by Michael Main

Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

The border zone between Huli and Duguba 1 is characterised not only by the changing physical environment, but also by a very different spiritual realm. For Huli the higher altitude forest areas of Mt Haliago represent an ontologically distinct landscape that contains dama spirit forms that are unalike when compared with the dama of the more familiar, cultivated and residential zones of the Komo and Mananda basins. There are parallels here with the border between terrestrially-bound humans and sky-beings as described in the prologue. The dama of the mountain exist beyond a certain altitude, and humans enter the realm of the forest dama when they take themselves away from their lowland habitat. It is only humans who are disturbed by the dama, and there is no concept that other animals need to be bound by rules. On my trip into this forest along a hunting track we came to a spot that marked a type of gateway into the forest zone that consisted of a mound of foliage about four feet high called an aguburi where I was handed a fern frond to throw on top. The stated purpose was for travellers into the mountain to make the journey shorter.

At this point the dama that has been following the travellers up the mountain is made to stop by having a trick played on him. One of the travellers uproots a small tree known as habono, 2 breaks the stem into several parts and plants them along the path. Then he hides the top and bottom parts of the tree in his bag and takes it with him. When the travellers arrive at their mountain shelter the first thing they do is burn the top and bottom of the habono tree. When the valley dama comes along behind them he finds the planted sections of tree and attempts to put them together, which is analogous to Huli desires in seeking completion of the Huli genealogical tree. However, he will not be able to find the end parts of the tree and will spend the rest of his time confused by the puzzle in an endless quest to find the missing parts. In that way he will be distracted from following the travellers any further. From that point the travellers also adopt a different language, one that the valley dama will not understand and will thus become further confused. This language is part of what was known as tayenda tua ilili. Tayenda (forest), tua (forbidden speech), ilili (forbidden acts) 3 refers to a proscribed and forbidden code of conduct that includes use of a special language. During fieldwork in 1977, Laurence Goldman collected data on the forest language used by the Huli population at Ialuba, located about 25km west-northwest of Tari. 4 Goldman found that the grammatical structure of the forest language is the same as for regular Huli, although certain verb suffixes are different. The morphology of the forest language is unchanged from Huli, however the words themselves are unrecognisable. What is remarkable is how similar the forest language is between that used at Haliago and that used at Ialuba, in spite of the vast distance between them. Before I present a comparative analysis I will give a description of how the language was used.

It would be accurate to say that the Huli forest language has almost completely died out, and this was true by 1977 when Laurence Goldman was conducting his work. 5 I was able to track down a single individual named Agila Bayule, who obviously had an excellent memory for languages and who had learned the forest language from his father while on hunting trips during the 1960s. This language appears to be no longer used at all, and there are no longer any proscriptions against using the regular Huli language in the forest. There appear to be two main themes related to the requirement for this language to be used. First, the forest is understood in terms of moral purity, and use of a special language is an exercise in morally pure behaviour. Prior to entering the forest, married men were required to abstain from sexual intercourse for proscribed periods of time, they were required to eat certain foods and had to ensure that they had not recently engaged in morally questionable behaviour, such as theft. The mountain is pure in the sense that it does not bear the impact of human labour, unlike the lower, cultivated areas where no portion of land is untouched. Second, the forest is, in many ways, a foreign place. The forest is inhabited by dama that are less familiar to the travellers than the more common garden variety spirits found at home. The forest dama are at home while the travellers are interloping through their mysterious territory. I was informed that the travellers therefore need to speak the language of their dama hosts lest they become annoyed at the disrespect you are showing them by speaking a language that they cannot understand. However, Laurence Goldman was informed that the purpose of the language was so that the forest dama would not be able to understand the travellers and therefore not know of their plans and thus not be able to do them harm. 6 Goldman’s account is likely to be a corrective to mine, as he was much closer to the source of his data, which for me had almost completely disappeared. This shift in interpretation reveals much about the reduction, or perhaps more accurately, the complete annihilation of the agency and relevance of Huli dama spirits. There is something also to be said about the unique material environment of the high-altitude tropical forests of Mt Haliago. As an aesthetic experience the forest’s unfamiliarity and richness of detail and diversity insist on its unique ontological categorisation, and these sentiments are expressed in the ways in which Huli engage with the forest, and with items of decoration brought back from the forest. For example, a type of grass that is indigenous to the high-altitude parts of Haliago is called luwabe, 7 and can be used as a bodily adornment. After visiting Haliago I decorated my hat with some luwabe, and the reaction of people back in Komo was not simple recognition of where I had been, but noting that I had been to a place that was different and significant for its uniqueness. Nature is constructed differently for Haliago than it is for the Komo basin, and this is true for both Western and traditional Huli understandings.

