Academic journal article Ethnology

Cosmology, Resources, and Landscape: Agencies of the Dead and the Living in Duna, Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Ethnology

Cosmology, Resources, and Landscape: Agencies of the Dead and the Living in Duna, Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt

Among the Duna people of Papua New Guinea, ideas about the dead and the living are intertwined through cosmological perceptions of, and ritual interactions with, the landscape. These ideas change to accommodate and deal with new issues that arise. Malu (narratives of origins) link kin with land and to spirit figures. In the context of colonial and post-colonial mining for minerals and drilling for oil, malu have been reformulated as a way of claiming compensation from mining companies. Central to the Duna perspective is the notion that the agencies and substances of the dead and the living are interlinked. An act of suicide may lead to demands for compensation as a result of the suicide being caused by "shaming": the agency of the dead person therefore lives on. In images of this sort, the connection between the living and the dead is vividly portrayed. (Agency, ancestors, compensation, cosmology)


Death and life are sometimes conceptualized as polar opposites. However, they also can be seen as parts of a continuum of being within a cosmos, in which the dead and the living are tied by ongoing relationships, expressed in ritual, and belonging often to the domain of kinship. For the Duna people of Papua New Guinea it is this sense of relationship, and of connections within a wider landscape, that constitutes their primary mode of consciousness about the dead. Physical death marks a rupture, signaled by grief and mourning, but ritual practices reconstitute the relationship of the living and the dead in terms of their mutual agency. Moreover, cosmological thinking is not rigid. The fluidity of such thinking among the Duna allows for negotiation and contextualization of ongoing relationships between the dead and the living in terms of contemporary pressures and shifting ideological forces (such as political, religious, and economic). Similar processes and coping mechanisms probably took place in the past when different pressures, such as epidemics, devastating forest fires, and disturbed relations with neighboring groups occurred. Nowadays the winds of change coming into the Duna area of Papua New Guinea include the social and environmental impact from oil drilling and gold mining companies (Stewart and Strathern 2002:135-150).

Beliefs about the placement of bodies, living and dead, within the landscape reveal ways in which the Duna situate themselves in relation to their environment and in relation to drilling by mining companies that dramatically affect their environment.


The Duna are situated in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Speakers of the Duna language number some 20,000. They are horticulturalists and raise pigs. Their staple crop is the sweet potato, supplemented by pumpkins, maize, taro, bananas, sugar cane, and a variety of greens, as well as fruit pandanus and nut pandanus. They live in forested mountain areas containing numerous lakes and streams. Our immediate research area, the Aluni Valley, has a population of about 1,000. The territory backs onto large stretches of high forest in addition to areas of low-lying bush and high forest ridges. Important dietary supplemental sources are found in these areas, and the lush vegetation provides homes for birds, marsupials, wild pigs, and cassowaries (Modjeska 1977; Strathern and Stewart 2004).

Australian explorers entered the territory of the Duna from the 1930s onward (Sinclair 1966; Stewart and Strathern 2002; Strathern and Stewart 2004). Both individual explorers and government-led patrols were often in search of gold or oil resources, so that from the beginnings of contact the people were made aware of the wealth that the Outsiders were seeking. An administrative post was opened at Lake Kopiago in 1961, after initial patrols were made from 1954 onward, beginning the process of "pacification" and "submission" to outside controlling forces. Missionaries followed soon after, when the region was opened and declared "unrestricted. …

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