The Natural World of the Huli

by Ron Meshanko

Two Huli women with children
Huli children playing in a sweet potato garden, the major source of sustenance.

The Huli landscape consists of patches of primary forests, reed-covered marshes, kunai grasslands, scrub brush, and mounded gardens traversed by rivers, 1 small streams and man-made ditches which serve as drainage canals, boundary markers, walking paths, and defensive fortifications.

Huli Flora

The lavish flora provides the Huli with necessary materials for the production of essential cultural accouterments. The primary forests supply the timber used in the construction of houses, ritual buildings, fences and graves. Large quantities of firewood are consumed daily in the fire pits located in the center of every dwelling and rest house. Firewood is also consumed in the “mumu-pits” or earth ovens that are frequently used by the people in preparing daily meals. The bark of trees is utilized in the production of Huli clothing. The stringy bark is rolled together to form threads which are inter-woven to create coarse yarn from which string bags, men’s aprons, belts and wigs are made. The forest also furnishes the wood used in the manufacture of axes, drums, digging sticks, stabbing spears, and shields as well as the vines from which rope bridges, pig tethers, and house joiners are produced.

Certain species of trees are used in Huli rituals. Their ability to produce durable sap or their strength and color are referred to in many healing spells and initiation rites. 2 Sticks are often used in various forms of sorcery. 3

Pandanus nut trees are highly valued by the Huli in that they provide the prized pandanus nut as well as long, strong leaves used to make woven rain-mat coverings and ritual items.

Primary forests furnish the Huli with many of the materials necessary for their daily life. They also provide the Huli with a lucrative source of revenue. The abundant timber stands are now being sold to sawmills that have been developed in the Huli region since the arrival of the white men. Saw-milling is the major industry amongst the Huli.

Reed covered swamps furnish the Huli with reeds used in the production of arrows, the basic Huli weapon. Kunai grasslands provide the grass that is used in the thatched roofing of traditional Huli houses. Permanent iron roofing is slowly replacing kunai grass roofing for those who can afford it. Grass is also utilized in the fabrication of women’s grass skirts.

Nature provides everything necessary for daily living.
Nature provides everything necessary for Huli everyday daily living.

Grasslands supply the small herbs and grasses used as medicine in Huli rituals. More than nine species of plants are valued for their healing properties which are derived from their natural symbolic characterization. 4 Medicinal herbs used in the treatment of male menstrual pollution are believed to be effective in that they share the common property of tenacity. The nigi plant, a local nettle, is rubbed on the part of the body where there is pain. 5 The leaf causes a burning sensation and swelling that is believed to distract a person from concentrating on the original pain. This plant is used in the Bachelor cult to make the men appear larger and stronger due to the swelling caused by the leaf.

Mounded gardens dot the Huli countryside. Huli men and women are subsistence farmers who cultivate sweet potatoes, taro, pumpkin, beans, corn, cabbage and a variety of greens in their gardens. These crops grow abundantly in the rich volcanic soil. The slash-burn technique of the people enhances the fertility of their frequently rotated gardens. Banana, pineapple, and papaya trees are cultivated near the people’s houses wherever the climate is conducive to their growth. Bamboo trees are cultivated near the people’s dwellings to provide food in the form of bamboo shoots, as well as bamboo cane utilized as building material and in the production of smoking pipes, water-vessels, musical instruments, and ritual items. Stronger, more permanent structures like bush churches are usually constructed with bamboo cane matting.

The people also cultivate a type of native tobacco which both men and women smoke in bamboo pipes. Various medicinal and ritual plants are raised near houses or in gardens; the bog iris 6 and ginger plant 7 being the most notably used plants in ritual practices. Taro, an ancient traditional food, that symbolizes strength and fertility, is also used in ritual acts. 8 Yellow and purple everlasting daisies are cultivated by men for use in decorating their wigs. The purple variety is rarely seen in the Tari area.

