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.

Perched on the southern rim of the Central Range of Papua New Guinea, and lying at the westernmost extreme of the chain of intermontane valleys that characterise the Central Highlands, the basins of the Tari region occupy an intermediate position between the Central Highlands valleys and the mid-altitude margins (Figure Al). Huli settlement extends from about 1200 min the Lower Tagali valley through to approximately 2750 min the E Mama basin. Huli horizons are dominated in the east by the high peaks of Ambua (Doma Peaks) (3360 m) and Gereba (3365 m) and in the west by Mbiduba (3420 m) and Galoma (3623 m). In the north, the Central Range rises to 3000 m, and in the south, a limestone belt, broken by the volcanic cone of Mt Haliago (2689 m), marks the southern fringes of Huli territory (Figure B2).

Within this ring of mountains lie a number of densely settled major valleys: the Tari, Haeapugua, Yaluba, Dalipugua (Koroba), Komo, Lebani, E Mama and Mogoropugua basins, the narrower Lower Tagali valley and the Paijaka plateau. To the east, Huli settlement has spilled over beyond these basins towards Margarima and Benalia. With the exception of the Lower Tagali, each of these basins contains swampy depressions at its centre. Low hills form a narrow band around the margins of these swamps, rising swiftly to the high limestone ridges that cut the landscape into discrete valleys. Valley floor altitudes fall into three broad categories that have significantly structured their histories of occupation (Table B 1). Of these valleys, Haeapugua has been the focus of most of my research. This was supplemented by briefer surveys in each of the other valleys, with the exceptions of the Paijaka plateau and the largely unoccupied E Mama valley, neither of which I visited.

For Huli, the cardinal elements of the basins are not the ridges that bound them but the major water features, the rivers and lakes (both iba) and swamps (pugua), at the centre of each basin. All of Huli territory, with the exception of the Margarima, E Mama and Lebani basins, is encompassed within the watershed of the Tagali river, which drains south and east through the Haeapugua basin and Lower Tagali valley into the Hegigio and Kikori rivers and ultimately to the Papuan Gulf. The Dagia river, feeding into the Tagali river from the east, drains the Tari basin, while the Nagia, entering the Tagali from the west, drains the Koroba and Mogoropugua basins. The significance of these major rivers for Huli is suggested by the use of kai mini, honorific prefixes or literally “praise-names”. Those rivers designated in this way are listed in Table B2, where a pattern emerges in the use of Gu as a praise term for Huli and Duna rivers and Hona as the corresponding term for rivers to the east of Huli territory. 1 Figure B2 identifies the major drainage features, including rivers, lakes and swamps, of the Tari region.

Six major swamps, listed in Table Bl, dominate the basin floors. Historically, the relationship between the catchment areas of the major rivers and the swamps through which they pass has been critical for the nature of swamp exploitation in each basin (see Chapter C4). The Haeapugua, Dalipugua, Mogoropugua and Lebani basins all enjoy a broadly similar topography, with a central swamp hemmed in abruptly to the east by limestone ridges and to the west by more gently rising slopes. However, differences in drainage, as expressed in the ratio of swamp to catchment areas, appear to have contributed to radically different histories of wetland exploitation, a possibility explored further in Part C.

Regional drainage provides the basis for one of the fundamental axes of Huli orientation, the distinction between mane, upriver or headwaters, and wabi, downriver or the lower reaches of any given river. For most Huli this represents a broad flow from north to south and is associated with the course of human life. The spirits of Huli dead (dinini) are thought to travel down the rivers to the Tagali and ultimately to a location beyond the known universe, identified as Humbirini Andaga. 2 The connection between water and mortality is explicitly stated in a common Huli myth in which water offered to a child is rejected by the child’s mother in favour of her milk. 3 Water (iba) is closely associated with broader concepts of fertility, and forms the root of the term ibane, for semen, grease, sap or juice. Loss of water and the consequent drying of the landscape are the critical signs of a general decline in the earth’s condition. In Huli eschatology, the final demise of the world will be signalled by the conversion of swamps, pugua, to dry land, dindi kui (“land-real”) and a diminution in the roar of waterfalls such as the Hewai falls as the rivers slow to a trickle. 4 The permanently moist swamps, which appear to resist even the harshest droughts, are thus both centres of fertility and the focus of regenerative rituals. Much of Huli ritual has been concerned with this perceived process of desiccation:

We cook gebe nogo [pork oblations for ancestral dama] to prevent famine. We try to stop the land from drying out, but now all the waters have left. Only the Piwa, Hulia and Alua rivers are left to us, and we look after them. If these are lost, and the Tagali river slows to a trickle, fire will destroy us all.
Hubi-Morali, 4.11.92, 92/SA:0-3686. 5

