Version classiqueVersion mobile

Pathways of change

Anton Ploeg

Chapter 1. Me

Texte intégral

1. Introduction

1Groups of Me were first contacted fleetingly in the mid-1930s by overland expeditions, but colonial interest increased sharply when Frits Wissel noticed from the air the three lakes, which were first called after him, and the dense population in the surrounding areas. From first contact onwards, the way of life of the Me intrigued Europeans. Their dense population, their sophisticated agriculture, their preoccupation with cowry shells that they had graded and used as a currency, were all unexpected, striking aspects of life in western New Guinea (Ploeg 2000a). As regards Me wetland agriculture, what drew the attention of the colonial arrivals was not only that the people had come to practise it, but also that they did so with a minimum of tools: their hands and a short, wooden spade (Le Roux 1948-50: 289-290, vol. 3, plate xxxi; Pospisil 1963: 105-106). As I discuss below, it is unclear, however, how ample their harvests were.

2The colonial newcomers were also struck by the predominance of the cowry shell as a cultural item. The Me had started acquiring these sea shells before first contact. They very much preferred Cypraea moneta, the Maladives cowry, over Cypraea annulus, the Zanzibar cowry (Van Eechoud 1938: 169; Le Roux 1948-50: 352). In the late 1930s, when Europeans started arriving on the scene, the Me possessed these shells in appreciable quantities, using them as coins in a multitude of transactions that ranged from the everyday purchase of a good such as a small string bag to ceremonial marriage payments. The early ethnographers did not attempt to estimate how many were in circulation. In any case, the people were keen to acquire more (Van Eechoud 1938: 77). They were preoccupied by the differences between individual cowries, down to the smallest detail, and had graded them on the basis of these differences. High-grade cowries were worth a multitude of those of the lowest rank. As almost everywhere in the highlands, people practised pig husbandry, but an important aim of raising pigs was to sell them, or their meat, for cowries. Among the Me, at the time of European settlement and into the 1970s, cowries were the pre-eminent wealth item (Hylkema 2012 and esp. 22).

3The Franciscan missionary and ethnographer Sibbele Hylkema, who witnessed the last phase of cowry dominance in the 1970s, pointed to the importance of the sweet potato in the Me financial economy. He conceptualised their economy as a cycle: sweet potatoes were important pig fodder. By marrying another wife, a man could increase his sweet potato harvest, and thus feed more pigs, and thus acquire more cowries that he subsequently could use to accumulate yet another bride price and marry yet another wife (Hylkema 2002: 234). Individuals who were successful accumulators of cowries, always men, gained prestige and influence.

4The interest the Me way of life prompted among Europeans sparked a large body of ethnographic writing. Early observers, such as Jan van Eechoud, Victor de Bruijn, P.J. Eijma, a botanist who spent most of 1939 researching the area, and Charles le Roux, a self-made anthropologist, museum curator and the leader of the 1939 KNAG expedition (Wentholt 2003: 96; Mulder 2009), were all struck by Me culture and published about it (Van Eechoud 1939-40; De Bruijn 1940; Eyma 1940; Le Roux 1939, 1948-50; Eyma, in Ploeg 2000a). In the course of World War II, the local patrol post was captured by Japanese forces. The Dutch reopened it in 1948, and several staff contributed additional ethnographic data. I refer to K.W.J. Boelen, a medical doctor who patrolled most of the Me habitat and who published about his work there (n.d.), and to Leo Dubbeldam, a member of the civil administration in the late 1950s, who published a paper, in English, about cowry use (1964). In 1955, when Pospisil did fieldwork in the Kamu valley, that area was still un-administered. However it seems likely that the Me living there had been influenced by the colonial presence in the nearby Paniai area.

5The eager use of cowries by the Me appeared to confirm Paul Wirz’ reports about cowry use among the Lani. Wirz had been a member of the 1920-1922 Van Overeem-Kremer expedition and had noted how eager the highlanders met were to acquire cowries (Wirz 1924: 120-121, 1932). In his overview of Papuan cultures written in the early 1950s, Van Baal extended these observations to all highlanders: “the tribes in the Central Highlands […] have formed themselves into genuine trading peoples, driven by a never abating passion for shell money” (1954: 445; also Kooijman 1961: 43). That image was reinforced by Pospisil’s two monographs, published in 1958 and 1963 respectively, based on his field research from 1954-1955 in the Kamu Valley. However, as appears below, later research made it clear that Van Baal’s generalisation did not apply to all highlands peoples.

