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Maenge gardens

Françoise Panoff


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1That plants play a large part in the life of primitive peoples does not need any further demonstration. The point was underlined in early anthropological research (Fewkes 1896, Hough 1897, Barrows 1900, Robbins, Harrington and Freire-Marreco 1916) and the bulk of information available since then has but confirmed the fact (for instance Gilmore 1932, Elmore 1943, Whiting 1950, Vestal 1952). With respect to the Maenge there is almost no situation where they can do without plants, whether in ritual or secular life. Plants not only offer food, the raw material for technology and medicine; they are also the necessary intermediaries between this world and the other. Whether it is for cooking, courting or praying, the Maenge resort to wild or cultivated species. This overwhelming presence of plants in daily and ceremonial life testifies both to the dependence of the Maenge on their environment and to their ability to use it in the most various ways, an ability which rests primarily on their observation and knowledge of natural phenomena.

  • 1 (Editor’s note). In the 1970s it was still common to refer to people in preliterate, nonindustrial (...)
  • 2 (Publisher’s note). Note that Françoise Panoff translated herself the citations of French works ev (...)

2Interestingly, the study of gathering and gardening techniques as well as of “primitive science” have been the subject of a systematic reappraisal during the last decades. Lévi-Strauss, for instance, notes that collecting wild species requires as much skill as the practice of horticulture (1950), while at the end of their study of Chimbu agriculture, Brookfield and Brown conclude: “many land rotational systems employ much more elaborate and advanced techniques of erosion, water and soil nutrition control than some “permanent” systems. A comparison of agricultural practices shows no single continuum or evolution from shifting to permanent agriculture” (1963: 166). The quotation sums up conveniently the findings of the authors as well as those of previous research workers (for instance Freeman 1955; Conklin 1957; Frake 1955). “Primitive man”1 is not only able to deal adequately with his environment; he may also be capable of rational thinking: “Native classifications are not only methodical and based on careful built up theoretical knowledge. They are also at times comparable from a formal point of view, to those still in use in zoology and botany” (Lévi-Strauss 1966: 43).2 Scientists such as Conklin and Frake, who were studying specific systems of shifting cultivation also actually engaged in describing folk systems of classification. (Conklin 1955, 1957, 1962; Frake 1955, 1961.) The present study is devoted to an analysis of the relationship that the Maenge have with their cultivated species. This ambition may recall Conklin’s thesis; much of what follows has been influenced by his work as well as the work of anthropologists with a training or interest in linguistics. In this context, I would mention a few names, which may serve as landmarks rather than review the growing literature on what has been conveniently described as ethnographic semantics (Colby 1966). Apart from Conklin’s various works, I wish to mention those of Goodenough (1956) and Lounsbury (1956) as well as those of Bulmer (1967, 1968b, 1969) and, more recently, the work of Berlin and his associates (1968).

  • 3 (Editor’s note). The Lae Herbarium is in Lae City in the Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. It was (...)

3The decision to limit this study to the question of cultivated species has been motivated partly by a problem and partly by methodological considerations. While in the field, I made a collection of 500 specimens, which is kept at the Lae Herbarium3. It was made with a view to collect information on the plants used in medicine, magic and various techniques as well as describing their taxonomy. While much information concerning wild species, particularly those used in medicine and magic, has found its way into this book, it would be out of place to list the many uses that wild species have in Maenge life. Moreover, further collecting is needed to give a precise account of their taxonomy. Only what is necessary for a comparison with the taxonomy of cultivated species will be noted here. Although wild species play a large part in various aspects of their lives, the Maenge’s attitudes towards them differ sharply from their attitudes towards cultivated species. This is obvious in the case of cultigens. If wild species are used in rites, for instance, they are not the objects of any specific rite themselves. Even though a soul is attributed to them, wild species do not have the properties that make the soul of cultigens so like that of humans. In the case of wild species, the strong identification of humans with cultivated species, that has made the elaboration of complex gardening rites possible, is absent.

