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Pathways of change

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Anton Ploeg

In conclusion

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1. Directions of change

1The eight ways of life that I have attempted to characterise in this book show a diverse picture of differences and resemblances, the outcome of endogenous changes combined with cultural adoptions from other peoples. As regards the endogenous changes, I assume a parallel, however distinct, with the changes that have taken place in the languages that formed part of these eight ways of life. At issue are at the least eight languages, belonging to five language families (see Table 2). As I argued in section 3 of the introduction, it seems plausible to me that ancestors of the speakers of one language family once spoke a single proto-language and followed a common way of life. If, at first contact, the major cultural boundaries coincided with linguistic boundaries, both those between the language families and those between the individual languages, that suggests that the speakers of these languages have changed their ways of life endogenously. In this conception, resemblances between the ways of life as they existed at first contact between Hubula, Lani and Yali resulted from their common “Great Dani” proto-culture. Their forms of dual organisation, whether expressed in moieties or pairing of (sub-)clans, or both, appear a major cultural item that they shared at first contact (also Brown 1978: 181). Of the other five peoples, only the Damal shared this feature. In view of their disposition to import elements of culture, they may well have obtained it through cultural borrowing.

2However in the highlands of west New Guinea, relationships between cultural and linguistic boundaries were in many cases less straightforward. An example is the ranked ritual status of men’s houses. Separate men’s houses were uncommon among Me and Moni, and among Lani they were not ranked. However in the eastern highlands, ritual ranking was prominent among the Ngalum, less so among the Eipo, but in the latter case on the basis of criteria that have remained unclear to me. It was present among Yali and among Hubula. That this feature occurred across major linguistic boundaries suggests cultural borrowing, but the different modes in which the institution occurred suggest various local re-fashionings. Hence exogenous and endogenous changes appear to have occurred in combination. Another instance of important inter-cultural contacts is provided by the use of the term (k)wit for male initiation by Eipo, Yali and Lani, while Hubula may have used the term. Ngalum did practise initiation; however, the term (k)wit does not feature in Ngalum ethnography. Among the other four peoples, however, the term referred to quite dissimilar rituals. This state of affairs is unlikely to have resulted from re-fashioning. Possibly the peoples concerned used the term as a classifier, a term that Zöllner used (1977b: 377-378), with Heeschen’s subsequent approval (1994b 141), denoting imagined unity among seemingly various Yali artefacts. Yet another instance of cultural borrowing is the adoption by the Yahuli Yali of the founding myths of two clans of Mek speakers, which they started employing, in combination, as the founding myth of their habitat and their society, which comprised many clans. A final instance is the considerable amount of lexical borrowing from Mek speakers by both Yali and Ok speakers (Heeschen 1998: 80-81; Heeschen et al. 2015: 16).

3These three examples concern cultural adoptions from groups of highlanders by other groups of highlanders. In contrast, Hylkema argued persuasively that highlanders imported cowries by trading with and by providing services to others than highlanders. Both the Me and the Moni made this shell their main wealth item, however in their own, specific ways. Hylkema also observed that the Me kept refining cowry gradations and added new, precious grades. Moreover in grading cowries, Me living near lake Tage inspected especially the front while Me living near lake Tigi inspected the back (Hylkema 2012: 87). Hence the grading of cowries that both the Me and the Moni practised appears to be a product of their own inventiveness, even if outside purveyors of the shells had conveyed the initial idea. It remains unclear to what extent the two peoples used similar criteria when grading cowries. Ngalum, too, used cowries as a currency. I do not know whether they graded them. They derived the shells from southern lowlanders. Another adoption of a cultural item from outside the highlands was apparently the painting that Yahuli Yali and a number of Mek speaking groups applied to their men’s houses. However in this case, the idea may have been prompted by paintings that lowlanders applied to their shields. Several items of material culture may have been adopted consecutively, especially the hair appendages, worn by peoples in the eastern highlands, and the hand drums.

4As mentioned in the Introduction, Hyndman & Morren have coined the notion of “cultural spheres” as a tool to analyse the geographic direction of cultural change:

A sphere is a potentially expansive, segmentary, reticulated mosaic of local groups that, notwithstanding observable ethnolinguistic diversity, share a common tradition and are strongly influenced by one or more core populations at the historic-geographic centre of their region (Hyndman & Morren 1990: 10; Hyndman 1989 1-2).

