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Pathways of change

Anton Ploeg


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1This book is a comparative, anthropological study focussing on eight ways of life found among highlanders living in western New Guinea on the eve of the colonial intrusion and incorporation. With the term “highlands” I follow English usage, since the Dutch use the expression “central highlands” for the area concerned, so as to distinguish it from the Van Rees Mountains, in between the north coast and the Meervlakte, the Lake Plain and also the highlands in the Bird’s Head peninsula. I use the expression “western New Guinea” to make it clear that I am concerned with the anthropology of the highlanders, regardless of their later colonial and postcolonial affiliations. Likewise, I would have liked to use the expression “eastern New Guinea” when referring to the highlanders of what has become Papua New Guinea, but that turned out to be unfeasible for reasons that I will make clear shortly.

2I have divided the book into ten chapters. The first outlines its general topic, followed by a brief history of the colonial exploration of the highlands. I include this topic, since the way exploration took place bears on the reason I have chosen the ethnic groups discussed below. Finally, I present my approach, which is comparative. In the following eight chapters, I present the ways of life of the eight ethnic groups selected. The final chapter is a conclusion. I decided to discuss the eight ways of life in as many chapters since I regard them as separate configurations, notwithstanding likely common origins and cultural adoptions, either one- or two-way. “Configuration” became an important concept in the ethnographic studies of Jan Pouwer. In the book published shortly before his death, he defined it as “a process that turns elements into components arranged and imbued with meaning by a central orientation” (2010: 7-8). I follow this definition with the proviso that a single configuration may contain several such orientations providing meaning. The occurrence of cultural adoptions, in other words of exogenously oriented cultural changes, entails that in some cases I have to anticipate upon sections presented in a subsequent chapter. That is a disadvantage, but in my view a less weighty one than sub-dividing the presentation of a single way of life over separate chapters.

1. Topic outline

3I have been doing documentary research into the ways of life of the western New Guinea highlanders for almost two decades, focusing on what obtained at the time of European settlement. I intend this book to be the conclusion of this research. It is an exercise in what Paul Roscoe has called “contact-era ethnography” (2000: 115), attempting a reconstruction of the highlands ways of life then current. Like Roscoe, I view these ways of life as in flux, in culturally specific ways, and my argument takes that into account as much as possible, given the data at my disposal. The cultural variety in the highlands impressed me. I refer here to cultural variety among western New Guinea highlanders, but simultaneously to the cultural differences that in my perception existed between them and highlanders in Papua New Guinea. The differences that I perceived made me wonder how that may have come about. Accordingly I am specifically concerned here with the differences between highlands cultures as they developed over time, and with an attempt to document and compare these differences. Hence, to the extent possible I include prehistorical and historical data, both preceding and postdating first contact. And because I deal with what was the case in the past, I have framed the book in the “ethnographic past”, regardless of whether phenomena described in the past tense may nevertheless still be observed. The book sums up but also adds to the comparative analyses of highlands cultures that I have published so far. Throughout I take the term “anthropology” in the wide sense employed by Louise Morauta (1979: 573), who pointed out that people who are not anthropologists may nevertheless contribute to anthropology.

  • 1 Szalay (1999: 497-499) has provided an instructive list of the various names used.

4Geographic and ethnic names in western New Guinea have been subject to change over the last decades. The name “Papua” is a striking example. When, in 1963, the government of Indonesia took over the administration of what had been Dutch New Guinea, it made the area into a single province, called Irian Barat, or West Irian. Later it changed that name to Irian Jaya, but very many Papuans, disliking Indonesian rule, equally disliked this name, favouring “Papua”, or “West Papua” instead. In 1999 president Abdurrahman Wahid renamed the province “Papua”, with Papuans favouring independence opting for “West Papua” (Vlasblom 2004: 602-603). However, several years later, the province was split into two parts, called West Papua and Papua. The latter included the highlands.1 A third province, East Papua is still to be created. If that occurs, the highlands will be divided over East and Central Papua. Because of these terminological complexities and their political overtones, I have opted for the name western New Guinea. If western New Guinea indeed gains greater autonomy within the Indonesian state, further name changes are to be expected. In several cases there is no single standard name, so my use of a name may rest on my own preference. In those cases I explain my choice.

5In previous publications I have used the term “way of life” instead of “culture”. In using the former expression, I wanted to make it clear that I dealt with concrete behaviour – in other words, with social process – and simultaneously also with abstract elements such as ideas, concepts and rules, guiding and appreciating that behaviour. I also wanted to make it clear that I do not regard “culture” as an entity that exists somehow apart from the people who live it and that speakers or authors, for that reason, can present as an agency that acts (Keesing 1990: 48). That the concept “way of life” is less easily presented as such an agency I see as one of its merits. But a disadvantage is that “way of life” cannot be made into an adjective; moreover it is a more cumbersome expression than “culture”. Therefore, I use the two terms simultaneously.

6For the book’s title I chose the expression “pathways of change”, used earlier by Andrew Strathern (1993: 149), favouring it over two alternatives. The first one is “evolution”, as used for instance by Daryl Feil in his 1987 book The Evolution of Highland Papua New Guinea Societies. The term “evolution”, in my view, belongs to biology, not to history or anthropology, as anthropologists currently tend to conceive these disciplines. Evolution implies genetic changes, and it is unclear whether the changes I deal with in this book are, wholly or partly, due to genetics. Also, as it shows up in the title of Feil’s book, the term cannot easily be pluralised. That appears to be a disadvantage since he uses the term to account for processes that had quite different outcomes in the different parts of the highlands. I also rejected the term “development”, since in the New Guinea context it is commonly used to sum up sociocultural changes prompted by direct inputs from foreign agents as they occurred and still occur during the colonial and postcolonial eras. The term often implies “progress”, a notion I steer clear of in this book.

7Heeding Terence Hays’ warning (1993), I do not presume that the inhabitants of the highlands shared a cultural heritage that distinguished them as a group from New Guineans living at lower altitudes. Nor do I assume that the ways of life of the several highlands ethnic groups resembled each other to such an extent that the highlands formed a single culture area. On the contrary, I hope to demonstrate the considerable cultural differences between these groups, although they shared boundaries and although their members often interacted. I am concerned with ways of life that have become known via field research carried out among people living at altitudes of over 1,200 metres. That is the primary reason I refer to their “highlands” ways of life. My choice of a comparative analysis of western New Guinean highlands ways of life is a pragmatic one. A number of them have been studied and these studies provide a base for comparison. Given that it is clear that the political boundary between Indonesian Papua and Papua New Guinea does not coincide with a cultural boundary, my reason for limiting myself to western New Guinea is also pragmatic: I wish to add the analysis that I present in this book to the considerable body of comparative studies dealing with the ways of life of highlanders living in Papua New Guinea.

Map 1. The Highlands of western New Guinea

Map 1. The Highlands of western New Guinea

The map is an adaption of a map in Part 1 of the Results of the Demographic Research Project Western New Guinea (1964). The project was led by K. Groenewegen and D.J. van de Kaa, and was carried out in the early 1960s.

8The central highlands of western New Guinea are a relatively narrow strip of land running from the border with Papua New Guinea to the neck of the island (see map 1). Large parts are separated from the lowlands by climatically and geographically inhospitable country, which is thinly populated (Groenewegen & Van de Kaa 1964, part 1: 96 and fig. 8; Brookfield 1964: 22-23). But there are also parts where access is easier: near the border with Papua New Guinea, especially to the south and at the western end of the highlands, also to the south where the coastal lowlands are narrow and the sea is visible from the escarpment (Bijlmer 1938?: 15, 135-136, 161). But, as appears below, contacts between highlanders and lowlanders also occurred elsewhere.

