by Dr. Chris Ballard, Australian National University

Dr. Chris Ballard, ANU
Dr. Chris Ballard is an Associate Professor at Australian National University. He is Senior Fellow of the School of Culture, History & Language, School of Culture, History & Language.

His current interests revolve around indigenous Melanesian historicities – their transformation through cross-cultural encounters; their representation through various media, including film and fiction; and their articulation with contemporary challenges such as land reform, large natural resource projects, and cultural heritage management planning. He is also engaged, together with Bronwen Douglas, in an ARC Discovery Project on “European Naturalists and the Constitution of Human Difference in Oceania”. Publications under preparation include an edited collection on the history of racial science in Oceania, and a monograph on violence and first contact in the New Guinea Highlands.

The temporal framework created by Huli around the occurrence of hina gari and mbingi events is morally invigorated and furnished with a sense of an overall trajectory by an explicit doctrine of entropy, a set of beliefs about the nature of fertility, inculcated both formally and informally, that emphasizes the “natural” tendency in all things towards loss and decline. The extent to which the theme of entropy pervades Huli explanations for change has been noted by previous writers (Wood 1984 Vol.I:173-5, Frankel1986:18,26-27, Goldman 1993, Glasse in press). Here, against the background of a brief review of similar beliefs held elsewhere in the Highlands region, Huli notions of entropy are described. What appears to be an internally contradictory set of beliefs about social and environmental change is linked to a series of myths that imbue specific fluid substances – water and blood – with meaning, whilst rendering ambivalent the roles of male and female in explaining the processes of growth and decay. These myths outline the moral field within which relationships between men and women, and between people and dama, are negotiated, a process notionally structured through the observance of customary or conventional knowledge (mana).

A general belief in decline and dissipation, rather than increase and accumulation, as the fundamental direction of history is common to many Highlands groups 1 ; but the only detailed exploration of entropic beliefs in a Highlands society is Jorgensen’s analysis of the concept of biniman amongst Telefolmin or Telefol people (1981, 1985). Jorgensen employs entropy as a general gloss for the Telefol verb biniman meaning ‘to finish, to run out, to dissipate, to become nothing’, which he identifies as ‘the chief preoccupation of Telefol cosmological thought’ (1981:304), a concept that finds close parallels in Huli thought, despite the absence of a single corresponding Huli term, and that provides a model for my understanding of Huli accounts of entropy. Jorgensen explicitly deploys the concept of entropy as a heuristic device, exceeding Telefol applications of biniman in his identification of features of Telefol society that reflect the broader workings of the concept. Acknowledging the formal origins of the concept of entropy in thermodynamics, Jorgensen cites Whitrow, for whom entropy is ‘a measure of the amount of disorder in a physical system, [though] it is now clear that a more precise statement is that entropy measures lack of information about the structure of a system’ (Whitrow, in Jorgensen 1981:33); yet the image of entropy that emerges from Jorgensen’s work is far more powerful for his purposes than the narrower definitions available from the field of thermodynamics. 2

The origins of Telefol entropy are to be found in a myth in which Umoim observes his sister, the Telefol ancestress Afek, drawing forth taro, sago and wild pigs from her vagina; shamed, Afek kills Umoim and ceases to produce these things, which people now have to produce for themselves. Mortality and labour are thus introduced to a world in which order is a state towards which Telefol strive in the face of a ceaseless tendency, evident in society as well as in the environment, towards decline. The pursuit of endogamous marriages, the strict maintenance of numerous tabus and the re-incorporation of dead ancestors through ritual are all means towards the same end: the attempt to hold the “natural” tendency to entropy at bay. Entropy is discernible as both a leakage or attrition from the centre and a diminution over time in the size of people, of taro plants and of pigs, ‘a gradient of progressive decline and decay in both spatial and temporal dimensions’ (Jorgensen 1981:303).

