Wealth Items in the Western Highlands of West Papua
- Wealth Items in the Western Highlands of West Papua
Journal article by Anton Ploeg; Ethnology, Vol. 43, 2004
Wealth Items in the Western Highlands of West Papua (1)
by Anton Ploeg
This article compares the distinctive uses of wealth items among Grand
Valley Dani, Western Dani, and Me, the largest ethnic groups in West
Papua. The time period covered is primarily from first contact with
Europeans to the early 1970s. (Wealth items, inalienability, ancestor
The Western Highlands of West Papua extend from the Grand Valley of
the Baliem to the western tip of the Central Highlands (see map). The
area coincides with the "Western Sphere" of the Highlands as
identified by Hyndman and Morren (1990). They define a sphere as "a
potentially expansive, segmentary, reticulated mosaic of local groups
that, notwithstanding observable ethnolinguistic diversity, share a
common tradition and are strongly influenced by one or more core
populations at the historic-geographic centre of their region"
(Hyndman and Morren 1990:10). Hyndman and Morren (1990:13) distinguish
three such spheres in the Central Highlands: Eastern, Central, and
Western. The Eastern Sphere centers on "a chain of eight valleys from
Arona-Aiyura to Tari-Koroba"; the Central on "the Sepik Source Basin
and the Sibil valley"; and the Western centers "on the Baliem valley
and the Paniai Lakes."
A number of ethnic groups, well represented in ethnographic studies,
reside in the Western Highlands of West Papua. Best known are the
Grand Valley Dani, the Western Dani, and the Me. The Grand Valley is
located in the lower reaches of the Baliem River where it flows
southeast through a wide valley with a relatively flat floor before it
leaves the Highlands via the Baliem Gorge (see map). The habitat of
the Grand Valley Dani is formed by the floor, the slopes of the
valley, and its tributary valleys. The habitat of the Western Dani
centers on the valleys of the North Baliem, the Boko, north of the
Grand Valley, the Toli, the Yamo, and the Ila rivers. They occupy the
entire middle section of the Western Highlands north and west of the
Grand Valley. In the recent past they pushed further west. As a
result, the valleys of the Ila, the upper Kema, the Nogolo, and the
Dora have an ethnically mixed population of Western Dani, Damal, Moni,
and some smaller groups. The habitat of the Me runs from the middle
reaches of the Kema to the westernmost tip of the Highlands. Most Me
live around the Paniai, Tigi, and Tage lakes, and in the valley of the
Edege River and its tributaries. The Grand Valley Dani, the Western
Dani, and the Me are by far the largest Highlands groups, and are the
focus of this article.
THE ETHNOGRAPHIC RECORD
The establishment of colonial rule in the West Papua Highlands started
in the late 1930s in the Paniai Lakes area. The extension of colonial
control was interrupted by World War II. Missionaries and
administrative officers settled in the Dani areas in the 1950s, in
1954 in the Grand Valley, and in 1956 among the Western Dani (Hayward
1980:124), and missionaries of various denominations have remained
active. In 1963, the Indonesian government took over the
administration of the area, and when highlanders appeared to resist
it, they were dealt, to all appearances, extremely harsh measures
(Defert 1996:ch. 12; Meiselas 2003:142-44). Ethnographic coverage of
this incorporation is understandably slight. The Me have been studied
by Pospisil (1958, 1963, 1978, 1989), who referred to the people as
the Kapauku, more recently by Hylkema, a Franciscan missionary and
self-taught ethnographer, and by Giay (1995), himself a Me. Giay is
one of the proponents of the name Me rather than Kapauku or Ekagi
(Ekari), names still in use. At his death in 1998, Hylkema left behind
many monographs and writings in draft, based on his association with
the Me that lasted from 1969 to 1994. I am editing and introducing two
incomplete manuscripts that he worked on shortly before his death
(Hylkema n.d.a and n.d.b). In addition, there is ethnographic material
about the Me by the administrative officers de Bruijn and Dubbeldam,
the botanist Eyma, and the medical officers van der Hoeven and Boelen.
Publications on the Western Dani have been made by the missionaries
Larson, on Ilaga Dani, and Hayward, who worked in the Mulia area; by
Wirz and O'Brien, who worked in the Toli Valley, and by myself on the
Wanggulam, in Bokondini. Based on the extensive notes on the North
Baliem Western Dani written by the missionary-linguists Norman and
Sheila Draper, Szalay (1999) has written a comparative thesis on West
Papua Highlands ethnography. Finally, Pierre and Anne-Marie Petrequin
have researched production, use, and significance of stone artifacts
in the Highlands. Their work includes discussion of stone wealth
items. Long-term field research among the Grand Valley Dani has been
carried out by Heider, Broekhuyse, the missionary/anthropologist
Peters, and recently, by Butt and Hampton. Heider (1970:300-01) worked
in the northeast of the valley, Broekhuyse in the same area and in the
southeast, while Peters (1967:18-20) collected most of his data in an
eastern side valley of the Baliem. Hampton's (1999:xviii-xxii) report
refers to the area where Heider worked. Butt (1998:51-52) worked west
of the Baliem. To what extent these ethnographies represent the way of
life of all, or most, Grand Valley Dani over the last 40 years is not
Most of the research by anthropologists was carried out in the 1950s
and early 1960s, when the Dutch administered West Papua. An exception
is Wirz, who worked in the Toli Valley in 1921. Consequently, most of
this work refers to an era shortly before or shortly after the
imposition of colonial control; it reflects theoretical concerns that
have since become less urgent and was often done with imperfect
knowledge of the vernacular languages. The shortage of recent research
prevents understanding about present-day usage and how the use of
wealth items changed between colonial and postcolonial times. In
several instances, people have stopped using the artifacts discussed here.
Ethnographic information about the Papua New Guinea Highlands is many
times greater than that for the Highlands of West Papua. Moreover, it
is theoretically far more sophisticated. However, this discrepancy
allows me to use theoretical models and concepts generated to analyze
Papua New Guinea Highlands ways of life for the subject of the present
essay: comparing how the Me, the Western Dani, and the Grand Valley
Dani used their wealth items. Specifically, this essay uses Godelier's
(1982, 1991) model of the transformation of Great Man to Big Man
societies as a general guide. Godelier's transformation model,
elaborated by Lemonnier (1990), posits differential processes of
sociocultural change leading toward the late precolonial Great Man and
Big Man "social logics." The discussion of this model by, among
others, Lederman (1991) and Wiessner and Tumu (1998) has pointed to a
greater variety of pathways of change than Godelier at first
envisioned. The data from the Western Highlands of West Papua
presented in this article add to this variety. But the data that
enable constructing models of sociocultural change in the Papua New
Guinea Highlands are largely absent for West Papua.