9My analysis follows on a similar study by Alexandra Szalay: “Maokop. The montane cultures of central Irian Jaya: environment, society and history in highland West New Guinea” (1999), a Ph.D. thesis in anthropology that has most unfortunately remained unpublished. Szalay’s approach was explicitly “evolutionary”, while she viewed evolution as non-unilinear and non-progressive. In this view human societies are “essentially cultural-biological entities embedded in and creative of their environments, and the mechanism of change is their interaction through time” (1999: 13‑14). Thus her analysis of a society’s culture and the ways it changes focuses on the physical environment in which it is situated. She drew on David Hyndman & George Morren (1990) in distinguishing a small number of cultural core areas, each the centre of a geographic sphere, while the cores “have profound demographic and economic influence in their respective spheres” (1990: 13). Instead of “sphere” Szalay used the term “periphery” (1999: 29). Like Hyndman & Morren, she distinguished two such cores in the western New Guinea highlands: the Grand Valley of the Baliem and the Paniai area, both distinguished by their wetland agriculture. I return to this issue in the concluding chapter.

10Paula Brown too has documented the large ecological variety in the highlands in her pioneering book Highland Peoples of New Guinea (1978: 16-17). She wrote that below 1500 meters altitude, with heavy rainfall, leaching and weeds pose serious problems for agriculturalists. Above 2,100 meters and beyond frost, drought and slow growth impose growing impediments to agriculture. New Guinea highlanders have achieved the most intensive agriculture in areas between these two altitudes. Manuel Boissière & Yohannes Purwanto make a similar distinction and apply the labels “hill”, below about 1500 metres, and “mountain” agriculture, above that level (2007: 1130). In conformity with these comments, Michael Bourke has written that the upper Wahgi Valley, a major scene of archaeological research into highlands agriculture, at an altitude of about 1,600 meters

has an ideal environment for agricultural production, with an adequate but not excessive rainfall; mild temperatures in which crops mature more slowly and have time to accumulate more carbohydrates; less cloud cover to limit plant growth; and very fertile soils… (2017: 64).

11As appears below, their categorisation is reflected in the distinctions that western New Guinea highlanders themselves make, or made, between “high” and “low” highlands.

12As regards western New Guinea, I distinguish first between the western and the eastern highlands, as I have done in previous papers (e.g. Ploeg 2001), with the mountains east of the Grand Valley of the Baliem River as the boundary. My use of the expression “eastern highlands” is the reason I refer to the highlands of eastern New Guinea as the “Papua New Guinea highlands”. The western highlands offer a more amenable environment for farming than do the eastern highlands. This western section includes several long valleys, with often stable slopes, that follow the course of the main mountain ranges (see map 2). Plains near the Paniai lakes, in the Kamu Valley and in the Grand Valley of the Baliem river offered scope for intensive, wetland agriculture. The major range is in the south, culminating in Puncak Jaya, formerly called Carstensz, after the first European explorer to sight its snow-covered top. South of that range a number of rivers carry water to the south coast in a series of short, usually narrow, rapidly descending valleys. Most are populated, and the people living there are what I call “highlanders”, speaking languages also spoken in the more central parts of the highlands. At the time of first contact with colonial arrivals, highlanders in the Grand Valley of the Baliem, around the Paniai lakes and in the neighbouring Kamu Valley, made use of the opportunities these environments offered for wetland agriculture over large, relatively flat areas.

13By contrast, the eastern highlands are characterised by narrow, rapidly descending valleys running away from the main range (see map 3 below). Landslides make agriculture hazardous. In view of the distinction I make between western versus eastern highlands, I decided not to use the expression “eastern New Guinea” when referring to the eastern half of the island, since readers might confuse it with the “eastern highlands” of western New Guinea. Instead, I opted, as mentioned, for “Papua New Guinea” even though the name is not appropriate in the context of this book, in which I attempt to discuss the precolonial ethnic configurations.

14The contrasts mentioned above between the western and eastern highlands were reflected in the size of the ethnic groups in the two areas. The largest ethnic groups – by which I mean groups of people sharing a language and a way of life, albeit with minor differences – showing the largest population densities, were found in the western highlands. There all the major valleys and most of the minor ones were inhabited, often densely. I except the valleys south of the main range in the western highlands. By contrast, there were uninhabited valleys in the eastern highlands (Heeschen 1998: 18). I presume that population increased faster in the western than in the eastern highlands and also that happened as a result of a more favourable physical environment. The 1991 language index of Peter Silzer & Heljä Heikkinen Clouse lists the vernacular languages of western New Guinea and their estimated number of speakers. On the basis of their estimates, I calculate that in the late 1980s the western highlands were populated by about 247,000 persons, and the eastern highlands by about 81,500.

15I tabulated the languages spoken in the highlands in Table 1. Those spoken in the western highlands included the three languages of western New Guinea with the largest numbers of speakers. Those spoken in the eastern highlands and on the fringes of the highlands have relatively few speakers. Western New Guinea highlands languages belong all to the Trans New Guinea phylum (Grimes 2000: vol. 1: 469-486; Pawley 2005: 34, 80, 96; Voorhoeve 1975: 21-46). They form a small number of families, which include only languages spoken in the highlands. More remote linguistic relationships between highlanders and lowlanders may exist. The existence of a Dani-Kwerba stock of languages, as supposed by Voorhoeve (1975: 35-38) and Silzer & Heikkinen Clouse (1991: 25), which would include languages spoken north of the highlands, was queried by Bromley (1990: 11, n. 7). However, Ok languages are spoken in both the highlands and the southern lowlands, on both sides of the border with Papua New Guinea.

2. Colonial exploration

16The highlands were the last part of western New Guinea that Europeans reached. With that term I refer to people of European descent, including those whose ancestors had migrated away from that continent. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the coastal areas were known to them, and the Dutch had brought part of them under colonial control (Schumacher 1954: 33). The bulk of exploration in the early twentieth century up to the beginning of World War I reached only the outskirts of the highlands. A chance encounter with highlanders that became well known, was with “Goliath pygmies”, Mek speakers, on the southern edge of the highlands. Jan Godschalk has translated (1991) the Dutch record (De Kock 1912). The name “Mek”, referring to a group of languages, was coined much later by Wulf Schiefenhövel (1978: 48), a German researcher who has worked among the Eipo, also Mek speakers. In these languages Mek is the word for “water”, or “river”. Schiefenhövel selected that word to refer to the languages concerned by analogy with the neighbouring Ok languages. Also in the early twentieth century, a number of Dutch and British expeditions attempted to reach the summit of the snow-covered mountains on the southern rim of the highlands. They proceeded from the south coast and met highlanders in sparsely populated foothills and outskirts of the highlands. Most of their publications about their encounters are listed in an annotated bibliography by Van Baal, Galis & Koentjaraningrat (1984, section VI.2.2, p. 44-50; also Ballard, Vink & Ploeg 2001: 91-92).

