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.

Previous analysis of the impact of sweet potato in the PNG highlands has primarily focussed on the debate between material and social / cultural factors in shaping the changes in land use and society that followed. As Don Gardner summarised this debate, the contention that “sweet potato caused profound changes” in highland societies is not in question, rather what is the relationship between the material and cultural forces that shaped these changes? 1 My question is not what is the role of materialism or otherwise in explaining the material changes to Huli society, but what is the role of these material changes in explaining an evident Huli materialism? Changes in Huli social organisation, land use, ritual practices and cosmological beliefs have been well documented. My argument relies on the premise that there is no reason to assume that cultural change brought about by the Ipomoean revolution should not also include changes to Huli ontology. This argument challenges Descola’s assumption of an “ontological resistance” in cultures generally, 2 which is why I am interested in the ontological changes evident in the history of Western modernity as a way of asking why it should be assumed that ontological malleability should be only reserved for the West. Perhaps the Ipomoean modernity that is identifiable to Western moderns is made so because what Western and Ipomoean modernity have in common, at least for Huli, is the development of a materialist ontology.

A striking feature of the Ipomoean revolution is the apparently close concurrence of the introduction of sweet potato with the eruption of Long Island. Volcanic eruptions are sudden, point source events that are often able to be dated with a high degree of precision. Strong evidence points to a 1665 or 1666 eruption of the Long Island volcano that blanketed much of the highlands with volcanic ash. 3 Dating the introduction of sweet potato, however, is another matter. Sweet potato came unevenly into different areas and its impact was determined by the historical contingency of human agency and cultural beliefs and practices, as much as the material forces of geography and climate. 4 This thesis does not contend that Huli materialism arose in direct response to the introduction or sweet potato, or that it did so in combination with the presence of sweet potato and the increased soil fertility following the eruption of Long Island, rather that Huli materialism can be linked with the radical material changes that came to be understood as the Ipomoean revolution. The type of material change that characterises the Ipomoean revolution can be classified as a radical increase in material abundance. Materialist metaphysics, at its core, is based on material explanations of cause and effect. Materials themselves are thought to exist in and of themselves without the need for any appeal to immaterial presence. When a phenomenon occurs for which its cause is deemed to be unknown, a materialist metaphysics allows for the embrace of the unknown. Ignorance and doubt are allowed to exist and some as yet unknown materialist explanation is assumed. This form of understanding creates a separation between humans as observers, and nature as material object that is being observed. The Ipomoean revolution resulted in a material abundance that was utilised by Huli in a variety of novel and inventive ways. Nature constituted as an abundance exists apart from the human subject that possesses creative autonomy and agency in its use of such material abundance. Material abundance creates choice, or burdens volitional actors with a surplus of possibilities, the choice and outcome of which depend on the agency of humans who act upon these inanimate material objects of natural abundance. The use of objects that exist in abundance occurs in a cultural context that results in the creation of symbolic value for those objects. Value may therefore be a function of symbolic use as much as scarcity. Value as a function of symbolic use can produce a logic that results in the most highly valued objects also being among the most abundant, and also the most fought over. For Huli this logic is expressed in the common expression, “land, women and pigs.”