The term "wealth items" refers to movable objects, accorded great
value and used as means of payment, as gifts, as ritual objects, and
as markers of identity. I turn first to the Me, then the Western Dani,
and third to the Grand Valley Dani, using this order because the Grand
Valley Dani are the most distinctive in their use of wealth items,
compared to other Highlands groups, both in West Papua and in Papua
The Me had a persistent mistrust of and opposition to foreigners
(ogai), whether Dutch or Indonesian, government people or
missionaries. While Me interacted with them, they maintained their own
world. During Dutch rule, there were three uprisings; in the last, in
1956, the colonial administration deployed its marines (van Baal
1989:532-34; Giay 1995:47-51). Proselytizing met with little success
until local trainees started to spread the gospel (Giay 1995:31). A Me
catechist set up an alternative church, based on reinterpreted
Christian doctrine, that attracted a large following (Giay 1995).
Pospisil worked among the Me in the Kamu area, the valleys of the
upper Edege and its tributaries, west of the three Paniai lakes, first
in 1954-55, before a patrol post had been established there (Pospisil
1958:4, 65). Hylkema (2002) claims that the Me should be divided into
three cultural groups: the people around the Paniai and Tage lakes,
those near Lake Tigi and in the Kamu area, and those living further
west and northwest at the fringes of the Highlands. Hylkema calls
these people the Mapia Me, and believes that in the late precolonial
era they were gradually becoming ethnically different from the Me
further east. Hence, Pospisil's data pertain to the Kamu-Tigi Me, less
to the Paniai-Tage Me, and probably much less to the Mapia Me.
Hylkema's data on wealth items deal primarily with the Paniai-Tage and
the Kamu-Tigi Me.
The primary wealth items among Paniai-Tage and Kamu-Tigi Me were
cowrie and nassa shells and pigs (Pospisil 1963:301, 1978:18; Hylkema
n.d.a). Shells had to be included in bridewealth (Pospisil 1963:204,
212; Hylkema n.d.b: ch 2), but the two authors differ about the
inclusion of pigs. Pospisil (1963:212) says that "at least" one pig
must be included; but Hylkema has collected only a few cases that
included pigs. These cases concerned the Kamu-Tigi area, which for
Hylkema are culturally separate, so the discrepancy is likely the
result of cultural divergence. Cowries drew the greatest attention.
They came by trade from the coast, which limited their availability.
While Pospisil (1963:308) located their origin on the south coast,
according to Hylkema (n.d.a), they reached the Me from the north. (2)
Moreover, following Dubbeldam (1964:299), Hylkema (n.d.a) opines that
the cowry supply increased sharply in the recent past due to the
intensification of bird-of-paradise hunting in the area north of the
Me habitat. While he offers regrettably little evidence for this view,
it seems plausible, given the settlement of Dutch in the Cenderawasih
Bay area since 1856 and the resulting increase in trade (Rutherford
2003:183-88; see also Ellen 2003:134-47).
Hughes (1977), who conducted field research in the central parts of
what became Papua New Guinea, investigating the indigenous trade that
had taken place in the early twentieth century, favors the process
hypothesized by Hylkema. Hughes (1977:198-202) concludes that during
the period before Europeans entered the Highlands, the import of
goods, including cowries, had increased greatly there. Moreover, more
cowries were traded in from the north rather than from the south
The Me graded cowries into categories and subcategories based on size,
shape, and color, and further distinguished between old cowries
(traded before colonial incorporation) and those imported by colonial
newcomers. The categories differed widely in value, with the recently
imported ones less valuable. Pospisil (1963:301-04) writes that the Me
in the Kamu area in the mid 1950s distinguished five categories of old
cowries, with a value differential of over 300 or more, often
expressed in multiples of six, in accordance with the Me sexagesimal
counting system (Pospisil 1989:20). Dubbeldam, an administrative
officer among the Me in the Paniai area around 1960 (Watson 1964:vi),
reports a slightly different gradation of cowrie denominations, with
another series of names. Moreover, cowries became smoother with use,
and so acquired more value. Hylkema (2002:235) writes that Me had
designed yet another set of refined criteria on the basis of which
each separate shell could be differentiated within its own category.
Assigning specific cowries to their appropriate categories and
subcategories required expertise which few people, apparently always
men, attained (Hylkema n.d.a). Hylkema gives the impression that their
rulings were contested. The fact that a cowrie had been successfully
used in a transaction provided an alternative testimony of its value
As long as cowries had to be acquired from other Papuans, their number
remained limited. A further restriction on the number of shells was
that those in the middle categories were on a string that in time
tended to damage them (Pospisil 1963:308). With colonial
incorporation, large numbers of shells were imported, especially into
the Paniai area, the center of administrative activities. In keeping
with their mistrust of the newcomers, the Me started distinguishing
between old and newly imported cowries (Robbins and Akin 1999:24). By
such means, they succeeded in letting the old ones retain their value
into the 1970s (Hylkema n.d.a). Some Me attempted to counterfeit old
shells by frequently wearing those introduced by the colonial
newcomers (Pospisil 1963:301, 304, 338; Dubbeldam 1964:302; Giay
1995:38-40). In 1969, the year that Hylkema started work among the Me,
the scope for cowrie transactions had increased due to increased
importation by foreigners. This made it easier for women to acquire
cowries even though men claimed that managing cowries pertained to
them. Hylkema (n.d.a) observed that men were sometimes taken aback by
the high-quality cowries that women owned.
Hylkema (n.d.a) argues that over time, the Me shifted their
categorizations and evaluations of cowries. The further from Paniai,
his supposed point of entry, the more valuable were the categories.
Hylkema's insights explain the differences between the categorizations
reported at almost the same time by Pospisil for the Kamu Me and by
Dubbeldam for the Paniai Me. Moreover, they assert that the steady
import of cowries was a novelty to the Me, which is in line with the
people's intense preoccupation with these shells and with their
grading. Discussing Melanesian currencies, Foster (1999:230-01)
concludes, "Money forms will always be subject to skeptical reception,
an awareness that these harbor within them unrevealed possibilities
for the future, hidden agencies and identities that might be exploited
or might engender exploitation in as yet unimagined ways." This is
precisely how the Me perceived their cowries.
