by Gabriel Lomas

(An extract from The Huli Language of Papua New Guinea. A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the School of English and Linguistics. MacQuarrie University, 1988., pp. 8-18.)


The land in which the Huli people dwell is one of contrasting scenery, notable for its rugged mountain ranges and fertile, swampy valleys. The rivers that drain the area are subterranean in sections, and there are numerous caves and potholes in the limestone rock formations. In places the rivers run swiftly through deep gorges, while elsewhere they take a less hurried course through swamplands in the wide, expansive intermontane basins. The slopes of all but the tallest of the highest mountains are covered in dense rainforests, with here and there an outcrop of white limestone cliff or a patch of light green swordgrass.

The rainforests provide timber, vine and bamboo for the construction of dwellings and the crafting of artifacts, while pandanus palms in the high bush yield crops of nuts, rich in protein and harvested each year. Small game animals, such as pigs, possums and cassowaries, also provide a source of protein, and are hunted for their pelts and feathers. There are areas of volcanic soil, ideal for the cultivation of sweet-potato, which is the staple diet. Other arable land is to be found in the higher parts of swamps – like the areas around their edges – and on mountain knolls and the smaller high plateau where people plant their gardens and husband their pigs.

The success of Huli subsistence economy is linked to the climatic conditions, and although these are sub-tropical, the average annual rainfall is high. Persistent and heavy rain always brings the threat of flooding and crop damage, while periods of drought can cause frost to occur in the higher regions.

Some people live at heights as great as 2,000 metres above sea-level, while others dwell in the deeper mountain valleys and in the lower areas of the central cordillera at altitudes of only 1,000 metres. Consequently, temperatures across Huli country can vary greatly, although the main body of the population in the Wabia-Lumulumu-Burani-Goloba region – enjoys a daily temperature of about 20°C and an average nightly temperature of around 10°C. This temperate climate persists throughout the year, with no seasonal variations.

The climate, the rugged terrain, the flora and fauna: all these are important environmental factors in Huli life. They are constant referents in Huli poetical expressions (cf Pugh-Kitigan 1975: 191), and especially in Huli music, which is an extension of speech (Peters 1975: 53) and functions as a significant form of communication, both phatic and ritual. Environmental factors are also determinants in Huli structural and behavioural patterns, and Huli technology and ideology.


The complicated account of Huli beliefs given in Glasse 1965 is based on data he gathered in Hoyabia, near Lumulumu. Since his day, others have queried his findings (e.g. Goldman 1983; Frankel 1986), especially in regard to his main claim: that the Huli descent system is cognatic. It is certainly true that Glasse’s view was limited by his being unable at the time of his fieldwork to move freely in and out of what was then restricted territory, but subsequent studies have also been based on data gathered in particular communities, not from the wider, more general Huli population. Barnes has said that ‘Huli institutions are likely to remain analytically controversial’ (Glasse 1968: 4), and while this might be true, some aspects of Huli culture identified by Glasse are widely held or known. I will describe these briefly, adding observations of my own.

2.2.1 dama These are a loose hierarchy of supra-human beings that inhabit the sky, rivers and water holes, caves and dense bushlands, and especially the higher reaches of the mountains. They control the climate and the land, and affect fertility in both soil and livestock. They can cause a variety of sicknesses and misfortunes in humans, including death, and are constantly and capriciously active in human affairs. The originating dama of the Huli and their neighbours are generally less malevolent than others, and all dama can to some extent be placated and persuaded to desist from causing harm. Sometimes they can be tricked or warded off, and it is even possible to manipulate some of them and harness the powers that they possess (cf Glasse 1965: 33T37).

2.2.3 dinini Less powerful than dama, but still more powerful than humans are the dinini or ghosts of the dead. These, too, are active in human affairs, male ghosts being benevolent and protective towards their descendants, while female ghosts are invariably spiteful and malevolent to all except their own offspring. Some dinini have wandered in from other places and taken up their abode in Huli territory, and these may be looked upon as having almost the status of dama. dinini cannot be appeased, only tricked or thwarted by the use of strategies more powerful than theirs (cf Glasse 1965: 29-32).

2.2.4 tomia This is a general term for power that is not necessarily attached to dama or dinini but can reside in some material objects •? such as stones – or be generated by certain religious formulae called gamu. It can cause sickness or death, either accidentally or through human manipulations (cf Glasse 1968: 105^106).

2.2.5 wali This is the Huli word for ‘woman’ or ‘women1, who are all regarded as being unwittingly endowed with tomia, especially potent in their menstrual blood. They are seen as being a baleful influence on and a potential source of danger to men. On occasions they may consciously use their powers to cause harm (cf Glasse 1968: 106), and men have to learn ritual strategies to guard themselves against them.