The abundance that resulted from the introduction of sweet potato is expressed in terms of what was enabled by this introduction, rather than the initial material itself. Huli oral history clearly accounts for the introduction of sweet potato, but the resulting abundance is expressed in terms of the resultant population growth and migration out from the Tari and Haeapugua basins. 5 Prior to sweet potato, when taro was consumed as the staple crop, Huli history is remembered quite differently. Ma naga (lit. the time of eating taro) preceded the introduction of sweet potato, and taro was preceded by a mythological pre-human period when the landscape was inhabited by dama spirits who ate rotten wood, or ira goba naga. 6 Two historicities can be identified in the process of change from rotten wood to sweet potato. The pre-human Huli history is self- consciously mythological, its truth-claims are relative to the particular mana of the individual who is recalling the myth, and the era of the dama has a “timeless” quality, which is reflected in the “sharp break” in genealogies that mark the separation between dama and humans. 7 This break is also reflected in the prologue, as a series of events that resulted in humans losing contact with the spirit world of the sky. At that point humans became identifiably Huli modern, and were made distinct from other animals via the application of rules, and, as a corollary, the human ability to break those rules. Post-Ipomoean history is verifiable according to genealogical recall as well as its tangible presence in the landscape. Huli demarcation of land via the digging of drainage ditches is directly linked to genealogical recall that is able to specify the individuals involved to depths of more than 20 generations, which includes the period of sweet potato introduction. 8 Huli history identifies the ability to raise and own large numbers of pigs with the ability to grow sweet potato as fodder for pigs. 9 This understanding of history can be contrasted with a recently collected Koli origin myth that accounts for differences between people from Febi, Suabi, Kubo and the Tari basin. Koli are part of the Febi language group and located in Western Province approximately 10km from the Hela border and within Petroleum Development License 9. The myth recalls a festive gathering of the various groups who each brought something different to eat. Pigs were tied together with rope and before all of the groups returned home the rope was cut and distributed among the guests. The Huli were given the part of the rope that was tied to the leg of the pig, while the others received various portions of the rope. This is the reason why Huli raise so many pigs while Febi hunt them instead. 10 I include this Koli myth to hold in contrast a Huli historicity that identifies factual recall of material events according to a genealogical timeline. That Huli Ipomoean modernity is characterised by new forms of historical consciousness has been well documented; the central contribution to this understanding that I wish to make is that this Huli post- Ipomoean historicity is distinctly materialist, and that this materialism reflects the development of a materialist conception of nature that is demonstrably different from the ontology that is represented by alternative historical accounts.

The Ipomoean revolution is characterised by the introduction of a highly calorific food source that is able to be grown in greater quantities and at higher altitudes than taro. An abundance of arable land was augmented by the fast-growing and highly calorific sweet potato crop that enabled the raising of very large numbers of pigs. In the context of enhanced productive potential great wars were fought. Huli oral history clearly links a marked increase in warfare with the introduction of sweet potato, and the requirement to increase the size of drainage ditches (gana) so that they could act as defensive barriers or warfare ditches (wai gana). 11 Huli warfare invites a materialist analysis that is markedly different to John Muke’s insightful account of Wahgi warfare. Wahgi fight not over the most productive land, but over land “that is richest in spiritual and religious qualities”. 12 By contrast, the material basis for Huli warfare is easily recognisable to a Western observer. Huli warfare is also remarkable for an absence of enduring fighting groups. The locus of a warfare event is the individual “fight owner” or wai tene 13 who gathers together allies to support him in his battle. This differentiates Huli warfare from generalised understandings of warfare in other parts of PNG where political communities are said to exist as collectivities “dedicated to mutual defense.” 14 An existential commitment to individualism links material possession and ownership with patterns of conflict that are unrelated to any form of ideology, be it spiritual, political, or otherwise.

The phenomenon of conflict occurring in the context of productive potential was brought home to me during the last months of the 2015-16 drought that severely impacted much of the highlands. A DFAT-funded drought assessment team came through Tari, utilising the local expertise of the Young Ambassadors for Peace NGO. One method that the Huli members of the team used to assess the impact of drought in remote communities was to pay attention to levels of fighting in the area. If major tribal fighting was occurring it was a clear sign that the community was not severely affected by drought. This account does need to be contrasted with evidence that a drought in the Tari basin was the cause of inter-clan warfare during 1934. 15 Conflict can be a response to the threat of diminishing productive potential, and the urgency of material inequality, but the absence of any threat to the food supply does nothing to reduce the potential for conflict. More generally it could be stated that Huli conflict occurs in relation to material something rather than nothing, and Huli are more likely to become unified in the context of scarcity. The theoretical underpinnings of this observation are found in Marx’s well-known remark that “the distinction should always be made between the material transformation… and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.” 16 It is the cultural relationships with the material that shape the nature of conflict over the material. Adopting the “Gramscian perspective” that builds upon Marx’s idea, Moore stresses the importance of “viewing resource struggles through a deep history of opposing claims” with the understanding that “fighting it out occurs through cultural processes.” 17 Conflict does not occur in a vacuum, and that vacuum is neither material nor cultural. A materialist analysis of warfare also makes sense in the context of the Western legacy of war for oil. This is not to state simplistically that Huli fight over the possession of chattels; rather, conflict occurs in the context of relative material productive potential, and conflict always relates to the symbolic. The deep genealogical histories for which Huli are well known pre-existed the introduction of sweet potato, but the material transformation of the Ipomoean revolution resulted in much greater genealogical detail and lateral complexity. The conflict that is associated with those materials is fought over the control of their history. The new social structures and cultural forms that arose in response to new materialities was accompanied by new metaphysical relationships with those materials. 18