4If, in the study of shifting cultivation and folk classifications I have been influenced by the pioneer work in ethnographic semantics, in the study of rites and myths, I have been mostly influenced by the work of Lévi-Strauss. Whatever the shortcomings of his type of analysis (on this point, see Leach 1967, Bulmer 1970), he offers tools, which, if used critically, allow a more precise understanding of myths and rites. When discussing Maenge magic and medicine, one must resort to such contrasts as hot/cold, wet/dry etc. Concepts such as those of metaphor or metonymy are basic in the analysis of myths (for instance, Lévi-Strauss 1969; Sebag 1964).

5When trying to describe the “complete vision” that a “primitive people” has of its plants (Barrau n.d.: 104), in this case, of cultivated plants, one cannot be satisfied with a mere description of techniques or of systems of classification. One must also deal with rites, which alone can reveal the symbolic importance plants may have. It may be that this seeking for totality will be disquieting for the reader. This work is not solely devoted to a description of shifting cultivation as it is practised by the Maenge, nor to an analysis of gardening rituals. I rather try to assess, through different approaches, the importance of cultivated plants in Maenge life. The various chapters are thus conceived of as steps on a ladder which goes from the more material reality of gardening techniques to a more immaterial one of myths and rites.

  • 4 (Editor’s note). The author refers to five categories of cultivated plants: Cultigen: a cultivated (...)

6In the first chapter, I give some general background information on Maenge environment and society. I then proceed to a description of the main characteristics of shifting cultivation as it is practised by the Maenge. This inquiry allows us to perceive the distinctions the Maenge make between their various cultigens as well as between taro and cordyline cultivars.4 These distinctions are taken up again in Chapter 3, where I address the Maenge taxonomy of cultivated plants as well as the attributes used to identify taro and cordyline cultivars. The exchange of names between humans and their plants shows a mutual identification, a theme developed in Chapter 5. In Chapter 4, I assess the diversified importance of cultivated plants in Maenge diet, costume, medicine and magic. In Chapter 5, I deal with the gardening rites and the myths that revolve around cultivated plants.

7When discussing these various levels: technology, systems of classification and appellation, myths and rites, I purport to show that the technological level cannot be conceived of as lacking structure and amorphous, but that it is permeated with meaning (on this point see Sebag 1964: 169-171). A study of Maenge technology alone would not reveal the hierarchical position of cultigens and cultivars, the fact that plants are treated individually – which is the basis for the elaboration of the rites. In this perspective, rather than contrasting the various levels, the aim is to perceive the unity that binds them together.

8Much of what follows falls within the scope of what is called ethnobotany, understood in its widest meaning. Though agriculture has long been present in New Guinea, (Bulmer and Bulmer 1964, S. Bulmer 1967, Golson et al. 1967) and some cultigens may have originated there (Warner 1962, Simmonds 1968, Wheeler 1970), ethnobotanical research has not been carried out systematically in New Guinea. Despite the early works of Malinowski (1935), Fortune (1932) and Williams (1928), the literature on Melanesian horticulture has only been growing since World War II. Malinowski did underline the many functions that gardens play in Melanesian life, particularly their aesthetic functions (1935: 9-10, 21, 80-81). The quantified data that he despaired of having started to be available after World War II (Hogbin 1951). Since then, the various agricultural systems found in New Guinea have been the object of much research carried out mainly by agronomists, geographers or anthropologists with an ecological approach (Barrau 1958, 1965; Brookfield and Brown 1963; Lea 1964, Rappaport 1967; Bowers 1968; Serpenti 1965, Waddell 1968, Waddell and Krinks, 1968; Clarke 1971). While New Guinea systems of cultivation have thus become better understood, it is mainly the Highlands systems, which have attracted the attention of researchers because of their more spectacular characteristics. I hope that the study of Maenge cultivation system will throw some light on the coastal systems, which are comparatively less known.

  • 5 (Editor’s note, with information supplied by Robin Hide. Panoff is perhaps a little harsh here-oth (...)