17After World War I the colonial government resumed exploration with the Van Overeem-Kremer expedition, in 1920-22. The findings of that expedition established that at least some highland valleys were densely populated. While crossing the highlands from north to south so as to reach Mount Trikora, at the time snow covered and called Mount Wilhelmina, from the north, they followed the course of the Toli River, then called the Swart River, upstream and subsequently crossed the North Baliem Valley. Both valleys were densely populated.

18The awareness that the highlands were in part densely populated was reinforced by the results of the 1926 American-Dutch Stirling expedition that entered the highlands farther west, via the gorge of the upper Tariku River, then called the Rouffaer River (Le Roux 1948-1950: 7). But at the time the colonial administration did not proceed to bring these areas under control. That happened only in the late 1930s, when the colonial presence in western New Guinea intensified. The chance “discovery”, from the air, of the three Paniai lakes and the large number of people that lived there, in December 1936 stirred interest both among colonial administrators and among scholars, scientists and missionaries. It prompted the active exploration of the highlands, led by Europeans assisted by Indonesians. J.W. Cator, the head of the local colonial administration, found an overland route to the lakes in 1937, and the next year Jan van Eechoud, then a police commissioner, established a patrol post at Enarotali, on the map 2 (below), south eastern shore of Lake Paniai. The area appeared to be densely populated by people whom I call the Me in this book. The wetland agriculture that they practised greatly impressed the new arrivals.

Map 2. The Western Highlands (part 1)

Map 2. The Western Highlands (part 1)

Map 2. The Western Highlands (part 2)

Map 2. The Western Highlands (part 2)

The map is derived, with some alterations, from J. Victor de Bruijn’s 1978 autobiography Het Verdwenen Volk, The People Lost to View. I have reduced the number of geographic names and have Indonesianised the spelling of the remaining names.

19During the Dutch administration, the three lakes carried the name of the pilot, Frits Wissel, who spotted them from his aircraft on 31 December 1936. The colonial authorities used the indigenous names to refer to the lakes individually: from north to south Paniai, Tage and Tigi. After the Indonesian take-over, the three lakes were called the Paniai lakes, but the name Paniai was retained to refer to the northernmost of the three. It has also become the name of a kecamatan, a district that extends far beyond the Paniai lakes basin.

20The local population first became known as Ekari, or Ekagi and later as Kapauku, in Dutch Kapaoekoe. Pospisil used (1958), and kept using (1978), the name Kapauku, although he knew it was an exonym, in use among coastal Papuans (1958: 13). From De Bruijn on (1939-1940: 193), Dutch authors used Ekari or Ekagi (Le Roux 1948-1950: 110, Hylkema 2002, but see also Boelen 1955: 1). Much later, the name Me, also spelled Mee, was proposed, apparently by school-educated men on their return to their territories from schooling or work elsewhere. In their view the name Ekagi is an exonym used by the neighbouring Moni. So far the name Me has remained contested. It is the Me word for “people”, and that word occurs with the same meaning in the language of the neighbouring Amungme. Carolyn Cook, who did field research among them in the early 1990s, reported (1995: 62 n.) that the latter then preferred the term Ekari/Ekagi for their neighbours. Also the Dutch Franciscan missionaries who worked among the Me opposed the term (Hylkema 2002, Van Nunen, pers. comm. 2009). Van Nunen commented that the Moni name for the Me is Isani. Sloot, the historian of the Franciscan mission in Papua, used the term Ekagi (2010: 164). Although the Franciscan comments seem plausible, the opinion expressed by insiders seems decisive to me. So I use the term Me and I use the spelling “Me” rather than “Mee”, because the former is used by Benny Giay, himself a Me (1995: xvii).

21To return to the geographic exploration, also in 1938, members of the American-Dutch Archbold expedition reported on the dense populations and their intricate wetland agriculture, in the Grand Valley of the Baliem River. J. Victor de Bruijn, appointed head of the Enarotali patrol post in early 1939, carried out several wide-ranging patrols, as did the members of a large-scale expedition organised by the KNAG, the Royal Dutch Geographical Society, in that same year (De Bruijn 1978: 64-65; Wentholt 2003: 95-96). The expedition was led by Charles C.F.M. le Roux, at the time a curator of the National Museum of anthropology in Leiden. Earlier Le Roux had been a staff member of the Stirling Expedition and, still earlier, an officer in the topographical service of the colonial army (Mulder 2009: 16). Finally both Catholic and Protestant missions soon became active in the Paniai area (De Bruijn 1978: 112-113).

Pict. 1. Paniai and Tage lakes

Pict. 1. Paniai and Tage lakes

Tage is the smallest of the three lakes, separated from lake Paniai by a narrow strip of land. The altitude is just over 1,700 meters. The picture was taken by Le Roux, in 1939. It gives an idea of the large size of the lakes. To the east, on the right hand side of the picture, are visible the wide valley floors of rivers flowing into lake Paniai. Many of the drained gardens of the Me are on the edges of these valleys.

Source : Le Roux (1948-50, pict. 21, opp. page 61).

22Exploration was cut short by World War II and resumed at the end of the 1940s after the patrol post at Enarotali had been reopened (Meyer Ranneft 1950). The Grand Valley of the Baliem had remained another focus of colonial interest. Ever since 1938,

Map 3. The Eastern Highlands

Map 3. The Eastern Highlands

The map is a result of a German multidisciplinary research project among the Eipo, a Mek speaking people whose way of life I discuss in chapter 7 of this book. It was published as part of an exhibition that showed results of the project (1978). The Eipomek River, is about halfway between Nalca and Bime and the habitat of the Eipo is farther upstream. The Grand Valley is located in the left-hand bottom corner, and on the right the map shows the boundary with Papua New Guinea. The names in bold print show the locations of mission stations. But simultaneously they show the habitats of the other eastern highlands groups whose ways of life I discuss: the Yahuli Yali (chapter 6), around Angguruk, and the Ngalum (chapter 8), around Apmisibil and farther south in the area of the Sibil river.

23When Europeans had become aware of the existence of the valley with its wetland agriculture, the area – “Shangri-La” – and its inhabitants had been a source of curiosity. During the American occupation of the Jayapura area, in 1944-1945, members of the armed forces went in for airborne sightseeing trips (Meiselas 2003: 16-17; Zuckoff: 2011). And an important motive of the post-war exploration of the highlands had been to reach the Grand Valley (Van Baal 1989: 390-391). Hence the main thrust of the exploration was from Paniai towards the east to reach that valley overland and also to explore the valleys in between. The lengthy Kema River, flowing from east to west and passing the lakes to the north, formed a convenient avenue for the first leg of the explorations. Kema is the Moni name of the river concerned. Also Kemabu, the Kema River and Kemandoga, the valley of the Kema, are Moni words (Van Nunen 1973: 82). The colonial explorers often employed Moni during their treks and accordingly came to use Moni words for many of the places and peoples they encountered. Also in the anthropological literature, the Moni name Kema is more often used than Degeuwo, the Me name for the river, in Hylkema’s recent spelling (2012: ix).

24While trekking through the Highlands out of Paniai, the explorers encountered several ethnic groups. First Moni, living spread over a number of valleys, with their heartlands (De Bruijn 1978: 153) in the Kemandoga and the Dugindoga, the valleys of the Kema and the Doga rivers. Farther east, the population was ethnically more mixed, due to the ongoing migrations to the west of people who until recently were called Dani, or Ndani, to account for the pre-nasalisation of the initial “d” (De Bruijn 1940-1941). Most likely that name was an exonym frst applied by Moni, given the postfix “ni”, meaning “people” in Moni (see further Heider 1970a: 10). I discuss these population movements in chapters 2 and 3. As also mentioned there, the term actually refers to two ethnic groups that in this book I call the Lani and the Hubula.