Apart from cowries, some types of nassa-shell necklaces were used as
valuables, especially as part of bridewealth. Pospisil (1963:304)
regards both cowries and the shorter nassa necklaces as money. At the
time of his first field research, necklaces of tiny (one- to
four-milimeter), multicolored glass beads also served as money
(Pospisil 1963:304), but Hylkema (n.d.a) writes that they were no
longer in use when he arrived among the Me in 1969. Pospisil, quoting
Umbreit, Elgin, and Kinter (1948), defines money as "the common medium
of exchange and the common measure of value." He subsequently points
to the very wide range of goods that the Me could purchase with
cowries, and their habit of expressing the value of goods in terms of
cowries (Pospisil 1963:301). At the same time these objects show the
features that Godelier (1996:222-26, 1999) associates with "objects
precieux" (wealth items). First, Godelier points to their uselessness
in productive activities and in everyday life; second, to their
abstraction, by which he means that these objects are taken out of
their previous context and can thus be resignified (3); and third, to
the beauty that people perceive in them.
Me valuables appear to conform to the definition of money as given by
Umbreit and his collaborators. Moreover, Giay (1995:20) and Breton
(1999) have followed Pospisil's usage, with the provisos that Giay's
statement refers to the 1950s, when Me had been exposed to European
influences for two decades, and Breton based his view from fieldwork
among the Wodani, in the mid 1990s. Nonetheless, it seems useful to
add what kind of money was used. Shells, shell strings, and shell
necklaces seem to have been coins, or assemblages of coins. These were
valuables in their own right, as opposed to most present-day coins,
whose metal value is a fraction of their face value. Shell items
lacked the anonymity of present-day coins. Among the Me, there was no
immaterial money like bank accounts, nor were there drawing rights on
banks or financial institutions, the usual form of bank credit. Hence,
the supply of money was limited. In Western monetary systems, material
money is being used decreasingly and immaterial money increasingly
(Klamer and van Dalen 1998). But given the Me's preoccupation with the
physical properties of their cowries, such a development is unlikely
to have taken place among them, had the colonial powers not intervened.
What further distinguished Me cowries from money used in the Western
world is that precious cowries had to be included in bridewealth
prestations (Hylkema n.d.b:ch.2). This suggests that the amount in
itself was not critical, but that the quality of the shells also
mattered (cf. Gregory 1982:49). Moreover, Hylkema (2002:235) states
that the strings held shells of various values. This suggests again
that numbers alone were insufficient, unlike Western money. From what
Hylkema writes, it seems that the strings were a megavaluable, and
that the constituent shells were withdrawn from circulation. (4)
Pospisil's insistence that the Kamu Me employed money is part of his
wider argument that they ran a capitalist economy. Several features of
their way of life prompted him to use this characterization: people,
especially men, were after the accumulation of cowries, of money.
Pospisil calls them "businessmen" (Pospisil 1963:333, 1978:21).
Sometimes he puts the word in the mouth of his Me spokesmen (Pospisil
1978:30). Hylkema employs this term also (2002:235).Wealth differences
were considerable, and when men co-operated, their individual
contributions to the co-operative projects remained, as Pospisil
(1978:31) remarks, "readily perceivable and separable from [those] of
others." Sales, in exchange for cowries, of a wide range of goods
played the most important part in circulation. Prices fluctuated
depending on supply and demand. Barter did not occur much and gifts
were unknown. But what Pospisil (1963:31) means by gifts, "a giving
without expectation of approximately equal reciprocation," differs
sharply from definitions of Mauss and others, notably Godelier.
The social institution that drew the greatest number of participants,
and which required the longest and most laborious preparations, was a
pig feast initiated by a wealthy pig-owner and co-sponsored by other
pig-owners, culminating in a massive sale of pork and other goods for
cowries (Pospisil 1963:327-31; de Bruijn 1978:171-73). During these
feasts many Me joined in and offered goods for sale. Kamu Me economy
deviated from Western capitalism in what Pospisil, inspired by Veblen,
calls its "conspicuous generosity" (Pospisil 1963:361):
Generosity might take the form of loans, or lavish distributions of
food free of charge on such occasions as birth ceremonies or [the
ceremony] on the opening day of the sequence of dances connected with
a pig feast. There exists almost a compulsion for extensions of credit
in this native society. In some regions, such as that of the Paniai
Lake, rich people who prove to be stingy with their credits are even
punished by execution. (Pospisil 1963:31)
By being generous, Me men acquired followers: a person's debtors were
his "stoutest supporters" (Pospisil 1978:50-51). Status and kin
considerations influenced the operation of the law of supply and
demand on price formation. But Gregory (1982:51) regards Pospisil's
"conspicuous generosity" as evidence that his statements about Me
capitalism are a "profound misunderstanding," pointing to the
prevalence of gift relationships, which seems correct, if we allow for
the fact that people were often pressured into gifting.
Although Pospisil does not use the term Big Man and does not touch
greatly upon the ethnography of the Papua New Guinea Highlands, his
data make it clear that Kamu Me leaders operated in polities pervaded
by, in Godelier's (1982, 1991) expression, a Big Man logic. Giay
(1995:21-22) implicitly acknowledges this by quoting Strathern's
(1971) characterization of Melpa leadership while describing Me leaders.
Before dealing with the matter of inalienable wealth items among the
Me, I mention several modalities of inalienability as they occur more
in general. One form is that movable or immovable objects cannot or
may not be transferred by their owner or owners in the course of their
lifetime. At death these objects go to the heirs. Another modality is
that such objects cannot be transferred to people viewed as outsiders,
such as members of other kin groups, other polities, etc. Yet another
is that objects, although they are transferable to others, inescapably
retain aspects that link them to their former owner(s), holder(s),
and/or maker(s). A fourth modality that has not been reported for the
West Papua Highlands is that an object is disposed of together with
its owner when he or she dies, as among the Melpa (Strathern 1971:191-92).
The above discussion of Kamu Me wealth items shows that shells were
freely transferred to others, and that they gradually increased in
value, which transformed them into treasured old shells. They thus
acquired an identity that one might call inalienable. Moreover,
necklaces of a specific type, decorated with dogs' teeth, nassa
shells, and cowries, were "usually regarded as heirlooms, inherited in
the main line," presumably the male line (Pospisil 1963:275-76,
1958:201). Pospisil never mentions objects, sacred or not, held by
individuals, and denies the existence of shared property among the
Kamu Me (1958:115), which might have given them identity in the
perception of outsiders and which, as Weiner (1992) and Godelier
(1999:36) argue, shored up the exchanges in which these individuals
Trade or Gift Exchange
Were Me transactions carried out to make a profit, as in a capitalist
economy, or were they gifts and part of a larger chain of transactions
entailed by and adding to a new or existing relationship? Pospisil is
only partly clear about this. From what he says about the organization
of the pig feast, and even more about what he calls the "pig market"
(Pospisil 1963:333), it seems that at least some transactions were
chance events. However, this information suggests that others were
not. The same hybrid impression is created by Boelen's (n.d.:5, 216)
description of pig feasts, which is probably based on observations
made in the Paniai area in the early 1950s, when Boelen was posted there.