6Later publications about the Me include Benny Giay’s 1995 Zakheus Pakage and His Communities, an analysis of a revitalisation movement instigated by Zakheus Pakage, a charismatic Me pastor, from 1950. I include it here because it deals with the early Me responses to missionisation. And from 1969 to 1994, Sibbele Hylkema, a Franciscan priest, made extensive ethnographic inquiries. He wrote a number of short monographs and a collection of Me texts that have remained unpublished (Ploeg 2000b). In addition, there is a mass of notes that requires ordering and analysis. I have edited and annotated two unfinished texts that he drafted in the years before his death in 1998 (Hylkema 2012). Hylkema worked among the Me decades after first contact. I feel nevertheless justified in using his writings here, since he took issue with Pospisil’s conclusions and also because he provided his comments with historical depth, especially with regard to cowry use.

7Me lived over a large area of the western highlands. Like other peoples discussed in this book, they believed that they had arrived there from the east, while, earlier, another group of people had lived in the area (Giay 1990: 1, 1995: 17). They shared the latter idea with the Yahuli Yali, whose way of life I discuss in chapter 6. Hylkema (1982: 37-40) has written that, when the Mapia Me realised that New Guinea was much larger than they had been aware of, they transposed their place of origin farther east, near the swallet of the Digul River on the southern edge of the Star Mountains. According to my estimate, the Me numbered maybe 40,000 people at the time. I base this figure on census data that the medical officer Boelen assembled among the Me in the early 1950s, shortly after the patrol post was reopened following World War II. On the basis of extensive patrols among the Me, Boelen calculated that in 1953 they numbered about 43,700 people (Boelen 1954: 67). That figure did not explain the presumably small number of people living in fringe areas. The bulk of the population, then 26,000 people, appeared to live around the three Paniai lakes. There the population density was far greater than elsewhere in the Me territories. Eyma visited part of the Kema Valley in 1939 and reported that a population maximum seemed to have been reached (Eyma, in Ploeg 2000a: 409; Le Roux 1948-50: 283). But Boelen (1954: 67) reported that the population density of the Me living in that valley was 7 per km². Farther west, in the mountainous areas of the Mapia and vicinity, the population density was much lower (Boelen 1954, Hylkema 2002: 231).

8Hylkema argued that, at the time of first contact, the Me were subdivided into at least three culturally distinct sub-groups: in the east, people living around Lake Paniai, Lake Tage and, presumably, the Kema Valley, secondly, farther south and west, the people near Lake Tigi and in the Kema Valley, and, thirdly, still farther west in the Mapia, in a rugged, dissected terrain (2002). In this paper Hylkema sketched the cultural differences between the three groups and commented that the Mapia Me were intentionally splitting off from the other two ethnic groups, a process not acknowledged by the colonial and post-colonial authorities. According to Hylkema, at first contact the way of life of the Mapia people differed significantly from that of the other Me: with swidden farming, taro as their staple crop, an emphasis on hunting, the absence of wetland agriculture and much less interest in cowry accumulation (as regards the Mapia language dialect, see Van Eechoud 1938: 283-284, 902-903; also Sierat 1999: 42). In what follows, I focus on the Me living in the Paniai and Kamu Valley areas.

2. Me livelihood in the Paniai and Kamu areas

9In these two parts of the Me territories, sweet potato was the staple crop. For the Kamu Valley, Pospisil described three types of agriculture: shifting cultivation on slopes, intensive, but long-fallow cultivation on the flat valley floor and intensive short-fallow cultivation in drained, ditched and composted garden beds (1963: 90-91, 126-127). The areas under intensive cultivation were on the increase (Rappard & Van Royen 1959). In his regional geography of Melanesia, Harold Brookfield has compared 44 indigenous Melanesian agricultural systems as regards intensity (Brookfield & Hart 1971: ch. 4). He assigned Me agriculture the fourth place, ahead of Chimbu, Enga and Huli in the Papua New Guinea highlands. Presumably he did so on account of the “intensive short fallow” cultivation. Other ethnic groups discussed in this book also practised several types of agriculture of varying intensity. When assigning them a place on Brookfield’s scale, I do so referring to the most intensive type on record. Part of the Me harvests went to the pigs. Like Hylkema (2002: 234), Pospisil (1963: 204-205) and Giay (1995: 19) argued that the availability of sweet potato was a necessary condition for the current Me economy in the Paniai and Kamu areas, since cowries were the main wealth item and Me used pigs, and pork, to get more cowries.

