by Dr. Chris Ballard, Australian National University

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.

His current interests revolve around indigenous Melanesian historicities – their transformation through cross-cultural encounters; their representation through various media, including film and fiction; and their articulation with contemporary challenges such as land reform, large natural resource projects, and cultural heritage management planning. He is also engaged, together with Bronwen Douglas, in an ARC Discovery Project on “European Naturalists and the Constitution of Human Difference in Oceania”. Publications under preparation include an edited collection on the history of racial science in Oceania, and a monograph on violence and first contact in the New Guinea Highlands.

There are more than 70,000 primary speakers of Huli, the second largest single language in the Papua New Guinea Highlands. 1 Lomas (1988) has described a phonological boundary within Huli that divides the language into two dialects, corresponding roughly to the western and eastern halves of Huli territory (Figure B11). Further distinctive isomorphic variations within these two dialects reflect the influence of different neighbouring languages: speakers of the Huli isomorph set centred around Margarima, for instance, tend to omit word-final vowels, a feature of the speech of the Wola groups that border them to the south (Lomas 1988:30). These distinctions are founded on minor phonetic variations, however, and while the presence of dialect differences is apparent to Huli, the different dialects are certainly mutually intelligible across the full extent of Huli territory.

Historically, Huli is identified with the Enga Language Family, composed of Enga, Huli, lpili-Paiela, Mendi, Sau, Kewa and possibly Wiru (Figure A3). Huli represents the westernmost extension of this Family, bordered to the north by speakers of Ipili/Paiela and to the east by speakers of Enga and West Mendi or Wola. There has been little historical analysis of the Enga Family languages; Karl Franklin (1975) has proposed some Proto-Engan phonemes on the basis of a limited number of apparent cognate sets, and the Franklins (1978:90) have sketched a historical diversion from Proto-Engan on the basis of free pronouns from the member languages. This diversion, reproduced as Figure B 12, relates Huli most closely to the Sau, Kewa and Mendi languages. 2 Foley (1986:280), in a speculative reconstruction, has argued that the extent of Austronesian loan words in Engan languages suggests an immediate origin for the group on the northern slopes of the Central Range, where extensive contact with Austronesian groups may have been feasible along the southern margins of the former Sepik inlet (Swadling et al.1989).

Non-Enga Family neighbours of the Huli include the Duna and Bogaya to the northwest, the northernmost members of the East Strickland Plains groups (F bi or Tinali and Agala) to the west, the Papuan Plateau groups (Bedamini, Onabasulu, Etoro, Kaluli, Kasua and Sonia) to the south and the Lake Kutubu groups (Foi and Fasu) to the southeast (Figures A3 and B 11). Although Huli vocabulary shares between 18% and 32% of cognates with Duna (different estimates are provided by Wurm 1971:557, Shaw 1973:190, Modjeska 1977:12 and Lomas 1988:87), the latter has been identified as an unplaced family-level isolate within the Central and South New Guinea stock (Wurm, Voorhoeve and Laycock 1981). The extensive similarities between the Duna and Huli lexicons thus appear to reflect a relatively long period of contact between the two language communities, rather than a common origin. Bilingualism along each of the borders between Huli and its neighbours is extensive and the boundaries drawn for the Huli language in Figure B11 are thus, at best, an approximation, based on the self­ identification of communities that I have visited.

Unusually, for so large a language community, Huli not only assume but actually seek to demonstrate a common origin and cultural heritage for all Huli-speakers. This conceptual unity promulgated amongst Huli is expressed in terms of a commonality of language, material culture, explicit social norms and ancestry. More exceptional still is the extension of this discourse of identity to Huli neighbours, with whom a more distant apical link is conceived and whose distinctive attributes are similarly legislated. Mythic narratives and normative pureromo adages that draw on the knowledge or mana of this discourse are known collectively as hela tene, the source or origins of the Hela peoples.

