by Bryant J. Allen and Andrew W. Wood

During an intensive land use and agricultural survey in the Tari Basin in 1979, we paused to examine a number of large boulders in a clay matrix exposed in the bank of a man-made ditch situated well above the Piwa River on the western slopes of Ambua, a 3600m volcano, known to all but the Huli people as Doma Peaks. We asked a likely-looking Huli if there were any stories about how the boulders got there. “Oh yes,” he said, “the mountain blew up and hot stones and mud came down and killed all the people.” He looked pleased and we felt the warm glow familiar to field workers who have had their hypotheses confirmed by local informants. We asked our informant who told him this story. “Two Europeans who came up here before you and hit the stones with hammers,” was the deadpan reply.

R. J. Blong, in the March 1979 issue of Search, describes two Huli legends. The first, which he read in a file of the Tari District office describes how “10 generations ago the whole side of the mountain blew out and water and lava spewed out to form a great fan shaped slope. Most of the people living between the mountain and where the Tari office is now located were killed.” The second, collected by Glasse (1963), recounts an event known to the Huli as bingi, during which a spectacular tephra fall occurred over the Tari Basin. This latter event is said to have happened more than once and Glasse estimated the last time to have been in the 1880s.

Blong links the first legend to volcanic activity on Doma Peaks and estimates that the event took place in the period A.D. 980-1360, based on the carbon dating of wood fragments embedded in the lahar. The second legend is related to the eruption of Tibito Tephra from Long Island about A.D. 1700 (Blong 1979).

Tibito Tephra is identifiable through field characteristics and trace element analysis and has been traced across the Papua New Guinea highlands by Pain and Blong (1979). Traces have been found near the Tari Gap north-west of Tari, and in many places east of Doma Peaks (Blong 1979). Although Blong could find no traces of Tibito Tephra overlying the lahar deposit, he concludes that the lahar predates the tephra fall. He also concludes that the lahar was caused by volcanic activity in the crater of Doma, then occupied by a lake, which burst and flowed down the mountainside. He confirms the presence of the lake by the occurrence of diatoms and laminated peats in the laharic material and finds support for volcanic activity on the mountain from Taylor (1971) who reports solfataric areas in the “crater”, aircraft pilots and passengers reporting sulphurous smells in the vicinity of the mountain, and Huli legends about an eruption. Taylor suggests volcanic activity on Doma last occurred in the period 90-400 years ago, but Blong disagrees and argues the earlier date of 600-1000 years ago, based on the radiocarbon date. McKenzie (1973) does not assume a date for the last eruption of Doma Peaks but argues for “renewed activity in historic times” which he believes produced a lahar in the crater, a nueé ardente which stripped vegetation from the upper Arua valley and gave rise to Huli legends about “Bingi (gods of the mountain)” [sic]! He also suggests, however, that the stripping of the forest from the upper Arua valley could have resulted from “violent flooding of the Arua River after its dammed up headwaters had broken through the nose of the lahar”, although he could find no evidence for the existence of a lake.

Huli legends are manifold and form a fascinating amalgam of mythical and actual events. In common with oral traditions in other cultures, however, care must be taken in using them (see Vansina 1965). In collecting information about Huli agricultural history we found that nearly all the stories we listened to had a genealogical depth of 10 generations and that most of the events which form the focus of a tale happened during or just before the tenth generation. However, a clear distinction is made between events witnessed by human ancestors and those which happened to spirit ancestors. We also found that the Huli can order events in their past, so that even if a number of events are said to have occurred about the same time they can say, or make a considered judgement, about which event came first, or whether an event came before or after another well-known event.

Our interest in agricultural prehistory soon led us to hear descriptions of bingi. At Tari, bingi is associated with a revitalisation of all living things and, although the event was a frightening one, various attempts have been made through ritual to precipitate another bingi because of a generally acknowledged decline in garden yields, in the growth of pigs, and the size and strength of men since the last bingi. The decline became apparent about the 1930’s when first European contacts were made in the Tari Basin and may be an unconscious recognition by the Huli that their material culture is inferior to that of the newcomer, or it may reflect a genuine decline in soil fertility and yields since the introduction of sweet potato. Our informants, acknowledged by others to be men who “know”, had difficulty in naming people who had seen bingi, whereas they could all name men who had first planted sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) and they all agreed that sweet potato first reached the Tari Basin between nine and ten generations ago. They also thought that bingi last occurred after the arrival of sweet potato. Estimates of bingi ranged from nine to five generations ago, although one man associated bingi with the arrival of sweet potato.