The pig feast proper is more like a fair. The pigs are tied to poles,
on show. Two by two, the men withdraw very secretively to talk
business. They discuss which piece of pork one of them will buy and
what it should cost. The prospective buyer tries to sell the pork to
others in smaller quantities and calculates if he can get a small
profit. The person who has secured a smaller piece, tries in his turn
to hawk it and explores whether it will bring him a few shells to
complement the bridewealth which his son needs, or to buy himself a
new penis gourd or a skirt, for his wife.... All this, while the
animal concerned is still grunting at its pole. (Boelen n.d.:167-68)
Such negotiations were held after buyers and sellers might have met
the previous weeks at the dances held in the dance house on the
feasting ground. While Pospisil (1963:333) writes that pig feasts were
not frequent, Boelen (n.d.:172) stresses their frequency, especially
in the Paniai area, and the large numbers of attendants, so people
were likely to meet repeatedly and may have transacted again and
again. Hylkema's observations from 1969 agree in part with those of
Boelen. He seems to deny the frequency of reselling, but observes that
pig feasts were often held in quick succession and that organizing a
feast challenged other prominent men to organize one. Most exchanges
were with kin or affines, so were likely often repeated. Yet after a
seller had laid out portions of pork for sale, prospective buyers
approached him from behind, offering a cowrie without revealing who
they were. The seller was entitled to refuse the shell or to offer a
smaller portion of pork than he had originally laid out. Hylkema
describes this process as a contest with one winner and one loser.
While Pospisil, as mentioned above, stresses the value that Me put on
generosity, Hylkema points out that, at least in cowrie transactions,
there was a lot of "pressure for generosity" (Peterson 1993:860). (5)
Similarly, the main assemblers of a bridewealth payment aggressively
exhorted their fellow contributors to increase their contributions.
What remains unclear, however, is whether the organizer of a pig feast
pressured men on whom he had a claim to bring pigs to his feast. It
would have been plausible for him to do so, since the more pigs
slaughtered for the feast, the more impressive the occasion (Hylkema
I believe that during the Me pig feasts a variety of transactions took
place: gifts, reciprocating earlier gifts but deviating from the
Maussian model in that the partners in the relationship could refuse
gifts and press for more; transactions for profit; and transactions
which, during ensuing interactions, turned out to be the beginning of
a gift relationship. An analogy might be the hybrid character of kula
encounters, as described by Uberoi (1962:ch. 8) and by Campbell
(1983:203) for the southern Trobriands. Campbell, moreover, points to
another similarity between kula encounters and Me pig feasts; namely,
the "fun and play" aspect.
The Western Dani form the largest ethnic group in West Papua. Most
recently, Hayward (1997:7) estimated their number at 134,000, slightly
more than Silzer and Heikkinen Clouse's (1991:19) estimate of 119,000.
Their habitat is formed by V-shaped valleys stretching from the Grand
Valley of the Baliem westward beyond the Ila Valley and northward to
the fringes of the Highlands.
At the beginning of the colonial era the Western Dani were expanding
out of the North Baliem Valley into valleys to its north and west
(O'Brien 1969b:24; van Rhijn 1969:52; Hayward 1997:10; Larson
1986:318-21). In the absence of prehistoric research, it has remained
unclear when or where these migrations started. Western Dani oral
traditions have their ancestors originating in the southeast of the
Grand Valley (Larson 1986:11; Hayward 1997:26, 279). Because Western
Dani speak mutually understandable dialects, it is most plausible that
their ancestors once formed a single group. The cultural differences
noted by the ethnographers have then to be explained by residence in
separate valleys, mitigated and complicated by encounters with earlier
inhabitants and by the adoption of cultural traits due to migrations
and possibly by contacts with other ethnic groups.
Around 1960, strikingly soon after missionaries had settled among the
Western Dani, and before anthropologists had started field research
there, the people began converting en masse to Christianity. They
abandoned or destroyed, first, objects with religious significance,
including ancestral stones. This was followed in Bokondini and Konda,
and possibly other Dani groups, by discarding the polished stones that
they had used as wealth objects (O'Brien and Ploeg 1964:287-88).
Cowries and cowrie bands remained longer in use. As a result of the
early conversion, there are no thorough descriptions of the pagan
Western Dani religion, or religions, and of the artifacts used
therein. In due course, Western Dani at Mulia, Bokondini, and probably
elsewhere much reduced the size of bridewealth payments, and many
Mulia Dani argued in favor of their abandonment entirely (Hayward
Before conversion, Western Dani sociocultural organization showed
several traits that suggest Godelier's Big Man logic. Polities
contained several hundred people (Ploeg 1969; Hayward 1997:5-8), more
(Larson 1986:120) or less (O'Brien 1969a:202), and agriculture was
intensive. There was an intense exchange of wealth items with
life-cycle rites and compensation payments. Yet Western Dani leaders
cannot be characterized as Big Men. Leadership among them resulted
from a mix of qualifications, with leadership in warfare possibly the
most important (Larson 1986:232; Hayward 1980:63-67; O'Brien
1969b:265-76; Ploeg 1969:75-84). Other leadership criteria mentioned
are wealth (i.e., the ownership of pigs and other valuables), wives,
oratory skill, and supernatural knowledge. Wealth items changed hands
during ceremonial events that had to be organized and co-ordinated.
The largest ceremonies were compensations for killings and pig feasts.
The literature does not indicate that this was done by a special
category of leaders, so it seems that war leaders performed these
tasks. If so, these leaders resembled those warrior-organizers of
exchanges whom Lemonnier (1990), in his analysis of leadership in the
eastern half of New Guinea, identified as intermediate between Great
Men and Big Men. Lemonnier refers to them as Leaders (1990:ch. 6) or
leaders (1991:18-20). If that status includes organizers of wars as
well as the community aspect of the exchanges, it characterizes
Western Dani leadership.
But the Western Dani did not conform completely to Lemonnier's
characteristics. Apart from the people at Tiom and surrounding areas
(Draper, pers. comm.; Amonen, in Draper and Draper 1990:213), Western
Dani married allies rather than enemies, and there was equality rather
than inequality among wife-givers and wifetakers. Among most Western
Dani, the important social groups were directed inward. They were
centered on two subclans or patrilineages between which preferential
marriage relations existed. Marriages occasioned exchanges of wealth
items. These Western Dani practiced the delayed exchange of
classificatory sisters, combined with marriage payments.
