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.

by Michael Main

The first encounter that Europeans had with Huli people resulted in the now well- known description contained in the account of the Fox brothers that Huli were “inclined to be cheeky.” 1 To be fair, four years after the Fox brothers’ encounter, John Black wrote that the nearby Ipili were “very truculent and cheeky.” 2 This disposition I think may better be glossed as one of supreme confidence. For Huli, the external material world did not possess cognition or intent. In the realm of the material (that is, apart from the immaterial world of dama and the like) agentive cognition was a uniquely human feature. The material existed for possession by Huli people. The attitude to new materialities was highlighted to me in an anecdote told by Wilma Norman during her visit to the ECPNG mission at Mananda (see note 22).

Old Grey used to come in, he was living next door. He’d come in and we had this little bush house and we had a couple of curtains over our shelves and he’d come in with this little bamboo thing and he’d lift up the curtains to show everyone what was going on, and you know he knew everything about everything. And then we had a short-wave radio and it came on and he jumped to the ceiling and shot out. The next day he came in and explained how it worked.

This provides an interesting comparison with Hides’ anecdote about his initial contact with Huli and their refusal of his gifts of steel axes, knives and cloth. 3 Interviewed in 1985, a Huli named Telenge Yenape who was a participant in that encounter provided insight into their cautious response. 4 The unfamiliarity with the objects, which they perceived to be the objects of spirits, meant that they were fearful that the objects might cause them harm. In particular, the agali haguene (‘head man’, see Chapter 8 for detail on the contemporary context of agali haguene), whom Hides’ party had named “Besoso”, had decided on that response, one which he required his men to follow. The encounter highlights the historical contingency of such moments. The personality of one man and his individual decisions prevented the axes, knives and a mirror from becoming part of a social encounter. The perception of the visitors as dama spirits and the accompanying fear, however, was commonly shared, even if the response to new materials was not. Telenge later found a spade, which he threw into the river out of fear, but another man who found a bush knife “who traded it for pigs.” 5 When the Normans first walked into the Mananda valley in 1962, many of the locals were having their first encounter with what they perceived to be dama.

Wilmer Norman: “… when we first came down our white skins they thought we were ghosts.”
Alf Norman: “The women ran away.”

W: “They did they dropped everything and went screaming off into the bush when they first saw us…Dama, dama! But they seemed quite curious.”

The agali haguene who gave his land to the Normans for their mission, and who thought to explain to them how their short-wave radio worked, provides an insight into not simply the incorporation of new materialities into social networks, but the possession and ownership of function and provenance, to which Huli were entitled. Once initial perceptions of supernatural malevolence had dissolved, the new materialities were permitted incorporation into the Huli material world, the objects of which were most definitely owned. In many cases Huli incorporated these new materialities via reinterpretation of well-known proverbial sayings, which is a genre of Huli speech referred to as bi mabura, meaning “go around talk”. 6 Huli proverbs are numerous and ubiquitous and often deeply ambiguous and mysterious. The proverbs also seem to be of uncertain origin, although when I enquired I was told that they had long ago been “released from the Kebeanda” by ritual leaders who undergo mysterious deliberations while performing various rites. Whatever their origin, I was taught to speak several proverbial forms of speech that had been interpreted as prophecies of the development and modernity that was to come. The interpretation of these prophecies that I provide are of course contemporary. However, the reinterpretation of proverbs and other forms of speech to encompass and possess the new materialities of Western influence is not at all recent. In this way the materially new is made to become part of Huli history, and encompassment within history is the method by which anything is owned.

New concepts of space

liri hama, landari hama, gawini hama, gambolo hama, lali hama.

