Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

By Polly Wiessner; Wulf Schiefenhövel | Go to book overview

12. FOOD, COMPETITION, AND THE STATUS OF FOOD IN NEW GUINEA

Pierre Lemonnier

I n New Guinea, food, status, and competition can be linked in at least three ways. In addition to success in war and the ability to control the spiritual world, organizing distributions of food is another prominent avenue to political power, and by far the best-documented in the anthropological literature. Because ceremonial exchanges of pigs or pork and/or vegetal products are often linked to intergroup competition, these can be regarded more or less as a secondary result of peacemaking procedures. In turn, the symbolic values attributed to different kinds of food -- notably to pork -- can be related to particular social functions of food exchanges, and therefore, as we shall see, to extremely contrasting types of socioeconomic organization.

Whereas the main feast giver, the "Big man", is a well-known figure whose role, status, and socioeconomic functions I shall recapitulate with the help of some classic examples from anthropology, the link between war, peace, and ceremonial exchanges of food has to be demonstrated. Finally, I shall argue that among other cultural values embodied in pigs (or pork), their role as a possible substitute for human life may be a crucial and powerful variable for the comparison and understanding of New Guinea societies in general. For this purpose, my analysis will focus on three sets of societies: two in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and one in the southern part of the island straddling the border between Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea.

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