War Shields of the Torricelli Mountains, West Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea

By Craig, Barry; Lewis, Gilbert et al. | Oceania, November 2008 | Go to article overview

War Shields of the Torricelli Mountains, West Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea


Craig, Barry, Lewis, Gilbert, Mitchell, William E., Oceania


INTRODUCTION

Researchers at Field Museum, Chicago, have analysed the distribution of over 6,000 ethnographic objects collected mainly by A.B. Lewis during 1909-10 along the north coast of New Guinea, from Jayapura (West Papua) to Madang (Papua New Guinea) (see Terrell & Welsch 1990; Welsch 1996; Welsch & Terrell 1994, 1998; Welsch, Terrell & Nadolski 1992). The geographic region examined by the Chicago team's project is relatively uniform, being primarily coastal with small nearby islands and hills hinterland. Although linguistically diverse with 55 languages belonging to 5 unrelated language phyla along 700 kilometres of coastline, the people share a more or less homogeneous material culture complex, having a common pool of resources, material products, and cultural practices.

The focus of the Chicago team's analysis was on how trade and inherited friendship networks contributed to the interdependence of people on a far wider scale than one might suppose given the linguistic diversity of these societies. They have stated (Welsch, Terrell & Nadolski 1992: 587):

   We question the value of parsing New Guinea's people into
   'ethnolinguistic' groups, as if differences in language
   automatically translate into differences in culture. Simply knowing
   that two neighbouring communities speak unrelated languages does
   not allow us to assume that there are important and meaningful
   differences in their respective cultures.

Until the Chicago study, information about the extent of the correlation of material cultural and linguistic differences has been haphazard and scattered throughout the literature, with examples suggesting both high and low correlation. The Chicago study is therefore a welcome introduction of rigour into study of the subject. But there have been critics questioning how the data were analysed and, in particular, the statistical methods used (Moore & Romney 1994, 1995, 1996; Roberts, Moore & Romney 1995). A more recent study based at the South Australian Museum (the Upper Sepik-Central New Guinea Project--see http://uscngp.sai.net.au) is in the process of testing the conclusions reached by the Chicago team utilising data from some 10,000 objects collected in the upper Sepik and central New Guinea regions but results are not yet available.

A recent survey of Melanesian war shields (Beran & Craig 2005) brings together all the types of shields then known to the authors and editors. Implicit in that survey is the question of the correlation of material culture and language, so the locations of all the shields covered by the survey are linguisticly identified. A typology of shields based on formal characteristics is presented (ibid.:19-25) and the distribution of the types indicated (ibid., Map 2). But the shields were not examined in sufficient numbers or detail to contribute substantially to the debate raised by the Chicago study. What does seem to be emerging is that conclusions reached from the results of the Chicago study, questionable on the grounds of analytical categories and statistical method, may also turn out to be questionable on the grounds of the location and nature of the cultures examined. What might prove true for communities linked lineally by a vigorous maritime trade network might not be true for land-based communities scattered across two, rather than one, geographical dimensions. Further, the detail of material culture difference is certain to be crucial--differences obscured by analysis of categories defined too broadly (eg. particular types of string bag looping techniques obscured by analysis based on the presence or absence of looped string bags).

This paper, reviewing examples of certain war shields in the collections of the South Australian Museum, the Australian Museum, the PNG National Museum, the Museum der Kulturen in Basel and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, with reference to fieldwork in the Torricelli Mountains by all three authors, is an admittedly anecdotal contribution to the above debate.

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