by Dr. Chris Ballard

Dr. Chris Ballard, ANU
Dr. Chris Ballard is an Associate Professor at Australian National University. He is Senior Fellow of the School of Culture, History & Language, School of Culture, History & Language.

In Part B, I attempt to provide a model of the relationship between Huli people and their environment which focuses equally upon a conventional, materialist account of Huli interaction with the “natural” world, and on the ways in which their universe is given form and meaning by Huli-speakers. Yet the distinction between these two perspectives obscures the unitary nature of the relationship which is their object, described by Jones with reference to Australian Aboriginal conceptions of their landscape as ‘a seamless integration of natural and cultural factors’ (1991:23). Perhaps a more useful distinction for my purposes is that made between ontic and ontological states: things in an ontic state may exist materially, but have not been engaged or invested with significance by humans, while the ontological or existential world is that which has acquired structure and meaning through human action and reflection (Weiner 1991:13-14). Thus, while there may be a single material reality, no ontological understanding of it is necessarily privileged; but a specifically Huli view of the universe becomes a prerequisite for an analysis of the recent history of Huli land use that seeks to account for the intentional actions of historical Huli.

The role of language in this process, as the most explicit in the range of structured and structuring human actions, is critical 1 Basso (1990:102) makes this point when he suggests that it is through language that Apaches negotiate images and understandings of the land that are accepted as credible accounts of what it actually is, why it is significant and how it impinges on the daily lives of men and women… With words, a massive physical presence is fashioned into a meaningful human universe.

Language, in turn, is not free of historically specific contexts, both in the sense that the material world influences the use and the semantic nature of the terms used to describe it (Shaw and Shaw 1973:160), and in that the ‘shared economies of grammatical resources’ (Basso 1990) of any language imply a particular historical genesis. Weiner’s (1991:64) suggestion that our understanding of language be broadened to encompass ‘all of our action that produces a spatial and temporal human world’ is crucial for archaeological endeavour in allowing us to view the interaction between social beings and the material world as a process analogous to language.

Following Basso (1990:172) further, insofar as the resources of a language, together with the varieties of action facilitated by their use, acquire meaning and force from the sociocultural contexts in which they are embedded… the discourse of any community will exhibit a fundamental character – a genius, a spirit, an underlying personality – which is very much its own.

Is it possible, then, through consideration of Huli language and practice, to derive a sense of the spirit, or global logic, expressed through core tropes, that fundamentally structures Huli engagement with the material world? The dangers of establishing global constructs such as “worldviews” have been identified by, amongst others, anthropologists for whom ‘such labels impart a false rigidity and abstract quality to
ideas that are rather more acknowledged assumptions than articulated constructs’ (Wagner 1972:108), and feminists who have drawn attention to the violence done to marginalised positions through globalising the discourses of the powerful (Harraway 1988). The core tropes employed in the following chapters provide a more flexible, discursive means of access to the sense of shared (and imposed) meanings that consitute a “worldview”, and must themselves be regarded as disposable constructs, devices to assist in the task of gaining some initial purchase on a notionally unitary set of Huli perspectives, only to be interrogated in turn themselves and shown to be composed of a contested multitude of strands of thought and perspective (see Chapter D2).

In a similar vein, Frankel (1986: 16) has suggested that Huli cosmology frames a set of basic assumptions about the world for Huli people, assumptions that ‘supply a grid which orders some of the Huli responses to the changes of recent times’. There is, indeed, no single Huli word or phrase that matches the core trope expressed in Huli cosmology, identified here as entropy. This nebulous but all-pervasive theme in Huli belief is centred upon the notion of a world in a process of decline and decay, an assumption which underwrites Huli views of the world in general, and which neatly and somewhat ironically opposes the corresponding trope underpinning “Western” historicity, identified earlier as “meliorism” or ‘progressivism” (Chapter A1). Entropy articulates two principles of distinction that are keenly prominent in Huli discourse and that have previously been identified and discussed by ethnographers of the Huli: gender and precedence (see Chapter B3).

Together, principles of gender and precedence, articulated through the core trope of entropy, fundamentally inform the ways in which the Huli universe is constructed. An understanding of the relationship between the ways in which contemporary Huli conceive of and interact with their environment provides a model that both illuminates the recent history of that interaction and affords a “self-account” of the Huli past not readily accessible through conventional archaeological methods. Critical to my thesis is the assertion of a degree of continuity between past and present Huli society sufficient to warrant some confidence in this process of “reading the past from the present”.

Appendix B 1 provides a bare chronology of events the Huli universe during the last eighty years which documents the recency of both initial contact between Huli and the colonial state and economy in 1934 and permanent administrative contact through the station at Tari from 1952 (Figure B 1). This contact and the subsequent conversion of most Huli people to Christianity 2 has resulted in dramatic changes in Huli society over a very short period of time. It is important, therefore, that careful distinctions be made between current conditions and beliefs and those in existence prior to contact. Use of the present tense in discussing Huli society thus indicates current or continuing beliefs or practices during the “ethnographic present” of 1989-92; the past tense is used to reserved for historical events or conditions, and discontinued practices such as rituals.

The following chapters of Part B provide an interpretative context for the archaeological study described in Part C, tracing the influence of Huli notions of gender, precedence and entropy through the juxtaposition of Western and Huli attitudes and practices relating to the landscape (Chapter B2), to settlement and society (Chapter B3) and to subsistence and production (Chapter B4). The final chapter (Chapter B5), addresses the clearest and most condensed expression of these tropes in the form of rituals that are explicitly conceived as a means of gaining some human purchase upon the process of entropy. The history of Huli ritual, which is addressed in Chapter D 1, thus serves as a metaphor for the history of Huli society at large.

(Reprinted with permission of Dr. Chris Ballard. The Death of A Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of The Australian National University, Canberra, January 1995. pp. 32-34.)

  1. This assertion finds unexpected support from the ethnoarchaeologist Gould (1990: 13-14) who doubts ‘that one can adequately study the operation of a cultural system and its material residues without learning the language or attempting to gain any kind of ernie perspective with respect to that society’s view of the past’. []
  2. Editor: See The Gospel Amongst the Huli. []

Categorized in: