Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Making Up People in Papua. (Comment)

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Making Up People in Papua. (Comment)

Article excerpt

Eric Hirsch's interesting article on 'making up people' and historicity in Papua (2001) prompts us to offer some further reflections on the topic. First, senses of historicity in people must be based on history, including the ethnohistories of people themselves, which they have made prior to colonial interventions (even if these narratives themselves are altered by colonial influence). Hirsch begins his article by posing the question of why and how people began to kill pigs or game where before they had killed humans as a prerequisite for obtaining adult (in the immediate sense, male) status; and he answers that this happened because of government and mission influences which induced the people actively to transform themselves. His emphasis is on the active transformations involved, and we would agree with the point. However, these transformations may often have reflected older versions of similar transformations belonging to the past. New Guineans were not unchanged and unchanging prior to non-New Guinean in fluences.

One of the Papua New Guinean peoples with whom we work are the Duna people of the Southern Highlands Province. They have a narrative which forms part of a malu (sacred knowledge narrative) of two Duna descent categories, the Songwa and the Poli, whose ancestral territories lie near to the Strickland River at the border with the Oksapmin people (see Stewart & Strathern 2000a). The narrative tells how the Poli people once killed and cooked persons at funeral feasts that were held when pigs (not humans) died. It goes on to say that this happened until a Songwa culture-hero came from the southeast and taught the people that this was wrong, thus reversing the prior order of 'normative' social action. The Songwa culture-hero is said to have enticed the people to eat cooked pork instead of human meat by sprinkling on the pork salt which he had brought with him, explaining how salt made the pork meat taste sweet. In this way, the narrative implies, 'proper' Duna human order was established (Stewart & Strathern 2002; Modjeska 1982: 105-6). All of this is conceptualized as taking place long before the very recent arrival of the Australian colonial government in the area. When the Duna seek to transform themselves further in today's contexts, they do so with this earlier mythical transformation in their traditions and this feeds into their contemporary historicity. These narratives of pre-colonial 'cultural impact' inform contemporary notions about other aspects of life, such as Duna witchcraft accusations, since in classic manner witches arc seen as those who preserve the original bad old habits of cannibalism by mystically consuming their victims' life force (tim). This is also the case for Hagen notions of witchcraft (Stewart & Strathern 1999a; Strathern & Stewart 2000a: 101-24).

This particular Duna myth also provides some insight into the ethnographically well-known substitutability of pigs for people in contexts of sacrifice, since it declares that people were formerly sacrificed for the death of pigs. This order of sacrificing was reversed when the culture-hero brought a new way of doing things. The aspect of substitutability is one that would be interesting to follow up in Hirsch's example of the Fuyuge. How were the pigs killed? Were they shot or clubbed, and how would this compare with 'killing a human'? Was their blood used as an offering to the ground and its fertility, as in the Duna case (cf. Strathern & Stewart 1999 on blood and fertility)? Were they killed in order to appease or apologize to spirits who formerly required human killings as acts of revenge? Was any man allowed to be killed before, or was it mostly those specifically targeted in political terms? Answers to these sorts of questions are relevant for understanding the historical transformations involved. And cl ues to the answers have to be looked for in the people's own narratives, which are not pan-Melanesian. …

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