One of the strongest arguments against functionalist accounts of material impact is the observation that the pre-contact Huli diet was relatively protein depleted. Barbara Hutton recalled how much shorter was the Huli population when she first arrived compared to how large they have become.

When we first went there the average woman only came to my shoulders. Because they didn’t have much protein. They only had pandanus nut when the season was on, or the special occasions when they might kill some pig. But over the years as people got more and more protein they started to be taller. But definitely only my shoulder and I’m not tall… [Pigs] you had to save them for the weddings. You never saw them think okay we’ll kill a pig because it would be nice to eat some pork. That sort of thing never happened… you would kill them because it was some special occasion. When the pandanus nut season was on John lost all his school kids, they would go to where the pandanus nut grew and would have some protein for a while.

In 1938 Jim Taylor measured the heights of 38 men at Hoyebia. Heights ranged from 146cm to 164cm for an average of 155.2cm. 19 In 2001 a study conducted by the PNG Department of Health revealed that the more traditional highlands diets were low in protein and dominated by sweet potato. Rural Huli eating a more traditional diet were found to be considerably lighter and had a much lower protein intake compared to their urban counterparts. 20 This is in spite of the fact that Huli were well known for arranging the “slaughter of as many as 1500 pigs” for ceremonial occasions. 21 The Huli ratio of pigs to people at 1.7 was far greater than that of their immediate neighbours, with the next largest ratio being for Etoro to the south, at 1.3. 22 The Etoro ratio is still high relative to their own neighbours because pigs are used for various exchange purposes such as bridewealth, compensation, and witchcraft divinations. 23 However, pigs in Etoro society have far less exchange value than wild game animals because game “has a spiritual significance that semidomesticated pigs entirely lack.” 24 The difference in pig ratios is related to their symbolic value in a particular cultural context rather than patterns of consumption. Conflict over a stolen pig has nothing to do with the nutritional value of the pig.

In his analysis of Huli warfare as it was during the 1950s, Robert Glasse profiled the “social personalities” of three men he knew well, each of whom represented “a type of individual found in Huli society.” 25 The social status, wealth, knowledge, and individual personalities of the three men are vastly different. Glasse’s analysis gives depth and detail to the often-observed individualistic nature of Huli society. This individualism is most obviously expressed through differing attitudes towards material goals. Competition for material possession is entirely related to social status for which some have more ambition than others. Materials are viewed symbolically, and the exchange value of a pig is related to its symbolic relevance to social status. Abundance allows for a separation of material need and desire for symbolic value. Social status becomes a choice that depends on the importance that the individual attaches to its attainment. Material nature is thus objectivised for its symbolic value in relation to human affairs. I would also argue that what has come to be referred to as the wantok system, or the system of mutual social obligation between relatives, friends, and affines, is itself a logical expression of a highly individualistic society. The wantok system certainly functions well in the context of scarcity, when drought and famine threaten large swathes of the population. The logic of the system of mutual obligation as it is played out in Huli society is that helping you is ultimately going to help me. In the context of abundance, the desire for personal favour leads to the question, “how does your prosperity help me?” If you are not using it to help me then what good is it to me? If you make me angry then it is your wealth that I will destroy. In the contemporary context when someone accumulates capital to start a business the logic of the individual is to ask, “how does your starting a business help me?” The act of giving in this context is something that is representative of demand. The appearance of what came to be referred to in much anthropological literature as “dividuality”, or the bound relational qualities of Melanesian personhood, 26 for Huli can be read as the burden of an abundance-driven excess of social demand. The social demand that is created by the symbolic value of materials (especially pigs) translates into productive demand that depends on the abundance that fuels the social demand. In response to this heady mix of excess supply and demand Huli built walls around it, hemmed it in and controlled it. An abundance of land allowed for a high degree of mobility and the opportunity to claim unused land. Land ownership is overlapping and hierarchical; over some portions of land an individual has a greater degree of claim than over other portions of land. These overlapping and hierarchical claims to land depend on stories of marriage, births, warfare, labour input, and movement. In short, they depend on history, which is a material history. Your history is your most valuable asset that is needed to hold all of your material claims together. Defend it with your life.

