From his ship off the southwest coast of Papua, the Dutch navigator Jan Carstensz observed and noted in his journal in 1623 the presence of high mountain ranges, in parts covered with snow, in the interior of the island. The peaks he saw are part of the central cordillera that traverses most of the length of the island of New Guinea. For nearly 300 years thereafter, despite 19th century explorations to ever more remote places of the globe—both to satisfy the needs of individual adventurers and the avid curiosity of a large European readership—no one undertook to explore the ranges of central New Guinea. Not until 1907-1915 and 1920-1922 were protracted expeditions mounted into the interior of then Dutch New Guinea; and the interior of Australian New Guinea remained a mystery until the late 1920’s and 1930’s, when missionaries, gold prospectors, and finally government patrol officers made their way into the Central Highlands. Somewhat unexpectedly they found a very large population already living there.
New Guinea’s Highlanders number over a million, roughly 40% of the combined modern populations of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya. Although there are marked cultural differences among the Highlands peoples, there are broad similarities as well. They include the sweet potato as the staple crop (though in a few areas taro and yams are also important), descent groups based on an ideology of patrilineality, and pigs as the most important valuables and status markers.
The group of Highlanders with whom I lived and worked between June 1971 and January 1973 refer to themselves as Kafe. They were apparently first contacted by Europeans in the late 1920’s when the Lutheran missionary Flierl and his party crossed over from the Markham into the upper Dunantina system of the Bismarck ranges. In the early 1930’s a government post was established in the Kamanontina Valley to the east of the Dunantina. In 1935 the anthropologist Reo Fortune made a trip to the Kamanontina Valley; and while most of his observations remain unpublished the articles which are available provide an exciting, albeit limited, account of the Kafe at the initial stages of Western contact and, as such, allow comparison with my own material collected among a highly similar group of people 35 years later.
The majority of the Idle live in the valleys and on the slopes of the Dunantina and Kamanontina Rivers of the Eastern Highlands District of Papua New Guinea. Numbering, today, about 24,000 the Kafe reside in villages and scattered hamlets at altitudes ranging between 4,600 and 6,800 feet above sea level. The Kafe tend to divide themselves into two groups on the basis of the ecological niche inhabited: there are the “kunai” (Pidgin English for a type of high grass) dwellers at the lower altitudes and the “bush” (or forest) dwellers at higher ones. For both, sweet potatoes are the staple crop, and taro is important, while corn, beans, peas, and various greens supplement the diet. At lower altitudes yams and peanuts can also be grown. Both groups, of course, are pig-breeders; but the more extensive grassland available to “kunai” dwellers probably allows a larger carrying capacity for pigs.
My work centered in two “bush” villages named Homaya and Bafo located along a small tributary of the upper Dunantina system. Homaya is the larger of the two villages, with a total resident population varying around 270 persons compared with approximately 110 in Bafo. The core of these villages, as for all the Kafe, is one or more groups of patrilineally related men (45 adult married men in Homaya and 28 in Bafo) with their in-married spouses, children, and other dependents. The largest descent grouping recognized by the Kafe is the nofira (literally, “rope” or “vine”) which, for our general descriptive purposes here, may be characterized as a named, exogamous clap whose members theoretically can trace descent from a common ancestor but who do not necessarily reside together and may have little or no contact with each other. The “clan-parish” (also called nofira), on the other hand, is the sub-set of those members of the clan who do live together and who, individually, have rights in land within the parish. Localized lineages and sub-lineages (extended families) make up smaller, though unnamed, units within the clan-parish. The lineages function primarily as mutual aid groups in communal enterprises such as gardening, house-building, and feasting. Other group activities, such as those connected with initiation, marriage, warfare, sorcery, and death, are organized on the clan-parish level and provide occasions for trying to resolve disagreements arising from conflicting interests among the lineages and sub-lineages.
Each parish with its one or more patrilineally based groups, whose members reside patrilocally (at least in theory), forms a more or less autonomous unit. The sphere of influence and inter-village dealings of any one village tends to be restricted. Each clan-parish normally has between two and four enemy clan-parishes and a similar number of allies. Within a clan-parish, however, each member can be related to other clan-parish groups by marital, maternal, or other blood kin links. The clan-parishes with which an individual has such personal connections may or may not coincide with the clan-parishes collectively distinguished as either friends or enemies. Thus, for example, it is possible for a Homaya man to have affinal kin (to whom he is bound by a variety of social obligations and more informal forms of support) who, with the rest of their parish mates, are regarded as enemies of Homaya.
Political and other parish-level decisions are made collectively, usually following a lengthy series of discussions in which those involved put forth their own ideas, get a sense of how others are thinking, and eventually arrive at a position that will be acceptable to everyone. Issues, to use our terms, are not “brought to a head” or “forced to a vote.” By avoiding confrontation, undesirable and unwanted schisms are avoided; and the size, strength, and cohesiveness of the parish are maintained.
An important clan-parish concern is the marriage of its young men and women, though actual preparations and arrangements are centered in smaller sub-units. In a certain sense marriages are contracted between two groups, but this does not mean that the man and woman involved are merely passive or even unwilling parties in political maneuvering. Brideprice—in the form of pigs, bird plumes and, nowadays, Australian currency—amounts to more than can be provided by the resources of a single individual. Thus kin must be called upon to contribute. In addition, the guardian “parents” of the bride (never the real parents) who accept the brideprice must themselves make presentations to the groom’s family that are beyond a single family’s resources, and the brideprice they receive is redistributed to those who cared for the young woman during her youth and who helped in preparations for the marriage. Finally, because the new wife will almost certainly go to live in her husband’s parish and join work groups made up of her husband’s kinsmen, the latter have an active concern in her selection