  • 1 3 ENSO stands for “El Niño – Southern Oscillation”. It refers to a weather phenomenon that recurs w (...)

10Another important resource in the Paniai and Kamu areas was crayfish, collected by women (Pospisil 1963: 375). Notwithstanding the sophistication of their agricultural techniques, the Me were concerned about the continued sufficiency of their food production. For instance, in the Kamu men spread their gardens over different ecological zones (Pospisil 1963: 374). Frits Veldkamp, a colonial public servant who worked both in Paniai and in the Grand Valley of the Baliem reported that, compared to harvests in the Grand Valley, Paniai harvests were meagre (1996: 91). ENSO1 related droughts and floods contributed to the perceived insecurity. The people among whom Pospisil carried out his research in the Kamu Valley told him that famine was “virtually unknown”. Yet he collected oral history telling about prolonged droughts and widespread famine resulting in the death of many people (1963: 374). Me told De Bruijn that, due to drought in 1940-1941, people had died (1978: 140, 166). De Bruijn does not mention a figure. Giay’s analysis of the sociopolitical resistance of the Me to the presence of ogai, strangers, especially Europeans, emphasised that their presence had heightened Me apprehension about food security (1995: 92, 108-109).

11The Me were grouped in a sizeable number of patrilineal clans, many of which were subdivided into sub-clans and further sub-divisions. Sub-clans of a single clan were in many cases spread over a wide area (Boelen 1954-55; Pospisil 1958: 74-75, 1963: 32-33; Hylkema 2002: 243-244). According to Pospisil, the clan “has no importance whatsoever in politics, war or economy (1958: 74). The kin groups that were important were residential groups with a tract of land for gardening and other economic purposes. They were often sub-clans, the term for these groups that I use in this book. Such a group might be paired with another sub-clan, with an adjoining tract of land. Other, smaller clan sections might join them. Pospisil called such conglomerates “confederations”. They were political groups, important in matters of war and compensation. In the confederation that hosted Pospisil during his fieldwork in the Kamu Valley, the paired sub-clans were united by numerous marriage ties (1963: 65). He did not say whether this was a matter of explicit preference, as among the Hubula, most Lani and the Damal (as discussed in chapters 3, 4 and 5), or whether it resulted merely from contiguity. Nor did he say whether it was an example of a more general trend, obtaining in other parts of the Me territories as well (1963: 40-41).

Pict. 3. A group of Me men

Pict. 3. A group of Me men

Source: Le Roux (1948-50, vol. 2, opp. page 644).

3. Me cowry use

12On the basis of his fieldwork in the Kamu Valley, and, I suppose, also on what had become known about the Me living around the three Paniai lakes, the centre of colonial activities, Pospisil reported that the Me used cowries as money, and had classified them into a series of denominations, with greatly varying value. A single cowry of high value could buy a fully grown pig. In his view the Me had brought a social formation into being that was strongly reminiscent of capitalism, with nuclear families as the enterprises and individual Me men as businessmen. Success in accumulating cowries brought prestige, but, at the same time, the obligation to be “generous” with them (Pospisil 1958: 79-81, 1978: 49; Hylkema 2012: 81-82). That “generosity” meant that the owners were supposed to lend cowries to others who had been less successful in their pursuit and thus were in need of cowries, for instance because they had to assemble a bride price. The borrowers became dependants of their lenders. These features led other observers, especially Chris Gregory, to conclude that the Me political economy was more in line with Melanesian Big Man polities than Pospisil had argued (Gregory 1982: 51). Success in handling cowries was one qualification that made a man a leader, in the Me language a tonowi. Others were persuasive eloquence, judicial skills, bravery in war and capacity as a shaman (Pospisil 1958: 77-78, 1978: 48-49; Van Eechoud 1938: 136). Pospisil reported that tonowi should possess an accumulation of leadership qualifications (1958: 79-80; also Hylkema 2012: 101-102), instead of the compartmentalisation characterising a “Great Man logic”.