Western Dani used a wider range of wealth items than did the Me. These
included pigs and pork, oblong polished stones, cowrie shells (both
odd shells and shells set in long, narrow, tightly looped bands),
slabs of salt, looped carrier bags, and strips of tightly looped
thread, often decorated, used in women's skirts (Draper 1958:4;
O'Brien 1969b:42-51; Ploeg 1969:10; Hayward 1980:32-34; Larson
1986:127). The term used by the majority of Western Dani for the
polished stones is ye. Ye, shells, and salt had to be imported. Ye
were obtained from quarries in the northern fringe of the Highlands
(Petrequin and Petrequin 1993:155). There were salt wells in and near
the Western Dani areas, but those preferred were in Ilaga and in the
far west, at least until recently outside the Dani area (Petrequin and
Petrequin 1993:154; Wakerkwa, in Draper and Draper 1990:245; Yakiya,
in Draper and Draper 1990:252; Hayward 1980:29-30; Larson
Among the various Western Dani, the relative importance of these items
differed. During the first stages of my fieldwork among the Wanggulam,
in Bokondini, the ye were the most cherished. They were hidden until
needed for an exchange ceremony. Then they were polished with pig
grease, fondled, and laid out side by side in a row. Wanggulam had
three seemingly unrelated methods to differentiate and evaluate ye.
First, they distinguished between those male and female; the males
were shorter, more cylindrical, and penile in form, while females were
longer, flatter, and often vaguely triangular. When arranging and
rearranging a row, men alternated male and female stones. Second, the
most valuable stones were given names and were put in the middle of
the row. Wedding payments had to include such precious stones. Third,
Wanggulam saw a wedding payment as representing the body of the bride,
with single ye representing the various body parts.
Second in importance for the Wanggulam were either pigs or looped
bands set with cowries. There was an acute "shell hunger" among the
Wanggulam when I first arrived in May 1960. (Draper [1958:7] reported
a similar phenomenon among the North Baliem Dani at Tiom.) Many
Wanggulam offered to work for me or to sell food or artifacts to get
cowries. On occasion, the Wanggulam used odd cowries in what seemed
commercial transactions with each other. But the usual "biography"
(Kopytoff 1986) of a cowrie was to have its back removed and then
attached to a looped band and used as a gift in ceremonial transfers
of wealth. On these occasions, the bands set with shells were
displayed by putting them on the row of ye, in the direction of the row.
After the Western Dani had converted, Wanggulam put little effort into
raising pigs. A household, typically an elementary family, might own
one to three adult pigs, rarely more. It seems they were not keen to
increase their number, since many piglets were killed and eaten by the
owning household. Perhaps this was due to the context in which I did
my fieldwork, since people were preoccupied with a revitalization
movement (O'Brien and Ploeg 1964). Moreover, there were no plans to
assemble a compensation payment or hold a pig feast, so people may
have seen no need to expand their herds. After the Western Dani had
converted to Christianity, missionaries attempted to promote the
celebration of Christmas by combining it with a pig feast (O'Brien
1969b:65), and at Mulia the Dani consumed "hundreds" of pigs at
Christmas celebrations (Hayward 1997:178-79). But Larson (1986:34)
reports that in Ilaga such celebrations "are now giving way to Dani
markets at which pork is sold for cash rather than distributed
reciprocally between individuals and groups."
The decorated, looped carrier bags and the string used for women's
skirts were used as gifts during the first part of a wedding, when the
bride was dressed in a ceremonial skirt, consisting in part of the
balls of string brought along by female participants. The bride stood
holding a horizontal bar tied to two poles, while women wound string
around her hips, fashioning it into a skirt. Later that day the bride
distributed the bags.
Ye were distributed by men and apparently kept by men until they were
needed. Women might carry them in a carrier bag to a wealth transfer,
but I never saw women cherish them as men did. Cowries were handled
and used both by men and women for trading. Both men and women were
immensely interested in acquiring them. Hence, although the bands to
which they were tied were looped by men, and although during a
transfer the bands, like the ye, were distributed by men, cowries were
less of a male domain than the ye. This also held for pigs, which were
cared for more by women than by men. In contrast, the carrier bags and
the looped string pertained primarily to women: they were made and
used by women, although men may have gathered the raw materials.
During a wedding, there was a clear division, with men transacting
with men and women with women.
Most of the Western Dalai seem to have used the same wealth items as
the Wanggulam (Draper 1958:4; Larson 1986:127; Hayward 1997:141).
While the Konda Valley Dani did use ye, O'Brien (1969b:408) writes
that in Kuttime, and in Kanggime, both located west of the Konda, in
the upper reaches of the Toli River, ye were not used, but Wirz
(1924:64-66) reports their occurrence in the lower Toli Valley in
1921. O'Brien (1969b) writes that ye were not used in the Yamo, but
this statement may refer to the upper Yamo only, since Hayward
(1997:141) writes that "sacred stones" were part of Mulia Dani wedding
payments. In their study of stone artifacts in West Papua, the
Petrequins (1993:208) report that in the North Baliem only the
female-type ye is found. In seeming agreement with this report, Larson
(1986) does not mention the distinction in his discussion of Ilaga
wealth payments. As for shells, Draper (1958:7) states that at Maki in
the lower North Baliem, cowries were not in demand, with people using
nassa shells and imported beads instead.
Among most Western Dani there were three wedding payments: first, a
betrothal payment; second, a payment assembled by the bride's father
and transferred to his wife's relatives (called uak); and third,
bridewealth, assembled by the groom's father on the occasion of a
wedding and transferred to the bride's father. The bridewealth had at
least to equal the uak, and the uak in turn had to be at least equal
to the uak for the bride's mother. Thus the payments were linked
across the generations. They were not competitive or "agonistic"
(Mauss 1990:7; Godelier 1996:57). The lack of competitiveness is a
strong reason for arguing that Western Dani did not follow a Big Man
logic. In line with this view is that assembling and distributing
wedding payments caused wealth items to change hands within the
community. Similarly, the pigs slaughtered during weddings were often
consumed primarily by community members, suggesting a degree of
inalienability about these items. But alienability existed with regard
to the most precious ye, since people might remember their
transactions and who gave which to whom.
