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.

Much has been written on the “uncompromising ideology of [female] pollution” that previously pervaded “all contexts of Huli behaviour”. 1 This ideology has rapidly dissipated over the past few decades, and among the younger generations has by now effectively vanished. Very little, however, has been uncovered about the expression of sentiment between Huli men and women prior to the influence of missionaries, especially from the female point of view. 2 This feature of Huli cultural expression was not overlooked by Jim Taylor, who described the playing of the bamboo pan pipes: “They blew gently upon them and mournful notes, like wind in the trees, came forth.

This primitive music was tuneful, but sad to listen to. “A man will play them … when a girl he loves marries another.”” 3 Love songs, such as the one described above, were traditionally performed in the daweanda, which was a place where men and women were able to meet and court. 4 It should be pointed out that the purpose of the daweanda was for married men to find an additional wife, and unmarried men were not permitted inside. 5 A special status was accorded to the first marriages of men and women, with various rites performed to prepare both for their new lives as married people. Men, for their first wife, would receive assistance in raising the bride price, however any subsequent marriage was much more the husband’s responsibility. Additional wives were, and still are, considered in terms of the accumulation of wealth and prestige, as men are expected to provide enough land for each wife to live, garden, and raise children. First marriages represented a coming of age, the transition into adulthood, and the adoption of behavioural codes necessary to prevent the pollution of men by their wives. 6

In Tari I had the privilege of being shown a demonstration of two female gamu rites for the purpose of preparing a young woman for marriage. Nothing has been published about these rites, and their content reveals much about female Huli views of marriage and aspirations about the possibilities of married life.

Dagia can be literally translated as “adzed wooden sleeping platform”. However, the word can be used idiomatically in the sense of say a political platform. 7 A dagia gamu is therefore a spell to make the recipient visible and noticeable, and for the purpose of attracting a husband, irresistible and exclusive. The above video contains two spells, the first involves the cutting of a tanget leaf while reciting the dagia gamu, and the second is a form of tingi gamu, (body gamu), that prepares a woman for marriage and the burden of childbirth. The dagia text is as follows.

Ega urubugawe de he
Eye of the Papuan Lorikeet
Wena mbira de he
Eye of [unidentified] fish
Tomo yomo nu wero
For a shiny body I am cutting and placing there
For the thighs Bayuyne he For the calves Ba du anda For the house Miliya Giliya
[an insect similar to a grasshopper]
Doma Doma nu wero I put it for the sun Iba hawi de nde
Eye of hawi fish Iba hawi wena Hawi fish
Ba labo to mo wero
For both thighs I am cutting and placing there
Aberaba to mo wero
For the legs I am cutting and placing there
Kuabene to mo wero
For the ribs I am cutting and placing there
Baragua 8 to mo wero
For the breast I am cutting and placing there
[Applies red paint]

Euralia, who is narrating in the background of the video, explained as follows:

You will have one red tanget leaf, one Ginger leaf. The girl does that so that her boyfriend will not leave her, will really marry her. So she really loves that boy that she does that and he will not forget her. So while they are saying the gamu the words they use like they go to cut the boy’s heart. Like saying his name and cutting his heart with this and cutting this… [cutting the tanget leaf with a bamboo knife] and then they say some gamu words to this one, this thing. And then they call the boy’s name and say just really cutting his heart to love her or something. While they are doing that if it is really that boy is meant for her then they will have these parrots. This one species. 9 Those parrots that has green, red, yellow feathers. This one is a nice one that really sings. So when that bird comes along they believe that it’s true, she is succeeding in what she is doing. And the boy is going to really love her and marry her.

The Papuan Lorikeet (urubu ngawe) is regarded in many contexts as an “omen bird”. 7 It is symbolic of beauty (both in appearance and for its song), and also purity. The spell is intended to have the effect of a love potion, and expresses a desire for genuine affection to be realised between husband and wife. In the context of intense belief in the importance of male-female separation, and the high value that Huli males place on the ownership of multiple wives, these affectionate aspects of Huli cultural expression have largely gone unnoticed. The second part of the video is the gamu to strengthen the body in preparation for childbirth. Names of body parts are called while being slapped or rubbed. A transcription is given below.