13Among the Me, eloquence counted for much because it contributed to settling disputes and so to forestalling fights or, worse, war (Van Nunen 1956: 7-8). And for the Me war was “bad” (Pospisil 1958: 89, 1978: 37; Hylkema 2012: 93). Nevertheless fights and wars did occur, thus permitting a man to show bravery. If such fighting resulted in deaths, it continued until both sides had an equal number of dead and were “weary of the prolonged hostilities.” Then they resorted to peace negotiations. But if the number of dead did not match, “it [was] almost impossible to conclude peace unless one side [was] completely beaten or, in very rare cases, the other offer[ed] blood money to bring about the necessary balance” (Pospisil 1958: 93-94). In that same monograph, Pospisil listed a large number of cases of trouble, including five murders and one attempted murder. In the event a murder occurred within a political community, the rule was that the killer too had to be killed. In several of the cited cases, this was indeed the outcome. But in some, the matter was settled by the payment of wealth: especially cowries. In one case, the payment included pigs (Pospisil 1958: 146-149). Noticeably, the Me were reluctant to admit the use of wealth to compensate a killing, while both Godelier (1991: 290) and Lemonnier (1990: 114) associated this feature more with Great Men than with Big Men “logics.”

14Pospisil’s account shows that cowries were important items in compensation, as they were in marriage payments (Hylkema 2012: ch. 27). Hylkema noted the near absence of pigs in these payments (2012: 145). He added that marriage by sister exchange occurred “sporadically” and that the people did not favour it. He added: “Given their individual personalities, two women are rarely equivalent objects of exchange […] one marriage will contrast unfavourably with the other […] the two marriages are too directly linked” (2012: 157). Moreover sister exchange deprived the groom’s relatives of the possibility to show that they were able to rise to the occasion and assemble a fitting bride price. In Hylkema’s perception, the Me regarded, in the 1970s, “each bride price as a strictly unique event” (2012: 146).

15At the time of first contact, it seems that almost all cowries were alienable. Pospisil mentioned the occurrence of “most valuable” necklaces “studded with [nassa shells] and cowry shells. Such necklaces were usually regarded as heirlooms, inherited “in the main line”, presumably the male line (1963: 275-276). He did not mention how many were around.

16In Pospisil’s perception, the Me had a secular outlook on life. He associated this outlook with their preoccupation with cowries and their transacting with cowries. He viewed Me men as entrepreneurs, each of them engaged in profit-oriented business pursuits, with the cowry as their currency, thus keeping a capitalist economy going (1978: 29). Hylkema did not deny that the Me were individualistic in their cowry dealings, by means of which they attempted to enlarge their assets. However, for him, the assets included not only material items such as pigs and cowries, but also power over dependants. Moreover he perceived a religious component in the way the Me appreciated their cowries, arguing that, according to the Me, men successful in their cowry transactions owed this to supernatural support. And cowries themselves had religious significance. Hylkema described them as amulets and reported that they were believed to have mythical origins and could be supernaturally spawned, for instance by reptiles, or brought along by non-human beings (Hylkema 2012, esp. ch. 25). However he and Pospisil agreed that Me men pursued their transactions on their own account, in their terms as individuals, with Hylkema giving a different slant:

In general the [Me] is characterised as an individualist. I can agree with this characterisation, provided the word individualist is specified after the image of a soloist in an orchestra. And if this characterisation is further completed by the addition that his typical individualism with regard to the group is explained by a remarkable [attitude] towards offspring procreated by him personally. Whether a [Me] must be called a success or a failure in life is ultimately decided by [his] having or not having male offspring […] Generally a [Me] considers it his task […] to put his property beyond the reach of the “brother” and to secure it for the “son” (1990: 7).