Hama, the Huli word for area or designated space, is prefixed with various place names. Some of the same place names appear in a gamu spell recorded by Goldman 7 called Tagira pialu that was performed by haroli bachelor cult members when putting themselves out for public display. Gambolo hama i mero, “I am going to the cleared dancing ground at Gambolo”. The contemporary meaning given to this set of recited open space names relates to the different types of space that arose during the post- contact era. Huli had never before experienced broad roads, or large cleared areas for government stations, runways, or lay down areas for equipment. In a landscape where every piece of occupied land was demarcated in some way, the new land uses represented a deep, structural change as the new demarcations were blind to traditional boundaries. This speech form, although not originally meant as a proverb, continues to be re-evaluated in response to the intense construction period of the PNG LNG project, in terms of “sites”. According to Michael Ango:

Liri hama – preferred site Landari hama – clearance site Gawini hama – construction site
Gambolo hama – proposed construction site
Lali – completed construction site

In this and other ways the material impact of the PNG LNG project, and of industrial development more broadly, is believed by Ango to have been prophesied by the holders of ritual knowledge.

New ways of seeing

Te mugula te gala
Eyes close eyes open

Te mugula te gala liri hama, landari hama, gawini hama, gambolo hama, lali hama.

At each new space you are going to close your eyes, then open them, then close them, then open them. This is taken to represent fast modes of transport that take you to new places very quickly. People have individual interpretations of the meaning of these prophecies. Michael Ango explained:

So open your and close your eyes, it means someone is giving you a lift. And then you go to the other location where you have never seen you will see them. Where you never see you will see them. So open and close eyes is the truck. The buses, the trucks, the vehicles. So like one whole day we can cover Hagen today. So the locations you have never seen, you have never seen the sights, you have never seen the locations, you have never seen the beautiful houses. You’re going to close your eyes and open again, you’re going to close eyes and open again. And that is the vehicle truck. The truck makes people open their eyes and close their eyes means they inside they are closed, when they are out they see different things where they never expected. So this was a prophecy.

This prophecy can also be interpreted to indicate rapid changes taking place in a single location over time. Joseph Abuli explained:

So I predict it this way. When he said open your eyes and close eyes. I see on the first place I see something new and then from there start another thing new. And then I see another thing new. And that place is changing.

Such an interpretation may as well be translated as “all that is solid melts into air.”

New forms of communication

ega bipiawi bi yalu ibira yagola bi halaga bi yalu taibiriago halaga

Bipiawi bird talk comes and carries the omen words

The bipiawi bird is a mythological bird that is part of a group of mythical bird names commonly used in stories. 8 Bird names are often used rhetorically in stories that tell of an omen bird, or for example in the phrase ega Bibiya Bauwaya bi hadarebe? Which translates as “are you untying the talk of this Bibiya Bauwaya bird?” The Bibiya Bauwaya bird [unidentified] is known to be very talkative and this idiom is used to criticise a person who is talking too much. 9 Bird names are commonly deployed in Huli rhetoric, and there are several birds considered to be very talkative.

MA: One of the prophesy words for our fathers has predicted in the kebeanda and we waited and now given to us and we now recall that it has been fulfilled, and it is practised, and it has happened – is the telephone. Communications. The communication is the telephone, the means of communication, any other means of communication as in telephone, radio, MTV, newspaper, Post Courier, TNT, American newsletter, Australian newsletter. All these are visions from our fathers. They call them ega bipiawi
JA: Ega is a bird and the name of that bird is bipiawi. Will bring the news. The responsibility of that bird its word is to bring the news in and bring the news out. That is namely ega bipiawi.

Bird talk has traditionally been a very important concept for Huli and is often interpreted to carry great meaning and significance. 10 The early administration soon introduced a mail service, and newspapers were delivered as part of the regular air service. The belief in omen birds bringing information from afar has been interpreted to have been a foretelling of new and swift forms of communication being introduced with the capacity to bring in news from far away places.

Changing gender relations

Wali ma danda beregeda hene
Women before bow turned have

Women originally turned the bow. This bi mabura was recorded by Goldman as wali danda maga beregeda (women bow turned) where he revealed its meaning to be related to the belief in “the mythological primacy of woman who had to teach men to put the bow-string on the proper side…”. 11 When women’s opinions were dismissed, this proverb was used to reinforce the right for women to express their opinions. But for me it was the interpretation that has been turned around.

