Academic journal article Ethnology

Settlement and Sociality among the Mountain Arapesh

Academic journal article Ethnology

Settlement and Sociality among the Mountain Arapesh

Article excerpt

Thanks to the early ethnographic work of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune, the Mountain Arapesh of the East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea, have become one of the standard exemplars of human culture. They constitute one of 30 New Guinea cases in the Ethnographic Atlas, they have featured in numerous comparative analyses, and, thanks to Mead's Sex and Temperament (reprinted numerous times since its appearance in 1935), they are perhaps better known to a western lay audience than almost any other Melanesian people. The impact of this ethnographic record is the more impressive given that Mead and Fortune spent less than eight months of 1931-32 in their fieldbase of Alitoa in the Prince Alexander Mountains. In that short time, however, Mead in particular gathered enough data to fill five volumes and numerous articles, a record that Fox (1983:40) quite rightly calls one "of the great ethnographic descriptions in the old grand manner."

As impressive as it is, the Mountain Arapesh corpus is not without its flaws. In particular, as I discovered in compiling a recent encyclopedia entry on the Mountain Arapesh (Roscoe 1991a), ethnographic omissions and semantic confusions make it impossible to establish exactly the full nature of Arapesh settlement patterns and social groups. In this article, I describe these problems and report the results of a recent expedition to Mountain Arapesh territory to clarify matters. My purpose is partly ethnographic and partly methodological. By adding details that Mead and Fortune omitted, I seek to deepen our knowledge of Arapesh life and shed light on a problem in the description of Melanesian settlement and sociality.

THE MOUNTAIN ARAPESH

The problems in comprehending Mountain Arapesh settlement and sociality begin with the difficulty of establishing population density due to a lack of accurate maps of Arapesh settlements. Mead's second volume included a chart of the "Mountain Villages," apparently drawn from a government map of the Sepik District (Mead 1938:156,346; 1947:181fn), but it is too small and inaccurate to be of any real use. Subsequent maps produced by colonial and postcolonial authorities have their own problems. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, unsettled by the ravages that World War II had wrought on their mountain settlements, the Mountain Arapesh abandoned the peaklands. Those in the south migrated into the high southern foothills above Yangoru and Maprik Government Stations (Roscoe 1983:138-40; Scaglion, pers.comm.), while the central and northern villagers moved to coastal settlements around Dagua to participate in the development movement sponsored by Pita Simogun, a native police officer (WPR 3-47/48:3-4, 1-49/50:1, 1-53/54:n.p., 5-53/54:1). By the early 1960s, only two old men were still living in Alitoa, looking after a few pigs (Mead 1971:vii). In 1991, the people of Alitoa began to return to their mountain locality to escape impending logging activity along the coast, but the peaklands remained largely deserted. As a result, published topographic maps of the region (e.g., TPNG 1971) have been unable to locate more than four of the nineteen "Mountain Villages" that Mead marked on her published sketch map or mentioned in her accounts.(2)

The absence of accurate settlement maps poses two further difficulties. First, it is impossible to determine the degree to which Mountain Arapesh settlements were nucleated, a particular problem given Mead's conflicting representations on the subject. Supposedly, people lived "a scattered, seminomadic life" (Mead 1937:20, see also 1933:38, 1947:268); yet, they also lived in "villages," a term that conjures images of large, nucleated settlements. This impression is underscored by the dots marking "Mountain Villages" on her sketch map (Mead 1938:156). Second, without reliable maps, it is impossible to clarify the confusion surrounding Mead and Fortune's terminology for settlements and residential groups. …

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