Academic journal article Ethnology

Folk Taxonomy and Mythology of Birds of Paradise in the New Guinea Highlands

Academic journal article Ethnology

Folk Taxonomy and Mythology of Birds of Paradise in the New Guinea Highlands

Article excerpt

Folk taxonomy and myth have conventionally been treated as disparate provinces of cultural meaning, the one dealing with culturally represented but concrete and objective realities of the natural world, the other with the fantasy world of symbolic cultural constructs. While some convergence between conventional approaches to these phenomena has been mooted (e.g., Colby et al. 1981), actual examples in the ethnographic literature remain limited (among them, Bulmer 1967, 1968; Ellen 1972; Jorgensen 1991).

My point of departure is that a recurrent deficiency of much of the literature of folk taxonomies (and on ethnosciences in general) is the concentration on the mundane, pragmatic, objective and positivist, rather than the symbolic and interpretive. This has resulted in methodological rigor and a rich body of ethnographic data that reveal two major theoretical preoccupations: the convergence between folk and scietific taxonomies (e.g., Berlin et al. 1974; Boster et al. 1986; Humm 1977); and the debate concerning the practical origins of taxonomies (e.g., Berlin 1990; Hays 1982; Hunn 1982). I do not advocate counterbalancing the pragmatic and mundane aspects of folk taxonomies simply with attention to mystical dimensions. This parallels the questionable distinction between the sacred and profane in anthropological studies of religion, an approach arguably rooted in Western cultural constructs, and is therefore liable to misrepresent other cultural universes. Rather, I adopt the perspective that folk taxonomy and myth are not necessarily separate provinces of meaning, but are elements of more embracing cosmologies. Both myth and folk taxonomy are cultural representations of a collective apprehension of order and regularity--a sense of comprehension--that the human mind discerns in the discontinuities of the realms of society and nature.

Here I seek to analyze the intersection of the representations of Birds of Paradise among the Maring of New Guinea, as discernable in the folk taxonomy of the birds and associated discourse on ethno-ornithological lore, and in mythology in which the birds figure prominently. This analysis highlights the symbolic connection between birds and humans, a connection that is evident in everyday Maring discourse on birds, and elaborated upon and metaphorized in myth.

I suggest that for the Maring, and indeed, many other Melanesians, animals stand both collectively and in the identity of particular species, as metaphors for the human condition. Birds seem to be particularly singled out for symbolic manipulation (Bulmer 1967; Feld 1982; Healey 1985, 1988, 1991). Why this should be the case is too big a question to address here. But in brief I suggest that two particular features of birds impress themselves on the human observer in New Guinea: the diversity and brilliance of plumage; and the prominence of bird song. Melanesians of my acquaintance are alert to the fleeting movement of birds and the sound of their voices in the dark forest; birds embolden the world in a way quite unlike the retiring character of New Guinea mammals, and their vocalizations are among natural sounds that most approximate human speech (cf. Feld 1982).

Certainly, birds in general, and particulary Birds of Paradise, have captured the attention of the Maring. This is evidenced in various aspects of Maring culture. Many individuals accumulate impressively detailed and accurate knowledge of bbird behavior and ecology, much of it based on personal observation(2). Birds feature prominently in mythology and stories, and avian imagery is a notable feature of Maring body decorations, poetics, jokes, and personal names. Finally, birds are important in the local economy, primarily as the focus of intensive hunting of plume-bearing birds for decorations and to supply the traditional plume-trade (Healey 1990).


There are some 8,000 Maring-speaking people(3) distributed in the Simbai and Jimi Valleys on the slopes of the Western Bismarck Mountains on the northern fringe of Papua New Guinea's central highlands. …

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