JA: … just a little illustration. Okay, the man trying to put up his bow when he put the rope from here and this end. Cane rope. To pull the cane up this way and [attach to the top]. Later the arrow go to shoot on the animal or other things. But the bow, when he try to put up this rope, it breaks down and then hard to maintain this one, so while men are confused in his mind and sitting there the woman got up and said, ‘man you try and turn around this way and then put up this way.’ [i.e. he was trying to string his bow on the wrong side]. And that’s what the woman told the man. So that’s the parabolic words that will be released by the woman or… And this is a parable and these are prophetic words. So that parable fulfil which is really happening now.

This prophecy can be compared to an anecdote told to me by a friend in Tari, James Komengi, during an interview about tribal fighting. During an argument over land at Koroba, the Duna wife of one of the Huli men involved intervened and grabbed her husband’s home-made shotgun. At that point the argument over land was forgotten and switched to the issue of women holding guns. The men took horror at this vision of the end of the world, as had been prophesied by their forefathers. That this proverb has been divorced from its original meaning reveals a great deal about the availability of cultural resources that are detached from their origins and ready to be applied in novel ways. Novelty, originality and creativity themselves did not arise as a result of western influence and Huli have had an abundance of discursive resources to redefine and apply to the new.

Generational changes

Hale ne tapa ne hale na hole piria lene
Thirteen generations ear don’t have sit down uttered

The thirteenth generation won’t listen when you tell them to sit down.

MA: Hale ne tape is kids after 13 generation. Hale ne tapa is 13 generation will not obey the laws given by their father and mother. So actual that had happened, it is now practising. Beyond me are practicing. Like father and mother used to discipline us saying, ‘where are you going?’ This is no longer exist. ‘What are you doing?’ This is no longer exist. ‘Why are you away from the house for maybe a week? Where have you been, what are you doing?’ And my father in time of him we used to be questionable. This is not done today. This is partly ignorance. We never smoked drugs. The people are smoking drugs. The girls are not allowed to go in the disco. In the taverns, in the clubs. They have never known that. They don’t entertain in the sexual provided rooms. It’s not public to them, that’s a privacy with them hide them away. But they go do it in public. Photographing.
JA: Where did this axe come from? We don’t know. But our ancestors, our fathers they now wait… Like the stones that we have the liru kui, ni habane 12 and these things, that’s the thing which they crack the wheat, the corn or whatever you call it. The wheats. When this thing came over to our land the Hela here they now each generation which been came here. Especially we are the Duguba or Huli people living here. They are now the generation. So the first generation takes place, the second place is this man, the third place is this man, the fourth is, the fifth and maybe there are sixth and they release this word out. And seven will come, eight will come, nine, ten eleven will come. Twelve will come and go but thirteen the words are doing that on that generation. They will [come] the final time. You will see different things. Different events will appear on that time. And the different thing which they have mentioned on that time it’s appeared now, it’s. That we can see. All this thirteen generation we see this gas is coming out from our land and it’s going out. Those are the changes we see. On this thirteenth generations we see the wrong things which our sons and daughters doing they’re turning themselves you see. And the man killing his brother and the man is killing his wife. Now the wife is killing her husband or brother or second wife these things happen critical things that is happening around in the community. That is a fulfilment of the prophecy of our father. And we believe this way it’s really happened.

Joseph’s cryptic explanation of this proverb is crucial. He is comparing an earlier phase of newly introduced materials, when stone axes and other stone artefacts first arrived, to the later phase of new materialities when western modernity arrived. This interpretation is cognisant of Huli notions of an historical moment following the introduction of sweet potato and the raising of large numbers of pigs when people became “modern humans”. 13 Although this particular form of historical knowledge seems to have largely been forgotten, there is consistency in the belief in a time of the introduction of stone implements, which are now widely believed to have been introduced from Israel, where they were used to harvest wheat. Joseph claims that the proverb was released during the sixth generation, and the current thirteenth generation is experiencing the changes as predicted. This speaks to an historical consciousness and a notion of social change that has been a feature of Huli culture for many generations.

Life becomes easier

ayage kuaminini gelebeharibi
Palm bark moving Easily move along the bark of the palm

JA: That means you don’t hurt yourself while you are walking on this. You just freely you go. It’s very comfortable.
MA: Comfortable moving. Comfortable moving.