5They viewed the highlands of western New Guinea as a single such sphere, with Paniai and the Grand Valley of the Baliem as its two cores. Szalay adopted these conceptualisations (1999: 26-27). Accordingly she viewed the Grand Valley of the Baliem as the “historic-geographic centre” of the Dani speakers. However her approach was more flexible, since she acknowledged the occurrence of emerging cores (Szalay 1999: 142, 430). In my view, Hyndman & Morren overlooked the considerable cultural differences between Me and Hubula. Their claim that the two groups shared a “common tradition” appears unwarranted. Moreover the occurrence and persistence of cultural dependency between dominant cores and influenceable peripheries seems overdrawn to me, since there are examples of “peripheral” groups indifferent or averse to the way of life of the “core” population, or to elements of it. At the time of first contact, the “peripheral” Mapia Me, while small in number, attempted to establish their own cultural identity apart from the far more numerous “core” Me to the east. Moreover neither the peripheral Lani nor the peripheral Yali have retained the mode of leadership that appeared to be a central element in the Hubula way of life.

6In the era just before first contact, a flow of cultural changes regarding the uses of cowries as a means of exchange was indeed taking place with the “core” Me as its centre. However, if the Moni derived their cowries from the neighbouring Me, they did so in a culture-specific way. The proceedings imply that, in this case, the influence of the core area was less strong than Hyndman & Morren assumed. Their point of view is in line with Ellenberger’s conclusion that the Damal had undergone the cultural influence of both Me and Lani, in his view the two “giants of the highlands.” Yet the Damal had not given up their search for hai, and had retained, or at least were attempting to retain, an ethnic identity by clinging to the tel ritual. Also in this case, then, the influence of the core areas, the “giants”, was limited. As regards the direction of cultural change in the western highlands, Szalay noticed a “predominantly east-west flow” (1999: 71). Yet the increased numbers of cowries the Me had obtained seem to have furthered a flow in the opposite direction, towards the Moni, the Damal and the Lani. In the eastern highlands, the flow appears to have been in fact from east, and south, to west. If we retain Szalay’s, and Hyndman & Morren’s model of cultural change, that flow emanated from the Telefol core. It had reached the Dani-speaking Yahuli Yali, notwithstanding their proximity, their social interaction and their linguistic affinity with the Hubula core population. The cultural orientation of the Pass Valley Yali is more in line with Hyndman & Morren’s model. Further to the point is Wiessner & Tumu’s conclusion, quoted above, that New Guineans often adopted new religious rituals from peoples living under harsher conditions so as to overcome their environmental problems. They did so across linguistic boundaries. But these peoples living under harsher conditions, for instance the Mek-speaking Yalenang, often did not live in the “core areas” identified by Hyndman & Morren.

7Given these examples of cultural adoptions that run counter to the core-periphery model, I have come to the conclusion that Hyndman & Morren have presented a model of cultural change in the highlands that is too uniform. It does not account for the selectiveness of cultural adoptions, and also not for the retention, if not the deliberate creation, of separate cultural identities. Yet another drawback of Hyndman & Morren’s proposed scenario is that it does not account for the adoption of cultural features from outside the highlands, while such adoptions did occur and had important effects. Nor does Wiessner & Tumu’s scenario seem generally applicable, supposing they intended it to be so, which I doubt. For instance, of the peoples whose ways of life I have presented in this book, the Ilaga Damal lived under harsh conditions in a high-altitude valley where they cultivated taro. They were also given to attempting new rituals to overcome their problems, but, against Wiessner & Tumu’s conclusion about Enga prehistory, there is no report that the invading Lani adopted them. Possibly these Lani had noticed that the Damal had remained unsuccessful with their rituals.

2. Big Men, Great Men and Leaders

8As regards features that are prominent in the societal transformation processes postulated by Godelier and Lemonnier, I point out first that none of the eight peoples discussed practised equivalent exchanges as expressed in marriage by sister exchange. They all employed wealth items in contracting a marriage, and in mortuary payments. The Hubula may have formed a partial exception, since Broekhuyse claimed that they did favour sister exchange side by side with marriage by brideprice. At the same time, several of the eight peoples practised delayed exchange of women between local clans or sub-clans. But the wealth items employed, apart from pigs, differed: the Me and the Moni used primarily cowries; most Lani and Hubula used cowries in addition to polished stones; while the Eipo and the Ngalum used utensils, from both the pre-colonial and the colonial eras. Finally the Eipo employed bride-service; also, it seems to me, a nonequivalent prestation. And I wonder whether the practice of uxorilocal marriage among the Ngalum contained brideservice. It appears that the use of cowries as a means of exchange was spreading from Me and Moni eastward to the Damal and the Lani. However at the time of first contact, the polished stones were still the most important wealth item among most Lani groups. The Wanggulam Lani graded their yao stones and not their cowries.