Rating of Wealth Items
The composition of wedding payments among Western Dani groups suggests
differences in the rating of wealth items. I refer here to wedding
payments only because most of the authors quoted have witnessed their
transfer, unlike cases of killing a person. Larson (1986:127) writes
for the Ilaga, "The ... uak payment consisted of 30 to 35 small live
pigs and an equal number of wealth objects, including chunks of salt
ash ... cowrie shell strings ... and steel axe heads ... together with
many items of lesser value such as steel knives ... and individual
cowries." For the Mulia, Hayward (1997:141) states, "Such a payment
typically consists of gifts of 7-8 pigs, 2-3 sacred stones and perhaps
18-20 shell bands," and for the Konda, O'Brien (1969a:220) calculated
very similar amounts. There, the uak included an average of 8.1 pigs,
2.3 stones, 18.9 shell bands, 2.1 "other items," 12.3 nets, and 7.0
balls of braid. The averages were based on seven uak. For Wanggulam,
on the basis of nine uak, I calculated an average of 2.9 pigs, 29 ye,
20.5 shell bands, and 0.6 steel implements (Ploeg 1969:28).
Notwithstanding the similarities in the figures that Hayward and
O'Brien reported, it should be noted that Mulia and Konda were
separated by an area where ye exchange stones were not in use.
If the actual composition of the payments followed preference, then
pigs got the highest rating among the Ilaga Dani. It is also
noteworthy that in Ilaga the uak contained live pigs (Larson
1986:127). Among the Wanggulam, pigs were killed while the uak was
assembled and their meat distributed first to the contributors to the
uak, and one or a few days later to the relatives of the groom who
welcomed the bride to his hamlet. However, among the Ilaga Dani, it
seems pigs were transferred live and presumably, like the other items
of the uak, given to those who a generation earlier had contributed to
the uak for the bride's mother. The Wanggulam payments included by far
the smallest number of pigs. Notable also is the comparatively large
number of ye in the Wanggulam payments.
Western Dani groups appear to have categorized wealth items in
dissimilar ways. Like the Wanggulam, the Konda Valley Dani
distinguished between male and female ye (O'Brien 1969b:408). However,
Hayward writes that Mulia Dani "sacred stones" did not show the male
and female forms of Wanggulam and Konda Valley ye, and that the Mulia
Dani denied that they categorized their ye in this way (Hayward
1997:112, 127n1). I also do not know whether other Western Dani
regarded the ye of their wedding payments as representations of the
bride's body parts. The North Baliem Dani at Tiom seem to have graded
or ranked their cowries. They delighted in seeing valuable specimens
Ethnographers have reported the existence of inalienable ritual wealth
items among all Western Dani groups which have been investigated.
Since these objects were discarded soon after Europeans had settled
among them, only Larson, an early settler, provides a description that
seems to be based on actual observation. Larson (1986:68, 71-73)
writes that a range of objects were associated with the ancestors:
string nets and arm bands to which were tied hundreds of pig tails,
belts and necklaces set with cowries and other shells, and "large
smooth stones," to some of which "a tail and shell pair" had been
attached. These were kept in closets in men's houses or in a special
"war house" (Larson 1986:72). During large rituals, these objects were
laid out on banana leaves and/or worn during dances. The stones were
the object of cleansing rites, apparently especially or only during
male initiation. Larson does not discuss the ownership of these
objects, but it seems plausible that objects associated with ancestors
were held by some or all of their descendants. Reports of other
Western Dani groups, based on oral information, suggest close
similarities (Hayward 1997:109-10; Maynard, quoted in Hayward
1980:1377; O'Brien 1969b:90). Some of these objects were personally
owned (Hayward 1980:137). In addition, he refers to the prominence of
the ancestor cult, also in Mulia (Hayward 1997:145). However, O'Brien
is silent on this matter, although she discusses ghosts and spirits.
My data do not suggest the prominence of such a cult. So in this
respect there seems to have been variety among the Western Dani.
GRAND VALLEY DANI
In contrast to the Western Dani, most Grand Valley Dani were averse,
if not actively opposed, to the influence of administrators and
missionaries. The mass conversion of the Western Dani around 1960,
stopped at the northwestern tip of the Grand Valley, where the Baliem
River enters it, suggesting a sharp cultural boundary and important
cultural differences between the two groups. Also, in the 1960s,
missionaries had little success (Heider 1997:160). The first patrol
post in the Grand Valley was set up in 1956 (Veldkamp 1996), and from
1958 the colonial administration attempted, often by force, to put an
end to Dani warfare (Gonsalves and Verhoog 1999:67; Meiselas
2003:86-87). These efforts were hardly successful. Warfare persisted.
Grand Valley Dani regarded warfare as a religious duty, a requirement
for the support of the ancestral ghosts (Peters 1967:79-80, 1975:76;
Broekhuyse 1967:217, 1996:103).
Grand Valley Dani polities were of much larger scale than those among
the Western Dani. However, in several other respects they were
similar. They focused inward, with a tendency toward endogamy among
pairs of lineages, and with outside boundaries defined by permanent
hostility and frequent wars with neighbors. In their descriptions of
the Grand Valley Dani way of life, ethnographers have given more
prominence to inalienable than to alienable wealth items; i.e.,
artifacts held as sacred items by lineages or subclans and not
transferred to outsiders. These descriptions differ from the early Me
and Western Dani ethnographies, where the emphasis is the other way
around; i.e., on wealth items that are exchanged.
In part, the difference is due to the bias of the ethnographers
concerned. Since Peters, Broekhuyse, and Heider focused on religious
life, long sections of their monographs consist of the description of
rituals. However, as noted above, the different foci of the Western
Dani and Central Dani ethnographies are also in part differences
between their respective ways of life. Ritual seems to have been more
important for Grand Valley Dani than for the Western Dani. For
instance, in his 1970 monograph, Heider spends twenty pages on
elaborate funeral ceremonies (Heider 1970:146-66). They included
display of wealth items, and Heider intimates that this aspect of
wealth item was more important than their exchange. Lemonnier
(1991:19) writes that Grand Valley polities had Leaders, but in this
case they were primarily masters of ceremonies and ritual rather than
organizers of exchanges (see also Butt 2001:80, n. 1).
