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.

The significance of mineral oil for Huli, like that of pearl­ shell for Wiru (Clark 1991), derived not from its material properties alone but also from its role within a broader view of the world and its cosmological underpinnings. Oil seeps were engaged as critical nodes within Huli sacred geography, in which the oil itself represented a substance crucial to the survival of the Huli universe. The notion of ‘sacred geography’ employed by ethnographers of the Huli (Frankel 1986, Goldman 1983) has been developed within Mayan ethnography to address the means by which Mayan cosmology is formally encoded in the land­scape (Gossen 1974). Mayan ritual sites, on this view, are interpreted as the geographical points of access between distinct human and sacred universes. The co­ordination of ritual over larger areas links these in­ dividual sites to form a regional sacred geography. While there is no suggestion in Huli discourse of a distinction between sacred and profane geographies, I continue to use the term ‘sacred geography’ to draw attention to the possibility of perspectives that lie outside the conven­tional oppositions between the domains of social and subsistence, or economic and cultural, and to the layers of meaning implicit in a Huli landscape that are not immediately accessible to external observers.

Although most Huli now profess Christianity and most of the former rituals are no longer performed, the extent to which this sacred geography informed the ways in which Huli conceived of their environment is reflected in the continu­ing knowledge of at least its superficial characteristics. The signal feature of Huli sacred geography was dindi pongone, literally the knot or the root of the earth (Gold­ man 1983:112, Frankel 1986:19[). The term refers equally to the presence of a sacred and largely subterranean land­ scape, and to the body of related myths and spells that constitute knowledge of this landscape. Dindi pongone is described as a root or vine which runs beneath the earth, composed of an intertwined python and cane, both bound around a fluid core of latent flame (of which one manifestation is mineral oil) and capped by a layer of stone. At a number of points, this root rises close to the surface of the earth, where the fluid core and the stone cap become visible as rivers and as gebeanda ritual sites respectively. Gebeanda (literally ‘ancestor house’) ritual sites are common to all clan territories, and were formerly the focus of fertility rituals which sought the assistance of ancestral spirits. The major gebeanda sites associated with the root of the earth have assumed a considerable regional significance and their locations are widely known. Figure 5 maps the positions of these major ritual sites and traces the paths followed between them by the root of the earth. The surface expression of these paths, in the form of a sacred river, is said to follow the beds of the visible rivers along which it runs, usually in an upriver direction. The root, in two parallel strands, is thus held to flow upstream from the tail of the python at the ritual sites of Bebealia Puni and Malaiya in the lowland south, to its head at the upland ritual sites of Tuandaga and Mbibi Baite in the north.

Figure 5

Rituals associated with the root of the earth, known as dindi gamu (‘earth spells’), expanded upon the theme of fertility familiar from rituals performed at a clan or even individual scale (Frankel 1986:154ff). In essence, dindi gamu rituals addressed the fertility of the entire universe and were performed at irregular intervals by the custodians at each site during periods of major regional stress, such as famine or earthquake. Climatic, geological and even social instability were all held to be instances of the process of entropy, of the continual decline and dissipation of fertile substance. Dindi gamu rituals took as their ‘charters’ a variety of myths in which the pro­tagonists undertake long journeys along the tracks of the root of the earth, emplacing features and establishing codes for behaviour. The performance of dindi gamu rituals then sought to recreate certain features of these myths: Bedamini and Onabasulu ritual leaders travelled from the southern sites to the central Huli sites of Gelote and Bebenite, carrying ritually prescribed items available only in the lowlands such as sago and sago grubs, tree kangaroos (Dendro/agus matschiei spadix?), bandicoots (Echymipera kalubu), rope vines, various fish, wood from certain tree species and water from specific rivers and lakes. In the sacred enclosure at the Gelote ritual site, the assembled ritual leaders would then subsist on these lowland foods for the duration of the ritual performance, imitating the actions of the founding male and female ancestors. Gelote was also the focus of a perhaps less significant dindi pongone route from the direction of the Duna (not shown in Figure 5), along which western Huli, Duna and Oksapmin participants travelled bringing pigs, Nassa shells, karuka pandanus nuts and leaves, possums (Phalanger gymnotis), stone flakes, bamboo implements and cobbles and blue clay from named sources. Subsequently, the ritual leaders at Gelote and Bebenite would conduct expeditions to the northern sites of Tuandaga and Tai Yundiga.