Sweet potatoes are by far the main staple of the Huli diet. The average male consumes between seven to ten large tubers twice a day with additional sweet potato snacks during the day and night. Huli usually carry sweet potatoes with them wherever they go in their string bags. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Huli meal is not complete with the sweet potato. Huli men and women will usually go away hungry and complaining that they have not yet eaten if they eat a large meal consisting of only rice and fish, the staple foods introduced by colonizers.

Huli Fauna

The Hui fauna consists of various species of snakes, worms, eels, fish, tree kangaroos, possums, bats, birds and domesticated pigs and dogs. Most of these animals are used extensively in Huli culture in many different settings. Bats, possums and pigs serve as food. Fish was seldom seen in times past, but is now consumed more frequently. Snake skins are used as drum covers and as decorative head bands. Possum fur is also employed as a decorative head dress. Bird plumes, which have many levels of symbolic meaning, are utilized as head decorations, especially on the Huli wig. The tendons of cassowary birds are used as nasal septum shafts, and necklaces while the bird’s talon is used as the point of the stabbing speak and its leg bone as a dagger.

Many animals have numerous levels of symbolic meaning attached to them and are employed in a variety of rituals. The claw of the hawk 8 and the bones of bats 9 are used in sorcery rituals. Snakes and worms are referred to in the nogo tini gamu pollution spell and are used to heal men from menstrual pollution. They symbolize immortality and the renewal of life in that a cut worm replicates itself, and a shedding snake appears to be reborn. 4 Pig bones are employed in divination rites. The pig is also the main sacrificial matter in Huli rituals performed to increase the abundance of socio-economic wealth and physical health. Pigs are sacrificed to various deities to heal men from sicknesses 10, to ensure the fertility of the earth and people 11, and to placate their wrath which is manifested in natural disturbances. 12 Pigs are also offered to the ancestors to ensure their interest and assistance in the well-being of the community. 13 Pigs that are sacrificed to deities or ancestors are usually consumed by the community or ritual specialists. Pork is the main ritual food.

Both men and women raise pigs which, along with chickens, provide the only substantial form of animal protein in the Huli diet. Pork is consumed more often by the Huli in the course of a year than by other Highland tribes. The Huli do not save their pigs for large ritual pig kills that occur rarely over long periods of time as do the Wiru, Mendi and Kewa peoples. 14 The Huli will slaughter a pig for a meal simply because they have a taste for pig that day, or to celebrate a special occasion (i.e., the return of a friend, arrival of a missionary, opening of a house, etc.).

The importance of pigs as currency and ritual sacrificial offering, however, immeasurably transcends their value as common food. 15 Pigs are the basic item of exchange for bride-wealth, major purchases, and compensation payments. Nineteen to twenty-six pigs are exchanged in the bride-wealth. A small pig is the usual penalty for stealing from a garden. An adulterer pays two or three pigs to the family of his accomplice. 16 One pig is given as payment to the person who carries a dead man to the grave. It has already been shown how the pig functions as a form of ritual currency in man’s transactions with the deities and ancestors. In many ways, Huli society is bound up with pigs since it is the main item of economic and ritual exchange, as well as the basic Huli ritual food. The pig is still the main form of currency even though modern paper and coin currency have been successfully introduced.

Necessary Materials Gotten Through Trade

Huli Trade Routes by Chris Ballard
Huli Trade Routes 17

Thus far, this study has shown how the Huli derive most of their basic material necessities from their natural surroundings. However, there are some essential objects that the Huli must buy from neighboring peoples. 18 Cowrie and kina shells, the former piece of jewelry being reserved for men who wear them as necklaces, while the later breast plate is common to both sexes, comes to the Huli from the North and South. The cowrie shells are then exchanged for salt from the Ipili people and for tigasso tree oil from the Lake Kutubu people. Salt is a luxury item used in the preparation of pork and a long red fruit called abare which is is eaten whenever it is in season. Tree oil is used in various rituals and as a body ointment, especially during dances. Pigs are exchanged for black palm bows from the Duguba people, and for stone axe blades from the Waga people who had previously purchased the blades from the Melpa people of Mount Hagen. Hornbill beaks which are used as a necklace piece in combination with with pigs teeth, are purchased from the people of the Mount Bosavi area.

