the most likely origin of these cowries (1983: 119). They argued further that the number of cowries arriving from the south had decreased due to the wide ranging Marind Anim head-hunting raids and the ensuing population movements (1983: 115). If that was the case, trade was hampered from the middle or late nineteenth century onwards, and maybe earlier. Craig & Swadling added that plume hunters might have increased the supply “in the years 1914-26” (1983: 121, n. 22). The comment is noteworthy since, without knowing about it, Hylkema echoed it with regard to the cowries used by the Me. However given the demand for cowries among the Muyu, the Ngalum were not in a good position to acquire very many.

25Bride-givers gave bride-takers a return gift (Brongersma & Venema 1960: 195, 1963: 210; Hylkema 1974: 296-297). The ethnographers did not report why the Ngalum thought they had to make such a gift. Hylkema mentioned (1974: 296-297) that, in addition to items that featured in the brideprice, it had to contain a slaughtered pig, apparently a single pig, so the groom’s father could reward with pork those who had contributed to the brideprice. In addition the bride-takers had to pay child-prices and a mortuary payment. A child-price was paid when the child concerned turned out to be viable. Like the brideprice, the child-price was followed by a counter-prestation. The mortuary payment for an adult primarily compensated for payments lost because of the death (Hylkema 1974: 296-297). Hylkema is not clear about the payments involved.

26The ethnography shows, if only by incidental remarks, that the Ngalum also practised payment of compensation in various forms. Hylkema’s discussion of fighting includes a reference to what he called “soldiers’ pay”, in Dutch “soldij” (1974: 281). He meant that allies were paid with pork for their support, while those allies who had incurred wounds were paid more, usually in shells. Young men might join a fight so as to receive payment (1974: 274). He did not mention compensation paid for a killed ally, but its occurrence seems to fit with the instances in which the Ngalum paid compensation. Another payment that he noted was made by one of the combatants to an opponent to compensate damage to a food garden; yet another compensated for wounding an elderly woman, an action deemed unwarranted by the conflict concerned (1974: 281). Hylkema further reported a case in which the warring parties broke off a fight after a leader had been wounded. Thereupon the party of the leader paid the opponents “in shells and so on” (1974: 271).

27That the Ngalum paid brideprice and other marriage payments, and also compensation implied that they did not follow a “Great Man logic“. It is noteworthy that pigs and pork apparently did not play a prominent part in these prestations. Nevertheless Hylkema had concluded that the pig had a “key position in the functioning of their society” (1974: 443). In the course of his ethnography, he mentioned the use of pork in a range of events and rituals, such as the ritual first planting of sweet potatoes in a newly made garden, and their ritual first harvesting (1974: 410). “[P]eople entice spirits with pork to leave a sick person” so he or she recovers (1974: 443). Also, “receiving pork can be used as an argument to let a marriage take place”; “groups who have faced each other during fights make up [the Dutch original is the equivalent of the more indefinite ‘meet’] when they eat pork together”. Significantly Hylkema did not mention gift exchange in this context. Men and women applied an ointment containing red earth to their bodies. Men mixed it with pig fat, a practice that women were not to know about (1974: 356-357). The rationale was that the mixture promoted growth, like rich soil promoted the growth of taro (Hylkema 1974: 358).

28For Ngalum, pigs were a symbol of vitality. In Hylkema’s words:

The life principle that, in gradations, realises and manifests itself in all kinds of shapes and that simultaneously propels everything that has taken shape towards further unfolding and sharper nuancing, has materialised most compactly and concretely in pig belly fat (1974: 452-453).

29He also reported that the kin of a seriously ill person crammed pig belly fat into “his” mouth (1974: 452-453). And further on he concluded that the Ngalum perceived pig belly fat to be the primary material of semen (1974: 455). While it does not follow from these tenets that they saw pigs as an equivalent of human life, the conception that, according to Lemonnier (1993: 36), furthered the flourishing of nonequivalent marriage payments and compensation, Ngalum perception seems to have been closely related.