The most common expressions of belief about decline are assertions that the land has gone bad (‘dindi mo ko haya da’, Cheetham 1979:88), or has dried up (‘dindi gabu haya da’), or that, like old fruit-bearing trees, it is exhausted (‘dindi [f. haya da’). Observations made in this vein on the “natural” world, on the loss of ground moisture and soil quality and the invasive spread of grass and tree species associated with poor soils, have already been described (Chapter B2). In its fullest form, this discourse of entropy extends to encompass all aspects of Huli life and the Huli universe:

Before, bananas, pigs, taro, tigibi (Oenanthe javanica), everything grew better. The swamps were all brimming with water, but now they are dry and the saplings die for want of water; they just don’t grow, their heads hang down towards their roots. Before, everything was large, but now it is all small. For this reason we think that the land is going to finish. The long memories of yesteryear have grown short [manda luni timbuni ore winigo tubagi hara]. Distances have grown smaller. Now young men refuse to look after pigs, people marry too quickly and women bear children too early. Our mana is finished and another has come out in its place [inanaga mana bago bihende biba halu ai nalene tagira
Mabira Walahuli, 23.10.92, 92/1B:546-574

But these descriptions of a world in decline are at odds with observations, often made in the same breath, on the visible improvements in pig stock, in the yield of the latest sweet potato cultivars and in the health and size of children. 3 These apparently glaring contradictions in the perception of change have been interpreted elsewhere as expressions of a universal tendency to nostalgia, a yearning for a better past, or as post­ contact responses to the impact of colonial administration and the corresponding loss of local autonomy (Clark 1989, Watson 1992). Yet, as Jorgensen (1985:208) notes, ‘it is a mistake to view these notions as epiphenomenal, for they are in fact part of the foundation of the Telefol view of the world. It is not simply that history conforms to the pattern of entropy, but that this sense of the world’s trajectory is invoked when experience would seem to run counter to the pattern’. In the Huli case, the inconsistencies in this discourse of entropy can be traced to a fundamental ambivalence in the status of women and female substance in Huli cosmology. A brief review of the mythical foundations for the beliefs that Huli men, in particular, have held about fertility and the nature of female sexuality serves to illustrate this point.

One of the more common and widely known Huli myths, reproduced here as Narrative B9, provides an illuminating introduction to the relationship posited by men between gender, fluids and entropy. 4 The prospect of immortality in the form of water is offered by the sun, Ni, to the original woman, who fails to respond appropriately; in place of the water of life, she feeds her child instead with milk from her breast, condemning it and all people thereafter to mortality. In other versions, the water spilt on the ground is consumed by a snake, thus ensuring immortality for snakes which shed their skin but never die of old age. Much as Umoim’s death looses entropy upon the Telefol world, Huli men hold that it is the breach of norms by women and the mortality introduced to infants through their mother’s breastmilk that initiate decline in Huli people and the Huli world.

Female sexuality is identified by Huli men as the source of most of the polluting substances (dodo) that are inimical to growth and fertility; women are explicitly equated in male discourse with social disorder (Goldman 1983:97) and entropy is thus regarded as a condition of existence for men in a world with women. Emanating from the inner “heat” (pobo) and the taint (ngu) of women, secretions of vaginal fluid (hugu) and menstrual blood (pugua) are identified as the immediate sources of decay and decline in men (Frankel1986, Goldman 1983:94-96); Table B251ists these and the other fluids that play a role in Huli fertility beliefs. Women’s heat and menstrual blood are typically held to be “dry” (gabu) and to cause “dryness” through contact. This is equally true for female fluids in a moist state, such as parturition fluids, and in the form of a dried precipitate. ))

The former use of tomia poison required the collection of menstrual blood in a bamboo container,
which was then left to dry and reduce for maximum effect. ‘When they wanted to kill someone, they would mix a little water with the contents of the bamboo. They would take a stick and dip it into the mixture and tap some drops onto food or onto sweet potato leaves. When you touched the leaves your hand would dry up, drain of blood and you would die. If you ate it your tongue would dry up and you would die. This tomia came from women’ (Gomengi, 26.10.92, 92/3A:163-179). ))

Men ascribe the “drying” of their skin, and the drying up of the water in the bamboo containers of the former haroali bachelor cult, to the polluting effects of contact with women. Desiccation induced through female pollution is thus a classic motif of Huli entropy beliefs and this perhaps accounts for the specific resonance for Huli of drought, rather than deluge. 5