While the quantities in which these items were assem­bled for ritual performances appear to have been rela­tively small within the context of overall trade, the symbolic importance of the directions in which they were moved, and their presence as tokens of the ability of Huli ritual leaders to mobilize and co-ordinate production over a massive area are critical to an understanding of the relationship between regional trade and sacred geography. The role of mineral oil in dindi gamu rituals provides a key to understanding the second of these points. Containers of mineral oil from seeps in the Lebani valley in the west and from the Bebealia Puni source to the south were brought to Gelote and Bebenite where they were poured over fires said to emanate from the root of the earth. The explicit function of this and other associated rites was the replenishment with mineral oil of the dindi pongone root as the fertile core of the universe.

In its function of maintaining the earth’s fertility and in ascribing to Huli ritual leaders a central role in that function, dindi gamu placed Huli at the centre of the universe. Huli are not alone, of course, in representing themselves at the centre of their known universe, but they are unusual in terms of the extent to which they promul­gated this view of the world amongst their neighbours. Like Huli traders, ritual leaders from Gelote and Bebenite travelled widely, from Bebealia Puni to Tuandaga and Tai Yundiga, as far into Duna territory as the Strickland river (N.Modjeska pers.comm.) and, on at least one occasion in the 1920s, to the oil seeps in the Lebani valley, where they instructed the Gama landowners on the role of the seeps within the cosmological structure of dindi pongone. Amongst some Duna, at least, the centrality of the Huli in the project of maintaining the universe was taken to heart: Haley (1993) describes Duna perceptions of Huli not only as fabulously wealthy but also as the true holders of dindi gamu knowledge and as the controllers of the apocalypse of mbingi.

Although the fertility rituals of dindi gamu were regularly required and performed on a variety of scales, from the local clan level through to the region-wide performances sketched above, they were regarded ultimately as a stop-gap measure in combatting the decline of the universe. Total renewal of the land’s fertility and the restoration of full mana knowledge to people required a more drastic measure altogether, and one over which Huli ritual leaders themselves felt they had only a partial control. This event was known to Huli as mbingi, literally the ‘time of darkness’, who drew for its descrip­tion upon ancient memories of a volcanic tephra fall during the seventeenth century (Blong 1982). This historic fall of ash was regarded as a beneficial event which restored to the soil its full fertility. The longer-term goal of dindi gamu, as it was conceived by Huli ritual leaders, was to induce a controlled recurrence of mbingi and obviate the necessity for perpetual acts of incremental restoration of fertility through ritual (Frankel 1986:22, Ballard 1992). Ambivalence about the prospect of mbingi stemmed from the threat of total annihilation by a mbingi summoned not through the correct performance of dindi gamu by ritual leaders but by a failure in regional social order.

If the central role accorded to Huli ritual leaders in maintaining the fertility of the universe accounted for their ability to co-ordinate rituals on a regional scale, an external perspective suggests that the structure of that regional framework reflected the broad nature of Huli interests. Given the range of connections that might have been traced between different oil seeps and gebeanda ritual sites, the primarily north-south orientation of the major roots of the earth would appear to relate to the pattern of flow in items of regional trade. Specific injunctions issued from the sites of Gelote and Bebenite identified the separation of northern obena and southern duguba, of the head and tail of the dindi pongone snake, as a crucial component in the Huli burden of maintaining the universe. In a widely known Huli adage, the import of which is known at least to lpili and to northern Bedamini, the prospect of an uncontrolled mbingi is still posed as the consequence of obena and duguba meeting directly without the mediation of Huli:

The land will turn red, the mountains will turn red, the people will turn red. Fire will destroy everything, for these two [obena and duguba] have been placed at either end of the root of the earth (Ballard, tape transcripts).