17Hylkema saw the individualism of the Me way of life, especially in the Kamu and the Paniai areas, reflected in their mode of residence (2002: 232-233). Me lived in homesteads, square buildings with a saddle back roof, with separate sections for men and women plus children, and most often with a raised floor in the men’s section (Le Roux 1948-50: 206-207, vol. 3 plates xxxix-xl, cxviii). In the Paniai area, the husband sometimes built a separate house for himself (Hylkema 2002: 232-233). As regards settlement, Pospisil mentioned the occurrence of villages in the Kamu Valley, but the settlement plan he included with his account was irregular and dispersed (1958: 103). In contrast, De Bruijn (1978: 55) and Boelen (n.d.: 36), presumably writing about the Paniai area, denied that the Me lived in villages.

18Most importantly in my view, Hylkema added a historical dimension to the observations of the earlier authors by positing that the numbers of cowries circulating among the Me had sharply increased during the decades preceding first contact due to the growing number of bird of paradise hunters operating from the north coast, especially Cenderawasih Bay (2012: 30; see also Szalay 1999: 143). He put the start of the increase at the late nineteenth century, but in my view the date can be put further back, since Cenderawasih Bay was an early centre of colonial trade (Kamma 1976: 69-70; Swadling 1996: ch. 7). Cowries, especially Cypraea moneta, have been used as coins in large parts of southeast Asia. Peter Boomgaard views this phenomenon as an early instance of globalisation, noting that a considerable proportion of the cowries used came indeed from the Maldives (2008: 15). Whether that was also the case with the cowries used by the Me is unclear, but, if that was the case, they might also have arrived via the south coast, given the trade links with the southeast Moluccan Islands. It is worth noting that other features of the Me way of life resulted from contacts with northerly neighbours or peoples. Pospisil mentioned their adoption of a hexagesimal numerical system from people speaking a Malay language in or near Cenderawasih Bay (1989: 21; also Hylkema 2012: 56-57). The adoption of such a complex cultural feature suggests intensive and lengthy contacts.

19Hylkema argued that the Me living around the lakes, in the eastern parts of their territories, were geographically best placed to come by cowries and that, from there, the shells spread farther westward, and, plausibly, east to the neighbouring Moni, discussed in the next chapter. In contrast to Pospisil, he presented cowry use among the Me as a system in flux. In his view, there were no fixed denominations, but a series, a changing and expanding one, of what I call categories. Cowries assigned to a single category nevertheless often differed in value. Cowries could be reassigned to a different category. At a similar point in time, the Me living in different parts of the Me habitat employed different categorisations of cowries, which hampered interchangeability (Hylkema 2012: ch. 3 & 5). But both Pospisil’s and Hylkema’s accounts demonstrated that Me enjoyed transacting with cowries. For them, cowries were, had become, wonderful objects to think and to act with.

20Men attempted to monopolise transacting with cowries. They claimed that only men had the intelligence required to manage them profitably. Differential success in handling cowries led to pronounced social inequality among the Me. Whereas Me ideology held that women lacked the intelligence to successfully transact with cowries, in private men might concede that for instance their wife, or their sister, did have that qualification. So they let them practise it (Hylkema 2012: 74).

4. The yuwo

21An institution during which cowry use was conspicuous was the Me “pig feast”, the yuwo. These feasts were high points in the social life of the Me. Because of this and because of the contrasts they show between the ways of life of the Me and of the neighbouring Moni, I present here an extensive account. Yuwo were concluded by what looked like a market, at which especially pork, but also other goods, were sold for cowries. For the sellers, the last day of the yuwo was a cowry collecting venture. While emphasising that pork was the main item, Le Roux commented:

Many women were observed sauntering around the area, holding a stick on which they had hung necklaces consisting of seeds and nassa shells, small nets, and other finery that they offered for sale. But also other goods were traded such as puppies, piglets, salt, large shells, bundles of pandanus leaf for cigarettes, gourds, red earth… skirts, wrapped tobacco, arrows, penis gourds, and so on (1948-50: 595).