Yet, if female substances are identified as the source of death and decay, they are also equated with fertility and growth. Thus the term for breastmilk (andu ibane), which is considered essential for the growth of a child, incorporates the common generic term for nutritive fluid or “grease” (ibane), itself formed upon the root term for water (iba) (Goldman 1981a:49). Similarly, the term for menstrual blood (pugua) differs only tonally from that for the swampy wetlands (pugua) that operated as the focal sites of fertility in Huli sacred geography and ritual. 6 The same female substances regarded in certain contexts as dangerous for men and inimical to growth generally were deployed in other contexts as components of fertility rites: bamboo lengths containing menstrual blood were formerly buried together with umbilical cords (also inimical to growth through their association with parturition fluids) in sacred swamps at the ritual sites of Gelote and Irari in the agau wandia rite. 7

In the myth which describes the origins of the haroali bachelor cult (also documented by Goldman 1983: Appendix 6, and Frankel1986:99), the magic plants with which the bachelors ensured their health and vitality are all identified as having sprung from the blood of a young woman. Neither are male substances universally beneficial: an excess of semen can threaten both a pregnant woman and the development of a foetus, which is formed through the commingling of menstrual blood and semen (Frankel1986:100); male substance can also convert to become polluting, as in the case of corpse fluids (pipini). My argument here follows closely that developed for the corresponding bachelor cult of the Ipili­. Paiela by Biersack (1982), who lucidly exposes the female basis for fertility in the cult and describes )) In their analysis of the very similar beliefs held by Hageners, A. and M. Strathern (1971:163) conclude that we ‘cannot simply argue, then, that semen is regarded as pure and menstrual blood as polluting. Each can be polluting, in particular contexts’.

This apparent conflict in the profusion of meanings attached to fluids can perhaps be resolved by considering the role accorded to women in Huli cosmogony. Here, women clearly emerge as the source of all things. The Huli ancestress, Memeleme, Tia Nangume or, as she is sometimes known, Dindi Ainya (“mother of the earth”), literally gives birth to the elements of dindi pong one and to the features of the Huli landscape (B2.6). Women and women’s fluids are also identified in tene te origin myths as the source of substances such as fire, mineral oil, sago and pandanus (Goldman 1981a:51- 52). In each case, however, the value of these substances, and of the world at large, is realised only through the domesticating actions of men. Men tame the potentially destructive powers of women’s “heat” (pobo) (Narrative Bl), open women’s vaginas to release the build-up of polluting blood and allow for the passage of children (Narrative B2), and harness the latent fertility of the haroali woman through the correct exercise of mana. Much as men have domesticated women in myth, so too men seek to negotiate the complex meanings of fluids, by restricting the flow of pollution from women, whilst retaining the nutritive value of female substance and controlling the effects of their own fluids. The means whereby men render safe or productive the polluting potential of women, and thus check the process of entropy, centre upon the observance of the structures of mana customs and the strictures of ilili tabus. A common example of this is the conventional timing of intercourse within a restricted period of four days during the menstrual cycle, which protects the man from “bad” menstrual blood while ensuring the presence in the woman’s womb of the “good” reproductive blood required to form a child. Strict observance of such codes is essential: in light of the harmful effects of an excess of sperm, while ‘sexual intercourse on less than four days is said to be insufficient to produce conception, to continue beyond four days is said to prevent conception’ (Frankel1986:100). Similar conventions, encoded as mana, ideally governed the behaviour of men and women in such a way as to limit the mutually deleterious potential effects of their union. Through both the domesticating power attributed to mana and the formal transmission of mana between generations, beliefs that articulated the relationship between fertility and pollution and that established the link between sexuality and entropy have emerged as a doctrine, a formal and gendered body of instruction.

There are specific mana for every aspect of Huli life, though some are more formalized than others. As Goldman (1983:66) describes it, Huli conceive a role for mana as ‘both to order- as a normative repertoire- and to explain- the raison d’etre for routine action- their lives’. If mana thus provide the rationale for conventional or appropriate behaviour, ilili tabus hedge such behaviour around with specific proscriptions. Ritual performances, in particular, were surrounded by ilili, usually pertaining to food and sexual contact: ritual leaders (gebeali) performing dindi gamu would abstain from sexual contact over long periods prior to and during the performance and eat only a limited range of foods. Similarly, mbingi mana sets out general instructions for behaviour, such as the construction of houses of a specific type, together with strict ilili proscribing sexual contact under pain of death (see B5.3). Failure to observe ilili undermines the success of any project conducted under the guidance of mana and this failure, critically, is what Huli identify as the cause of the world’s decline. The danger latent in women’s sexuality or, more accurately, in uncontrolled sexuality can be contained through the correct observance of ilili and the accurate application of the principles invested in mana; but unadmitted breaches by men and women break down these controls, allowing uncontrolled and hence dangerous substances to seep out into the world (see Jorgensen 1981:35). The scope for breach of ilili tabus is exacerbated by the belief that the complete and perfect knowledge of mana handed down to people from the earliest ancestors has, through the generations and with the untimely death of knowledgeable “mana-holders” (manayi), been depleted (Frankel 1986:25). As a limited and finite resource, the transmission of mana was a difficult process, fraught with anxiety: giving one’s mana too widely or too early was detrimental to the well-being of the owner, but the consequences of delaying transmission were equally as dangerous for one’s surviving kin. 8 Huli ritual, seen in this light, was an attempt to recover “full” mana through experimenting with the depleted pool of transmitted knowledge.

