Academic journal article Ethnology

Precolonial New Guinea Trade

Academic journal article Ethnology

Precolonial New Guinea Trade

Article excerpt

The prominent development of trade is a generalization that has not foundered on Melanesian diversity,(2) but just how prominent was trade in the lives of precontact Melanesian communities generally? Mead (1938:163-64) proposed that "Although every New Guinea people takes some part in ... continuous interchange, there are many different types of interdependence ... [and trade] docs not have the same significance" everywhere. For agricultural peoples such as the Mountain Arapesh, exchange was "the basis of life," but among the Manus traders of the Admiralties, it was "the object of life." Basis and object equally connote the importance of trade, though not, in Mead's view, the same significance.

The Manus of the Admiralties are one of a small group of societies described as middlemen or specialist maritime traders. The scale of trading exhibited by these societies was greater than that of agricultural societies such as the Mountain Arapesh. If adequate measures of scale could be applied, one could gauge more explicitly the varying significance of trade referred to by Mead. The quantities of goods traded and the time and effort expended in trade and trade-related activities are probably the most pertinent measures of scale. Unfortunately, although various estimates are possible, quantitative data on volume and labor are sparse. For this reason the kinds of objects traded--which can be enumerated--offer an alternative for estimating the scale of trade, which this article aims to achieve. What follows is a commentary on various classifications and enumerations of the objects traded by ten societies, five agricultural and five trading societies.


Table 1 displays the number of different kinds of objects traded, imported, exported, and re-exported by the ten societies (see Appendix). The agricultural societies are the Mountain Arapesh, Busama, Manam, Sio, and Wogeo; the trading societies are Mailu, Mandok (Siassi), Manus, Western Motu, and Murik. To the extent possible the figures refer to the objects traded by particular local communities.(3) In each case trade has been a focus of ethnographic investigation, (see Appendix for sources), but the totals should be viewed as minimum figures. To varying degrees precontact patterns of trade were reconstructed from verbal accounts and early documentary sources, and doubtless some regularly traded objects were missed or not listed by ethnographers.(4) Probably the totals are within 80 to 90 per cent of the actual number of objects that were traded with some regularity. Regarding historical reconstruction, another difficulty is that the objects are described with varying specificity: for example, feathers versus different types of feathers; pots versus pottery distinguished by source, vessel form, and function; stone axes versus axes distinguished by form and source; wood for canoes versus roughed-out or semi-finished canoe parts, and so on. Greater specificity would raise the counts in each case (the highest totals are for Arapesh and Manus and reflect Mead's research focus on material culture).


Immediately apparent from Table 1, column 7 is that the trading societies are not clearly differentiated from the agricultural societies by the number of different kinds of objects traded. On average the latter traded somewhat fewer objects, but there is variation both within and between the two groups.

It happens that all of the agricultural societies were connected, directly or indirectly, to trading societies, so the differences would increase if we imagine that these interactions did not exist. For instance, supposing that Wogeo did not trade with Murik and that Sio did not trade with Mandok (and other Siassi traders) their numbers drop to 24 and 28, respectively. Eliminating the contributions of trading groups in the other cases results in smaller reductions--less six or more for the Mountain Arapesh and three for Busama (Murik and Manam had direct relations but the content of their trade is not fully documented). …

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