Hela is essentially an honorific prefix, or kai term, applied by Huli to themselves and some of their neighbours. Of the four most frequently cited of these terms, Hela Huli refers to all Huli-speakers, Hela Obena to Enga-, Ipili/Paiela- and Mendi-speakers, Hela Duna to the Duna and Hela Duguba to the groups of the Papuan Plateau (Bedamini, Etoro, Kaluli and Onabasulu in particular. 3 These four groups are thought by Huli to have a common ancestry and point of origin, from which the various language groups dispersed. 4 Myths associated with this diaspora vary considerably; recent versions, particularly those associated with the Hela Andaya or Damene Cultural Centre at Tari (Frank:el1986:30f., Hela Gimbu Association 1985), insist on the historical presence of an individual named Hela who fathered four sons, each the ancestor of a different ethnic group. Another version, which seeks to relate these events to the mana for dindi pongone, describes the travels of the Huli ancestress, Tia Nangume, from her home at Hewai Falls up to the ritual site of Hewari Gambeyani (Figure B 10). There she gives birth, successively, to elements of dindi pongone and of the visible landscape and then to the four communities, the Hela igini (“sons of Hela”) (Narrative B3). From Hewari Gambeyani the different communities, idealized as individual ancestors, then dispersed, the sequence of their departure commonly starting with Hela Duna, followed by Hela Duguba, Hela Obena and lastly Hela Huli. As each ethnic founder departed, he began to speak with a unique language and proceeded to “cut” (podene) or mark out the land now held by his descendants. Pureromo detailing the calls, styles of dress and decoration, house forms and languages characteristic of each group are still recited in formal speeches. 5

As the variations in hela tene mana suggest, it is a malleable genre of knowledge. 6 While there is usually agreement that such neighbouring groups as the Tinali, Bogaya and Kuare (Oksapmin) are not Hela igini, Hela Rewa (putative ancestor to the Foi and Fasu) is occasionally named as a fifth brother, exiled from Hewari Gambeyani with his sister, Wali Gogonabe, on account of his laziness (Narrative B3). The notion of a missing fifth brother has been taken up again with renewed vigour since the 1950s and many hela tene narratives conclude with an extended discussion of the possibility that the fifth brother was honebi (“light-skinned”), the ancestor of all white people. 7

Two further important themes develop upon the hela tene myths. The first of these is the notion of order created by the correct disposition of the Hela igini; this requires that the Huli remain in the centre of the universe where their task is to maintain distance between the Obena and Duguba. In what is clearly a reference to dindi pongone (B2.6), Huli assert that if Obena and Duguba were ever to meet, the land would break up and the world would end; Obena and Duguba here represent the head and tail, respectively, of the python (puya) of dindi pongone. Reinforcing this theme are pureromo which stipulate appropriate boundaries for movement of Duguba and Obena within Huli territory: Obena were not permitted to travel further south the Tari basin than Hoyabia and Duguba were ideally restricted to the south of Hambuali. As a somewhat cynical young Huli businessman suggested to me, this stricture was formulated by his ancestors precisely to maintain the monopoly enjoyed by Huli on the lucrative trade between Obena and Duguba groups of such wealth items as salt, tree oil and blackpalm bow staves. 8

This normative geographic order is reproduced in daily discourse through the use of ethnic labels as cardinal or directional terms. The term duna thus indicates the general direction of Duna territory; Huli south and east of the Tagali river frequently identify both the region and the people across the river as duna, even when referring to kin. Huli at Koroba, in turn, refer to the Mogoropugua basin and its Huli residents as duna. A phrase deploying the term duna in this sense would then refer to Duna­ speakers or their territory as duna ore, true or real Duna. Duguba and obena operate similarly as directional terms, though the broad position of the Duguba and Obena groups at the lower reaches and headwaters, respectively, of the pattern of regional drainage, gives rise to the more common use of wabi (downriver) and mane (upriver) as terms for both people and areas to the south and north. Actual geography thus imparts to this cardinal vocabulary a sense of absolute, as well as relative, direction according to the speaker’s position (Weiner 1991:73). Though mane and wabi can be used to refer to other Huli living upriver or downriver from the speakers, the same is not true for duguba and obena which, together with the term hewa which is used directionally by Huli to indicate the south-east and the Lake Kutubu region generally, are not used in reference to other Huli-speakers. 9

For Huli the focal point of this cardinality, the position from or towards which the entire vocabulary of direction is oriented, is a notional location of core “Huli-ness”, centred broadly around the ritual site of Bebenite and the southern part of the Tari basin (Lomas 1988:27-28). This, for all Huli, is hulihuli or huli ore (“true/very Huli”), terms which are deployed as the reverse of the other cardinal terms. 10 Individuals or locations closer to hulihuli than the speaker are thus identified as huli relative to the speaker’s self-identity and location.