22The feasts drew many visitors. Le Roux wrote that “hundreds, sometimes thousands, take part” (1948-50: 586). On the basis of his fieldwork in the then un-administered Kamu basin, in 1955, Pospisil reported that “as many as 2,000” people might attend the final “market” day (1958: 52). And the feasts intrigued other colonial newcomers as well, several of whom published about them. The earliest accounts date from the late 1930s (De Bruijn 1940-41; Van Eechoud 1938: 148, 1939-40: 125-126; Le Roux 1948-50: ch. 17), in other words very soon after first contact. In the following I present a summary of their accounts, focusing on the one published by Le Roux. I do so because of their inaccessibility to many English readers.

23The 1939 expedition led by Le Roux lasted just over five months (Le Roux 1948-50: 16). In that time span he attended two yuwo – presumably only the market days of these feasts – one in the Paniai area, and one in the “mid-Kema” Valley, among Moni (1948-50: 587). He noticed that the market was the conclusion of a period of festivities that started with the construction of a dance house and of houses to accommodate visitors. The dance house tended to be the largest structure, measuring up to seven by ten metres, with a height of about six meters (Le Roux 1948-50: 570; De Bruijn 1940-41: 13, 1978: 172; Pospisil 1958: 48). It had a sprung dance floor, and its construction required ritual including carrying a tree, a Sepindaceae species from the forest to the building site (Pospisil 1963: 328, 1978: 72-73; Hylkema 1974). With the exception of a small tuft at the top, the branches were cut off, while the remaining trunk was planted on the site. People hung offerings of agricultural produce, and maybe other objects, on what remained of the branches. For a fee, a shaman would perform a dance while uttering spells so as to induce the ghosts of the ancestors to channel many cowries to the yuwo organisers. Construction of the houses was followed by a period of nocturnal dancing. The dance house was often not large enough so people also danced on the plaza in front. Le Roux got varying estimates of the length of this period of dancing, with a minimum of 20 days and a maximum of four months (1948-50: 588-589; see also Pospisil 1958: 47-48). Pospisil commented that “most of the heterosexual acquaintances that develop into love affairs and often into marriage have their beginnings at a [y]uwo” (Pospisil 1958: 47).

24According to Le Roux, a yuwo had more than one sponsor. However both Pospisil and Hylkema consistently spoke of only one sponsor. In Pospisil’s words:

A [Me] pig feast starts as an idea in the mind of a wealthy man [a tonowi]. He usually has one or more sows with piglets, and so he decides to have the pig feast when all the piglets have grown to at least 80 kilograms each (1963: 328, 1978: 71-77; also De Bruijn 1978: 172).

25In their view a man organised a yuwo to affirm or to improve his status. However he was not the sole distributor, or seller, of pork. The more men appeared willing to join him in celebrating his yuwo and to sell pork, obtained by butchering the pigs they themselves had brought along, the more prestige the organiser earned and the larger the challenge to other potential organisers. Apparently the number of pigs killed for a yuwo was not a primary consideration. I do not know how to resolve the conflicting reports of Le Roux, as against those of Pospisil and Hylkema, other than by pointing to the time difference between their researches. In addition to yuwo, the Me held pig markets that Pospisil characterised as an “occasion for business only”, without dancing and without “ceremonial structures” (1958: 128).

26Within the chain of events that made up a yuwo, I distinguish at least four types of transactions. In Hylkema’s view, organising a yuwo was a challenge to other tonowi, prompting them to organise one in turn. This was the first type of transaction that I identify. A second type concerned the relationship between the organising tonowi and his supporters, men who were obligated to him and who would contribute pigs to the occasion. A third type of transaction took place during the last day of the feast when the organiser and his supporters sold pork and other goods for cowries to whoever turned up during what European observers perceived as a market. One matter that might impede these transactions was disagreement over the value of the cowry offered, in other words disagreement over the value of the means of exchange (De Bruijn 1939, referred to by Le Roux 1948-50: 595; Hylkema 2012: 66-67, 176-177). The fourth type of transaction is the intensive, but welcome, co-operation that organising a yuwo engendered. As Hylkema pointed out:

The [Me] experience the approaching [y]uwo as a challenge they tackle together. The [y]uwo lifts them over their often oppressive ego-centrism. Or, as they themselves say, the awareness of death fades (1974: 52).

27The last day of the yuwo, the “market”, at least in the mode in which colonial outsiders observed it from 1938, was, according to Hylkema, a new addition to the feast, occasioned by the recent, sharp increase in cowries (1974b) and their ascendancy as a wealth item and a means of exchange. For him, it was one part, one element of the radical changes that the Me had been and still were effecting in their way of life. Another one was the deliberate splitting up of their ethnic unity. Hylkema did not give evidence that he knew about the sweet potato revolution, but, in my view, its occurrence fits very well with his perception of Me agency.

5. A cowry revolution?

28Hylkema’s data make a strong case for the occurrence of a cowry revolution among the Me. Cowries had become their major wealth item. The shells fascinated them. Men liked to examine them at length to ascertain their physical properties in minute detail. They accorded them magical qualities. Cowries had become the most important part of the bride price. They were used in day-to-day transactions. The yuwo had been transformed by their presence, since the market-like sales of pork and other commodities for cowries, which formed such an important part of the yuwo at the time of European settlement, were in his view a recent innovation (1974b, 2012; Ploeg 2013a). About the Duna, living in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea, Modjeska commented that in the early 1970s they lived in an era of post-ipomoean disenchantment: “[h]unting, fighting and ceremony gave way to gardening, pig husbandry and exchange manoeuvring” (1991: 252). Such a shift may well have occurred also among the Me, but in their case the cowry provided these novel activities with a wonderful new enchantment. Modjeska’s comments about the Duna, and the Me ethnography of both Pospisil and Hylkema highlight the differences between the pathways of change that highlanders have taken.

29Likewise, in “Strathernograms”, his paper reviewing Marilyn Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift, Alfred Gell wrote that handing over a pig between exchange partners is a transaction in the “most primordial relationship system which Melanesian ethnography provides” (1999b: 38). While Paula Brown wrote, in her comparative study of highlands peoples, that “Pigs are the most important object of exchange” (1978: 231). Finally Lemonnier observes that, in the highlands, pigs and pork had been given “the lead in compensation for life” (pers. comm. 2018). Again, among the Me, this may have been the case in an earlier past, but, after cowries became available in larger quantities and had become the prime wealth item, bargaining exchanges of cowries against other goods, primarily pork, came to constitute their “primordial” relationship.

30It seems relevant to examine whether the occurrence, in combination, of the sweet potato and the cowry revolutions had led to, or had furthered, a “Bigmanisation” (as coined by John Liep 1991: 46) of the Me political economy. Apart from success in accumulating cowries, a man acquired prestige and power by bravery in war and by eloquence. In previous publications, I discussed to what extent the Me polity, and hence the tonowi, the prominent Me man, fitted what Godelier characterised as a “Big Man logic” (Ploeg 2001: 39, 2004b: 298; see also Lemonnier 1991: 10). I was cautious then, notwithstanding the prominent position of these men in cowry transactions. I have retained that caution, given the ambiguity of their actions. In the first place, Godelier argued that Big Men represent the polity and symbolise its capacity to “produce and/or amass wealth and to redistribute it” (1991: 278). These points are only partly applicable to Me men. They did appear to represent the polity when they adjudicated disputes, in other words, when they furthered the common cause. But during yuwo they showed their capacity to enlist men to their own cause. That capacity added to their reputation and, I suppose, to the status of the yuwo they had organised. Moreover Lemonnier observed that in a Big Man society “large-scale ceremonial exchanges are a basic institution” (1991: 16). While yuwo tended to be large-scale, it is, however, noteworthy that their exchange component, namely the final “market” day, was that part of the proceedings which was the least ceremonial. Lemonnier argued further that “financing” belonged to the most visible strategies whereby Big Men promoted their status (1990: 29). He used here the distinction established by Andrew Strathern between home production and finance as two contrasting strategies to acquire valuables. Financing refers to a man’s entry “into a number of reciprocal partnerships with other men such that they supply him with the items he needs, and he repays them later.” Thus he can enlarge on what he produces by means of the labour force of his household (1969: 42). Both Pospisil (1958: 79-80) and Hylkema (2012: 99-100) made it clear that Me tonowi relied on both strategies, and in that respect there is more ground to qualify them as Big Men.