Many rituals as well as ritual objects are purchased from neighboring peoples. The Dindi Gamu fertility rite was purchased from the Duna people, as well as the Duna child whose blood was an essential element of the rite. 19 The Toro stones, bog iris, ritual directions and spells for the Toro Gamu sorcery rite are purchased from the Duna for a very expensive price: twelve pigs, a kina shell, two packages of red paint and a string bag. 20 The rite to repel the power of Toro emanations was also purchased from the Duna along with the necessary ritual elements; a certain species of Duna tree. 21 The Hambu sorcery rite, which fractures the bones of its victims through the power of symbolically breaking sticks as one chants the necessary spell, was purchased from the Ipili people. 22

The Huli eco-system does supply almost all of the fundamental material components for Huli life, however, it is obvious that the people do rely on the assistance of outside peoples to fulfill the needs of their daily lives. The cultural exchange and interdependence between the Huli and other Highlands peoples has significant bearing on a proper understanding of cultural change and resilience amongst the Huli.

(Photos courtesy of Trans NiuGini Tours)

  1. For Huli, the cardinal elements of the basins are not the ridges that bound them but the major water features, the rivers and lakes (both iba) and swamps (pugua), at the centre of each basin. All of Huli territory, with the exception of the Margarima, E Mama and Lebani basins, is encompassed within the watershed of the Tagali river, which drains south and east through the Haeapugua basin and Lower Tagali valley into the Hegigio and Kikori rivers and ultimately to the Papuan Gulf. The Dagia river, feeding into the Tagali river from the east, drains the Tari basin, while the Nagia, entering the Tagali from the west, drains the Koroba and Mogoropugua basins. The significance of these major rivers for Huli is suggested by the use of kai mini, honorific prefixes or literally “praise-names”. Ballard, Chris. “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea” A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of The Australian National University, Canberra, January 1995., p. 36. []
  2. Stephen Frankel, “I am a Dying Man: Pathology of Pollution”, Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 4:2 (1980), p. 102.[]
  3. R.M. Glasse, “The Huli of the Southern Highlands”, in Gods, Ghosts and Men in Melanesia, ed. by Peter Lawrence and M.J. Meggitt, (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 42 and Huli of Papua, (Paris: Mouton and Co, 1968), p. 103.[]
  4. S. Frankel, “I am a Dying Man”, p. 102.[][]
  5. L.R. Goldman, “Compensation and Disputes in Huli”, Homicide Compensation in Papua New Guinea, (Port Moresby: Office of Information, 1981), p.58.[]
  6. R. Glasse, “The Huli”, pp. 93, 101, 104, 106.[]
  7. S. Frankel, “I am a Dying Man”, p. 107.[]
  8. R. Glasse, Huli of Papua, p. 105.[][]
  9. R. Glasse, “The Huli”, p. 35.[]
  10. Ibid., p. 101 and R. Glasse, Huli of Papua, p. 104.[]
  11. R. Glasse, Huli of Papua, pp. 42, 46.[]
  12. R. Glasse, “The Huli”, pp. 44, 46, and “Revenge and Redress Amongst the Huli”, Mankind,5:7 (1959), p. 276.[]
  13. R. Glasse, “The Huli”, pp. 44, 47-48.[]
  14. Edgar Ford, Papua New Guinea: The Land and The People, (Melbourne: Jaracanda Press, 1973), p. 66.[]
  15. R. Glasse, “Revenge and Redress”, p. 276.[]
  16. R. Glasse, Huli of Papua, p. 112.[]
  17. Ballard, Chris. “The Centre Cannot Hold. Trade Networks and Sacred Geography in the Papua New Guinea Highlands”.Archaeology in Oceania , Oct., 1994, Vol. 29, No. 3, Social Landscapes (Oct., 1994), p. 140. []
  18. R. Glasse, Huli of Papua, pp, 20-21, 59.[]
  19. R. Glasse, “The Huli”, p. 46.[]
  20. R. Glasse, Huli of Papua, p. 101.[]
  21. Ibid, p. 103.[]
  22. R, Glasse, “The Huli”, p. 42.[]