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.

Catastrophic events such as earthquakes, drought, or disease epidemics have been recurrent throughout Huli historical memory and were traditionally responded to via the deployment of ritual involving many clans from across the Huli Hela universe. 1 These dindi gamu rituals were exceedingly varied and complex and have been variously described by previous researchers. 2 Importantly for the concerns of this thesis is the existence of a system of ritual that sought to deal with catastrophe via the act of speech in association with performance. The intended efficacy of dindi gamu was expressed in terms of “making the land straight” (dindi bebe), or “making the land right” (dindi gini). 3 Earthquakes (dindi dumbirumbi) had both a mythological, pre-modern human understanding, and a cosmological interpretation when experienced in the present. The earthquake described by Allan Ango in the prologue is rendered as a pre-human dama spirit who formed the earth. Earthquakes variously feature in tene té myths that relate to the origin of the earth. 4 Earthquakes were also commonly explained in terms of a giant pig tethered to a python that runs underground the extent of Huli territory where the scratching of the pig and subsequent tugging of the python’s tail causes the ground to shake. 5 A strong earthquake was experienced by the Hagen-Sepik patrol while they were in Hoyebia during the night of 14th May, 1938. Taylor recorded the local explanation in terms of “a giant pig in the nether world straining at his tether.” 6 Severe, catastrophic earthquakes were interpreted in terms of mbingi and responded to by the organisation of the large-scale dindi gamu ritual. The response to the earthquake of 26 February 2018 has been a violent mixture of confusion and chaos in a social environment where any form of centralised, coordinated response, from either state, company or society, simply does not exist.

The initial response to the earthquake was a widespread belief that it had been caused by the operations of the PNG LNG project. This belief had both a mythological and scientific basis and the two are not easily separated. That an earthquake should occur of such magnitude that it caused severe damage to project infrastructure as well as large areas of the PNG highlands, killing many and leaving many more in desperate need of assistance, was perfectly in line with the doomsday scenario that accompanied the Lai Tebo prophecy, as well as a more generalised entropic perspective of a world in constant decline. Many landowners as well as people across PNG and in the global activist community believed that the act of gas extraction had caused the tectonic activity that resulted in the earthquake. This view was supported by strong evidence that the process of fracking has indeed induced earthquakes, particularly in the United States, and communicated via popular publications such as National Geographic. 7 The suspicion that the earthquake had been caused by the PNG LNG project was so strong and so widely held among business and political elites that the PNG government was moved to ask the Australian Government to conduct a review into the cause of the earthquake, which it agreed to do via the services of Geoscience Australia. 8 That an earthquake of such magnitude, displaying those characteristics, occurring at that location, came as no surprise to anyone with an understanding of the history of tectonic activity in the PNG highlands.

With the PNG LNG project shut down, the belief that the disaster had a metaphysical component was far from universal, and intense debate occurred on Huli social media networks where these views were often ridiculed. None of my Huli friends spoke to me in terms of traditional cosmology or prophecy, rather their concerns were around the inadequate response from the state and the plight of many who had been cut off from essential services. The argument that prevailed more broadly across Huli society was a debate between two material causes: was it a natural or anthropogenic phenomenon? But at the same time the disaster was imbued with the sense that there was a moral component, not attached to its cause, but to its happening. Natural phenomena, those that happen minane, or those with a direct human cause albeit lacking in mindful intent (minalu), may still be classed within a family of events that are indicative of moral decline and a general trajectory of social and physical decay. The Oil Search managing director Peter Botten was quoted as saying that the perception of an anthropogenic cause was “a communications issue.” 9 With this he missed a crucial point: the perception of the earthquake as having an anthropogenic cause was not a communications issue, but a development issue. 10 Apart from those buried under landslides or collapsed buildings, the majority of the suffering that resulted from the earthquake could be attributed to failing or non-existent infrastructure, a lack of government capacity at the local level, an absence of government response at the national level, and the failure of the PNG LNG project to have contributed to a more developed Hela Province that would have otherwise been better placed to respond to natural disasters of any kind. Lack of development was a moral failing of both the state and the project developer. The moral failing that results in the decline of the Huli universe has therefore shifted to the state and company, but exists dialectically with the moral decline evident in the marked increase in clan warfare that has occurred since the earthquake. The earthquake and subsequent inadequacy of the response has served to entrench and magnify the experience of poverty and a perception of state neglect that has resulted in even further breakdown of social conditions.

(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. 357-360.)

  1. Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 113. []
  2. Especially Chris Ballard, “The Fire Next Time: The Conversion of the Huli Apocalypse.” []
  3. Laurence Goldman, “Talk Never Dies: an analysis of disputes among the Huli,” 76. []
  4. Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.” Vol. 1, p. 126 []
  5. Ibid. Vol. 1, p. 50 []
  6. James S. Taylor, “Hagen-Sepik Patrol Report,” in Papers and photographs of Jim Taylor, 167. []
  7. Sarah Gibbens, “How Humans Are Causing Deadly Earthquakes,” National Geographic (2017), spd/. []
  8. ABC News, “PNG earthquake: Calls for formal inquiry into cause as more aid arrives, ADF sends Globemaster packed with supplies,” (2018), into-cause-on-png-quake/9534898. []
  9. Jonathan Barrett and Henning Gloystein, “Shakes and superstition: Exxon faces backlash in Papua New Guinea,” Reuters (2018), and-superstition-exxon-faces-backlash-in-papua-new-guinea-idUSKCN1GJ12S. []
  10. Michael Main, “How PNG LNG Is Shaking Up the Earthquake,” EnviroSociety (2018), []