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 borders of Hela are defined and expressed by the landscape as much as these geographical boundaries are expressed in spiritual and cosmological beliefs and practices. The southern region of Hela, 1 near where the majority of my fieldwork was conducted, changes radically both socially and ecologically either side of the Haliago range. Travelling from the Komo or Mananda side over and down to Duguba on the Bosavi side formerly involved a set of ritual practices that recognised the transition into different territory. For those travelling to the Bosavi side for the first time their experienced companions would play a set of tricks on them for the express purpose of preventing malaria. During the long, steep ascent up the mountain the newcomer was made to carry heavy stones in his bilum that would be used to cook sago in the fire at the Duguba village on the other side. The first time travellers were told that the Duguba only have sago to eat, but not the stones to cook the sago the Huli way buried in the ground. Once they had ascended to the peak and before the long descent to the Bosavi side the newcomer was told to tip the stones out of his bilum and continue on. “Why did you make me carry these stones?” he would ask. No reason, just to take them to the top, we don’t need them anymore. The enraged traveller had thus been given a serve of moregogo. At one point along the journey there was a small cave. The newcomer was instructed to crawl through the cave only to be whipped with sticks when he emerged from the other side. I recorded Maga Arawi at Mananda while he described entering the Duguba village:

Now the Dugubas are going to have a huge house made out of sago leaves. It’s a very big tall and long buildings where all the villagers live in that house. We don’t have that sort of house in Huli area but it is your first time to go so to show you that big building they have to do some magic. So if I’m taking him down with a group of men… I will tell him I’ve got an enemy down there, I’ve got some outstanding feud or some credit to be owed so we have to be careful. So I’m not telling a true story but … so we go and when we come close to the village with the big building one of our men go first without letting him know. Go first to the people living and that big house and he go in there and tell them I’ve got a new person coming so we are to trick him. So he make a plan with the Duguba men there, then he comes back and join them and they start walking. So they repeatedly remind that guy that I’ve got an enemy there so we’ve got to be careful. And then we go into the big area … and then all the village people they rush out and shout and say ‘you’ve got credit with me, you have to give me your payback.’ And everyone in that house, big building they come out and shout and they start not really fighting but they hit each other and they run everywhere and get bow and arrow and start shooting, pretending. And that new fellow he is very scared, he is very afraid. He doesn’t know what to do, everybody is running here and there. And then when [too much noise from the rain]. That’s part of moregogo…. they trick him and take him down and finally they show him the big building.

They are in the village now. This is his first time so he hasn’t seen the tree where they get the tree oil. 2 Malipudiwa 3 is a poison snake and it kills people. So then they trick him say the malipudiwa is there so you have to be careful. You have to look back, forward, side, you have to be very careful. So they take him down towards the oil tree where they get the oil. As they walk through the bush, of course when you go down to Duguba there are a lot of leeches. They bite you and then you have got a lot of blood coming out. So one of the men from this group he went ahead and got the blood from his leg where the leech had eaten him, get the blood and put it through his nose, rub it around the mouth. And then he can pretend that he is dead, he lies right across the track. And the others are telling him to be careful because there is a poison snake that is going to kill us. Make him very scared and then as they come across to the pretending dead man with the blood everywhere in his nose, mouth, ear and then they come across him and say “oh the poison snake has killed him, he is dead.” So the newcomer is very scared. He sees that he has got blood everywhere… and they said the poison snake, the black Papuan snake has bitten him and what are we going to do? He is dead. There are not enough people here, how are we going to carry him? He is dead. Then finally they take him down and show him the oil tree. And when he is very scared and very frightened the man got up and laughed and smiled and shout at him and say oh look at this tree, it’s an oil tree. And he gets very annoyed and very angry. So in that way he will not get malaria. 4

Here I am interested in exploring the idea of boundary. A salient component of the Hela concept is its all-encompassment, a component that is not the result of post- contact influence, but has been vindicated and given new forms of impetus by the extraction of vast wealth from the land in the form of natural gas. Just as clear are the markers of difference between Huli and Duguba lands to the south: malaria, sago, forms of sorcery, cannibalism; are the connections and interactions between these neighbours and the creative cosmopolitanism that has existed among these border groups. In addition to this being of some interest in its own right, the behaviour of people in border zones, I would argue, greatly influences the historical development of societies that are, in cultural terms, more centrally located. In other words, the social characteristics of border zones greatly influence the migratory patterns, movement of traded goods, beliefs, and for Huli society an incredibly complex history of residence and descent that does much to characterise Huli identity to the present day. Interactions between Huli and Etolo communities was extensive and to a large extent governed by patterns of trade. These trading patterns were susceptible to material demand that was, to an important extent, generated culturally. Furthermore, the logic of trade, I would argue, means that all participant groups across the highlands tended to regard themselves as intermediaries. Just as Huli mediated between Obena, Duna, and Duguba flows of trade, Etolo mediated between Huli and Onabasulu, who themselves played the role of “middleman”. 5 Ethnographers cannot help but form centric views of their subjects, and in doing so it is tempting to highlight any centralised role that their particular group plays in any regional trading network. But it may be more accurate to view highlands trade as a network without a centre within which specific groups act as nodes of trading flow. Furthermore, patterns of trade are highly fluid and changeable; susceptible to outbreaks of warfare, individual grievances, outbreaks of disease, climactic events, etc. In other words, trade is an historical phenomenon as much as it is based on cultural, cosmological, and material demand.

Changes to Huli-Etolo-Bedamini-Onabasulu trade brought about by the influence of the Australian colonial administration have been described by Raymond Kelly. 6 From 1953 onwards the administration began to introduce large quantities of steel axes as well as cowrie shells and mother of pearl to the Huli population. For Etolo this had the effect of transforming the types of objects used in bridewealth transactions, as well as establishing Huli as the main source of supply for shells and steel. As stated in Chapter 3, the desire generated for new materials, and steel axes in particular was rapid, with an elderly Huli man quoted by W.D. Wren in 1953 saying, “We look up at the aircraft flying overhead and call out to them to drop us axes.” 7 It is reasonable to distinguish between two types of change that occur in accordance with quasi-Cartesian notions of the material and the ideal. Material change interacts with desire that responds rapidly, resulting in new trading relationships, shifts in centres of wealth and influence, and changes in patterns of warfare and migration. But other types of change involving systems of belief that are included under the labels of “ontology”, “cosmology”, and even “culture”, can be regarded as forms of consciousness that give meaning to the material world, and when that materiality changes those forms of consciousness respond in profoundly different ways. Both types of change involve realignment, reimagining, reinventing, and the creation of the entirely new; and both types of change also involve loss.

(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. 322-327.)

  1. The present political border of Hela province extends further south to include part of the Mt Bosavi Rural LLG. []
  2. Oil from the Tigaso tree, Campnosperma. []
  3. Pseudechis papuanus, Papuan Black Snake []
  4. This does beg the question as to whether this ordeal amounts to lifelong protection against malaria, as moregogo can obviously only be experienced once. []
  5. Raymond Kelly, Constructing Inequality: The Fabrication of a Hierarchy of Virtue among the Etoro, 380; Etoro Social Structure: A Study in Structural Contradiction, 14. []
  6. Raymond Kelly, Constructing Inequality: The Fabrication of a Hierarchy of Virtue among the Etoro, 379-80. []
  7. E.D. Wren, “Lake Kutubu Patrol Report No. 11 1952/53” (no page number shown). []