Huli ritual leaders thus extended to their culturally unrelated neighbours to the north and south a sacred geography, a vision of the landscape and its cosmological foundations, that enshrined the central position of Huli in the regional circulation of 1deas and materials, and that ascribed to Huli the role of mediators, or dombeniali, on behalf of the universe at large. Where an external perspective might suggest that the position of the Huli basins as a centre for regional trade simply reflected the sheer weight of numbers of Huli and the ability of individual Huli to coordinate labour and wealth on a scale denied to individuals of neighbouring groups, Huli cosmology identified the relationship between Huli, the root of the earth and the sources of mineral oil as the basis for their central position. Mineral oil, in all other respects a substance of minimal value in the regional circulation of trade materials, was thus refigured through Huli cosmology and represented abroad as the key to both the continued well-being of the universe and the regional prominence of the Huli. From an external perspective again, the apocalypse envisaged by the Huli was perhaps the prospect of an eclipse of their central position in the region.

Things fall apart
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …

(Yeats, The Second Coming)

Thus far, I have focused on a particular cultural land­ scape largely as it might have appeared in the 1920s, prior to contact. This has been necessary in order to establish the relationship between the regional trade network and the structure of Huli sacred geography. While neither the trade network nor Huli sacred geography can be said ever to have been static, the changes that followed upon contact with the colonial administration in the 1930s swiftly and fundamentally transformed both ‘land­scapes’. Though small numbers of steel tools were being traded inland from the coastline of the Papuan Gulf to the south during the 1920s (Crittenden 1982:2191), they did not reach the Papuan Plateau until the early 1930s (Scheiffelin 1991:67) and were totally unknown to those Huli who first saw them carried by the Fox brothers in November 1934 (Allen and Frankel 1991). A brief efflores­cence of trade in pearl shells and steel goods into limited parts of the Highlands along the existing trade routes from the south during the 1920s and early 1930s was reversed following the establishment by the colonial administration of base camps at Mt Hagen in the Wahgi valley in 1933 and at Lake Kutubu in 1936. Hughes (1978) has described the dramatic effects upon central Highlands trade systems to the east of the Huli of the use by Euro­ pean miners, missionaries and administrators of steel and shell in payment for labour and land, in which the massive influx of pearl shell from 1933, flown into Mt Hagen in crates, led swiftly to a localised devaluation of pearl shell as the dominant item of wealth.

Some of this material reached the Huli during the late 1930s and early 1940s, either directly as payment for assistance and food, from the handful of administration patrols that passed through Huli territory during that period or along the existing regional trade routes from the east. But the volume of this trade in colonial goods appears to have been small. Certainly steel axes were not widely available amongst Huli until the establishment of the permanent administrative post at Tari in 1952 and fringe Huli communities and Huli neighbours to the south and west were still described as poor in steel axes into the 1960s. The choice of Tari as a regional base for the colonial administration was an obvious one both for the administration, given its suitability for an airstrip and the density of the local population and, one suspects, for the Huli, for whom the selection of Tari as the primary local conduit for the new trade goods, and of the Huli as carriers and interpreters for government patrols out of Tari seemingly confirmed the cosmologically ordained centrality of the Huli.