25As evinced in the last paragraph, the term Dani as a name referring to people may be on the way out. At first the term referred to almost all highlanders living east of the Kemandoga and the Dugindoga. As a result of the research carried out in the early 1960s, a distinction was made between the “Grand Valley Dani”, living in the Grand Valley of the Baliem, and the “Western Dani”, living west, north and northwest of the Grand Valley. Grand Valley Dani and Western Dani speak different languages. I have used these names in a number of publications. Still later the name Western Dani came to be replaced by Lani (Hayward 1997: 8; Draper & Draper 2007: 15), a term apparently used earlier as the name of the language spoken by the Western Dani (Bromley 1960: 1-2; O’Brien 1969a: 3). Koos Knol told me that many people formerly called Western Dani had started applying the name Lani to themselves (pers. comm. 2015). Hence I have adopted that usage in this book. Finally Sugandi (2014: 36) and Lieshout (2009: 18-19) have recently abandoned the name Grand Valley Dani, arguing that the people concerned call themselves Hubula. I follow their usage in this book, given that Grand Valley Dani is an exonym. Sugandi (2014: 36) reported that Hubula used the term Palika to name the Lani. I do not follow this usage since the term appears to be an exonym. The word Dani is still used to refer to languages: the communalects of the Hubula and the Lani belong to the Dani family of languages. Intriguingly Yali people, east of the Grand Valley, also employed the term Hubula. The Yali used the term to refer to the people living to their west, in the Grand Valley of the Baliem (Zöllner 1977a: 19).

Pict. 2. The Kema valley

Pict. 2. The Kema valley

The Kema is one of the rivers in the western highlands that follow the direction of the main range. The picture was taken by Le Roux, in 1939. It views to the east, upstream, with the upper reaches of the river partly hidden by the mountains shown in the right hand top of the picture. At the time of first contact, before World War II, the valley had an ethnically mixed population, with Moni being in the majority. It was densely populated, resulting in extensive deforestation on the lower slopes.

Source : Le Roux (1948-50, pict. 13, opp. page 61).

26To continue my account of highlands exploration: explorers reached the Ilaga Valley by following the Kema upstream to its headwaters and crossing a single watershed, north of Puncak Jaya (Gibbons 1981: 148-153). The Ilaga was then populated by Damal and Lani. My use of the name Damal also results from a choice. Other names used for the Damal are: Uhunduni or Ugunduni – in documents in Dutch “oe” occurs instead of “u” –, and Amungme, Amung or Hamungme (Ellenberger 1996: 21). Damal is the name that tends, or tended, to be used by Protestant missionaries, and Uhunduni by Catholic missionaries. In view of the postfix “ni”, the Moni word for people, that name is possibly an exonym, just as the name Dani. The people concerned lived and still live both north and south of the main range. While Damal and Uhunduni are names applied to people living north of the main range, people with an apparently very similar way of life but living south of that range are usually called Amungme. Cook proposed the term Amung (1995: 45-46), but that name seems not to have gained acceptance. In this book I use the name Damal, since I am mainly concerned with people living in the Ilaga Valley and in valleys to the north and west.

27An alternative route to the east crossed from the Kema Valley northwards into the Doga valley and proceeded farther east by following that river downstream to its junction with the Nogolo. That area had first been explored by the members of the Stirling expedition, in 1926. It was populated by Moni, Damal, Dem and Nduga. Little is known about the Dem, a small group of people speaking a language that is only distantly related to the main languages spoken in the highlands. The Nduga, Daoewa according to De Bruijn (1978: 154), were part of a scattered group of people, referred to by the name of the language they spoke (Manembu 1991). It was part of Great Dani family.

28Still farther east, both from Ilaga into the catchment area of the Baliem River and up the Nogolo River lived Lani people. Their territories extended beyond the Toli Valley, explored by the Van Overeem-Kremer expedition, and to the east beyond Bokondini, in the catchment of the Hablifuri. Farther south, there seems to have been an abrupt boundary between Lani and Hubula near the point where the Baliem enters the Grand Valley (Draper & Draper 2007: 135).

29An exploration party consisting of administrators and a Protestant missionary reached the Grand Valley in 1952 (Meyer Ranneft 1953; Schumacher 1954: 99). Given that government policy in colonial Dutch New Guinea allowed missionaries and researchers to settle and work in un-administered areas, the first mission posts were established in the Grand Valley soon afterwards, in 1954, ahead of the administration. Hayward (1980: 124) and Draper & Draper (2007: ch. 3, 9 and 12) have documented the extremely rapid expansion of Protestant mission posts in the western highlands in the 1950s. The expansion of the administration was far slower. At the end of Dutch rule, in late 1962, there were posts in the Paniai lakes area, the Grand Valley of the Baliem, in Bokondini, north of the Grand Valley, and in the Sibil Valley, in the eastern highlands, close to the border with Papua New Guinea. That post had been established in preparation for another large-scale expedition organised by the KNAG, in this case to the Star Mountains, in 1959 (Hermans 1996; Brongersma & Venema 1960: 12, 1963: 22; Wentholt 2003: 104-117).

Table 1. Ethnic groups discussed

Western Highlands
Me Me-Moni-Wodani family
Moni Me-Moni-Wodani family
Damal Isolate
Lani Great Dani family
Hubula Great Dani family
Eastern Highlands
Yali Great Dani family
Eipo Mek family
Ngalum Ok family

All the languages listed are part of the Trans New Guinea phylum, but they belong to four different stocks (Pawley 2005: 34, 80-81). As mentioned in the main text, sources disagree on the status of Damal (see p. 88). The Great Dani family is further subdivided, with Hubula and Lani together forming a single sub-family, and with Yali belonging to another sub-family (Voorhoeve 1975).

30From the Grand Valley, exploration proceeded farther east. In 1961 a mission post was established among the Yali, in Angguruk (Zöllner 1977a: 11, 1988: 12). Zöllner reported that, in the early 1960s, the impending handover of the administration to the Indonesian government hastened the spread of mission stations in the eastern highlands (2013: 138-139). However, Sibbele Hylkema, a Franciscan missionary, worked as the only resident outsider in Apmisibil, northwest of the Sibil Valley, from 1961 to 1969. And in 1975 a multidisciplinary team of German researchers were the first outsiders to settle temporarily among the inhabitants of the Eipo Valley, about halfway between Apmisibil and Angguruk. These people spoke a Mek language. In the course of the following decade, most highlands ethnic groups had been contacted, subjected and incorporated into the Indonesian state.

31In conclusion, it appears that making first contact with the various ethnic groups in the highlands, first by Europeans and later by Indonesians, was a process that took well over half a century. Over that period of time, a number of these groups became well known ethnographically, and the accounts enable comparison. The groups that I selected for that purpose are: in the western highlands, the Me, the Moni, the Damal, the Lani and the Hubula; and in the eastern highlands, the Yali, the Eipo and the Ngalum. I have charted their linguistic affiliations in table 1. The language families represented by these eight peoples comprise the very large majority of language groups in the highlands, and the eight ethnic groups together form the very large majority of highlanders. However, anthropological field research takes place among small groups of people, whereas most of the eight groups discussed number many thousands. Accordingly, the extent to which the anthropological reports cover the way, or ways, of life of the entire group is only partly clear. I discuss this issue in the ethnographic chapters.

