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 argument for a Huli materialist theory of nature would be disingenuous if it did not incorporate Huli spirituality, especially as it relates to land. The ubiquity of dama spirits, particular water spirits that inhabit streams, lakes and waterfalls, and a Huli notion of a type of agency possessed by the earth itself, are (and were) central actors in the Huli natural world. Choice of present or past tense is a constant struggle when writing about traditional Huli beliefs. Most traditions are considered by Huli today to be antiquated and belonging to the world of their ancestors. However, there is a significant degree of overlap and even much debate among Huli as to what should be embraced and what should be rejected as antiquated and irrelevant. These arguments are continuously played out on social media forums when arguing about contemporary issues.

The contemporary salience of at least some of these beliefs was brought home to me during the blockade of the Hides Gas Conditioning Plant in August 2016, which is described in detail in Chapter 8. Landowner leaders successfully forced several politicians and departmental heads to Hides to hear their grievances about the failure of the state to pay royalties. The Finance Minister, James Marape, was targeted for a particularly venomous tirade of insult and complaint. During the proceedings Marape, who is a Huli from Tari, made a claim that certain monies that had been promised for development projects had been placed in trust for use in projects relating to the development of the Tari township. The landowners considered Marape’s claim to be mendacious, and in response the particular landowner who was berating Marape through his megaphone at the time, challenged Marape to dindi napaya, “we eat the ground”. During a land dispute, dindi napaya, or the practice of two people with competing claims over the historical truth of land ownership each taking a handful of dirt from the disputed land and eating it is a way of divining the truth. The land itself, being the subject of the argument, is the material objectification of a singular truth that is in dispute. The person who is lying about the truth of land ownership, specifically about the historical truth claims made in relation to the land, will become sick and die as a result of eating the land. Death is not instant but may take some months. Marape’s response to this challenge was stunned silence. He was to come down off the stage and the crowd parted to create an open space for the two men to perform the ritual of dindi napaya. Marape’s evident fear and non-response was damning.

The existence of a Huli spiritual world should also be read through a materialist lens. As Žižek states, “we should strictly distinguish the New Age topic of a deeper spiritual interconnection and unity of the universe from the materialist topic of a possible encounter with an inhuman Other with whom some kind of communication would be possible.” 1 Such an encounter is exactly what was experienced by Huli during the many instances of “first contact” when white people were widely considered to be some form of dama spirit, or as ancestor spirits descended from their place in the sky. The Other in these instances did not remain inhuman for very long, but the encounter needs to be read as a materialist encounter, because the dama made flesh were already understood as a material reality with material agency.

Some elderly Huli interviewed by Bryant Allen recalled the first flight over Huli territory in 1936, and indicated that at the time they believed the plane to be an iba kuyama, or flying spirit lake. 2 At Komo during 2009 the Huli landowners of the then proposed Komo airfield said that a spirit lake that was going to be destroyed by the airfield needed to be moved and they were requesting that ExxonMobil pay for the pig that was to be sacrificed in order to move the spirit. This was a perplexing situation for those assessing the cultural heritage impact of the PNG LNG project, as there was no lake in the path of the proposed airfield. The lake, however, was a flying spirit lake that had moved with its host clan generations before, when that clan had originally migrated into the area. The materialist understanding of the flying spirit lake was enough to interpret the experience of seeing an aircraft as the only large object that was known to fly through the air, which was a flying lake.

There is more to be said about the materiality of the Huli spiritual landscape. Huli inhabit a landscape that is largely comprised of a limestone karst system that exhibits a complex hydrology. Water bodies may behave in strange and unexpected ways within these systems. Underground caves and river systems respond to variable rainfall patterns, and tectonic activity only adds to the unpredictability of these hydrogeological features. The Huli landscape includes lakes that are able to disappear and reappear, rise up dramatically or shrink without warning. These phenomena are caused by blockages in the complex hydrology of the karst landscape that covers the majority of Huli territory. Hydraulic blockages may clear very suddenly, resulting in rapid disappearance of lakes in the course of a single day. These iba kuyama are not unreasonably believed to fly from one place to another, disappearing in one location and reappearing in another. Earth tremors that cause ripples in bodies of water may be interpreted as ominous signs, and the behaviour of water after an oblation of pork or some other offering was made was closely watched.

The complex Huli trickster figure of iba tiri (“water fool”) are understood “as malevolent aquatic inhabitants… frequently portrayed as “playing” with water by alternatively damming and releasing the flow of water at the head of rivers, often precipitating flooding.” 3 The material basis for much of Huli spiritual and cosmological belief has been largely overlooked, but it is important for ethnographies to be grounded and informed by these real world phenomena.

Almost the entire Huli landscape bears evidence of the input of Huli labour. Huli are renowned for the deep drainage ditches and high mud walls known as gana that demarcate parcels of land. Working the land, making gardens, raising pigs, digging gana drains and walls is a uniquely human activity that can be read as objectifying the vital separation between human and other forms of life, and also the spirit world. Humans apply their labour to the landscape and in doing so create the historical narrative that is the record of material agency known as dindi malu. 4

The gana ditches are among the strongest signifiers of both Huli cultural identity and the emergence of the Ipomoean modern Huli human. 5 The emergence in the genealogical record of this characteristic Huli method of inscribing the landscape is synonymous with the appearance of sweet potato. The construction of gana is labour-intensive and signifies improvement done to the land through the input of human labour. The act of improving the land, making it productive and aesthetically pleasing, also includes removing weeds, creating garden mounds, clearing drainage ways, and making the surface of the gana walls shiny 6 and smooth. Land improvement signifies ownership through the input of labour and the expression of respect and care for what is owned. Ipomoean modernity and its new materiality resulted in new expressions of ownership that incorporated an aesthetic sensibility that was applied to the land. Ownership is highly individualised, as are the aesthetic expressions available to Huli men. Levels of ownership are also highly individualised, and a great deal of choice is involved as to what degree of wealth any individual Huli male wishes to aspire. Material choice is certainly made possible by the existence of material abundance, which is the most salient characteristic of the Ipomoean revolution.

The objectification of this material abundance leaves little room for material nature to be comprehended as an idealised, mindful presence. Nature itself becomes the product of human labour and this labour is at the core of a Huli historical narrative. During a dispute over land, when this history is contested, a singular truth (henene) exists that has its basis in the singularity of the historical narrative of the land. Humans are able to lie, but the land is not. The ultimate record, the source (tene) of the truth, is within the land itself, and to eat the land in the context of a dispute is to consume this singular truth. The liar will then be subject to the ultimate internal contradiction, and the only possible result is sickness and death.

(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. 54-59.)

(Photo courtesy of Max Haensel of Localiiz)

  1. Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil: Towards a new foundation of dialectical materialism (London and New York: Verso, 2014), 12. []
  2. Bryant Allen, pers. comm. []
  3. Laurence. Goldman, “The Huli Iba Tiri,” in Fluid Ontologies: Myth, Ritual and Philosophy in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, 96-7. []
  4. Lit. “land history”, a proscribed and stylised speech genre used to assert claims in relation to land disputes. Described in detail in Chapter 4 of Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes. []
  5. Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.”Vol. 1, p. 95. []
  6. Shininess (yomo) is highly regarded as a signifier of health and vitality and appears in spells (see Chapter 4). []

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