The spectre of an over-abundance of water is viewed as a comparable, though not equal, threat. Regular floods in most of the basins are a constant hazard and the presence of drowned forests at the base of ditches dug in the swamps is cited as evidence of apocalyptic deluges in the past. Flooding on the basin floors is often the result of tributaries backflooding from junctions with larger rivers. 6 This is held to be caused by blockages of flotsam at gorges or bends near such confluences, which are usually cleared by a form of dama known as iba tiri [“water-fool”] spirits, working in pairs (Goldman in press). lba tiri were formerly encouraged and sustained in this work through the performance of rituals above river junctions, in the course of which propitiants would throw bundles of pork tied around an axe into the river (to assist in the work of cutting up the flotsam). 7 On a grander scale, there are said to be iba tiri, the dama Muguali and Dabuali, and E.labe and K labe, at the end of the Tagali river, beyond the boundaries of Huli territory; a failure on the part of these iba tiri to maintain a free flow at this point in the Tagali river would drown the Huli universe.

Individual, often ancestral, dama spirits are closely linked to specific water features such as deep lakes (iba kuyama) on a descendant clan’s land, to the extent that they are identified as the substance of the lake or river. Ritual leaders from the landowning group regularly performed propitiatory ceremonies at these lakes to attract the support of these ancestral dama for their descendants. The nature of these ceremonies varied considerably from group to group but commonly consisted of an oblation of cooked pork, either thrown into the lake or suspended on a stick by the water’s edge, which the lake would then rise to consume. The intimate association between groups and lakes occupied by related dama is dramatically evident in stories told of the movements of lakes in conjunction with clan migrations: 8

The rivers N gubibi, Poro and Landa, Dumbiyu and Dolame, these were all up there. But now they are all finished, there are just hills where they were. The waters have all left. These waters were all the homes of dama spirits, but now they have left us.
Hubi-Morali, 4.11.92, 92/SA:0-368

Rivers in the Tari region frequently disappear beneath the ground in huge natural tunnels and can be heard roaring beneath the limestone, an observation that has given rise to Huli beliefs about the connections made beneath the ground between different rivers and even different catchments. Huli interpreters entering Duna territory with the administration patrols of the 1950s asserted that the major river flowing through Duna into the Strickland, known to the Duna as Ipa Wapene, was in fact a continuation of the Tumbudu river, which surfaces in Huli territory as a northern tributary of the Tagali in the Lower Tagali valley but is held to flow beneath the land, through the Lebani valley (Figure B2). The similarly subterranean and largely upstream course of the sacred Girabo river is described in B2.6. Rivers, and water features generally, are thus critical elements of Huli sacred geography and serve as markers of identity (B3.5).

(An extract from The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea; Australian National University, Canberra, 1995).

(The tables and figures for this article are in process and will be published soon. Thank you.)

  1. The latter term is also employed in reference to the sun, Hona Ni, and moon, Hona Hana, which are thought to reside at and rise from Mt Ambua, to the east of the Tari basin. Hona may thus be a standard praise term applied to subjects from the eastern margins of Huli territory. []
  2. The association between the lowlands (wabi) and mortality is compounded for Huli by the presence of endemic malaria (wabi warago: “the lowland sickness”) beneath about 1400 m. A similar cardinality is expressed for regional drainage amongst the neighbouring Foi (Weiner 1988b:47) and the more distant Daribi (Wagner 1977:400). []
  3. See Narrative B9 and Section B5.4. []
  4. Many older people in the Haeapugua area claim that the Hewai falls are no longer as loud as they were formerly. This might be expected, given the propensity for limestone channels to be underpassed, a process already observed to be under way at Hewai (P.Williams et al. 1972:345). []
  5. References in this format refer to tape transcripts in Huli, translated into English; in this case 92 (for 1992), SA (Tape 5 Side A), 0-368 (the tape meter count). []
  6. While the majority of permanent lakes in the tari region are less than 7 ha in area, much larger temporary lakes are formed by flooding on the basin floors. These flood lakes are each identified by name: hence Lake Yamama in the Lebani basin and Lake Yagaro at Haeapugua (which can attain a size of up to 5 km2). []
  7. A spectacular example of such a location is Hewai falls, the point from which the Tagali river backfloods into the Haeapugua basin. Here, axes, pork and even vegetables were thrown into the Tagali for the wane labo, female iba tiri who resided at Ambiuli, a crook in the river above the falls where logs and other flotsam gather. The re-enactment of a similar ritual in the Yaluba basin has been documented on film (Parer 1981). []
  8. In a widely known tale, Mabiali clan, evicted after fighting from the Haeapugua basin, took refuge in the Koroba basin. Shortly after this, a stream on their former land at Telabo, Iba Dabali, dried up and emerged on their new territory as Iba Hundia. []

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