32Anthropological exploration by trained anthropologists started in late 1954 when Leopold Pospisil began fieldwork among Me people in the Kamu Valley, just west of the Paniai area. He wrote (1978: 97) that Jan van Baal, governor from 1953 to 1958, promised him that the area would not be brought under administrative control as long as he was carrying out his field research there (Van Baal 1989: 456-457). As appears below, he is but one example among others. From 1954 until the mid-1960s, research briefly flourished, but then it became harder to obtain research visas after the Indonesian government took over the administration of the area. While in Papua New Guinea new generations of fieldworkers built on the work of their predecessors, this was not true to the same extent in western New Guinea. Consequently the accumulation of research data, so characteristic of research in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, did not occur in western New Guinea. Moreover, in the Papua New Guinea highlands, scholars from a range of disciplines carried out field research. The findings of the archaeologists among them have enabled reconstructions of the prehistory of the Papua New Guinea highlands.

  • 2 As regards New Guinea, the main publications of Pierre & Anne-Marie Pétrequin are two comprehensive (...)

33Archaeological data on the western New Guinea highlands are regrettably few. What we do know is based on statements by New Guineans about their past together with a small number of archaeological projects. I mention in particular the work of Geoffrey Hope and his collaborators, and of Pierre & Anne-Marie Pétrequin.2 Hence prehistory cannot make more than a modest contribution to the comparison of west New Guinean highlands ways of life. While I use reconstructions of the prehistory of the Papua New Guinea highlands as pointers to guide hypotheses about the prehistory of the highlands of western New Guinea as well, I do so with caution, because I do not exclude that these prehistories show appreciable differences. For instance, Pamela Swadling and Robin Hide have argued in favour of culturally different pasts for western New Guinean and Papua New Guinean highlanders (2005: 295, 319). Their statement is prompted by the almost complete absence of prehistoric stone artefacts, such as mortars and pestles, in the west New Guinea highlands. Bromley reported what appears to be an exception: Pospisil collected mortars and pestles during his fieldwork among the Me in the Kamu Valley, in the mid-1950s (1990: 6). Swadling & Hide related the difference to the existence of the interior sea around what is now the middle course of the Sepik River and which provided highlanders in Papua New Guinea an avenue for interaction with the north coast that highlanders in western New Guinea lacked. Another matter to be considered is that the western tip of the highlands, especially the Paniai area and farther west, was close to the Moluccas, an early centre of long-distance trade and of colonial economic enterprise. These observations about material culture in both halves of the New Guinea highlands are important to me because they support my impression, also prompted by my readings of highlands ethnography, that the ways of life of western New Guinea and Papua New Guinea highlanders showed considerable differences.

34It is also noteworthy that the early contact material cultures of the western New Guinea highlanders, an outcome of their prehistories, were different from those of their Papua New Guinea counterparts. Western New Guinea highlanders practised wetland agriculture on a large scale and in several areas, at a time when it had almost completely been abandoned in the Papua New Guinea highlands. More modest differences were the fact that almost no highlanders in western New Guinea used shields. Apart from the Me, they had body armours. The Me protected their bodies with wooden boards placed in string bags (Le Roux 1948-50: 184; Pospisil 1958: 90; Wentholt 2003: 246); the Ilaga Dani used both shields and boards (Larson 1987: 167, 259). Drums were used by eastern highlanders only, and in small numbers.

35My research into early contact ethnography benefited from the Dutch and, later, the Indonesian practice of allowing researchers and missionaries to work in un-administered areas. This resulted in a sizeable number of publications dealing with highlands ways of life as they existed soon after first contact, unencumbered by administrative prohibitions and instructions. These publications range from books and articles based on graduate research in anthropology to reports of exploration and of missionary work. Whereas some missionaries saw their work primarily as “God’s Invasion” among the heathens (Wick 1990), others showed a great deal of interest in and empathy for the ways of life of the highlanders, attitudes which are amply apparent in their publications. The latter have made significant contributions to the ethnographic record. Accordingly, the scope for a comparative study dealing with highlands cultures on the eve of colonial intrusion is larger than it may seem at first sight.

3. Comparison

36My aim is to provide a complement, which in several respects has turned out to be a contrasting complement, to the numerous comparative analyses of highlands cultures in Papua New Guinea. In my introductory description of the western New Guinea highlands, I outlined the physical properties of the environments in which the ethnic groups I discuss in this book have made their living. This early introduction of the physical environment may suggest that, in my approach, I grant it a dominant role in shaping the way of life of its inhabitants. Such a conclusion would be incorrect.

37Consequently, when I hypothesise that the ways of life of the eastern highlanders are influenced by the constraints and the hazards posed by their habitat, I do so in an ad hoc manner. I view the link as plausible rather than necessary. And, while I would like to provide explanations, by which I mean that I would like to use a theoretical framework that demonstrates that events are partly or wholly determined by previous events, in most cases I feel unable to do so. However, “unexplained” events, too, are in my view part of a scholarly exposition when they appear to be indispensable parts, or parts that researchers deem meaningful, of the phenomenon to be accounted for. However I am fortunate in that the richness of the ethnographic record of the Papua New Guinea highlanders and the comparative analyses they have inspired provide pointers for analysis that I can use in this book.

38In addition, I seek an important source of comparability in the results of linguistic research by assuming that the ancestors of peoples currently speaking closely related languages – such as those belonging to a single family – at some stage in the past spoke a single language and at the same time also shared a single way of life. I assume further that the linguistic and cultural differences that foreign arrivals observed from the start of the colonial era came about over time, whether as a result of considered or impromptu decisions, unreasoned impulses, or a mixture of these. To the extent that the outcomes of these choices, decisions and impulses were accepted by the peoples concerned, they expressed cultural preferences that had come into existence over time. They may have been shared by only a section of the population; some people may have felt ambivalent about them and yet others may have regretted them, especially when the sociocultural changes they entailed meant for them a loss of status or privilege.

39A further corollary of these assumptions is that commonalities and resemblances in the subsequent, first contact ways of life of these peoples were part of that former proto-culture, while differences are due to the various, and varying, forms of agency bringing about internal innovations, adoptions of elements from other cultures, or combinations of both. Marilyn Strathern has argued that highlands societies were outgrowths and developments of each other and that “they are implicated in one another’s histories” (1988: 342). It seems plausible to me that highlanders indeed took such a path, or such paths, of change. The Damal, whose way of life I discuss in chapter 5, seem a case in point. Yet the contrary may also have occurred, with groups of people deliberately creating and deepening cultural boundaries so as to distinguish themselves from their neighbours or yet others, thus showing, in Lemonnier’s terms, “that passion for differentiation so typical of societies in New Guinea” (2008: 168). Hylkema provided an example of this process as he believes it has occurred among the Me, discussed in chapter 1 (2002: 242-243).

40Another form of agency resulted from migrations to other environments, environments that induce, and in some cases require, changes in the current way of life. Hays argued that, in the analysis of highlands cultures, the focus should be shifted from morphology to process (1993: 141, 148, 161). My approach focuses on process, but in my view social process constitutes and reconstitutes social forms. In other words, the two approaches cannot be separated (Lipuma 1993: 155). I also appreciate Eugene Ogan’s reformulation of Hays’ two contrasting concepts into a shift from “the ethnographic present to historical understanding” (Ogan 1993: 156). In the present book, I aspire to the latter. Finally, with the book’s title, “Pathways of Change”, I emphasise that I do not suppose that the processes of change were uniform.