Pict. 14. Ritual harvest of the first sweet potato

Pict. 14. Ritual harvest of the first sweet potato

The picture shows a husband, his wife and their child. She has uncovered a potato tuber, the subject of the ritual. Also present, but not shown, are all the men and women “with an interest” in the garden concerned. Hylkema does not mention the presence of a ritual expert so it seems that the ritual knowledge required is present among the population at large (Hylkema 1974: 410-412).

Source: Donkers (in Hylkema 1974).

4. Initiation

30The Ngalum practised two, perhaps three initiations: the first admitted boys into the ritual men’s house; the second incorporated them into the ritual group of their fathers. The latter were specific for each of the two ritual groups. I base this section on the lengthy account that Hylkema has provided (1974: 354-384). An important part of his account of the initiation into the ritual men’s house derived from what an Ngalum man told him about his own initiation. This event was small in scale: at first it concerned two brothers, who were initiated by their father and his two brothers, but after they had started the ritual, the father of a third boy decided to let him join in. So it seems that the decision to stage an initiation, and also its staging, may have been up to the individual fathers of the novices, and hence not to ritual specialists, or to the inmates of a men’s house collectively.

31The ritual lasted for seven days and it was held in and around a shelter away from the settlement, for most of the time away from women. The novices might vary greatly in age. Right from the start they were rubbed with the mixture of red earth and pig fat. They were subjected to privations: their food was restricted to taro and sugar cane juice, and they had to spend most nights outside the shelter, away from a fire. They also might receive a new name. Hylkema pointed to the parallels with the seven or eight days a mother spent with her newly born child in the women’s house (1974: 164-165, 170-171). Sugar cane juice was a major food on this occasion. Moreover before the mother returned with her newly born child to their family house, she rubbed it with red earth so as to strengthen it.

32The other initiation, or rather initiations, inducted the novices into the two cult groups. I include the plural since the rituals differed according to the group to which the novices came to belong. These differences were considerable. Hylkema provided accounts of both (1974: 360-384). He pointed to the geographic concentration and the longer duration of the rituals of the former Mek speakers, compared to those of the original Ok speakers. In the case of the latter, the number of boys and young men initiated together in the ritual was again small, even though the people themselves spoke of many novices. Hylkema reported that nevertheless he did not hear of an initiation that included more than six novices (1974: 366). For both groups the rituals included the application of the hair appendages, the “pigtails” (Craig 1988: 21), a common feature among Ok speakers.

33Echoing his interlocutors, Hylkema enlarged most on the food taboos that the ritual entailed. In this case, too, taro and sugar cane juice were the foods that the novices had to rely on. By means of the rituals, the initiators aimed at giving the novices a healthy look, and thus, according to their initiators, a sound outlook on life. He also observed that the ritual status of the inmates of a sacred men’s house differed. Among them was a core group, in its turn hierarchically organised and entitled to use the back part of the house into which others were not allowed. Membership of this core group was effected by co-optation (1974: 340), and those selected were ritually inducted (1974: 343), which amounts to a third initiation.

5. Leadership

34The ethnography does not contain a full discussion of Ngalum leadership, although Hylkema dealt with the topic at several points in his book. Ngalum distinguished between “non-influential” and “influential” men, that is to say those who had “made their name” (1974: 208). Within these categories they perceived gradations. Subscribing to a mode of what Marshall Sahlins has called “heroic history” (1985: 35-36), the Ngalum were inclined to attribute important events, such as a killing, to these influential men (Hylkema 1974: 272). They were often oldest sons, or the oldest of their generation in a lineage. The next qualification that Hylkema mentioned was eloquence, a capacity that counted for much. For instance, Hylkema recorded the comment: “His talk satiated me like [a meal of] taro” (1974: 283). Subsequently he mentioned leadership during fights (1974: 207-208). Leadership on these occasions entailed delivering a substantial speech previous to the fighting. After finishing the speech, the leader drew the first arrow and then withdrew from the ensuing fight. Yet, for the enemy, he remained the prime target (1974: 271-272). Proficiency in transacting shells was another qualification for leadership. The reputation of such people was that they “made shells” and that they could “reap them from trees”, or from a “chunk of pork put ready in the sacred men’s house” (1974: 208). Proficiency in transacting referred also, if not primarily, to managing transactions for the benefit of others, notably when a brideprice had to be assembled (1974: 209-210).