The items that Grand Valley Dani exchanged were similar to those in
circulation among the Western Dani; oblong polished stones, cowries
set on looped bands, and carrying nets (Heider 1970:292). Many of the
stones came from the same source as those with the Western Dani
(Petrequin and Petrequin 1993:194-95), but their size was possibly
larger. Many stones were decorated with feathers, fur, and items of
female dress (Heider 1970:289), while Western Dani stones were bare,
as I observed among the Wanggulam. Representing whole persons, they
were laid down in a row and were subdivided into "bone" stones in the
center and "leg" stones at both ends (Heider 1970:287), reminiscent of
the Wanggulam notion that they represented human body parts. The nets
included strapless ones (Heider 1970:151) and long, rectangular nets,
open along two sides, which are usually reserved for funeral
exchanges. Such nets have not been reported for the Western Dani. It
is noteworthy that the volume of items exchanged at funerals seems to
have been larger than at weddings. This feature is associated with the
prevalence of the ancestor cult among the Grand Valley Dani (Ploeg
2001). Wedding payments were linked across the generations (Heider
1972:180), again reminiscent of the Western Dani. Whether the bride's
father's payment had to equal that for the bride's mother remains
unclear. Heider's (1972:180) table of marriage prestations indicates
that pigs and pork on the one hand, and stones, shell bands, and nets
on the other, moved in opposite directions during the exchanges. This
did not occur to the same extent among Western Dani.
Heider (1997:163-64) remarks that a young man in the northeast Grand
Valley in 1988 had remained a bachelor since he was unable to assemble
the pigs and shells needed for bridewealth. So in this part of the
valley, bridewealth was still to be paid and shells were part of it.
At that time, Indonesian money was in circulation in the Grand Valley
(unpublished report by Naylor, quoted in Meiselas 2003:128), and by
then the Me had abandoned their cowries.
Ritual Wealth Items
It is useful to divide inalienable wealth items among the Grand Valley
Dani into two or three categories. One consists of artifacts,
especially the sacred stones, held by groups of men and kept in the
men's houses. A second is of similar sacred artifacts held in war
men's houses, thus called on account of either the special sacred
stones held there (Peters 1967:82, 1975:80) or the prominent war
leaders living there (Heider 1970:85; Broekhuyse 1967:98, 122-25). A
third category consists of personal possessions, especially the
amulets (tipat) that men and women wore for protection. Whether these
are inalienable goods, in the sense used by Weiner and Godelier, is
uncertain, since these authors refer primarily to goods held by
groups. The amulets were consecrated in group ritual (Heider 1972:192;
Peters 1967:143-45, 1975:151-53; Broekhuyse 1967:108-12, 141).
Broekhuyse (1967:111) writes, "The great significance of the tipat is
made clear by the fact that one finds it round the neck of almost
every man and every initiated boy [pace Peters (1967:144, 1975:151-52)
who reports that also women and girls wear one]. They do not want to
give them up." I have found no reference to what happened to the tipat
when a person died and was cremated.
Ganekhe were stones similar to exchange stones and very prominent
sacred possessions. Like the Grand Valley exchange stones, they were
provided with wrappings (Broekhuyse 1967:100-01). They included other
kinds of objects, like shell bands, and Broekhuyse reports the
occurrence of one made of bone found under mysterious circumstances
and believed to have been left behind by a ghost. Subsequently, a
cowrie believed to date back to the ancestors had been fastened to it.
Ganekhe were associated with ancestral ghosts and were on occasion
refurbished (Peters 1967:112, 151-59, 1975:115, 160-72; Broekhuyse
1967:102), as happened during a ritual in the presence of male lineage
members. Pigs were slaughtered, and the ganekhe were rubbed with pig
fat. During such a ritual, Peters (1967:152-59, 1975:161-72) observed
the wrappings to be renewed, and two men uttered spells.
Ethnographers disagree about ganekhe ownership. Heider (1970:25) says
that individual men owned them and might take them when they moved to
another men's house. Broekhuyse (1967:98), however, maintains that
they were common property of "the members of one ... lineage or local
clan." He admits exceptions, and mentions a man who regarded one as
his "personal" ganekhe (Broekhuyse 1967:100). Hampton (1999:127-28)
insists that the ganekhe were owned by individual men. However, more
important than the matter of ownership seems to be the fact that
ganekhe ritual was to benefit the group. On this the early authors agree.
The second category of inalienable possessions also consisted of
ganekhe that were kept in the war men's houses for the ancestors
killed in hostilities (Peters 1967:159-60, 1975:173). Of these there
was one per lineage (Peters 1967:82, 1975:80). It seems that the
ritual of refurbishing the war ganekhe took longer than that for other
ganekhe, and included consecration of new neck amulets. A greater
number of pigs was killed and eaten. For one day, working the land was
forbidden, and even pigs were kept in their sties. The ritual was
directed toward success in war, while the ritual refurbishing the
ganekhe held in the other men's houses was for the welfare people
hoped to obtain from their ancestors (Peters 1967:88-101, 151-52,
When Heider returned briefly to the northeast Grand Valley in 1988,
warfare there had ceased and men's houses had become accessible to
women (Heider 1997:159). Whereas Heider intimates that the ancestral
stones had lost their potency, Hampton's subsequent observations, made
where Heider had conducted his field research, suggest otherwise. In
1989, or possibly a little later, Hampton (1999:145) attended a ritual
refurbishing of ganekhe, and his description makes it clear that the
ritual had changed little from the early 1960s, when the earlier
ethnographers carried out their field research. By the mid-1990s, such
rituals included the veneration of ganekhe, and had "replaced warfare
as the key way to control the actions of ancestors" (Butt 1998:77-81).
Pigs and Pork
Pigs and pork were essential in all Grand Valley rituals. Pork might
be given as a welcoming gift, or as the acknowledgment of a gift that
remained to be reciprocated (cf. Lemonnier 1993:37; Ploeg 2001:35-36).
Consuming pork was part of ritual, whether done communally (Heider
1997:123) or as an indicator of an individual's role in the ritual
(Peters 1967:89, 94-95, 1975:88, 94-95). In any case, which parts
persons were given (e.g., fat, bacon, entrails, organs, head, and so
on) had special significance. As the ethnographers focused on rituals,
it is not clear whether the consumption of pork in rituals entailed
gift transactions. The nonconsumable parts of pigs (i.e., tails,
bones, and teeth) were retained to serve as tools, finery, and ritual
objects (Heider 1970:55). It is clear that pigs formed part of
marriage and compensation payments (Heider 1972:180, 183-84).
At an early stage of research in the Highlands, Brookfield (1964:33)
noticed the differential agricultural potential of highland areas
across New Guinea. Much later, Feil (1987:14-18) and Modjeska
(1991:251) argued that these differences facilitated the emergence of
Big Man leadership and Big Man economics. Such a development did take
place in the Paniai-Tage and Kamu-Tigi areas, but not in the Grand
Valley, where agricultural intensification occurred. Of the peoples
considered in this essay, the Me conformed most closely to Godelier's
model, although they live farthest away from Papua New Guinea. The
contrast that Hylkema (2002) noted between, on the one hand, the
Paniai-Tage and the Kamu-Tigi versions of the Me way of life and, on
the other, the Mapia version, suggests a transformation away from a
time when agricultural intensification was of minor importance and
animal food was obtained primarily by hunting and fishing. As in the
Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the transformation may have started
before the introduction of the sweet potato.