41The comparative frame that I employ owes, moreover, a great deal to two major bodies of work. The first deals with contrasting “social logics” among highlanders’ ways of life, as elaborated by Maurice Godelier and, in his wake, by Pierre Lemonnier. The second, quite different source is Polly Wiessner’s & Akii Tumu’s reconstruction of the recent prehistory of the Enga, an ethnic group in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea. I discuss first Godelier’s and Lemonnier’s work. As a result of his fieldwork among the Baruya, Anga speakers living southeast of Kainantu, Papua New Guinea, Godelier posited the existence of two contrasting “social logics” among highlanders’ ways of life (1982b: 3-4). Marilyn Strathern subsequently observed that a major difference between the two “logics” were the ways in which people transacted with each other:

The relevant question is whether exchanges between groups and individuals depend on a quest for non-equivalence, and thus incorporate principles of calculated disequilibrium or unequal exchange (as in the substitution of human lives for wealth) or whether they rest on principles of equivalence and on mechanisms to restore equilibrium (wealth for wealth, life for life). [...] Where things substitute for human life, the reproduction of social relations comes to depend on the accumulation of material wealth (1991: 1; also Lemonnier 1991: 8).

42M. Strathern made these observations in a volume that she and Godelier co-edited, and that dealt with Godelier’s dichotomy in a number of ethnographic case studies on various parts of Melanesia. Strathern commented further that Godelier emphasised the different styles of leadership that formed part of the two contrasting logics. Where exchanges unmediated by wealth items prevailed, leadership was compartmentalised. As leaders, Godelier mentioned (1991: 282) specifically warriors, shamans, gardeners, cassowary hunters, salt makers, and masters of ritual. He called these leaders “Great Men”. Exchanges mediated by wealth were associated with “Big Men”. In this “logic”:

There should be a development of some system of social integration and forms of male power centred on a sprawling system of competitive exchanges which tie local societies into one regional, intertribal network. These local groups are represented by big men who symbolise their capacity to produce and/or amass wealth and to redistribute it (Godelier 1991: 278).

43Godelier (1990: 19) based this binary distinction on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s dichotomy between “elementary” and “complex” kinship arrangements, the former characterised by an exchange of brides between kin groups, and the latter by marriage by means of payments, with both arrangements occurring in a great variety of ways among the various ethnic groups. Consequently Gillian Gillison could observe (1991: 174) that “Godelier gave new meaning to the idea that men create society by exchanging women in marriage”.

44In my view, Godelier’s use of the term “social logic” suggests a degree of coherence between the features of the ways of life concerned that may not in fact have been the case. For instance, the redundancy of male initiation in a way of life characterised by Big Men, which Godelier posited as a logical one, has been refuted by Lemonnier (1991: 12, 1999: 317, 2002: 105) on the basis of ethnographic data. Moreover, as Godelier himself made clear, the members of an ethnic group may use elements of the two “logics” concurrently, depending on social context (1991: 281; also Lemonnier 1999: 317, 2002: 106). For these reasons I continue to place the term “logic” in inverted commas. My choice to use the concept “way of life” is likewise prompted by my consideration that this expression leaves open the degree of coherence between its constituent elements or “features” (Goodenough 1963: 178-179). Thus my use of the term “configuration” in an expression like “configuration of cultural features” allows for the possibility that the co-existence of features is to an unknown extent a historical co-incidence. Lemonnier has pointed out that culture elements occurring in combination may not causally related, but may be merely compatible (1990: 128, 146, 1991: 27). He did not attempt to gauge the length of time they might co-exist. His point seems most valuable to me in an comparison such as I am undertaking.

45Finally Paul Roscoe critiqued Godelier for failing to distinguish between hierarchies of value, manifested by prestige and renown, and hierarchies of power. In his view Great Men were at the top of value hierarchies, and Big Men at the top of power hierarchies (2000: 109-110). However it seems to me that a warrior Great Man exercised power, over his enemies, but also over the other members of his own polity whom he helped defend. Analogous arguments apply, with varying force, to the other categories of Great Men. Moreover, the deeds of Big Men also manifested values, such as courage, persuasiveness and skill in transacting. As far as I can see, Godelier did not pay explicit attention to the distinction that Roscoe drew attention to, because he, Godelier, was concerned with analysing various forms of leadership, hence emic phenomena in which the etic elements of power, influence and renown might co-exist in a variety of ways. Hence my conclusion is that the above strictures do not prevent the productive use of Godelier’s dichotomy, including the contrasts between the attendant cultural arrangements, in my attempt to account for the ways of life of highlanders in western New Guinea.

46Elaborating on Godelier’s dichotomy, Lemonnier proposed an intermediary type of leadership, namely by men who were prominent warriors and/or organisers of exchanges (1990: ch. 6; 1991: 18-19). Like Godelier, Lemonnier had done fieldwork among Anga speakers, the Ankave people, who however showed striking cultural differences with the Baruya (Bonnemère 1996: 388-389). His wide reading of the ethnography had made him aware of the existence of highlands ways of life in which people had wealth items at their disposal: pigs, shells or otherwise, often in combination. They transacted by means of these, both among each other and with outsiders, also using them in marriage payments and in compensation for killings. Hence they exchanged inequalities. However leaders were not Big Men, but instead were prominent warriors and/or organisers of ceremonies and exchanges. For the most part, these leaders were prominent in both fields, “while still a long way from being big men” with their many exchange partners and thus with a central role in the transfer of wealth items (Lemonnier 1991: 19). These men were often polygynists, which reflected their greater access to wealth and at the same time widened their economic base. Lemonnier put forward the term “Leaders” to designate this intermediate mode of powerful men (1990: 24, 123-124). He wrote the term in italics. Whereas I welcome his identification of this mode of leaders, the term he has chosen to refer to them is a very comprehensive one, and one that I would like to continue using as a “catch-all category” (Roscoe 2000: 109). To distinguish Lemonnier’s “Leaders” among these other leaders, I from here on write his term in italics, as he does, and in addition capitalise it: Leaders. Lemonnier based his observations of highlands leadership primarily on highlands ethnography (1990: 175-177). Most of his sources were from Papua New Guinea, though a minority concerned western New Guinea. They concern several of the ethnic groups I discuss in this book, namely the Hubula and the Lani – whom he then still lumped together as “Dani” –, the Me and the Yali, in his spelling Jale. I return to his comments in the course of my expositions about these peoples.

47Challenged by Nicholas Modjeska (1991: 238), Godelier confirmed that the simultaneous existence of these different “social logics” in the highlands pointed to historical changes within the local highlands ways of life (1991: 276-277). He regarded the Big Men “logic” as the more recent phenomenon resulting from sociocultural changes that transformed earlier Great Men societies, although he admitted that the scenarios for such transformations “have barely been glimpsed” (Godelier 1991: 295). As he mentioned, the recent introduction of sweet potato cultivation and an attendant increase in productivity in most parts of the highlands may well have enabled an increase in the production of pigs and their subsequent use in exchanges. But he granted sweet potato production a supplementary role in processes that were already underway. In the early 1960s, Ralph & Sue Bulmer had noted that the sweet potato was “almost certainly a relatively recent arrival in New Guinea” (1964: 46). But it was Jim Watson who argued that its adoption was post-Magellanic and had rapidly and sharply impacted highlanders’ ways of life to the extent that he coined the term “sweet potato revolution” to characterise it (1965, 1967).