The extinct volcano of Mt Haliago is an ecological island surrounded by valleys and plains. As described in a report on the bird species found at Haliago for the World Wildlife Fund, “these mountain tops really do constitute “islands” of montane forest habitat, separated by the “sea” of surrounding low-elevation habitat in which these montane species cannot live.” 8 During my trips into the high altitude forest my companions collected particular types of foliage exclusive to the forest to decorate my hat. When I returned to Komo people at the market instantly knew where I had been, and would frequently comment. I had the highly charged landscape of the Haliago forest on display, symbolising the material and ethical difference between forest and cultivated land.

Use of the forest language was described to me in terms of delimited phases of activity during a forest hunting trip. Particular lexicons were associated with various phases of the hunt. Agila Bayule (translated by Maga Arawi):

In the olden days our grandfathers told us that there is a man up there. There is a pig up there and a dog. And the dog is a wild dog that we still see today. Still there. And then the pig they told us that there is a pig up in the mountain and we never seen the pig. But if you see the footprint of the pig then the spirit from the mountain come and kill them and eat them. We have to use all those words because when we go up into the mountain those cuscus the spirit speak, the pigs belongs to the mountain spirit. So we have to go and use some of the words that will make them happy and then… we have to use those mountain words so that they will not get angry. We will make them happy so that we can kill the cuscus. There are certain places where ladies are forbidden to go. Not allowed to go. Restricted areas only for the men to go up to the mountain for cuscus. Before they go up to the mountain Haliago, even Ambua too, at Hides, Hibiria too. They use similar rules they follow.

A strong feature of Huli mythology is the use of topothesia in accounts of the relationship between the landscape and the spirit world. Mountain areas invariably contain spirit lakes that can disappear and reappear, or never be seen at all.

There are two lakes up in the mountain and they are called bume and deme. But pig we haven’t seen one but when we see the footprints then the evil spirit will kill the man who saw that. And the two lakes bume and deme are also up there in the mountain… It’s invisible lakes up on the mountain. So we have to be very careful when we are up there on the mountain. Bu is this heart we have here bu. And De is this one eye. Eye is de. So when we are up in the mountain we have to be very careful. We must be careful when we talk about our eyes and our heart. So you have to use a very special word to talk about your eyes. And when you talk about the heartbeat you have to use another special words. You can’t use the same language we use in the village but you have to use special words. But if we use de and bu the spirit is going to be angry and he is going to eat you. So de when you go up to the mountain you use the word… if you say de the spirit up in the mountain is going to kill you so we use another word for eye is hangarane. That’s the word the spirit use for eyes so we use the same language. That’s from this location to another location another language. Maybe your eye is no good you can’t say your de is not good… you have to use the word hangarane. We don’t use de up there. If you use bu then bume is up there ready to attack you. His name is not allowed to call it up there in the mountain. So we use another word for bu. We use the word hagarane. And then use that word you are happy, the spirit up there are happy, there is no disturbance, you are not mentioning the spirit up in the mountain’s name, those two lakes. If you call the names the lakes will come out and drown you or something. So when we go up to the mountain we have to be careful. Our fathers tell us not to use the word bu and de. Eye and heart. Because that is the name of the spirit up there in the mountain. So you have to use hangarane and hagarane. In that way you are not disturbing the mountain spirit and you are safe.

