by Dr. 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.

When Robert Glasse began his ethnographic work among the Huli population he was restricted to an administratively controlled radius of two miles from the Tari patrol post, as were the handful of early missionaries. 1 Glasse gathered a great deal of information about Huli residence and social organisation, as well as the conduct of conflict and the way power and influence was distributed and enacted among Huli males. Glasse did not collect much information about the lives of Huli women, and his theory of cognatic descent contains a logic that is difficult to follow, since it is based on the patterns of residence and the cognatic ties of men. Initially Glasse described an agnatic descent system that operated at a high level, but later altered his theory to his well-known claim of Huli cognatic descent, even though his data points to agnatic classification of kinship, which is separate from membership of local groups. 2 Glasse was also conducting geographically restricted fieldwork among a population whose social organisation was based on a great amount of geographical liberty. As Glasse himself points out, it was only through the serendipitous event of one man sneezing, and the “arm-divination” of pointing towards the places of his relatives that followed, that he realised that Huli men had “kin living on territories in every direction.” 3 Glasse does make reference in his work to the complexities of Huli social organisation, cosmology and spiritual and ritual practice, and acknowledges the difficulties these posed for his research. 4 Of interest to my research is the repeated reference Glasse makes to Huli individualism, and the evident freedom of choice available to Huli (men) as to how they conduct their lives. In terms of their ambitions for social status and the accumulation of wealth, Huli individuals varied greatly, and that variation was related only partly to social inheritance, and more so to the basic nature of individual personhood. 5 Knowledge of one’s own genealogical history and the more “esoteric” aspects of Huli life could be either embraced or discarded, according to individual volition and disposition. 6 Even participation in warfare was largely given over to individual choice, as assistance in fighting was closely related to the maintenance of social ties, which themselves varied in importance depending on the personality of the individual involved. 7 Warfare itself was more usually the result of conflicts between individuals, rather than groups. 8 Even how individual Huli men responded to the belief in female pollution varied greatly and was open to a wide field of interpretation and experimentation as to how men chose to live their lives. 9

Glasse was not a linguist, and his work includes very little analysis of Huli language and the more intimate details of cosmological and spiritual belief. His ethnography depended on an understanding of Huli geography, to which access was heavily restricted. Goldman’s ethnography was, in terms of internal versus external life, the polar opposite of Glasse. Goldman, unlike many linguists in the field, became completely fluent in the language, and deeply immersed in its application and common use. Through Goldman’s research the Huli language was revealed to be extraordinarily sophisticated and complex for its idiom, rhetorical devices, grammar, allegory; and, in relation to my own interests, highly nuanced metaphysical content. My own observations regarding Huli relationships with the material environment, including the landscape, developmental desires, historical consciousness, an ethic of individualism, the material causes for conflict, and an absence of sorcery killings, have close resonance to many of Goldman’s observations about Huli language and use. In particular, Goldman’s surgical analysis of the way cause and effect is rendered through language, which “has parallels… in Western metaphysics”, 10 provides a platform for my own theories about the significance of Huli materialism. For my purposes, Goldman’s work opens a portal through which I am able to explore broader themes of change, desire, historicity, the cultural relationship with nature, as well as value and labour. Goldman’s ethnographic work is also of historical importance in its own right, as it represents Huli at an historical moment that is very different from my own experience. Goldman’s writings that followed his initial work on Huli dispute language 11 were strongly influenced, and to an extent made possible, by the work of Stephen Frankel. 12 Goldman writes, “The significance of Frankel’s study here cannot be overemphasized. It projects a cultural milieu in which a concept of natural accident seems, at the very least, plausible.” Through his observations regarding Huli perceptions of the causes of illness, Frankel can’t help but notice that Huli “willingness to be satisfied with naturalistic explanations of illness is apparently unusual in comparison with other studies of illness explanation in such societies.” 13 Frankel then poses the question that Goldman seeks to answer: “This raises the question of the extent to which this disparity reflects a genuine difference between the Huli and other societies, or is it an artefact that follows from differences in methodology.” 14 Frankel described the Huli “ethos of individualism” 15 that I explore in this thesis.

