The People of the Lower Arafundi: Tropical Foragers of the New Guinea Rainforest (1)

By Roscoe, Paul; Telban, Borut | Ethnology, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The People of the Lower Arafundi: Tropical Foragers of the New Guinea Rainforest (1)


Roscoe, Paul, Telban, Borut, Ethnology


Ethnographic work in the Sepik Basin of New Guinea has been heavily biased toward the region's more dense and culturally elaborated communities. This article uses archival documentation and the results of rapid ethnographic surveys to reconstruct the contact-era ethnography of one of its lesser-known groups, the Lower Arafundi. The Lower Arafundi people were ethnographically significant as foragers of the tropical rainforest, as progenitors of a rock art tradition, and as one of a small circle of human societies that claim not to recognize paternity. (Hunters and gatherers, tropical foragers, New Guinea, Sepik, Lower Arafundi)

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Although the Sepik Basin of New Guinea was home to a contact population of only 300,000 to 500,000 people, it was among the most linguistically diverse regions on Earth, its inhabitants speaking well over 200 languages and at least twice that number of dialects (Laycock 1973:54). Notwithstanding this diversity, however, the Sepik has received much less anthropological attention than other areas of New Guinea, and its ethnographic coverage has been highly uneven. Most attention has focused on the large, high-density, artistically and ritually prolific groups of the Middle Sepik River and Maprik regions. The Abelam around Maprik, for example, have received sustained attention from at least eleven fieldworkers and more fleeting attention from more than six others. A similar order of interest has been applied to the Iatmul of the Middle Sepik. By contrast, fewer than ten scholars have conducted sustained fieldwork among the more than 70 smaller-scale, low-density societies of the whole of lowland Sandaun (West Sepik) Province.

To avoid the biases imposed by anthropological field choices and achieve a more balanced understanding of Sepik contact-era ethnography, more attention has to be directed to these lesser-known groups. Unfortunately, with Western contact now more than a century along, such a task is increasingly difficult, and the likelihood of understanding much of the cultural context that motivated and informed contact-era behavior is slight. But for sketches of the broad contours of subsistence, settlement, social organization, and ritual life the situation is more hopeful. Anthropologists may have skirted most of the Sepik's less elaborate cultures, but they were not ignored by other Western agents. A surprisingly extensive, largely unpublished documentary record was left by various Sepik explorers, labor recruiters, missionaries, administrative officers, linguists, and occasional passing anthropologists. A major aim of this article is to demonstrate that considerably more usable ethnographic information exists in these sources than is commonly assumed.

Unfortunately, it is unrealistic simply to expect anthropologists to exploit this literature. For one thing, the costs in time and labor of gathering, translating, collating, and analyzing these scattered, often unpublished sources are enormous. For another, it is impractical to expect most scholars to have the level of familiarity with Sepik geography and history that is necessary to contextualize the material. Toward a modest remedy, therefore, we offer here a basic ethnography of one of the Sepik's lesser-known groups: the Lower Arafundi people of the East Sepik Province. In addition to their value in expanding and balancing the comparative knowledge of human society, the Lower Arafundi are anthropologically important for two reasons. The first is their ethnographic distinction. At contact, they comprised that supposed rarity among tropical forest peoples, a group living almost exclusively by hunting and gathering (cf. Bailey and Headland 1991; Bailey et al. 1989). They were progenitors of an important rock art tradition that used caves as cult structures functionally equivalent to men's houses, pointing to an important analogical transformation of ritual culture. And they were among that small circle of human societies that claim not to recognize paternity. …

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