(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. 44-54.)

  1. Don Gardner, “Intensification, social production and the inscrutable ways of culture,” Asia Pacific Viewpoint 42, no. 2/3 (2001). []
  2. Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, 388. []
  3. Tim Bayliss-Smith et al., “Archaeological evidence for the Ipomoean Revolution at Kuk swamp, upper Wahgi Valley, Papua New Guinea,” 110. []
  4. Chris Ballard, “Wetland drainage and agricultural transformations in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea,” Asia Pacific Viewpoint 42, no. 2-3 (2001). []
  5. Ibid, 291. []
  6. Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea,” 82. Vol. 1 []
  7. Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 116. []
  8. Chris Ballard, “Wetland drainage and agricultural transformations in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea.” []
  9. Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea,” 86 Vol. 1 []
  10. Gérard Anaïs, “Procuring Game, Procuring Money: Dilemmas of Relationality with Outsiders among Febi People Western Province, Papua New Guinea” (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2018), 240 Appendix 2 []
  11. Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.” Vo. 1, p. 97 []
  12. John Muke, “The Wahgi Opo Kumbo: An account of warfare in the Central Highlands of New Guinea”, (University of Cambridge, 1993), 266. []
  13. Lit. “war source”, see Chapter 6. []
  14. Paul Roscoe, “War and the Food Quest in Small-Scale Societies: Settlement-Pattern Formation in Contact-Era New Guinea,” in The Archaeology of Food and Warfare: Food Insecurity in Prehistory, eds. Amber VanDerwarker and Gregory Wilson (New York: Springer, 2015), 15. []
  15. Chris Ballard and Bryant Allen 1991. “‘Inclined to be cheekey”: Huli responses to first contact.’ Paper presented at the conference “New Perspectives on the Papua New Guinea Highlands”, Canberra, August 1991, 10. []
  16. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. N.I. Stone (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1904 [1859]), 12. []
  17. Donald S. Moore, “Contesting Terrain in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands: Political Ecology, Ethnography, and Peasant Resource Struggles,” Economic Geography 69, no. 4 (1993). []
  18. Building on Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 11. “The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society – the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” []
  19. James S. Taylor, “Hagen-Sepik Patrol Report,” in Papers and photographs of Jim Taylor (National Library of Australia, MS 9218 Series 5. Hagen-Sepik Patrol 1938-40. Patrol Report. File 9. Box 51940). []
  20. W. Saweri, “The rocky road from roots to rice: a review of the changing food and nutrition situation in Papua New Guinea,” PNG Medical Journal 44, no. 3-4 (2001). []
  21. Chris Ballard, “Wetland drainage and agricultural transformations in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea.” According to Ballard (pers. comm.) the quoted number of 1500 pigs includes both slaughter and exchange. []
  22. Chris Ballard, “The Centre Cannot Hold. Trade Networks and Sacred Geography in the Papua New Guinea Highlands..” []
  23. Raymond Kelly, Constructing Inequality: The Fabrication of a Hierarchy of Virtue among the Etoro
    (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993), 87.
  24. Ibid., 91. []
  25. Robert Glasse, “Revenge and Redress among the Huli: A Preliminary Account.” []
  26. Mary Patterson and Martha Macintyre, “Introduction: Capitalism, cosmology and globalisation in the Pacific,” in Managing Modernity in the Western Pacific, ed. Mary Patterson and Martha Macintyre (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011), 16. []

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