Frankel’s ethnography also explored Huli cosmology as it extended across the vast scale of what is now known as Hela Province. An understanding of Huli lore was important for Frankel because he recognised that the relationship between Huli perceptions of their own history and their beliefs about cosmological processes was of fundamental relevance to their perceptions of Western medicine. 16 Frankel saw that Huli lore is based on “a set of premises concerning past and future relationships with their land.” 14 The only way to understand Huli lore therefore, is to understand Huli relationships with the landscape as it extends across the vast expanse of Hela. Frankel’s role as a medical doctor undertaking field work for a PhD in Social Anthropology meant that his focus was primarily on Huli epistemology as it related to illness. Researching Huli “sacred geography” 17 requires travel over long distances and an understanding of many different sites. The researcher needs to live as Huli do themselves; that is, the researcher needs to be multi-local, maintaining ties to several different groups and localities in order to understand the interconnections between them and the highly numerous geographical locations of significance. This type of fieldwork is extremely difficult, requires more resources than is normally afforded to a PhD student, and involves a great deal of time. The model of twelve months’ fieldwork established by Malinowski was at least intended to apply to a single location.

While most of the sites associated with the Huli cosmological tradition known as dindi pongone 18 were visited by Frankel, a more comprehensive effort to piece together the vastly complex Huli worldview was made by Ballard in order to provide sufficient context for his archaeological study of the history of Huli interaction with the landscape. 19 For this work Ballard also adopted the term “sacred geography” as an heuristic device, while acknowledging that there is no Huli “distinction between sacred and profane geographies”. 20 This observation deserves to be highlighted because, as it relates to this thesis, Huli cosmology and its associated geography exists within the realm of the human, as much as it does the sacred. Ballard followed Frankel and Wood 21 in his adoption of the notion of entropy as a doctrine for a prevailing Huli view of a landscape in decline, which is a concept that I also find useful and apt. In his consideration of entropy, Ballard is careful to separate an anthropological application of the term from its formal scientific origins. 22 However, I am prepared to lend even stronger support to the use of entropy as a descriptive term for a Huli doctrine of decline than has been provided by previous authors. Ballard follows Dan Jorgensen’s understanding that “entropy is a measure of the amount of disorder in a physical system…” 23 as his model for Huli. However, the relevance of entropy in thermodynamics is the change in the heat of entropy. The second law of thermodynamics states that, in any closed system, the amount of entropy is always increasing over time. In other words, entropy at any moment in time is a measure of the heat (or amount of energy) of disorder in a system, but the crucial element is the fact that this measure is constantly increasing over time. The amount of disorder in any closed system is therefore constantly increasing, and this process cannot be reversed. The crucial difference in a Huli doctrine of entropy is that Huli are able to reverse this decline via correct performance of ritual and the observance of moral codes of behaviour. Huli perceptions of the landscape as being in a state of constant decline, from healthy abundance to disorder and decay, has close parallels with the scientific understanding of entropy.

Ballard’s work is strongly focussed on Huli cosmology and the way that the Huli landscape is linked through cosmological belief and associated ritual. Huli trade networks are described as “a form of ritual”, 24 and the Huli landscape is viewed very much through a spiritual lens. 25 This approach complements the work of Glasse, Goldman, and Frankel, all of whom focus their attention, in various ways, towards the observation that Huli culture seems surprisingly “Western”. The way Huli view their landscape in non-materialist ways, the spiritual connections between major kebeanda 26 sites, the malign influence of dama 27 spirits which haunt lakes, forests, and their seemingly ubiquitous presence, and the dindi gamu 28 rituals that try to recreate the mbingi 29 event, are all crucial to an understanding of how Huli view their own history and their own future, and perform the social organisation of their society. Ballard’s work more thoroughly develops the historical perspective on Huli culture that was first attempted by Frankel, and introduces the concept of Ipomoean modernity to Huli history following the work of Modjeska. 30 Ballard juggles with two historicities: that which is revealed by the archaeological record and correlates with Huli oral histories, and that which is marked by the radical change in the way that Huli perceived their own history as brought about by the Ipomoean revolution. A fundamental property of Ipomoean modernism is the change in historicity that resulted from the sudden and radical changes in people’s lives.

Wardlow’s initial research was radically different from the PhD scholars who preceded her, and her work recognised the need to understand the internal and often hidden lives of Huli women. In particular, prior to Wardlow, little was known or understood about female agency among Huli, or the complex interactions between tradition and modernity that are constantly being negotiated by Huli women in a variety of creative ways. Wardlow focuses on sex work as a form of “negative agency”; 31 of rebellion in a context of deep patriarchy and male control. Where I focus on Huli women in this thesis is not to cover the same ground as Wardlow, but to use her example of the rich and complex lives of Huli women that need to be incorporated into any Huli ethnography. Wardlow steers away from materialist understandings of key aspects of Huli life such as clan solidarity, bridewealth, and debt, towards more relational considerations of Huli personhood. 32 In many ways this thesis takes an opposite, but not opposing, course. There is a great deal to be written about Huli materialism that is radically different from the work of scholars who have preceded this thesis.