48His views were and still are debated (Ballard 1995: 11-12, 2005), but here I follow Ballard’s conclusion that they constitute the “most plausible and economical account of recent history in the central highlands” (2005: 7). Watson also attempted to delineate the dimensions this revolution had taken since the time highlanders had taken to cultivating the crop. For one thing, the earlier staple had been taro, but the greater hardiness of the sweet potato allowed cultivation at higher altitudes, in poorer soils and under drier climates than had been possible with taro. The new crop enabled highlanders to widen their productive base and to change and elaborate on their cultural practices. In other respects the elements of the revolution remain uncertain, as Lemonnier has well documented (1990: 55-56). Except for a small area in the far west, in the Mapia, populated by people speaking a Me language, the sweet potato was also the dominant staple in the western New Guinea highlands (Hylkema 2002). So I take it that the ways of life Europeans encountered at the time they settled among the highlanders of western New Guinea, also manifested, in local variations, a late phase, and/or the after-effects, of a sweet potato revolution.

49Whereas the prehistory, including the recent prehistory, of the highlands is still largely unknown to us, the adoption of the sweet potato as a staple food for humans and as fodder for pigs is not the only innovation that we know about. Tobacco, too, was a post-Magellanic introduction that increased the range of luxuries and exchange items highlanders could draw on. And thirdly, highlanders also acquired large numbers of wealth items other than pigs, such as shells (Hughes 1977: 198; Majnep & Bulmer 1977: 19; Healey 1990: 190-191). The availability of such items that could be transacted over and over again enabled further expansion and diversification of the exchanges on which the flourishing of Big Man-ship depended. I use the term “enable” deliberately, since it is clear that not all highlanders have made the sweet potato their main staple and, secondly, that they have not put the cultigen’s harvests to the same use. These arguments hold for other wealth items as well. And we should keep in mind that, apart from the increase in the volume of moveable wealth, other factors, so far unknown to us, influenced the course of events among the various groups of highlanders. The upshot is that I do not regard the sweet potato revolution as a blunderbuss explaining the ways of life that the early ethnographers attempted to record.

50Godelier’s dichotomy and its subsequent elaboration by Lemonnier seem to me to be a suitable frame to base my comparisons on because it recognises the existence of other modes of leadership than the “Big Man”; furthermore because it provides an account of these modes; and finally because it identifies the sociocultural context in which such forms of leadership arose. In addition, it attempts to identify the occurrence of comprehensive changes in New Guinea highlands ways of life in the era preceding first contact. Another focus is the role of the various wealth items in fashioning social relationships. The two topics are interrelated, since handling wealth items in many highlands ways of life might bring prestige and power.

51As mentioned, a second major source of inspiration for my analysis was Wiessner & Tumu’s exposition of recent Enga prehistory (1998). The Enga are, with the Lani and the Me, among the largest ethnic groups in the New Guinea highlands. At the time of first contact, in the 1930s, their way of life showed regional variations. They were subdivided into scores of independent political entities, “parishes” in my terminology, derived from Hogbin & Wedgwood (1953). Neighbouring parishes were often at war with each other. Wiessner & Tumu carried out their inquiries from 1985 to 1995, with interruptions, obtaining oral evidence about the past from members of 110 parishes. Hence they could construct “converging lines of evidence”, both for the entire Enga habitat and for its different parts (Wiessner & Tumu 1998: 5). Their account covers mainly the last eight generations, so a period of about 240 years from the start of their inquiries (Wiessner & Tumu 1998: 33). They make it very clear that for this period of time Enga history contains a great many cultural changes. I refer to a few of them in the present book. For ethnic groups in the highlands of western New Guinea, such data are almost completely lacking. Nevertheless, I have scanned the literature to spot incidental statements or hypotheses about ongoing cultural changes.

52Another reason to draw on Wiessner & Tumu’s discussion are the concepts they use to characterise cultural institutions. For instance, when they compared a pre-sweet potato cult observed by western Enga with one observed by eastern and central Enga, they characterised the former as “festive” and “open”, a cult of “sedentism”, addressing a pool of ancestors to promote fertility of humans, pigs and crops (1998: 186). The latter cult they characterised as “inwardly oriented” and “permeated with mystery and fear”, aiming at the appeasement of individual male ancestors (1998: 186). Such contrasts, and the concepts Wiessner & Tumu used to bring them out, are eminently fit to characterise rituals practised by highlanders of western New Guinea.

53These two sources of inspiration do not in my view explain the course, or courses, of events. What they do, most usefully, is to throw into relief the cultural contrasts, and the range of those contrasts, that came into being among New Guinea highlanders. I have used these two sources as much as I could in presenting the eight ways of life in this book.

4. Splitters and lumpers

54By recognising the concurrent existence of several modes of leadership in the New Guinea highlands, Godelier and Lemonnier have become, to use John Burton’s term, “splitters” in regard to the ethnography of highlands political organisation (2003: 204). That seems an advance to me. Burton’s comment does not, however, apply in every respect. It does not in so far as the two authors see the changes in highlands ways of life occurring along a single continuum, going from Great Men configurations at the one end to Big Men ones at the other (Lemonnier 1991: 18). In the course of his analysis, Lemonnier commented that he has modelled the transformation from Great Man to Big Man “social logic” on the transformation of the Great Man warrior (1990: 146). He added:

the development of competitive exchanges and the emergence of big men are only one of the ways in which great-men societies may change. Setting up a power founded on ritual knowledge [as held by other modes of Great Men] is obviously another (Lemonnier 1991: 27).

55In line with his focus on the Great Man warrior, he appears to have sorted the many highlands ways of life that he discussed in his 1990 book according to their place on that Great Man warrior – Big Man continuum, hence in his analysis he deliberately limited himself to a single syndrome of cultural transformations (Lemonnier 1990: 146). Likewise, Godelier characterised Leaders as small-scale Big Men, as if they resembled Big Men in all but sociocultural scale (1990: 17). Consequently, as regards pathways of change, Godelier and Lemonnier have, at least so far, remained what Burton has called “lumpers” (2003: 204). However, it seems unwarranted to me to presuppose that the members of all highlands ethnic groups brought about a single course of sociocultural change, or that, as in the case of Great Men cultural configurations, people have not followed a course of change at all over the last few centuries. Instead I leave open the possibility that the sociocultural history in the highlands may have been more varied. In this perspective ways of life characterised by Great Men, as encountered at first contact, may also have resulted of pathways of change, including recent changes.