9If one turns to the other aspects of ethnobotany, the situation is less bright than is the case with horticultural or agricultural practices. Despite the precise character of the early records concerning plant utilisation (Miklouho-Maclay 1886; Warburg 1899), and the rare occurrence of botanic identifications in later works (Blackwood 1940; Fortune 1960), the usual habit among anthropologists has rather been to give the native names of plants without caring to have them identified, thus preventing any useful comparisons.5 This has made it impossible until now to build up a body of information comparable to that compiled by Burkill (1966) in the Malay Peninsula or that of Safford (1905) in Guam, (yet see Straatmans 1970). Thus, with respect to the utilisation of plants in daily or ceremonial life, very little comparative data is available.

  • 6 (Publisher’s note). John Spencer Womersley (1920-1985) was an English-born botanist who spent the (...)

10Ethnoscience is developing in New Guinea. In ethnobotany as well as in ethnozoology, its progress is limited by the lack of adequate tools. Bulmer (1969) has underlined this fact with respect to ethnozoology. Anthropologists with an interest in botany have at their disposal the manuals published by the Lae Herbarium. Unfortunately, these manuals are concerned with a limited number of families. One must resort to manuals designed for other areas such as Corner’s “Wayside Trees of Malaya” (1952) or Whitmore’s “Guide to the Forests of the Solomon Islands” (1966). Of course, the help available at the Lae Herbarium is great and the method devised by Womersley6 to preserve specimens in methylated spirits alleviates the tasks in the field. Moreover, one should note that, in millenarian Melanesia, ethnobotanical research provides an excellent way of approaching people while the richness of the field, in ethnobotany as well as in the other branches of ethnoscience, is still immense (Bulmer and Tyler 1968, Bulmer 1969; Glick 1964, 1967; Franklin 1963; Lea 1966).


1 (Editor’s note). In the 1970s it was still common to refer to people in preliterate, nonindustrial societies as “primitive”. “Primitive man” connoted an early stage in the evolution of humanity and provided a generic counterfoil to notions of civilisation, rationality and modernity.

2 (Publisher’s note). Note that Françoise Panoff translated herself the citations of French works even when they had been translated. Each time possible, we choose however to refer to the published translation.

3 (Editor’s note). The Lae Herbarium is in Lae City in the Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. It was established in the 1940s and is the largest plant specimen collection in Papua New Guinea with about 300,000 specimens including 2,335 type specimens. There are 100,000 specimens in the spirit collection. The Herbarium holds a representative plant collection from the neighbouring regions such as the Indonesian provinces, the Solomon Islands, Western Indonesia, Malaysia and Tropical Australia.

4 (Editor’s note). The author refers to five categories of cultivated plants: Cultigen: a cultivated plant which has diverged enough while in domestication or cultivation from its ancestors or closest wild relatives to be classified as a species, subspecies, or major variety (Merriam-Webster). Domesticate: “all plants which may be, and at least sometimes are, artificially propagated” (Conklin 1957: 44). Semi-domesticates, plants managed in the wild to various degrees but not directly propagated or cultivated by humans, are mentioned but not addressed in this study. Cultivate: a plant the growth of which is promoted by human labour on prepared soil. Cultivar: a plant variety that has been produced by selective breeding. Most cultivars have arisen in cultivation, but a few are special selections from the wild. (See also Chapter 2).

5 (Editor’s note, with information supplied by Robin Hide. Panoff is perhaps a little harsh here-other early, pre-1940, Melanesianist anthropologists made botanical collections include G. Bateson and F.L.S. Bell. In the 1960s, major collections were made by a number of anthropologists (Rappaport, Bowers, Shirley Glasse) and geographers (Clarke, Lea). Many botanists had been recording vernacular names with their collections, but such information was often unpublished.

6 (Publisher’s note). John Spencer Womersley (1920-1985) was an English-born botanist who spent the greater part of his career in Papua New Guinea. He came to Australia with his family in 1930 and graduated from the University of Adelaide. In 1946 he was offered a position in Papua New Guinea as Forest Botanist at Lae. He became Assistant Director of the Division of Botany in the Papua New Guinea Department of Forests, where he built up the National Herbarium. In addition he developed the National Botanic Garden at Lae, of which he was appointed director.

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