(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. 5-12.)

  1. Barbara Hutton, pers.comm., also Ballard, Vol. 1, 26. []
  2. Marie de Lepervanche, “Descent, Residence and Leadership in the New Guinea Highlands (Continued),” Oceania 38, no. 3 (1968), 168. was the first to point out that Glasse’s theory was contradicted by his own data. []
  3. Robert Glasse, Huli of Papua: A Cognatic Descent system (Paris: Mouton & Co, 1968), 77. []
  4. Ibid., 141-42. concludes with the observation that “Huli society permits wide affiliative choice and residential mobility.” which made Huli individual behaviour impossible to predict. []
  5. Robert Glasse, “Revenge and Redress among the Huli: A Preliminary Account,” Mankind 5, no. 7 (1959), 282. []
  6. Ibid, 281. []
  7. Ibid, 286. []
  8. Robert Glasse, Huli of Papua: A Cognatic Descent system, 87. []
  9. Robert Glasse, “Le Masque de la volupté. Symbolisme et antagonisme sexuels sur les hauts plateaux de Nouvelle-Guinée,” L’Homme 14, no. 2 (1974), 84. “Nous avons vu que les conceptions huli de la masculinité et de la féminité sont en forte opposition, mais cette opposition entraîne-t-elle une hostilité de fait entre hommes et femmes ? La réponse est complexe, car elle dépend des catégories d’hommes en cause.” []
  10. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 118. []
  11. Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes. []
  12. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 74. []
  13. Stephen Frankel, The Huli Response to Illness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 177. []
  14. Ibid. [][]
  15. Ibid., 44. []
  16. Ibid., 16. []
  17. First used in relation to Huli in Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 112, following the work of Garry Gossen, Chamulas in the World of the Sun: Time and Space in a Maya Oral Tradition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1974), on Mayan cosmology. []
  18. “Root of the earth”, a foundational concept in Huli cosmology that perceives a landscape that, prior to the 1930s, comprised the entire known Huli world. The land was believed to be held together by a vast, subterranean length of cane that was coiled by a huge snake. Described in detail by Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes.; Frankel, The Huli Response to Illness.; and C. Ballard, “The Sun by Night: Huli Moral Topography and Myths in a Time of Darkness,” in Fluid Ontologies: Myth, Ritual and Philosophy in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, ed. Laurence Goldman and C. Ballard (Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey, 1998). []
  19. Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea,” Vol. 1, 9. []
  20. Ibid., 48. []
  21. Andrew Wood, “Land for Tomorrow: subsistence agriculture, soil fertility and ecosystem stability,” (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Department of Geography, UPNG, 1984), Held TRU []
  22. Ibid., 132., vol. 1 []
  23. Ibid. citing Dan Jorgensen, “Taro and Arrows: Order, Entropy, and Religion among the Telefolmin” (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of British Columbia, 1981), 33., citing G Whitrow, “Entropy,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan and the Free Press, 1967). []
  24. Chris Ballard, “The Centre Cannot Hold. Trade Networks and Sacred Geography in the Papua New Guinea Highlands.” Archaeology in Oceania 29, no. 3 (1994). []
  25. Chris Ballard, “The Fire Next Time: The Conversion of the Huli Apocalypse,” Ethnohistory 47, no. 1 (2000). []
  26. Term for ritual site. The spelling and etymology of kebeanda is controversial. Ballard writes “gebeanda”, while Goldman and Frankel both write “kebeanda”. I, along with Goldman (pers. com.) heard kebe spoken, rather than gebe + anda (house). Kebe is the name of a founding spirit ancestor, and gebe is a more generic term for spirit ancestor. According to Goldman (pers. com.) kebeanda is just a name, and like many Huli terms it is easy to over-etymologise. []
  27. Huli generic term for spirit, can be mythological ancestors or other malevolent spirits. []
  28. Lit. “land spell”, large scale ritual to increase the health and fertility of the land. []
  29. “Time of darkness”. Originally related to the Plinian eruption of the Long Island volcano in the late 17th century that brought increased fertility to the land. See Chapter 7. []
  30. Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea,” Vol 1, 86. []
  31. Holly Wardlow, Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society, 14. []
  32. Ibid., 107. []

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