Academic journal article Oceania

Do the Banaro Really Exist? Going Back after Richard Thurnwald

Academic journal article Oceania

Do the Banaro Really Exist? Going Back after Richard Thurnwald

Article excerpt


Between 1913 and 1915, the Austro-German anthropologist Richard Thurnwald explored the Sepik area with the Berlin Museum fur Volkerkunde expedition. In the last months of his stay, he worked with two Banaro informants and later on published his famous study on that society. Eighty five years after, the only anthropological reference on the Banaro is still his own articles. Bernard Juillerat spent four months among the Banaro in 1989, discussing with the people Thurnwald's analyses on the social structure and the mundu partnership. A book was published in French in 1993. This article is a short abstract of the book, where the author discusses Thurnwald's interpretations and gives ethnographic material on men's house ritual and initiation. Some more anthropological information is given on the transformations of Banaro society in the meantime.

The Banaro (who live along the middle course of the Keram River, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea) were the first society in the Sepik River valley to be studied by anthropologists; subsequently, they were frequently cited for purposes of comparison. Nevertheless, the sole reference is still Richard Thurnwald's study (1916, 1921), carried out between 1913 and 1915 in the framework of an interdisciplinary expedition organized by the Berlin Museum fur Volkerkunde. It may seem surprising that this society, so easily reached since it came under Australian control, has not been visited at length by any anthropologist since Thurnwald, and that, at the end of our century, his texts are still the only reference. To make a comparison with the same region, the Iatmul, after Bateson, were restudied, as were the Chambri and the Mundugumor after Margaret Mead, the Kwoma after J.W.M. Whiting, or the Abelam after Phyllis Kaberry. The purpose of the present article is to make available to English-speaking anthropologist s the findings of my own work among the Banaro in 1989-1990. [1]

I would like to do three things:

1) provide some details on Richard Thurnwald's working conditions among the Banaro (which he relates in his unpublished Journal [2]) and briefly set out the scientific objectives that went with the anthropology of his time;

2) correct some ethnographic errors and misinterpretations that appear in his analyses;

3) give some complementary details on Banaro society then and now.


Richard Thurnwald was born in Vienna, in 1869. He studied first law and then sociology in Austria, was influenced by Carl Menger and, at the instigation of Ludwig Gumplowicz, acquainted himself with Lester Ward and American sociology. In 1900, he moved to Berlin, where he met Alfred Ploetz and became an assistant at the Museum fur Volkerkunde, headed by Felix von Luschar. He initially worked on ancient legal systems while taking courses in ethnology. He was also influenced by Neo-Darwinian currents, by the social psychology of Alfred Vierkandt and Carl Strumpf, and by the experimental psychology that Rivers had just begun practising in the framework of the British Torres Strait expedition, in 1898. [3] During the first Melanesian expedition (1906-1909), organized for him by the Museum, he concentrated on South Bougainville (the Buins) and the Bismark Archipelago (Baining and New Ireland) (Thurnwald 1912). Although his main job was to collect objects and make sound and visual recordings, he took a more persona l interest in socio-political organization, exchange and linguistics, as well as in the effects of colonization. The Schutzgebiet (Protectorate) was developing a plantation policy based on the distribution of lands to settlers and on the more or less forced enlistment of labor; Thurnwald condemned the perverse effects of the latter. Because he was highly mobile, he rarely stayed in one spot for very long.

The 1912-1915 Kalserin Augusta Fluss (the German name for the Sepik River) multidisciplinary expedition, was more complex; its purpose, insofar as Thumwald was concerned, was to explore the Upper Sepik and its tributaries, as well as the coast range. …

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