In the wake of the loss of this “full mana” there has developed a mana that is itself concerned with the process of entropy, a profoundly pessimistic repertoire of formal pureromo adages that foretell, through the description of a series of portents, the end of the world. Central to these accounts of impending doom is the failure to observe mana and ilili:

All that our fathers told us not to eat we now eat. All that our fathers told us not to see we now see. All that our fathers told us not to say we now say.
Pudaya, 3.11.92, 92/4B:199-238

It is said that the ground has gone bad [dindi ko haya da] because laws have been broken.
Yaliduma-Dai, 11.4.91, 91/5A:364-385

The specific signs of the approach of a total failure in the earth’s vitality are widely known and well documented (Frankel 1986:24) 9 : Narrative B 10 is one example of the many narratives that describe these portents. The formal nature of the narrative is suggested through the presence of stylized or poetic phrases that rely heavily upon rhyme (Haeapuni… hayala, Mogorowadapuni … momogo, Daliwali … dai etc.), suggesting a degree of determination by aesthetic considerations (Goldman 1983:119), but the markers of decline carry at least the impression of being specific in terms of content and location. Omens of the degrading environment, such as the appearance of poor-soil weeds and grasses on the swamps, are clearly posted, as are the corresponding signs of a decline in society (Frankel1986:24).

One of the more interesting features of this discourse of entropy is the relationship that is implied between “grease” (ibane) and the very root of the earth (dindi pong one), in which the latter is regarded, in some sense, as “pure” ibane, the ultimate source of all fertility:

Before, everything – pigs, sweet potato, taro, greens and bananas – was bigger. The source of this was beneath the ground. It was Python (puya), Worm (ngoe), Cane (gewa) and Water (iba) [i.e. the root of the earth (dindi pongone)]. Above these, and because of [literally “from”] these, people and crops grew well. Now everything is bad because Python is stricken, Worm has grown old and Cane has rotted through. Maybe this is why things are bad.
Pudaya, 3.11.92, 92/4B:158-198

Disruption of the root of the earth intervenes directly in the flow of ibane within this fertile core of Huli sacred geography. The oil and gas being removed by British Petroleum from the Hides well to the south of Tari (R.Jackson 1991, Ballard 1992c) has recently been reinterpreted as the ibane of dindi pongone, in such a way as to confirm the association between entropy and desiccation. 10

When they take out all of the gas, water will enter the area vacated by the gas and the land will become dry, crops will fail and the soil will turn to dust. The earth will be destroyed, coffee and trees will all wither and die and the land will become as cold and dry as dust. Pudaya, 21.10.92, 92/1A:135-154

The perceived social and environmental effects on the Tari region of the minerals boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s are the most recent in a long chain of events which Huli have interpreted, in the light of this doctrine of entropy, as presaging the imminent arrival of the world’s end.

The pace of revelation of these portents is felt to have accelerated during the course of this century. Events that are cited include an apparent rise in the frequency and severity of famines, particularly during the first half of the century when failures in food supply presumably had a greater impact on a steadily growing population settled increasingly in more marginal environments; note, however, that this perception is contradicted by most observations made on the impact of recent major climatic events, whose effects have been considerably reduced by introduced crops and foodstuffs. The spate of epidemics of influenza, pneumonia, dysentery and malaria amongst humans and of anthrax among pigs that accompanied the contact period (Appendix B 1, Table B24) is also regarded as proof of the gathering storm; Frankel (1986:24,27) notes that these epidemics were interpreted as the onslaught of a host of new, un-named dama, whose horrendous impact reflected the difficulties encountered in correctly identifying and negotiating with them. Chapter D1seeks to link the proliferation of new cults during the first half of this century to the sense expressed by Huli of a loss of control over the process of entropy during the same period, an observation that reflected the apparent crescendo of famine, mbingi portents and outbreaks of new, less accessible and more virulent dama.