grass skirt house (for legs)
house for your bum
house for your belly Ge hendeni attraction for toes Ba hendeni
attraction for inner thighs
Are andani
attraction for stomach
Hinuwai tongaro taga haro
I’m tearing the sweet potato leaf Doma doma ibini doma lo bero I clean perfect for no mistake Ba holeneni
attraction to the waist Ape holeneni attraction to the back Guabe holeneni attraction to the thighs Bakarem
attraction to the vulva
attraction to the sides [of the lower torso]
Guaberem attraction to ribs Baraguarem attraction to breast Adogerem attraction to armpit Angerem
attraction to décolletage
Attraction to shoulder Ungulumute holeneni attraction to the face

The above transcription was cobbled together with the help of Michael Ango. My “Tari mother”, Euralia, found it very difficult to understand many of the words used in the gamu language, and what I was able to put together should not be read as gospel. As Euralia put it to me:

It’s a poetic language. So these are poetic words that sometimes are hard to describe. So the words that she said I don’t know those words. They are sort of describing the thighs and legs and bum and stomach and breast and all that in a some kind of wordings that they use for in a gamu. We speak straight forward language and in a gamu there is all poetic words. It’s hard to interpret.

The gamu uses a mixture of regular Huli words, praise names, and perhaps words that are simply rarely used. The gamu describes the woman basically from toe to head, which I was told follows the natural gaze of the man who will begin by averting his eyes downwards only to catch sight of her toes and then follow up the rest of her body. Describing a person from head to toe is a feature of spells used by women in times of war (see Chapter 6). The saying of the other’s body has material consequences for that body akin to the verbal equivalent of a voodoo doll.

The sentiments expressed in the female marriage spells and also the songs of the love-sick man tell of a society where men and women are prone to falling in love and are desirous of the affection and companionship that may be ideally attained in the union of marriage. These sentiments are a far cry from what has commonly been observed at the surface of a Huli society that is dominated by polygenous unions and a culture of male-female apartheid that is based on an ideology of female pollution. Huli does not have a word that would directly translate as “love,” and there is very little by way of a vocabulary for affection and sentiment. 7 Huli use hame, which means affection and desire. These emotions are expressed allegorically and metaphorically via the multiple layers of meaning contained in references to the externalised objects of the natural world. Even the mention of a species of plant specific to a person’s land is enough to arouse the tender feelings of sentimental refrain. Aside from its deployment for more utilitarian purposes such as dispute resolution, or negotiations over compensation, the Huli language is well-equipped for the important role of maintaining “phatic communion” 10 through storytelling, song, and rhetoric. Fundamental to these Huli modes of expression is a materialism that permits a dualist interplay of humans and nature that allows for the production of nature as an “autonomous” object. 11 Huli gamu spells rely on the belief that “saying gives material reality to words” 12 so that humans are able to affect their agency upon a constructed notion of nature. This same nature, that can be held aloft and observed objectively, has parallels in the development of new perspectives for the pictorial representation of nature throughout Europe during the 15th century where “the possibility of the kind of confrontation between the individual and nature that was to become characteristic of modern ideology” 13 is also evident in a Huli dualism of minale and mana. Minale is the realm of things that happen by themselves independently of human existence, and mana is the realm of human behaviour and agency that may be applied to an externalised nature in an effort to control its behaviour. This externalised nature can also be used as a source for the rhetorical content required for the expression of emotion and desire.

(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. 191-199.)

  1. Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 10. []
  2. Holly Wardlow has written extensively on the topic of love and romantic sentiment between Huli men and women in the modern context, however very little has been uncovered about romantic love among Huli prior to the influence of Western modernity. []
  3. James S. Taylor, “Hagen-Sepik Patrol Report,” in Papers and photographs of Jim Taylor, 174. []
  4. Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 63. Daweanda literally means “song house”. []
  5. As explained to me by Barbara Hutton, who, along with her husband John Hutton, were the first missionaries to enter Tari in the early 1950s. []
  6. An ideology of pollution is still apparent among older women in Huli society. For example, I observed women avoid stepping over firewood as it protrudes from the fireplace lest the food that is being cooked on the fire becomes contaminated. []
  7. Laurence Goldman, pers. comm. [][][]
  8. Baragua appears to be a praise name for andu, “breast” []
  9. Papuan Lorikeet []
  10. G Lomas, “The Huli Language of Papua New Guinea” (Unpublished PhD thesis, Macquarie University, 1988), 17. []
  11. Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, 60. []
  12. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 149. []
  13. Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, 59-60. []