31Gell’s discussion of New Guinean inter-tribal commodity trade can explain the lack of ceremonialism in these exchanges (1999c: 76-77). In his paper, Gell refers to Ian Hughes’s study of this trade (1977). Gell has written, and Hughes (pers. comm. 2005) agrees:

Hughes states that trade in pre-contact days was recalled with a good deal of nostalgia by old men who had been involved in it, as an exciting, prestigious and profitable male pursuit (1999c: 81).

32Me men also went in for inter-tribal trade – they became known for their trading (Le Roux 1948-50: 326) –, and they obtained their cowries from strangers, whether Papuans or others; so it is plausible that their trading conduct had become their ideological template for transacting during the final yuwo day. Furthermore I draw attention to Hylkema’s statement that these transactions were contests, with a winner and a loser, thus pointing to an element we encounter in sports. This is yet another template for the transactions: two parties play a match, one loses, but sometime later the same parties may engage in rematch, in which the other party may lose.

33As regards Pospisil’s claims about the capitalist character of the Me economy, Hylkema pointed out that, while the prime destination of pigs and pork was their exchange against cowries, the destination of cowries was marriage payments (2012: 64, 82). While Pospisil was correct in asserting that Me men, in their day-to-day cowry transactions as well as in those during a yuwo, aimed at accumulation, and were thus reminiscent of capitalism, in Hylkema’s view the circulation of cowries had remained subordinated to human reproduction, which I view as a non-capitalist feature.

34In Hylkema’s perception, the Me were transforming their way of life in the decades previous to first contact by fostering cultural boundaries between the Mapia people and those living in the Kamu basin and around the Paniai lakes (2002). Tillemans, the missionary who started Catholic proselytisation among the Me in the late 1930s, used the ethnic name Simori for the inhabitants of the Mapia basin (Verschueren 1953: 199). Although Le Roux subsequently adopted this usage (1948-50: 140, 658), the colonial administration did not follow it (Hylkema 2002: 247). Moreover, the Me refashioned cowry transacting and cowry classification. In my view, the ongoing process appears in the binary standard by which the Me judged success in life: one was by begetting and raising a son, the other by accumulating cowries. The former avenue pertained to social reproduction and the pre-cowry era, the latter arose with the ascendancy of the cowry as a wealth item. An analogous binary standard existed with regard to contributing to bride prices: such contributions did not yield an immediate return so did not help cowry accumulation. Since bride prices were linked over the generations, a contributor could expect a possible return after one generation. But by contributing, by helping to get a bride price together, a man, or a woman, contributed to social reproduction.

35As a postscript to this chapter, I mention that the appreciation of cowries was not general among the Me. It is also a postscript, in the sense that most of the events accounted for did not occur during early contact. From 1950, a protestant Me pastor, Zakheus Pakage, trained in Ujung Pandang, outside New Guinea, started and led a syncretistic revitalisation movement among the Me that attracted many followers, over several decades (Giay 1995; Hylkema 2012). Zakheus urged the Me to co-operate, to live in villages instead of in separate homesteads, and to keep away from cowries. He saw cowries as a source of greed, jealousy and conflicts (Giay 1995: 154). However the movement was not a retrograde one aiming at the restoration of the pre-cowry era. The success of Zakheus’ preaching was a matter of concern to the colonial administration, which sent a researcher to investigate it (Grootenhuis 1960, pers. comm. 2003). A major reason to include this final paragraph is, however, that Zakheus derived his teachings in part from his father. This man did not aim at raising pigs and accumulating cowries, but instead focused on gardening and providing for his family (Giay 1995: 54-56). Since Zakheus was born around 1920, it appears that at that time at least one alternative strand was present in the Me way of life.


1 3 ENSO stands for “El Niño – Southern Oscillation”. It refers to a weather phenomenon that recurs with intervals of several years. In the New Guinea Highlands it has led to widespread droughts and, in the higher valleys, to frosts (Ballard 2000).

Table des illustrations

Titre Pict. 3. A group of Me men
Crédits Source: Le Roux (1948-50, vol. 2, opp. page 644).
Fichier image/jpeg, 695k

© pacific-credo Publications, 2020

Conditions d’utilisation :


Volume papier
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search