If entropy was, and in many respects still is, considered by Huli to be part of the condition of life, its consequences have been negotiable to some extent. Strict accordance with ancestral mana and observation of the associated ilili served to diminish or forestall the effects of entropy and maintained order in the world, a function now largely assumed by Christianity. While the significance of tabu restrictions in the maintenance (or perhaps contest over the meaning) of order has been widely noted elsewhere in the Highlands region (Jorgensen 1981, Biersack 1987, G.Jackson 1991), the degree of control over fertility which Huli men conceive for themselves has extended historically to the possibility of causing a total renewal and replenishment of the earth’s vitality through the provocation of mbingi (Glasse 1963:271).

(Extract reprinted with permission of Dr. Chris Ballard from “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History  and  Subsistence  Revolution in Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Australian National University, Canberra, 1995.)

(Photo courtesy of Jimmy Nelson)

  1. These include (in order of geographical proximity to the Huli):  Duna (A.Strathern 1991), Ipili­ Paiela (Biersack 1991), Wola (Sillitoe 1993a), Etoro (Kelly 1977), Bimin (Poole 1986), Mendi (Puri 1982), Wiru (Clark 1989) and Agarabi (Watson 1992). []
  2. As the physicist Zernike (1972) observes, reconciliation of the divergent scientific and non­-scientific uses of entropy is both futile, given the mathematical complexities of scientific models, and unnecessary, insofar as entropy “works” as a concept for each field. []
  3. A nice illustration of the internal contradictions that are characteristic of this entropic discourse is contained in the following account by Tugusup Pori of Mendi:  ‘The kaukau [sweet potato] in the olden times was ten times bigger than what is produced now, and many of the old sweet kaukau have disappeared.  About twenty varieties I know have disappeared;  only two are surviving. New varieties have been introduced and they seem to do better than the ones that have disappeared’ (Puri 1982:161). []
  4. Of the several documented versions of this common myth (Goldman 1983:93, Arabagali 1985:101, Ballard 1991 and 1992 Fieldnotes), Narrative B9 reproduces the earliest, recorded by a patrol officer in the Komo area in 1953. []
  5. Bedamini-speakers, Huli neighbours to the south, also identify heat and the state of dryness as female qualities; but Bedamini cosmology resolves an apparent paradox in Huli thought (where the hot, drying sun is male) by identifying the sun as female (Stirum 1993:115). []
  6. Pugua is also the term for the verbs “to cut” and “to break a rule”, suggestive of an internally referential lexicon constructed around the single term which invokes both the creation of ilili proscriptions through the primordial cutting of Memeleme’s vagina and issue of menstrual blood, and the act of transgression. []
  7. Pipini corpse fluids were held to be severely dangerous for soil fertility (dindi ibane), accounting  for the Huli practice of exposed burials in raised box coffins;  these were said to have been preceded by an earlier practice of exposure in tree forks. Both have been superseded by the Christian practice of burial, an innovation whose symbolic consequences I have yet to enquire into. []
  8. Despite the wide distribution across the Highlands of a belief in entropy, this relation of entropy to specific portents of the world’s end appears to be restricted to the Huli, Duna, Ipili-Paiela and some of the Mountain Ok communities such as the Bimin (Poole 1986) and Telefol, for whom Jorgensen (1981:237) describes portents such as the twenty-seventh rebuilding of the Telefolip spirit house. []
  9. The extensive reinterpretation of these narratives since contact and the introduction of Christianity is a topic that would itself require a thesis; preliminary statements include those by Frankel (1986:30-37) on the role conceived for the Damene Cultural Centre at Tari and on Huli attitudes towards Christianity, by Clark (1993) on the incorporation of gold in Huli mythopoeia and by myself (Ballard 1992c) on Huli perspectives on mineral exploration, evangelical missions and the Christian apocalypse []
  10. Here I paraphrase an observation made by Jorgensen (1981:240) on the sight of grass overrunning a Telefol village plaza. []