Evidence from other parts of the highlands suggests that bingi and the arrival of sweet potato in the Tari Basin may have occurred within 100 years of each other. Bowers (1968) suggests that sweet potato could have arrived in the Lai Valley as early as 300 years ago, that is about A.D. 1680, and Blong argues a date around A.D. 1700, or about 280 years ago, for the Tibito Tephra fall. Both these estimates are in general agreement with Huli estimates of between nine and ten generations, but this may be just a coincidence. The tephra fall would probably have had a beneficial effect on soil fertility even if it caused short-term crop damage. Sweet potato has been associated in the Enga and Kaugel areas with an expansion of land under cultivation at the expense of forest (Bowers 1968). The use of cleared forest soils results in spectacularly higher yields for some years, and sweet potato inherently has higher yields than other possible pre-Ipomoean staples. It is possible, therefore, that the two events have become fused in the oral traditions.

Confirmation that bingi is associated with an airfall of Tibito Tephra was made when men resident in Lewa territory said they could find some of the material which fell from the sky during bingi. They walked for about a kilometre into their garden land and with some difficulty excavated small amounts of an olive green-grey, fine gritty material which they called bimu. This site (1:100,000 map sheet 7486 “Koroba”, GR 188535) is located about 5km from Tari (Figure 1). Bimu here, to the west of the Doma Peaks, does not form a continuous layer, but was found in small lens-shaped deposits. It is used mainly for softening men’s beards before shaving in preparation for painting their faces for ceremonial activities. Blong (personal communication 1979) confirms that bimu is Tibito Tephra, based on field characteristics.

We can therefore agree with Blong that the most recent occurrence of bingi is probably not associated with volcanic activity on Doma Peaks. We also began to hear stories about a catastrophic flood. These were vague until we began to work in the upper Kela area on the northern side of the Arua River, near to the fan-shaped lahar deposit described by Blong (1979). In this area men immediately said in reply to questions about the deposit that they had a story about a flood which killed many people. They sent for a man called Botoko Haiebi who knew the story best. This is Botoko’s story.

My name is Botoko. My father’s name was Haiebi, and his father was called Talibe. Talibe’s father was Kebaije and his father was Mabu. Mabu was killed in this flood. This story is about real people, my ancestors, and it happened only recently. Kebaije was alive when the flood happened. When Mabu was a child the hills broke and blocked the river Arua up there on the mountain. A large lake formed. This lake remained until Mabu was an old man and Kebaije was ready to be married. Then it broke. It happened in the afternoon. There was a huge noise on the mountain and then a loud roar, and the water came down the valley and poured out over the gardens. Rocks, trees and dirt covered up the gardens and many people were killed. Mabu was killed. Sometimes we find ashes and soil from the old houses and gardens. You can see logs buried in the ground. They are big forest trees and pandans from up on the mountain. This sort of thing had never happened before Mabu’s time and has not happened again since. We watch the river carefully now. Our fathers told us how the water dried up for one man’s lifetime before it burst, so now we watch the river. If it stops running we will know to look out.

This event must have taken place about 100 to 120 years ago, between 1860 and 1880. A landslide blocked the Arua River in its headwaters, the river slowed to a trickle for about 35 years as a lake formed behind the landslide. When this dam broke it released a large amount of water which, together with debris, including large boulders, flowed down the constricted upper Arua Valley and spilled out over the lower slopes of the mountain. Most of the heavier debris was deposited close to the mouth of the upper valley, where the Arua River is raised well above the surrounding land, and an unsorted mass of boulders, trees and gravels now overlie what was once productive agricultural land. Downslope, water and smaller-sized materials spread out mainly to the south of the present riverbed and destroyed gardens and houses over an area of approximately 16km2. (Figure 1.) Water and debris also spilled out north of the river into what is now Urufu Swamp. The mudflow probably led to the formation of this and other swamps and may have caused the death of hundreds of forest trees (local name tugu), the stumps of which now lie about 20cm below the present surface of the swamp.

Figure 1: Arua Mudflow

Gross population densities on land either side of the affected area are now between 50 and 100 persons per km2. Densities 100 years ago were almost certainly lower than they are now, so probably between 500 and 800 people were affected by the mudflow. The number of deaths is impossible to assess accurately but it seems probable that between 100 and 200 may have died.

This is most likely the event described in the “legend” recorded on the files in the Tari District Office. It is unlikely that this event was associated with volcanic activity on Doma Peaks and therefore it cannot be used as evidence for the most recent Doma eruption.

The western slopes of Doma are constructed of a series of overlapping mudflows, some of tremendous proportions containing huge boulders and millions of cubic metres of material. Some of the flows are old. Exposures along the road between Piwa and Hoiebia show the mudflow deposit is overlain by Tomba Tephra (Pain, personal communication 1979). Pain and Blong (1976, 1979) have described this tephra unit and estimate it to be at least 50,000 years old. Other flows in the headwaters of the Piwa and Aijena Rivers are smaller and apparently younger and have a similar form to that described along the Arua. The Arua mudflow is, therefore, the most recent of a series of similar events which stretch back in time to at least 50,000 years ago, some of which are probably directly related to volcanic activity and some of which are not.