9In contrast, the situation with regard to losses resulting from violence appears less straightforward. The Hubula attempted to answer a killing by a killing, an equivalent answer, and did not usually attempt to bring a war to an end by means of compensation. The Eipo viewed war with neighbouring groups as the natural, continuing state of affairs. The Yali were ambivalent about the propriety of not answering a killing by a killing, but by accepting compensation instead. Koch, one of their ethnographers, argued that the procedures they had at their disposal to end wars lacked effectiveness. And the Damal considered that the violent death of commoners could be compensated by wealth, but that a leader’s violent death was to be put straight by another killing.

10That equivalent and nonequivalent exchanges co-existed in a single way of life is another demonstration that the two modalities were not mutually exclusive, at least temporarily, as Godelier observed regarding marriage practices among the Baruya (1991: 281; also Lemonnier 1999: 320-321). But the contrasts noted in the above two paragraphs is further support for the hypothesis that the eight peoples concerned were on different pathways of sociocultural change.

11A third institution that features prominently in the “continuum of transformations” postulated by Godelier and Lemonnier is male initiation. Godelier initially claimed a link between the occurrence of male initiation and marriage by exchanging women (1990: 13), a claim that Lemonnier contested with empirical examples (1999: 317, 2002: 105). Later Godelier seems to have revised his hypothesis, arguing that initiation became redundant in a social set-up in which “some form of social integration and forms of male power centred on a sprawling system of competitive exchanges” as in a Big Man “logic”, and thus not on male initiation (1991: 278). The situation at first contact among west New Guinea highlanders was largely in agreement with this hypothesis. Male initiation was not practised by Me and Moni, and also not by most of the Lani. Hubula practised it, but not for all boys. All other groups practised initiation, and some practised it using more than one grade.

12The situation regarding leadership was heterogeneous. Me, Moni and Damal were the three peoples that, in my view, had “Big Men” as their leaders, although in culturally different modes. Godelier’s hypothesis fits the situation among Me and Moni, since they did not practise initiation. That the Damal did practise a form of initiation may result from cultural lag, since they had only recently adopted cowries as a means of exchange, thus intensifying their scope for exchanges and in its turn giving men the possibility to dominate in them, thus becoming Big Men. Another reason for its retention may have been that the institution distinguished them as a cultural group from their neighbours, the invading Lani. Of the other ways of life I discuss, Hubula and most Lani leaders were warriors. They were without “sprawling competitive exchanges.” And they practised non-identical exchanges. Intriguing, though, in this context is the recent adoption of initiation by Konda Valley Lani. A further ethnic variation in leadership showed up in the supernatural capacity and the large political scale of the Hubula leaders compared with their Lani counterparts. As mentioned, I hesitate to use the term Leaders because Bigmanisation did not seem to be in progress.

13Of the other ethnic groups, the Eipo way of life appears to have fit the “Great Men logic”, as I argue in chapter 7. I made there the proviso that compartmentalisation of exchanges is not obvious from the extant ethnography. Leadership among Yahuli Yali, Ngalum and the Tiom Lani went, in my view beyond Godelier’s and Lemonnier’s propositions, primarily, I think, due to their self-imposed limitation consisting of their focus on the transformation of the Great Man warrior. Among these three peoples, leadership was pluralised. Among the Yahuli Yali this was the case with the prominence they accorded to healers. Their prominence was advanced by the association of their practice with one of the two founding myths. But the full extent of leadership plurality has not become clear to me. Hylkema did not state that the vignettes that he has presented for the Ngalum exhausted the various ways in which men could distinguish themselves and could influence the course of events in the communities of which they were members. Also among the Ngalum, the availability of cowries as a means of exchange appears to have promoted the emergence of sharp-witted transactors, maybe emerging Big Men. Both among the Yahuli Yali and the Ngalum, the occurrence of leadership plurality is likely to have come about through cultural adoptions from neighbours: in the case of the Yahuli Yali from Mek speakers; and in the case of the Ngalum as regards the cowries, from people living to the south, in the foothills, and as regards the dancing parties in the large dance house, from easterly neighbours.

14That leaders as they occurred among the ethnic groups in the western New Guinea highlands were in several respects culturally dissimilar is in my view another sign that these groups were following dissimilar pathways of sociocultural change. The pathways might have been divergent, with Bigmanisation as one of the modes. At the same time, I acknowledge that I do not see reason to suppose that the pathway towards Big Man leadership was a straight or a uniform one. Had the influx of wealth items, cowries or otherwise, continued or increased, a mode of Bigmanisation might well have resulted. Unfortunately that point must remain a speculation, since the sudden arrival of colonial agents radically interfered with the course of events.

© pacific-credo Publications, 2020

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