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. 

In stark contrast to other parts of the Papua New Guinea highlands, Huli killings as reprisal for sorcery acts are unheard of. Sorcery itself is rarely mentioned, expect in the context of obtaining assistance in existing armed conflicts. Huli have always believed in the sorcery of their neighbours, and the sorcery of their neighbours is sometimes purchased, but its practice is largely considered to be culturally foreign. Perhaps most surprisingly the deployment of sorcery forms has declined among Huli since the colonial period, rather than increased as it has in other areas. Most of the forms and practice of sorcery as described by Robert Glasse during the 1950s are today not ethnographically available. Even so, Goldman’s careful analysis of the range of Huli sorcery beliefs indicate that pre-contact Huli “were not … a sorcery-conscious society.” 1 My observations accord with those of Goldman made during the 1970s in that “there is no systematic routing out, or identification … of sorcerers or witches”, and sorcery tends to feature as a causal explanation for death “only in the circumstances of war, or of some perpetual enmity between kin groups or units.” 2 In comparing the relative absence of sorcery in several highlands societies with the opposite experience of many lowland societies, Goldman eschews any attempt to explain this difference due to lack of data and information. 2 I argue, however, that the preference for non-idealist models of causation, the acceptance of genuine accident as explanation for injury or death, and the embrace of doubt as to the causes of sickness are all indicators of a pre- contact Huli materialist conception of nature that does not offer ontological support for the practice of sorcery and witchcraft as it is understood in most other parts of PNG.

In 2009 I encountered a keeper of ritual stones (a liru ali, see Chapter 4) and I was given a brief description of toro sorcery where special, powerful stones are used to inflict injury and death upon one’s enemies. Toro sorcery, as it was practiced during the 1950s, is given a detailed description by Robert Glasse. 3 Like Glasse I was told that the power of the stones is projected towards an enemy, or enemies, in my case by holding a stone and making a thrusting gesture in the required direction. This power is only able to be utilised after a great deal of ritual and expense and this type of sorcery is only used in situations where more conventional means, such as shooting someone, are too difficult to employ. Crucially, Glasse reveals the belief that actual physical particles are emitted from the stones when they are used. These particles are even said to “make a ‘buzzing’ sound”. 4 Sorcery is conceived as something as materially real as the shooting of an arrow or a gun.

Care must be taken to navigate the difference between belief and practice. Huli have a strong predilection, via a language of causation, for naturalistic explanations of cause and effect. Yet there still exists a belief in the magic of other cultural groups. In Tari I interviewed a fight leader who travelled down to the Papuan Plateau to purchase a (very expensive) form of protective magic to assist him in his fights. He had taken the rib bone of his dead brother who was killed during a fight and took it to a well- known practitioner of magic. The magician then painted the bone, “did some magics over the bone”, and the man was then required to wear the rib bone around his chest so that it covered his heart and protected him from bullets. This modern form of war magic, as with more traditional forms, involves the application of intent via the manipulation of specific materials and the use of spells. The materiality of spells is described in Chapter 5, but in the case of war magic and sorcery the materiality of intent is also an important concept. Protective magic and sorcery, now as in the past, does not come cheap and the expense is representative of the value of its material impact. This material value of sorcery differentiates it from perceptions of witchcraft where the uncanny ability to inflict harm comes at no expense, and practitioners, very often women, are singled out and persecuted for their abilities. For Huli, sorcery exists very much in the material realm and lacks the uncanniness that results in the horrified and horrifying response of torture and immolation seen in other parts of PNG. There are no Huli witches because the material output of sorcery is counterbalanced by the material input of the sorcerer. In the thermodynamics of Huli sorcery every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

For Huli, sorcery is deployed because of its use-value. Violent conflict in Huli tends to be specifically directed towards particular individuals in relation to particular issues. This is in spite of the seemingly random appearance of wide-scale destruction of property and assassination. I was able to witness gun fights and even film the attempted murder of an individual by gun as an untargeted bystander. A recent example involves the reporting of approximately 400 Huli fighters marching through Tari on their way to attack their enemies. 5 The group was stopped by a much smaller number of police and military, one of whom stated, “They actually asked if we could let them pass through to fight their enemies … We refused. We told them that we could not let them put government property and lives at risk. They were heavily armed.” Asking the permission of authorities to attack your enemies is a classic example of the compartmentalisation of Huli conflict. The authorities themselves were not party to the conflict, and therefore had no role as targets. Conflict is conducted within the context of reasoned purpose and the involvement of sorcery is also directed towards material ends. Sickness or accident is not generally comprehended in terms of sorcery because there is no identifiable purpose to such random events. Events can occur naturalistically, without the presence of mindful intent. The Huli response to sorcery is strongly characterised by Huli materialism.

(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. 59-62)

  1. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 311. []
  2. Ibid. [][]
  3. Robert Glasse, Huli of Papua: A Cognatic Descent System, 101-104. []
  4. Ibid., 102 []
  5. Scott Waide, “Tari Update: 7 Deaths, up to 100 Houses Burned, Quake Relief Suspended,” EMTV online, suspended/. []