There is, to conclude, both an absolute sense of Huli identity and geographic location, with notionally fixed boundaries and a legislated set of ideal standards, and a relative sense of location and identity, a moral gradient of “Huli-ness” radiating outwards from a specific area in the Tari basin, towards which all Huli, as Huli, orient themselves.

(Extract reprinted with permission of Dr. Chris Ballard from “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History  and  Subsistence  Revolution in Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Australian National University, Canberra, 1995.)

(Photo courtesy of Trans NiuGini Tours)

  1. Estimates of the Huli population have fluctuated widely, from 41,067 (Glasse 1968:18-19) to 100,000 (Frankel1986:38). The figure given here draws on the 1990 Census figure of 70,226 for the total population of the Tari Census District (CD02), the Koroba and Mogorofugwa Census Units of CDOl, and the Margarima Census Unit of CD03, an area that incorporates what I perceive to be the boundaries of those communities speaking Huli as a first language. Although this 1990 figure represents a considerable increase upon the 1980 Census total of 62,013 for the same Census Units, it must still be considered an underestimate, particularly in light of the reported limitations of the 1990 census (Callick and Tait (eds.) 1993:23). []
  2. See Crittenden (1982: 102) for a speculative reconstruction of Enga Language Family migration routes. []
  3. Use of these Hela kai terms is generally restricted to narratives that deal with the hela tene myth. The conventional Huli kai mini praise terms for Huli and their neighbours are as follows: Duguba: Dugu Yawini, Mi Gilini; Huli: Hulu Gomaiya; Duna: Mi Duna, Mirilia; Hewa: Wana Hewa; Bogaya: Umi Bogaya. []
  4. These beliefs are held by the neighbouring non-Huli groups only to the extent that they might be aware through contact with Huli of such a notion and might feel inclined to defer to Huli pronouncements on the matter. []
  5. One example of these pureromo is given in Narrative B4. Other versions have been documented by Goldman (1983:67-68, 297). []
  6. Alternative narrative versions of hela tene are documented by Glasse (1965:33-34), Frankel (1986: 16) and Mangi (1988a:24-25). []
  7. ‘The fifth to go was honebi. Now we are all here, together with the honebi who have returned. If they claim not be sons of Hela, not sons of the same father as ours, then my father’s mana must have been wrong … We who live beneath the sun are black; you and your father, sleeping at the source of the sun, are white. I think you are the fifth brother, that is what I think.’ (Maiya-Alua, 27.9.89, 89/3A:349- 384). []
  8. 8. I have addressed the relationship between trade and Huli sacred geography in more detail elsewhere (Ballard 1994). []
  9. Rewa appears to be cognate with similar terms (ewa, kewa) used throughout the Southern Highlands in reference to alien groups to the south; Leroy (1979: 182) thus records the use by Kewa language speakers of the term kewa to refer to all southern trade partners, whether they speak Kewa or Sau, and a corresponding term, merepa (Melpa?), to indicate communities to the north. Merlan and Rumsey (1991:29,231) record the use of kewa by Nebilyer valley groups in reference to unknown “cannibal” groups to the south, but also to identify foreigners and Europeans in general, an extension of the term which Glasse (1955) has also suggested for the use of hewa by Huli. []
  10. Wood (1984 Vol.I:74) has employed the cardinal terms huli and mane as topographic category terms describing ‘low-lying, wetter and more productive areas’ and ‘drier undulating parts of the basin’, respectively; as his sources for these terms were residents at Piwa in the central Tari basin (A.Wood pers.comm.), it is possible that he confused the specific Piwa-based references to the lower-lying Bebenite area as huli (the core “huli” locale for all Huli-speakers) and to the upriver areas of the basin as mane with category distinctions for topographic features. []