The Grand Valley Dani deviated most from the Great Man-Big Man model,
since they used their increased productive capacity (and the resulting
increase in wealth items) to maintain or intensify their ancestor
cult, rather than build a network of exchange relations. They were
most interested in the stones used for ritual purposes. The Western
Dani, however, were keenly interested in acquiring the cowries
administrative officers and missionaries brought (Ploeg, In press),
and held onto them after discarding their exchange stones and ritual
The wealth items used by Me, Western Dani, and Grand Valley Dani were
largely similar, but the Me did not use the polished stone blades,
even though many lived not much further away from the quarries than
did the Western Dani and the Grand Valley Dani. This seems to be
another instance of the selectivity with which Me met new
opportunities; e.g., they adopted tobacco; many, but not all, adopted
the sweet potato as their staple; and they did not adopt maize. If
Hylkema is correct in stating that the import of cowries among the Me
had sharply increased before Europeans settled among them, the desire
for these shells may have induced them to step up production,
especially of pigs, to obtain them. The Me used wealth items not only
to build and maintain a wide network of gift relations, but also to
transact with each other on a casual basis. Possibly they did so also
with a view toward the gift relations in which they were, with the
once-only transactions, for profit or to obtain a good needed for a
gift, subsidiary to gift exchanges. They also availed themselves of
the opportunities their grading of cowries provided them to pressure
their partners to upgrade their prestations.
While all three peoples had pigs as wealth items, they used them for
different purposes. For the Me, pigs were an important means to
collect cowries. The Western Dani used them primarily as alienable
gift items, as ingredients of gifts. They also used them for ritual
purposes, but due to the early mass conversions to Christianity, what
and how varied these uses were among the Western Dani groups is
unknown. The Grand Valley Dani used pigs primarily for rituals in
their ancestor cult and their pig feast.
The variety of uses for similar objects points to the variety in
significance that people accorded these objects. In contrast, similar
significance also can be accorded to different objects. For example,
the gradations in value that the Paniai-Tage and the Kamu-Tigi Me
attributed to cowries resemble the gradations in value which Wanggulam
accorded their exchange stones, and the positioning of shells of
different value in the Me shell strings resembles the positioning of
exchange stones in the layout of a Wanggulam ceremonial payment.
Weiner (1992:43) argues that alienable and inalienable possessions are
linked in that some objects are given away while others are held.
"What motivated reciprocity is ... the desire to keep something back
from the pressures of give and take. This something is a possession
that speaks to and for an individual's or a group's social identity
and, in so doing, affirms the difference between one person or group
and another." Godelier's (1999:36) view is that gift exchange does not
operate in a void, but has to be rooted: "There is always, in every
human activity if it is to become constituted, something that precedes
exchange and in which exchange takes root, something that exchange
both alters and preserves, extends and renews at the same time."
Godelier improves Weiner's formulation, which applies well to the
Grand Valley Dani, where the ancestor cult provided the context for
death and compensation payments. By implication, the formulations
apply also to the Western Dani because their exchange stones lost
value soon after they had discarded their wealth items that,
presumably, had been inalienable. However, they apply much less to the
Me, whose cowrie transactions apparently were not rooted in an
ideology made manifest in inalienable wealth items. In this respect,
too, the cultural differences between the three ethnic groups are
Finally, I return to Hyndman and Morren's (1990) notion of the Western
Sphere of the Central Highlands. The area concerned stands out in
several respects. Population density is high compared to the
surrounding areas, and the scale of linguistic and political groups is
large (Ploeg 2001). Hyndman and Morren (1990) posit that groups having
a single sphere as their habitat share a common tradition, but Western
Highlands groups do not. Admittedly, many claim to have originated
from the same area, the southeast of the Grand Valley, but at the time
of first contact, the inhabitants of this area, the Grand Valley Dani,
did not exert a strong influence on the people who had moved away. On
the contrary, it seems likely that one of the migrating groups, the
Western Dani, had exerted such an influence on the groups that they
encountered during their west and northward expansion. The inhabitants
of the western part of this Western Sphere, especially the Moni and
the Me, claim origin from the east, but in my view represent separate
ways of life that were growing apart.
(1.) This article was originally presented at the 2001 and 2002
meetings of the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO)
in the session, "Transformations of Exchange Systems." I thank the
participants in the session, especially Paula Brown Glick, one of the
conveners, for their stimulus. I also thank the anonymous reviewers of
Ethnology and John A. Barnes for their instructive comments on the
penultimate draft of the article. This article contains several
quotations from Dutch publications, all translated by me.
(2.) Pouwer, who worked on the south coast in the early 1950s,
supports Hylkema's view (pers. comm.).
(3.) What goes against his interpretation of the term abstraction is
that Godelier makes its meaning clear by referring to the curved boar
tusks used as wealth items in several parts of Melanesia. These tusks,
however, are a reminder of successful productive activities, if not
successful management of life force.
(4.) The Wodani, like the Me, employed pigs and cowries as their main
wealth items. Cowries were a general medium of exchange, and for that
reason Breton (1999:558) considers them as "money in the strictest
sense." Yet the Wodani also regarded each shell "as an individual, a
unique piece in its own right," and they gave names to the most
precious ones (Breton 1999:559-61, 2002). As regards these two
features, Wodani money differs from Western money. Further, Wodani
conceive of cowries as "perpetual persons who are the instruments of
human reproduction" (Breton 1999:567).
(5.) I am grateful to Dr. Eric Venbrux for drawing my attention to
(6.) C. Ballard (pers. comm) links the location of salt wells with the
direction of migrations. The Amungme south of the main ranges kept the
location of their salt wells hidden from the Dani to keep them away.
(7.) Hayward (1980:137) quotes from a letter that Maynard, an
eyewitness to the burnings, sent to the office of the Unevangelised
Fields Mission. The letter lists the objects burned: "innumerable
bows, arrows, spears, stone and bone knives, shells, beautiful fur
headdresses, pig tails, nose bones, bits of string, all sorts and
sizes of feathers, large and small bridal stones, pieces of cane,
armbands, 'feather dusters' (large feather affairs used for waving
about to chase evil spirits), necklaces, rare ornamental shell plus a
host of wrapped items which we didn't see."
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