Having looked at some salient aspects of Huli ideology, we shall now consider in outline Huli social structures. It is convenient to examine these under the classification labels ‘hereditary’ and ‘non-hereditary’, although there is some overlap between these categories.

2.3.1 Hereditary Social Structures hamigini This is a social group with residential rights within a defined territory. Membership is reckoned in terms of descent •? cognatic according to Glasse 1968, agnatic according to Frankel 1986. Whatever the case, membership is established by being able to trace ones ancestors back through many generations, and thus demonstrate onefe claim to identity with the group. The Huli term hamigini is equivalent to what Glasse calls a ‘parish’ (Glasse 1968: 23-24), while his term ‘parish section’ equates with the Huli hamigini emene. hamigini emene This is a unit residing within and owning a portion of the territory occupied by a hamigini. At this point it will help to clarify matters if I start to call a hamigini a clan and a hamigini emene a subclan, always bearing in mind that for the purposes of this study the terms ‘clan’ and ‘subclan’ take their definitions from the Huli terms to which they have been made to correspond. Subclans are autonomous and are the basic social units of Huli society, making war, initiating peace and paying indemnities without obligations to consult the rest of the clan (cf Glasse 1968: 24). Claims to membership and to territorial rights are based on a person’s being able to establish descent from the founder of the subclan, or relationship with a subclan member. Affines also become resident members, as do those who are permitted through bonds of friendship to reside within the subclan and align themselves with it in its activities (cf Glasse 1968:24^-35). Non-kin, however, can never claim the position accorded to full members of a subclan.

This position has to do with the amount of security enjoyed as regards land tenure, and the extent to which a person is morally obliged to be involved in subclan activities. It also governs the degree of support a person is expected to give or can expect to receive in discharging obligations or accepting death indemnities from others.

This basic pattern is complicated by the fact that a person may, by descent, be affiliated to more than one subclan, and a further complication arises in that people can, and frequently do, reside multilocally. Hence, an individual will usually belong in one way or another to more than one subclan at a time. This mobility and freedom of choice mean that kinship and other ties extend beyond subclan territorial boundaries. Kinship structures. The extent of close kinship within Huli society is reflected in the language: ‘brothers and sisters’ include what we would call half-brothers, half-sisters, and all parallel cousins (cf Glasse 1968: 148). Within these parameters, siblings of the opposite sex call each other reciprocally mbalini, female siblings call each other hagabuni, and male siblings share among themselves the label hamene. The label* aba includes one’s father and all those whom he calls hamene, and the term aija includes onefe mother and all those whom she calls hagabuni.

The terminology and the semantic fields covered by each item indicate the generally wide concept of family held by the Huli, although when occasion demands, finer and more precise distinctions can be made. Thus, the relationship between paternal uncle and nephew/niece is designated by the reciprocal term ajane, while the term ama is used reciprocally of the relationship between maternal aunt and nephew/niece. It can be seen that while a subclan is an extended family, kinship structures go well beyond its confines. Marriage. Although marriage is an institution rather than a hereditary structure, it is convenient to consider it here. in Huli society a man is free to take as many wives as he can afford. Choice of marriage partners is restricted to some extent by hereditary kinship structures, custom demanding agnatic exogamy but forbidding the marriage of close cognates (Glasse 1968: 49). This leaves open the possibility of marriages extending beyond clan confines, and even to other language groups. A young man and woman may freely choose to marry each other, or a man’s bride may be selected for him by his sub-clan or close kin. Either way, the marriage is instituted by the bride’s kin receiving from the groom’s kin a suitable bride wealth or a payment made mainly in pigs, varying in number from 15 to 30. The groom has the right to designate the bride’s place of residence, and has the duty to build a house for her and give her land on which to work a garden. The bride is expected to rear the children, tend the garden, and herd the pigs. Girls are her continuing responsibility, but her sons go to live with their father when they reach the age of nine or ten. In general, the husband is deemed to have greater rights over the children than the wife, and even after divorce he can claim the major share of any bride price paid for daughters living with his former wife or her kin (Glasse 1968:54). Divorce is not infrequent, the commonest cause being failure of the woman to produce children. A man will be anxious to recover the pigs paid for a woman who proves to be lazy or unbiddable, while on her part a woman can end an unsatisfactory union simply by leaving her husband (Glasse 1968: 76).