35Hylkema intimated that at least some of the mentioned qualifications had to occur in combination. An image the Ngalum used was that such leaders, isoomki, took the place, or one of the places, that the Ngalum way of life had in store for them (1974: 469). In addition Hylkema mentioned the presence of clairvoyants/healers, and of the guardians of iwol (1974: 65-66). Of a specific healer, he wrote that he had made his name by his healing practice and thus, I presume, had become a leader (1974: 209); of the guardians he did not say as much. Yet it seems likely they did, or had done, so and had become guardians for this reason. Another place that the Ngalum way of life then had in store was that of the tobacco “Big Man”, whom Pouwer referred to. And finally Hylkema presented a vignette of an elderly man who looked back upon his life with satisfaction and who saw himself as an example for his sons (1974: 470). Instead of being a warrior like his brothers, he had been a diligent gardener providing for his family. His attitude is reminiscent of Jorgensen’s comment that the Telefol, also Ok speakers, took pride in being “keen gardeners” (1991: 265). An Ngalum man enhanced his name when he turned land covered with primary, or seemingly primary, forest into a food garden, thus adding to the garden land available to his local group (Hylkema 1974: 405-406). In Godelier’s terms he had become a Great Gardener. Hylkema contrasted this life with that of a man who had made his name as a warrior. He had killed several people, by stealth, but had not made a garden in former forest land. He dared not go far from his place of residence for fear he would become the target of sorcery.

36It seems plausible that the Ngalum way of life had yet other capacities in store that attributed leadership, such as leadership in the ritual core groups of the sacred men’s houses. In any case, the above comments suggest a multiplicity in Ngalum leadership that resembled a “Great Man logic.” Simultaneously however men could become leaders by transacting wealth, a “Big Man” trait. Hence in the context of Godelier’s and Lemonnier’s categorisation of highlands leadership, Ngalum leadership at the time of inquiry is likely to have been hybrid and sui generis.


1 Below I refer to these chapters by “Pouwer n.d.”, followed by one of the numbers II, IV, or V. As I explained in a previous publication (Ploeg 2013b: 50) I use these numbers since Pouwer himself had numbered two chapters IV and V, while the text of the unnumbered chapter demonstrates that it is not the first one of the projected monograph.

2 It is probably on account of conceptions such as these that Van Baal referred to the “perplexing mystical haziness” of Ngalum thought (1974: viii).

3 As written in the beginning of this chapter, Hermans was the colonial administrator who founded the Ok Sibil patrol post. He published one paper (Hermans 1996) about his work in Ok Sibil, and started writing his memoirs, but he did not publish them. His successor, Sneep, published his in 2013, using materials from Hermans with his authorisation.

4 Don Gardner carried out fieldwork among people he formerly called the Mianmin, but now prefers calling them the Mian, Ok speakers living in Papua New Guinea. They also held dance parties in houses with a sprung floor. He commented on the sexual overtones of the proceedings (pers. comm. 2017). The same may have been the case among the Ngalum. However description of their dance feasts is not available.

5 Brongersma was a biologist (Wentholt 2003: 115).

Table des illustrations

Titre Pict. 13. Ngalum man in front of a sacred men’s house.
Légende Mangoljondokrar, the man shown, was one of the oldest men in the Apmisibil during Hylkema’s stay there. He resided in that men’s house. Ngalum houses, whether profane or sacred, were ‘oval to round’ (Hylkema 1974: 307), but had a saddle roof. This seemingly incongruous combination occurred also among the Eipo (Koch 1984: 38). The floor of the houses was raised and in the case of men’s houses the area under the floor was screened off.
Fichier image/jpeg, 646k
Titre Pict. 14. Ritual harvest of the first sweet potato
Légende The picture shows a husband, his wife and their child. She has uncovered a potato tuber, the subject of the ritual. Also present, but not shown, are all the men and women “with an interest” in the garden concerned. Hylkema does not mention the presence of a ritual expert so it seems that the ritual knowledge required is present among the population at large (Hylkema 1974: 410-412).
Crédits Source: Donkers (in Hylkema 1974).
Fichier image/jpeg, 474k

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