At Ialiba in 1977 Laurence Goldman recorded the word hangarine for “eye”. 9 The forest language used widely across Huli territory contains many consistencies, although there are also variations, which is probably a reflection of the extensiveness of Huli multiple land ownership and residence claims, which is a result of the complex migration histories of both individuals and clans. Although Goldman was able to collect many more forest language words than I was able to 40 years later, it is possible to compare where our lists overlap.

Cuscusmamanaguamomo nagua
Sleepingumbibulebiragotombila (sleep)
Bow and Arrowdugu duguyui pinini
Eatkanditahambu ha
Birdbutu butupudu pudu
Rain ginaerene
Man hiraleamona

The following are examples of forest language sentences and their use as used at Haliago.

While hunting for cuscus you might find one sleeping in a tree:

(Look there is a cuscus sleeping)

Hulitiapaliwabiriahanda ha

When your dogs detect the cuscus in the tree they are going to start barking, and you need to go to where they are:

(Listen to the dogs barking, we need to go).

The hunters need to rush to where the dogs are barking before the dogs kill and eat the cuscus.

(Run and bring the bow and arrow to shoot the cuscus up there).

The use of a Huli forest language is mirrored by Etolo-speaking people to the south. Etolo forest language involves the use of metaphorical phrases, rather than the construction of lexicographically unique words as found in Huli forest language. Etolo used a forest language for the similar purpose of avoiding the anger of the forest spirits (segesado), for example, the word for fish became “beneath the cooking.” This leads me to posit the theory that Huli forest language may have also originated from a metaphorical language, and that the Huli forest language words are, in a sense, the fossilised remains of metaphorical words and phrases that have morphed into unique words of their own through use over time. To illustrate this theory, the forest language word for bow, dugu dugu, may have originated from the Huli word for sugar cane, du – the long sugar cane being used to represent the bow. Another etymological source is via the use of onomatopoeia. The word for pig (nogo in Huli) is gulaga (Goldman recorded gu). This was explained to me in terms of the sound a pig makes when it is grunting, so the forest language word came from the imitation of the grunting sound of a pig. Gulaga translates as “gu-sayer”. It is beyond my skills to unravel the language any further, but it would explain the mixture of consistency and difference found between the forest languages spoken in the Haliago and Ialuba areas. The extraordinary creativity in the deployment of the Huli language, particularly the use of synonyms, cannot be understated. When spoken fluently, as occurred before me as I was recording, my Huli translator found the language to be completely incomprehensible. I noticed a similar situation when I was recording the gamu spell from an elderly woman in Tari, as described in Section 5.5. In that case my female translator found it very difficult to understand what she considered to be an archaic form of Huli as it was full of unfamiliar idiom, synonym use, and praise names that are rapidly disappearing from the language.

(An extract from, “Until Hela Becomes a City”, The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity. Michael Main. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University. Canberra, April, 2020., pp. 166-176.)

(Photo courtesy of Jimmy Nelson)

  1. Traditionally “Duguba” basically meant “foreigner” and was a cardinal term used to designate those foreigners to the south of Huli (see Chapter 7). In the pre-contact Huli universe no people existed outside Huli genealogical encompassment, and Duguba was and remains one of the sons of Hela. []
  2. Euraya (genus of the Pentaphylacaceae family) or Ardisia (species of the Primrose family) Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea,” Appendix B4, p. 2. vol.2 []
  3. Chris Ballard, “The Fire Next Time: The Conversion of the Huli Apocalypse.” Ballard defines ilili as “behavioural codes” in relation to the moral strictures required to ensure that the fertility of the land is maintained. []
  4. Laurence Goldman, A Preliminary Outline of the ‘Tayenda Tua’ Language and its Associated Rituals, as Practised by the Huli People of Ialuba (Unpublished manuscript, 1977). []
  5. Laurence Goldman, pers. comm. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Unidentified. []
  8. Jared Diamond and David Bishop, “Birds of Mt Sisa,” (Report for the World Wildlife Fund / Chevron Kikori Integrated Conservation and Development Project, 2000), 2. []
  9. Laurence Goldman, A Preliminary Outline of the ‘Tayenda Tua’ Language and its Associated Rituals, as Practised by the Huli People of Ialuba. []

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