Two major developments in regional trade during the colonial period between 1952 and 1972 were local reversals in the existing flow of material and the exploitation by Huli and other Highlands traders of conditions under the Pax Australiana to trade directly with communities at the source of desired trade items. Shell and steel trade goods flown into Tari were circulated to Duna, Oksapmin, Hewa and the Papuan Plateau communities. This novel move­ ment of steel tools and shells out of the Highlands and down to the Papuan Plateau completely refigured the trade landscape within the latter region. Where the Etoro had formerly received axes largely from the Honibo and trans-Strickland sources via the Bedamini to their west, their needs were now met by trade with Huli; more importantly for the Etoro and Onabasulu, a longterm process of conversion from dog’s teeth to pearlshell as the primary valuable used locally in bridewealth, compen­ sation and mortuary exchanges saw the Huli emerge as the pre-eminent source of these vital goods (Kelly 1977: 11,13, Ernst 1984:92). The administration prohibition on warfare also enabled Huli traders literally to bypass the Etoro, Onabasulu and Kaluli and trade direct with southern Bedamini and Kasua for such items as casso­ wary bone and feathers and tree oil. But if central Huli in the immediate Tari area briefly enjoyed an enhanced colonial role as traders, mediat­ing new wealth and ideas, their more recent, post­ Independence fortunes have appeared increasingly volatile.

The 1988 alluvial goldrush at Mt. Kare near the Tai Yundiga ritual site, the opening of the goldmine at Porgera in 1990 and the discovery of oil and gas at Lake Kutubu and at the Hides well west of Komo have ushered in a new resource geography ringing Huli territory, a novel trade landscape which Huli have interpreted in the light of their sacred geography (Clark 1993, Ballard 1992), but over which they enjoy none of their former powers of interpretation, mediation and control. A new line of power, a snake of electricity pylons, extends along the track of the root of the earth, from the generators at the Hides well near the Bebealia Puni ritual site, up past the ritual site of Tai Yundiga and down to the mine at Porgera. Though they ‘eat’ the rent paid for the pylons, Huli are keenly aware that the means to wealth on an altogether grander scale is passing over their heads. The head and tail of the python are now linked and obena and duguba mix freely amongst the labour forces at the new sites of power. If the universe itself has not ended, the landscapes of trade and ritual which positioned the Huli at its centre have been irrevocably transformed.

Archaeological implications

By employing ethnographic methods to address the broader contexts for the social landscapes of trade and ritual, I have tried to suggest that Huli-speakers have historically sustained their central role in a regional system of trade by exporting to their neighbours a particu­lar way of looking at the land. The promise of a social landscape approach lies in the scope it offers for working with a series of overlapping constructs, different land­scapes of meaning that address a variety of perspectives. Thus the juxtaposition of a conventional resource geogra­phy with Huli sacred geography provides insights into both the cosmological embeddedness of trade and exchange, and the strategic interests at play in the regional organisation of ritual. Neither perspective, shorn of the other, so enriches our understanding of the complexity of the social processes involved. This, in turn, renders problematic the separation of Huli economy and ritual. When Jones and White (1988:84) conclude that an archaeological approach to the Ngilipitji quarry that was ignorant and unenquiring of the social contexts for the site could yield only ‘an impoverished history’, I take them to be referring to a conventional archaeology wedded to an ecological model of trade. How then are we to bring the insights of an archaeological ethnography to bear on the design of archaeological research?

It should be stressed that an archaeological or historical approach to ethnography that employs oral history, myth and genealogies is an important form of enquiry in its own right. Nevertheless, the possibility of extending to the deeper past insights developed through an understanding of the ethnographic past hinges upon our ability as archaeologists to model the complexity of social process ‘visible’ ethnographically at a scale and in such a relation to material residues as to be accessible to conventional archaeological methods.

European archaeologists, endowed with an enviable wealth of archaeological evidence, have recently begun to address questions of social process by focusing on ‘ritual landscapes’ (Barrett 1994, Patton 1993, Thomas 1993, Whitehouse 1992). A common feature of much of this work is an emphasis on the relationship between the development of fixed, often monumental ritual sites and fluctuations in the circulation of exotic trade items such as stone axe blades. There is no prospect in the immediate future of the breadth of archaeological material necessary for such interpretation becoming available in the Papua New Guinea Highlands. Nor, on the evidence presented here, could we expect a focus on durable trade items to provide more than the barest indication of the process of regional trade, let alone the relationships between trade and ritual, documented ethnographically. Of the various material items of trade described above, only small quantities of shell, bone, ochre, and axe blades or blade fragments have been recovered from excavations in the Huli, Duna and lpili regions (White 1974, Mangi 1988, Ballard 1994). On this evidence alone, the Huli region would appear relatively impoverished and any sense of the position of Huli-speakers and the Huli basins in the regional circulation of materials and ideas would be lost to us.