2.3.2 Non-hereditary Social Structures In Huli society there are no hereditary chiefs or offices that carry political power that underpins the hereditary structures described above (cf Glasse 1968: 21). An exception to this can be found in some clans where the reposit of genealogical history is in the hands of a single individual, who can trace his ancestry back to the clan founder. Apart from this, power and social importance can be achieved by any man with the right combination of talents, ambition and industry, a man’s influence over others being in direct proportion to his mastery of practical skills and . 1 the strategies necessary for combating malevolent influences. In almost every case, mastery of skills and strategies is linked directly to mastery of their associated varieties of language, and one who has command of esoteric or secret registers and genres is held in regard, and others will tend to listen to his counsel and follow his lead. This type of leadership is exercised in various areas of social and economic activity, and I shall describe some of these now. homogo A man who has succeeded in gaining wealth above the ordinary is called a homogo. His success is evident in the size and productivity of his gardens, the number of his wives and of his children, and the health, size and number of his pigs. He usually has gardens in several subclan territories, residing multilocally, and his influence is felt by many. He clearly has the wisdom and secret strategies necessary for success, and his advice is sought and bought by others. Because of his standing in different subclans he is a natural arbitrator in times of dispute, while his wealth makes him a valuable associate when death indemnities have to be met or when bridewealth has to be paid. He may or may not be also recognize ed as a manaji. manaji One who is in possession of considerable secret knowledge is called a manaji. His knowledge is of religious rites and divinations, and his power has been proved. He may also be a custodian of Huli myths and lore. Among the publicly acknowledged manaji are figures of influence such as the leaders of the haroli or bachelor cult (cf Cheetham 1979: 89) and the leaders of cave cults (cf Habel 1979). dandaji These are men skilled in war and hunting, knowledgeable in the use of fighting spells and strategies, and in the secret language necessary for journeying into the high bush. They are natural candidates for leadership in war, altough war parties usually tend to follow the successful man of the moment. dombagwa An arbitrator in disputes is known as a dombagwa. He usually has command of the special register called damba bi (cf Goldman 1980: 224), and is skilled in remember ing details, so that he is able quickly and vividly to relate the background to the matter under dispute (Peters 1975: 19) and to point towards a solution. He is frequently, but not necessarily, a homogo. An accomplished dombagwa will chant the damba bi in monotone. Singers There is no generic term in Huli that covers those who exercise an influence in society through music. Players of the gawa ‘mouth bow’ and hirijule ‘jaws harp’ articulate words as they play, telling stories and recounting everyday happenings (cf Peters 1975″: Pugh-Kitigan 1975) Chanters of the long and intricate bi te ‘folktales’ make an essential contribution to poetry and to phatic communion, as do the singers of ritual u ‘love chants’. Performers of the dawe ‘wail for dead men’ and the dugu ‘wail for dead women and children’ are leaders in important social functions, esteemed for their skills. Players of the gawa and hirijule may also be feared a little, since gamu ‘religious formulae’ are known to gain potency when performed on these instruments. jagibano Men who achieve no distinction in society and are patently unsuccessful – with few children, poor gardens and sickly pigs – are called jagibano. They are presumed to have failed to have gained even the minimum knowledge of everyday living skills and the basic gamu necessary for ordinary success. They are at the opposite end of the contimuum from the homogo. A jagibano may be married, but more typically he is single. Such single men, including widowers, are called daloali, and generally they have little social influence. A marked exception to this, however, is the daloali who leads the haroli. haroli Significant in Huli society are the members of the bachelor cult, the haroli or ibagija. This cult is part of the initiation process for young men, the group being led by an older, celibate, man, the ritual daloali. He is admired and feared for his command of mana ‘lore’ and gamu ‘religious formulae’, for his wealth in pigs and for his spartan way of life. Young men pay highly to join the cult for two or three years, learning from the daloali – who is also a manaji – the complexities of traditional mythology and lore, especially the religious strategies for warding off the evil influences of women. The haroli are segregated from the rest of society, living in large tracts of dense bush into which no woman or married man may go. kebeali. Similarly segregated from others are the curators of cave shrines (cf Habel 1979V 19^24; Goldman 1979), the kebeali or gebeali. These custodians of the shrines are meant to refrain from contact with women during their terms of office, and to dwell apart from the rest of the community. They are privy to the religious rites and formulae necessary for mediation with the dama that inhabit the shrines, and can command high fees for the placatory services that they perform. wali The position accorded women in Huli ideology is reflected in the social structures. Women live apart from men and have little voice in decisions taken at subclan level. Even when they have been the cause of a war they take no part in the fighting or in subsequent negotiations for peace (cf Glasse 19-68: 99-^100). Their say in the choice of a marriage partner depends to some extent on how assertive they are (cf Glasse 1968:52), but ultimately it is the male members of the subclans involved who control the decision and settle on the bridewealth. A woman may own pigs and other valuables, and she is entitled to the food she grows in her gardens, but she can never achieve the wealth and influence that a man can. She may gain a certain standing among other women as a chanter of dugu or a player of the gawa or hirijule, or as one who possesses special secret knowledge and gamu (cf Pugh^-Kitigan 1975: 45), but her political influence in society at large is not significant.