The date of the Arua mudflow is very close to Glasse’s estimate for the last bingi, about A.D. 1880. When men near the Urufu Swamp and the Toto Swamp near Piwa were questioned about the tree stumps in the swamps, they could give no explanations satisfactory to themselves, but in their discussions they explored the possibility of the “flood”, that is the Arua event, and bingi as being the responsible agents. Some men suggested that the “flood” and bingi were associated in some way. It is possible that at Hoiebia, where Glasse concentrated his work, men knew of the Arua mudflow story and linked it with bingi, both being spectacular catastrophic events. However, men in the vicinity of the Arua mudflow are adamant that the first bingi occurred between five and ten generations ago, and the mudflow only four generations ago.

We do not wish to presume a date for the latest volcanic activity on Doma except to observe that it seems most unlikely that the mountain has been active since the last occurrence of bingi, that is during the last 300 years. If pressed, we would suggest a much earlier date. We would also point out that the solfataric activity, upon which Taylor places a lot of emphasis, occurs elsewhere in the Tari Basin, well away from the crater of Doma. One spring is said to be located near the headwaters of the Aijena River and another is near Dauli Teachers College. One which we observed is located on the immediate west bank of the Tebi River about one kilometre downstream from the road bridge on the Tari to Piwa road, at an altitude of 1585 metres. This site is called Yake-ipi-iba (literally, ‘Yake saltwater’). At least five springs emit very clear warm water at a temperature of about 38 °C. A strong sulphurous smell is noticeable up to 100 metres away from the site, which is surrounded by thick cane grass and tangled vines. Around each spring an area about 20 metres in radius is devoid of all grassy vegetation, although a few small trees survive. The surface of the ground is covered with a thick white crust. This material also smells strongly of sulphur. It is said that the springs were once the abode of a large spirit snake, but we were accompanied to the site by a number of young children who showed no signs of fear. The water is said to have remarkable healing effect on ulcers, skin sores and wounds.

Water samples were taken for analysis and the results are presented together with those of Taylor in Table 1. Taylor’s water samples were taken from springs in the actual crater of Doma Peaks, and have a very low pH and contain free sulphuric acid. The sample from Yake-ipi-iba is only slightly acid and has a high content of base cations, chloride and bicarbonate ions.

The evidence that we have collected from Tari raises a number of points, some of which conflict with the arguments of Blong, Taylor and Glasse. Firstly, we agree with Blong that the last occurrence of bingi must refer to the eruption of Tibito Tephra about A.D. 1700 and Huli oral traditions which we collected support this date rather than the later A.D. 1880 date suggested by Glasse. Secondly, we find Blong’s dating of the Arua mudflow and its association with volcanic activity on Doma to be in error. Oral traditions in the area nearest to the mudflow all agree that this event occurred between 1860 and 1880 and that it was not associated with volcanism. Thus his date for the most recent volcanic activity on Doma as between 600 and 1000 years ago based on evidence from this mudflow is without foundation.

The question of the date of the last eruption of Doma Peaks and the likelihood of further activity is not merely academic. The volcano is breached on its western flank and any sudden violent eruption from the present crater will be directed into a densely populated, highly productive area of agricultural land. A Huli legend about a tephra fall known as bingi was tentatively related to an eruption from Doma Peaks by an anthropologist in 1963. By 1970 his suggestion had been incorporated into the geological literature to the point where it was being used as firm evidence of an eruption in recent times. In 1979, while convincingly demonstrating that this evidence was incorrect, Blong accepted an account of another legend from the files at the Tari District office as evidence of volcanic activity on Doma at an earlier period. Much greater care is needed by all researchers working in the Tari Basin and using Huli legends to assist them in their work. Huli oral history will remain a valuable resource to an understanding of the history of the Tari area only if it is not misused, distorted or contaminated by outsiders.

Anaylsis of Spring Water Samples


The land-use research at Tari is being sponsored by the Southern Highlands Rural Development Project, the University of Papua New Guinea Research Committee, and the Office of Environment and Conservation, Department of Lands and Environment, Papua New Guinea. Figure 1 was drawn by Vagoli Boula, Cartography Unit, U.P.N.G.


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(Reprint permitted with permission from Journal of the Polynesian Society, Volume 89 1980 > Volume 89, No. 3 > Legendary volcanic eruptions and the Huli, Papua New Guinea, by Bryant J. Allen and Andrew W. Wood, p 341-348.)