JA: Like you see on their times they were fighting with the evil spirits and these things, cutting their eels and lakes and hands and clean the pigs and giving to the devils and these things. So far many things we had been done on our times. But there is a time coming just like that ayage kuaminini gelebeharibi. Means that time you will not remember what is really happening now. On our time here. Our fathers have said. You will never remember. Because you see something new and it’s very comfortable to you. So that time you will forget everything and then you will just eat everywhere, sleep everywhere, walk everywhere. You lost yourself.

This proverb is similar to the English expression “smooth sailing”. Western modernity has brought the promise of relief from manual labour, the drudgery of making gardens, raising pigs, and living in bush material homes. Travel is easier and nobody needs to be concerned about dama spirits and ritual sacrifice.

Many of the proverbs are Delphic in nature and give me reason to question the psychological state of those who released them, if in fact such a process did take place. 14

The proverbs are double-edged; they simultaneously speak of material betterment and warn of moral decline. This is consistent with traditional, and now largely forgotten, Huli cosmological concerns with bringing about the next mbingi event, and the (not forgotten) belief in entropic decline of the moral and physical world. The warnings of moral decline relate to the breakdown of social structures: “You lost yourself”, compared to the observation given to me by a friend in Tari that Huli society is “not intact”; loss of knowledge, of mana, of there being a logical superstructure to social conduct that holds any prospect of a good life together.

The shock of the new administration was absorbed by the depth and flexibility of Huli historical understandings about themselves, and this process is ongoing, especially in light of the PNG LNG project (see Chapter 8). Huli confidence was based on an understanding of themselves as supreme holders of mana and historical knowledge, not only of themselves, but of all their known neighbours. Anything new must logically have been part of the Huli telos, and Huli possession of the new was thus an entitled right.

(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. 89-101.)

  1. Bryant Allen and Stephen Frankel, “Across the Tari Furoro,” in Like People You See in a Dream: First Contact in Six Papuan Societies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 98. []
  2. Alex Golub, “Making the Ipili Feasible: Imagining Local and Global Actors at the Porgera Gold Mine, Enga Province, Papua New Guinea” (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Chicago, 2006), 34. []
  3. Jack Hides, Papuan Wonderland (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1973 [1936]), 82-85. []
  4. Bryant Allen and Stephen Frankel, “Across the Tari Furoro,” in Like People You See in a Dream: First Contact in Six Papuan Societies, 105. []
  5. Ibid., 102. []
  6. 31 Laurence Goldman, “Talk Never Dies: an analysis of disputes among the Huli,” 143. []
  7. Ibid., 134. []
  8. Laurence Goldman, pers. comm. []
  9. Laurence Goldman, “Huli Proverbs, Expressions and Sayings,” (Unpublished manuscript for ‘Regional Myths in Southern Highlands’ Conference, ANU, September 1994). []
  10. Laruence Goldman, “Talk Never Dies: an analysis of disputes among the Huli,” 330. []
  11. Laruence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 232. []
  12. Ritual stones. Liru = “stone” kui = “bone/real”. Liru kui include a wide variety of stones. Ni habene
    = “sun’s egg” and refers to shiny, spherical stones that were highly regarded and thought to be very powerful. See Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.” Vol 2, p. 35
  13. Ibid., Vol. 1, 112. []
  14. I was told by Michael Ango of a type of plant known as habe habe, which translates as “live forever”. I never saw this plant but was told that it is small and grows in the forest. Snakes are said to eat this leaf and that is why they don’t die, rather they shed their skin and keep on living. According to Michael, chewing the habe habe leaf results in a changed psychological state, altering one’s concept of time and giving the consumer great energy. Eating this leaf is said to make a long, arduous journey much shorter. Michael also said that most people would not be aware of this leaf, and that it was information he had learned from his father. If this plant does exist, then it is possible that it had a role in secretive ceremonies held in the major kebeandas and had an hallucinogenic influence on the composition of proverbs. But this is pure speculation. []