56Burton used the terms “lumpers” and “splitters” when pointing out that Godelier’s and Lemonnier’s trichotomy does not exhaust the modes of highlands sociality. He cited the Watut people in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea, who, like the Baruya and the Ankave, spoke an Anga language, but culturally stood in stark contrast “with the societies discussed by Modjeska [Duna and Kaluli], Golson and, for that matter, Watson” (Burton 2003: 204, 206-207). They were also in many respects unlike the Baruya. Burton pointed to the absence of persistent groups, and little interest in pig rearing or accumulating other wealth items. Procedures for mediating conflicts were absent. Residential groups were small and short lived. From birth to death people were members of a single “descent category” the members of which, however, did not form a group or groups. Nor did they have common tasks. The Watut did not practise sister exchange: bride wealth consisted of “netbags bulging with smoked possums”; moreover grooms had to provide bride services. While relations between members of the descent categories were often strained, those between matrikin and sisters’ offspring were cordial. In his paper Burton overstated, it seems to me, the distinctiveness of the Watut. He mentioned that men admired ancestors who had conquered territory and that successful warriors might wear the “bandoliers of cowry shells” that earlier had belonged to men they had fought and killed. So they were like Great Men warriors and they used wealth items, in their case cowries, as tokens of their successful warrior hood. It seems also plausible that hunters who contributed many possums to marriage payments earned prestige like the Great Men hunters did. Furthermore the Watut attributed different, complementary “aptitudes” to the different descent categories, reminiscent of the compartmentalisation of leadership roles among the Baruya.

57I mention Burton’s précis of the Watut way of life since, like him, I am a “splitter” with respect to highlands ways of life. In what follows I intend to show both the differences and the similarities between these ways of life. In his posthumous paper “Frameworks of comparison”, Benedict Anderson warned that an author, who wants to make a comparison, has to decide… “whether one is mainly after similarities or differences” (2016). In the early stage of drafting this book, I presumed that I was to stress the differences, so as to bring out the specificities of the ways of life I planned to deal with. Later on, however, I reconsidered that idea, since what concerns me here are the cultural configurations – with both their similarities and their differences – that Europeans encountered in their colonial exploits, in addition to the pathways of change of which these various configurations were the results. This concern shows up in the way I have organised the book, with an introduction, eight ethnographic chapters, each dealing with a single ethnic group, and a conclusion in which I review the ethnographic record in terms of the model devised by Godelier and Lemonnier.

58In the main, the western New Guinea ethnographers whose accounts I draw on present the highlanders’ ways of life as they happened to find them at the time of their field research. Here and there they add prehistorical snippets. Because of the short time span covered, the accounts do not allow inferences about the long-term, or even mid-term, compatibility of cultural institutions or features, and, alternatively, their mutual necessity (Lemonnier 1990, 1991). Hence the extant reports that, for instance, some Lani groups practised initiation, while others did not, and that the Konda Lani appeared to have recently adopted the practise, maybe as an experiment, do not warrant the conclusion, against Godelier, that ways of life characterised by Leadership can remain in existence over generations without the contribution that initiation makes to social solidarity. I also heed Volker Heeschen’s comment about the way of life of the Eipo, discussed in chapter 7: “Maybe their former life was not more than a passing attempt to put an end to disease, fears, worries and the whims of nature” (2015: 18). In this quotation he was referring to the way of life that he got to know in the course of 40 years of field and homework and that the Eipo drastically overhauled in their conversion to Christianity. I do not exclude that the comment may apply to other highlands ways of life as well.

59Whereas Godelier & Strathern, in their characterisation of the two contrasting “social logics”, focused on mediated and unmediated exchanges, it seems useful to point to other features of exchanges as they occurred in the highlands. For instance: exchanges may have occurred as either a single reciprocal transaction or as part of a series, in which case they may have established, maintained and reinforced reciprocal relationships; they occurred in relations of both equality and inequality; as gifts and counter-gifts, to use Marcel Mauss’s terms; in ritual, ceremonial and nonceremonial contexts. In my view, exchanges have been unduly privileged in the accounts of New Guinea sociality, at the expense of co-operation to achieve a common goal, whether in the performance of ceremonies and rituals, or in matters such as warfare, house building or making a garden. For that reason, I include co-operation under the expression “transacting with each other”.

60Analytically, exchanging and co-operating can be sharply contrasted as a dichotomy, but in the process of social life, they occur often intertwined. For instance, when the Lani at Bokondini, among whom I did fieldwork in the early 1960s, helped each other to make food gardens by organising work parties, their actions were part of reciprocal exchanges: each of the participants helped the owner of the garden get his garden established. The owner was expected to reciprocate when his helpers opened their own gardens. At the same time, the workers co-operated in clearing the tract of land that was to become a garden, in building a fence around it or in some other task. Below, when discussing the ways of life of highlanders in the ethnographic sections of this book, I point to other instances in which co-operation and reciprocal exchanges were intertwined. However I have not been able to systematise how these two modes of dealing with each other were combined in New Guinean ways of life.

61In the following eight chapters I present short accounts of the eight ways of life I have selected for comparison, in each case starting with an overview of the extant literature. My presentation starts from the west.


1 Szalay (1999: 497-499) has provided an instructive list of the various names used.

2 As regards New Guinea, the main publications of Pierre & Anne-Marie Pétrequin are two comprehensive books, published in 1993 and 2006 respectively. On the title pages of both books they mention the names of collaborators. With the 1993 book, these are J. Coras, H. Dartewille, A. Maître and M. Rossy; with the 2006 publication, O. Weller. However when referring to the books, I mention the Pétrequins only.

Table des illustrations

Titre Map 1. The Highlands of western New Guinea
Légende The map is an adaption of a map in Part 1 of the Results of the Demographic Research Project Western New Guinea (1964). The project was led by K. Groenewegen and D.J. van de Kaa, and was carried out in the early 1960s.
Fichier image/jpeg, 273k
Titre Map 2. The Western Highlands (part 1)
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,1M
Titre Map 2. The Western Highlands (part 2)
Légende The map is derived, with some alterations, from J. Victor de Bruijn’s 1978 autobiography Het Verdwenen Volk, The People Lost to View. I have reduced the number of geographic names and have Indonesianised the spelling of the remaining names.
Fichier image/jpeg, 433k
Titre Pict. 1. Paniai and Tage lakes
Légende Tage is the smallest of the three lakes, separated from lake Paniai by a narrow strip of land. The altitude is just over 1,700 meters. The picture was taken by Le Roux, in 1939. It gives an idea of the large size of the lakes. To the east, on the right hand side of the picture, are visible the wide valley floors of rivers flowing into lake Paniai. Many of the drained gardens of the Me are on the edges of these valleys.
Crédits Source : Le Roux (1948-50, pict. 21, opp. page 61).
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Titre Map 3. The Eastern Highlands
Légende The map is a result of a German multidisciplinary research project among the Eipo, a Mek speaking people whose way of life I discuss in chapter 7 of this book. It was published as part of an exhibition that showed results of the project (1978). The Eipomek River, is about halfway between Nalca and Bime and the habitat of the Eipo is farther upstream. The Grand Valley is located in the left-hand bottom corner, and on the right the map shows the boundary with Papua New Guinea. The names in bold print show the locations of mission stations. But simultaneously they show the habitats of the other eastern highlands groups whose ways of life I discuss: the Yahuli Yali (chapter 6), around Angguruk, and the Ngalum (chapter 8), around Apmisibil and farther south in the area of the Sibil river.
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Titre Pict. 2. The Kema valley
Légende The Kema is one of the rivers in the western highlands that follow the direction of the main range. The picture was taken by Le Roux, in 1939. It views to the east, upstream, with the upper reaches of the river partly hidden by the mountains shown in the right hand top of the picture. At the time of first contact, before World War II, the valley had an ethnically mixed population, with Moni being in the majority. It was densely populated, resulting in extensive deforestation on the lower slopes.
Crédits Source : Le Roux (1948-50, pict. 13, opp. page 61).
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