Fratricide and Inequality: Things Fall Apart in Eastern New Guinea

By Burton, John | Archaeology in Oceania, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Fratricide and Inequality: Things Fall Apart in Eastern New Guinea


Burton, John, Archaeology in Oceania


Abstract

This paper contrasts models of increasing social integration in the central valleys of the New Guinea highlands advanced by Watson, Modjeska and Golson with that of a society constructed entirely differently at the eastern end of the central mountain chain, that of the Upper Watut of Morobe Province. Watut settlements were traditionally locked into a cycle of fission, foundation and accretion caused by the inability of lineage mates to live together without conflict. At a point in the recent past, population growth transformed the system into one of expansion and the conquest of new land until this was arrested by the advent of the colonial period.

Introduction

In the influential collection of papers drawn together some twenty years ago by Andrew Strathern (1982) and dealing with the growth and emergence of social differentiation in highlands societies, Nicholas Modjeska (1982) advanced a set of arguments about the social relations of production in highland societies. These aimed to revise prevailing ideas of purely environmentally driven social and economic change in the literature of the origins of these societies. As set out in his ANU doctoral thesis (1977), Modjeska's ideas had already brought about profound change in the way the long agricultural sequence at Kuk was interpreted. Jack Golson's contribution to the Strathern volume (1982) set out to incorporate Modjeska's critique into his own thinking about Kuk, Mount Hagen and the wider prehistory of highlands societies.

In this paper I want to look at some of the unfinished business left over from the Modjeska-Golson exchange. Although it was not entirely comprehended by me at the time, I was originally recruited by Jack 'to test the propositions about the history of Mount Hagen society which have been advanced here ... the most profitable line of approach is likely to be to trace the development of exchange systems ... axe stone is a ... promising prospect' (1982:135). (1) I did what he said reasonably quickly (Burton 1984), but am now able to fill in some other gaps that may not have been apparent at the time.

Sent by Jack to the Wahgi to find dei Kunjin wusingal ('the exchange pathway of Kunjin axe stone'), I serendipitously followed it. I then went on fieldwork in many other societies of the New Guinea region: transiently among the Ningerum, Yonggom, Awin, Boazi and Zimakani of the Fly River catchment, and more systematically on the Rai coast, in New Britain, in New Ireland, and among the Biangai and Watut peoples of Wau and Bulolo, and now in Torres Strait. During these projects, I have tried to carry with me the questions that were indeed advanced by Jack Golson, but at the same time balancing them with the sharp injunction of the Papuan coast specialist, Dawn Ryan, who said to me in 1982, after listening to yet another conference paper on pigs and big-men, 'the highlands isn't the only place where interesting things happen' (my words that soften Ryan's fiercer sentiments).

I air these points because I want to make a particular intellectual pitch. It is based on two appeals.

The first is that, in our endeavours to make sense of the pasts and presents of Papua New Guinea societies, there is a constancy about the way we tend to compact our explanations over time and, weeding out inconsistencies, try make them more widely applicable. No problem so far: this is healthy academic 'making sense of things'. Unfortunately, applicability can easily shade into uniformity and then into a dangerous expectation of conformity in the way others explain things that is crushingly negative to dissonant field observations. Lawrence's introduction to The Garia (1984) makes only too clear what can happen when an ethnographer finds a social system that fails to conform to expectations. Lawrence gave several apologies for being slow in publishing, but in reality the 30-year delay in writing his monograph was due to theoretical obstacles erected in by academic colleagues in the 1950s. …

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