In Papua New Guinea the Umeda village that Alfred Gell studied was a complexly patterned community, really a complex of hamlets in a larger area, that had evolved culture to fit the circumstances. The people themselves were physically evolved to survive, sturdy sun-darkened folks who probably had a lot of inner physiological molecular mutations that allowed them to live on a diet largely composed of sago palm mush, a carbohydrate, with very little protein or vegetables except for yams. I suspect that they would do very well on a teenager’s diet of Twinkies and Korn Kurls so long as they stayed away from carbonated sugar drinks! But they craved protein enough that under proper circumstances they were cannibals.
Arrangements for their life cycle were not elaborate on the surface, but extremely complex — full of checks and balances — under the surface. Much had to do with a preoccupation with food. The most common form of marriage was simply trading sisters. All women were considered desirable and were sometimes traded or promised as youngsters. Widows, full grown and fully skilled, could just about take their pick of men. Birth as an event and as a topic was not discussed, taboo, and anyway not always successful because of poor nutrition.
Everyone carried a net over their shoulder at all times, so that if they came to something edible, they could bring it back to the village. The mothers carried their infants as well in that handy net. All the women wore grass skirts. When they wore out, a new skirt was made and put over the top without removing the old one. Men of a certain age wore a gourd over their penises — highly decorated — as both an adornment and — hopefully — an attraction and to catch any dripping semen. In this culture breast milk and semen were considered to be equivalent, related to egg whites. All valuable sources of food, it was thought, and a man was believed to be feeding his baby in the womb when he had intercourse with the mother during pregnancy. (The other side of that idea was the notion of vagina dentata, the “toothed” vagina that could bite off and “eat” the whole penis.)
Once the baby was born, it went everywhere with the mother in her net. The fathers sat in the middle of the village hut, talking and smoking and so on. The mothers did their cooking and making things out on the surrounding veranda. When the baby was old enough to escape from the net and totter around, it migrated to the father. For a while the toddler was besotted with its father, crawling over him, chewing on him, even twisting his semen-collecting gourd — which made the observing anthropologist flinch but not the father. Normally there is a gap of three or four years between babies and the toddler may continue to return to nurse that long while learning to eat solid food, maybe sago from the mother which is everyone’s staple and always available — or maybe some bit of protein from the father, a treat. An angry father denied protein to his child and as the children grew up, fathers tended to become more impatient.
Until the next baby comes toddling over, the child stays with the father all the time and rides around on his shoulders. When a boy is too big for this, he joins a pack of little boys who run off together through the jungle, doing their version of grownup stuff like hunting lizards with small arrows. The girls at this age go back to their mothers but as helpers, sitting alongside and learning how to do things.
A boy who is adolescent — which might last until nearly thirty — goes with the bachelors, who might sit with the men a little bit. But mostly they work at getting to be serious hunters. A girl by this time — and they do not reach puberty until late teens — is married.
Married men settle into helping their wives produce sago for food. It’s hard work: preparing the field, cutting the trees open, scraping out the insides and washing the pith thoroughly — then pounding it into flour to be boiled. The work is loosely gender-assigned, with the wives doing the washing and scraping after weaving containers out of palm fronds. At one point the material has to be pounded hard a long time in a sort of mortar-and-pestle way that certainly suggests coition. Married couples share this task. The harder men work, the more the young men stop tending their hair, maybe even discard their penis-gourds. But they are nevertheless growing wiser and more clever in the talk among the men while the bachelors who haven’t mastered hunting yet are dependent on the married couples for the basic sago. No one denies anyone sago. Just protein.
Women are scarce and die early. Men who live a long time tend to wander away from the village and set themselves up in solitary huts, maybe maintaining a friendship with another man. All of this becomes significant in the ceremony that is the centerpiece of Alfred Gell’s book and one of my chapters on the Poetics of Liturgy.
Geertz remarks that the true basics: eating, sex, excreting, social relationships, are too basic to be seen as anything religious except in parody. He forgets to think about Communion — but then again, it IS easy to parody people who “eat” their God. On the other hand eating is the most basic ecological/economic factor. Starving is certainly evil. One inquiring anthropologist realized his informant was confiding information about how to cut up and cook a person. How evil is that?
The Umeda connect eating, sex, and death rather directly, with a constant undertow of craving, rage, jealousy, sorcery and cannibalism. They have a word that is very much like “take” in English: to “take” a woman, to “take” supper, to “take it out” on something, but our culture is too well-fed to have much thought about cannibalism except for exceptional circumstances and deranged individuals when it suddenly dawns on them that human beings are made of meat. (One of my other chapters is about the airplane load of soccer players who survived in the Andes by eating each other. Well, SOME survived.)
ExxonMobil is beginning to export huge amounts of Papua New Guinea natural gas to the Asian mainland. The people will have lots of money. No more standing together pounding sago into flour all day. No more learning to hunt. All the Twinkies and Fritos they can eat. (No people, please.) How will they know what to do? I predict they will buy pigs who will eat the forest. But ExxonMobil — and through them ourselves — will have eaten a whole culture.
Related Articles & Sources
“Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries: Umeda Society, Language and Ritual,” by Alfred Gell. 1975. London School of Economics, Monographs on Social Anthropology.
(Cover Photo Credit: Eric H Cheng)