Two other means of direct archaeological access to the social landscapes described ethnographically include excavation at the central locations of trade and ritual: the fixed sources for materials such as axe blades, salt and ochre, and the gebeanda ritual sites along the root of the earth. Burton’s (1984) excavations at the Wahgi and Jimi valley axe quarries have already demonstrated the value of such a direct approach for establishing both a chronology of production and the sense of regional development implied in the initiation of quarrying and in changes in quarry output. Studies of ochre and salt production which emulated Burton’s strategy would be of consider­ able value in providing some idea of the temporal depth of regional trade in these materials, though probably less rewarding than the analysis of stone quarries due to the ephemeral nature of the production processes involved. The sensitivity still surrounding the gebeanda ritual centres virtually precludes the possibility of excavations at these sites; the more pressing need is to map the major gebeanda while those former ritual officiants who are still alive can accurately locate and describe the functions of these sites. The various direct approaches to past trade and ritual landscapes of the Huli region thus offer no immediately practicable means of access.

One possible solution has already been identified by White (1985), in addressing the problem of the genesis in the Highlands region of social formations characterised by ‘Big-Man’ leadership. Finding it difficult enough to distinguish Big-Men in strictly material terms in the ethnographic record, White concluded that there could be little scope for their direct identification in the archaeo­logical record. Instead, drawing his inspiration from David Clarke, White proposed that the ‘greater predict­ ability at more inclusive levels of analysis’ (1985:59) might allow the identification of broader changes indicating the emergence of social complexity on a scale comparable to that associated ethnographically with Big-Men. I con­clude with no more than a brief sketch of one possible solution along these lines that might provide archaeo­logical access to the issues raised in this paper.

Throughout the ethnographic descriptions of trade and ritual presented here, pigs appear as a significant material nexus between Huli cosmology and the landscapes of trade and ritual performance: as the primary valuables in all Huli exchange, as the mediatory ‘currency’ through which the benefits derived from regional trade were redirected towards local strategic goals, and as the principal material trace of the historic development from ritual exchange with dead ancestors to ceremonial exchange with living rivals. Again, there is little prospect of identifying changes in the practice of pig production through such direct means as the excavation of pig bone from cave or rockshelter sites. However, in the Huli region, the management of increasing numbers of pigs within the most productive of local agricultural environ­ments produced a response that has left a formidable archaeological signature: deeply ditched pig drove ways that transect the basins, enabling the movement of pig herds between their stalls and forage grounds while securing the surrounding gardens from unwelcome in­ egress (Ballard 1994). The excavation and dating of these features is potentially the most rewarding means of providing a chronological understanding of the intensifi­cation of Huli pig production, linking the landscapes of trade and ritual with the historical development of Huli sacred geography.

I am indebted to the people of the Southern Highlands and Enga Provinces of Papua New Guinea who have worked with me in the course of my research, and in particular to Aluya Mabira and David Hawiya. I thank the former Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University for financial support. I am grateful also to the Provincial Government of Southern Highlands Province, the National Research Institute of Papua New Guinea, the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea, and the University of Papua New Guinea for their per­ mission and support for my research. In the course of preparing this paper I have benefited greatly from the advice and assistance of Brigid Ballard, Jeffrey Clark, Isabel McBryde, Paul Sillitoe, Polly Wiessner and the editors of this issue, none of whom are responsible for its final form. The insight and comments of Robin Hide have been particularly valuable. I would also like to thank Nicole Haley, Frances lngemann, Isabel McBryde, Jo Mangi, Nie Modjeska and Paul Sillitoe for their permission to cite unpublished material.


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