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Anthropological Knowledge, Secrecy and Bolivip, Papua New GuineaExchanging Skin$

Tony Crook

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780197264003

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197264003.001.0001

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(p.37) 1 miit
Anthropological Knowledge, Secrecy and Bolivip, Papua New Guinea

Tony Crook

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

Fakam lies a day's walk from the more permanently used houses in Bolivip, and this occasional house was temporarily occupied through various comings and goings for many weeks whilst mature taro gardens were harvested and new gardens were cleared and planted. Bolivip divides the forest in several ways: by elevation between hot and cold places where most crops and pandanus are tended, and the high cloud forest; and by usage between primary forest, gardens, old garden sites, spirit sites, and house clearings. An entirely new variety of taro is found having spontaneously emerged amongst broken ground in some unfamiliar part of the forest. Kinim miit relations are sometimes imaged as a tree.

Keywords:   Bolivip, miit, Fakam, forest, Kinim miit, trees

And then the door from the street was flung open and a new group of plainsmen came in from the dazzling sunlight with their afternoon’s work done and settled themselves at the bar to resume their lifelong task of shaping from uneventful days in a flat landscape the substance of myth.

(Gerald Murnane, The Plains)


Colour was returning slowly to the tall forest beyond the open-sided garden house at Fakam. Rain that had fallen steadily since midnight continued to drain off the tips of pandanus leaves and a patchwork of plastic sheeting, yet was showing signs of easing—the drops no longer deflecting leaves, but weighting them with swelling beads whose fall sent them springing. A favoured area for gardening and hunting, Fakam lies a day’s walk from the more permanently used houses (atin am) in Bolivip, and this occasional house (imin am or kain am) was temporarily occupied through various comings and goings for many weeks whilst mature taro gardens (iman binal) were harvested and new gardens (iman yong) were cleared and planted. Smoke drifted out and hung thinly in the moist air of the clearing. A dog picked a path back along the felled trunks, dropping her ears as a larger dog stirred in the house, and as she heard her name called. Two men had returned earlier in the night, and now squatted against corner posts around the square fire hearth, warming themselves, smoking, and talking in low voices with a woman who sat with a child asleep in her crossed-legs. Waiting for the iman (taro; ‘food’) to cook, they called to the dog, ‘Ah, big-head! Recky, did you hunt, eat, and come back? You didn’t hear our talk when we called you. Were you angry that we let the rain and cold deter us?’ Recky yelped when flicked with the hardwood cooking-tongs (also binal) as she squeezed in to dry by the fire. Perhaps because they knew the (p.38) women had persevered in the rain and caught many frogs (kul), the men began to tell of their luck in having a dog so light and active (kal fong). It was the weekend and the house was full with children who had arrived after walking many hours along the ridge and river path through the forest from the school over in the Bol valley It had been a late night of excited talk (motivating the hunts for frogs and marsupials), and now they lay asleep on fern leaves spread around the central fire, curled up in warm clothes or under sheets with their feet near the fire. With both daylight and voices strengthening, one or two sleepers began to stir—stretching out and straightening a leg, ‘aii-yo!’ Even the birds were only slowly returning to song. The leaves of the irilip shrub which had furled up as night (mirilip) fell, and those of as kilam were also beginning to open again.

People began moving about, reaching food down from the hanging net-bags and pushing taros and succulent shoots of pit-pit (kasen) into the hot ashes beneath the fire to cook. Whereas the hearth (aukum) of this transiently used house at Fakam was dug into the earth, the bark floor of more permanently occupied thatched houses is raised a metre or more off the ground, leaving enough space below (the kabuk tem) for a cone-shaped basket frame thickly lined with grey-blue clay which holds the hearth ashes (kutup). These basket frames are said to ‘copy’ (kikseip) the cone-shaped nest on top of which the sangfang, a wren-warbler, lays its eggs amongst twigs and leaves. Vines are wound around the cone in a spiral and tied with cane to provide a strong base for the clay, which is baked solid. Another person suggested that the sangfang nest provided the example (kukup) for the X-shaped motif found on hand-drums (wos).The hearth basket is formed and supported by sticks which cross at the cone’s point and which are stuck into the ground below. The whole frame is held in place by tying it into the floor rafters and into the four hardwood fire-posts (bang) at each corner, which are sunk into the ground and pass up through the house to be tied to the roof rafters (bir). Stones around the hearth edge (as kil) are used to prop up lengths of burning firewood (as), and at other times are heated in the fire (also as) before being wrapped together with some game in a leaf bundle to cook.

Firewood is cut to length and stored, supported at either end, on two racks above the fire (see Figures 5, 6, 12, and 13). People comment on the replete satisfaction felt amongst plentiful food and firewood. Such a generous house will gain a name for being full of people enjoying feeling full. Above seated eye-level, the lower imin buk rack holdings are the more transient, being regularly re-stocked with smaller pieces of firewood, often from the branches, which dry over the heat and smoke having been split into (p.39) pieces or just hanging together by splinters so they burn briskly Sparks taking hold on the volatile underside, directly above the flames, are hurriedly brushed away Recently cooked food is left in readiness on imin buk. Smaller morsels (imin iman) of game or pork are immediately and briefly cooked on the flames whilst waiting for more substantial pieces (atin iman) to cook in the ashes or in a stone-heated bundle. Leaf bundles containing smoked food can be seen or felt up on the atin buk, keeping for another day Whereas the imin buk may be supported by stiff cane twisted and tied between fire-posts, the heavier logs on the higher atin buk are supported by cross-beams. Cut from lower down, these more substantial logs are left intact, perhaps with the ends split, and replenished less regularly. These bulkier logs endure, burning more slowly, warming the curled sleepers through the night.

Long after those Fakam taro gardens had been eaten, and having learned to turn words and images around, I came to see the fire-stack comprising aukum, imin buk, and atin buk as the crown, trunk, and base of a tree turned upside-down—heavier logs from the sturdy base of a tree placed on the highest rack often remain there longer than the firewood below and burn more slowly. Smaller and lighter pieces of split firewood and branches, which catch and burn quickly, are stocked on the lower rack most days. Further down, the hearth consumes and reduces these stocks. Every so often pieces are pushed further into the fire, reducing what may have begun as a solid log to the size of the smallest twigs. Seen this way, the sangfang basket frame might gently sway amongst the leaves, perhaps amongst those furled leaves that are said to ‘sleep at night’ in some trees.

Often an atin buk will hold several smoke-blackened large first pieces (as dil) cut from lowest down the tree trunk, which remain in place for special purposes. People talk of how these logs have them think of the people who cut them, and those who will be remembered if they are eventually burned. Some are intended for specific occasions, perhaps when a pig will be killed or for cooking some substantial game. When taking a brother’s son away to an initiation (ban), a father’s younger brother will shoulder one of these logs (as buk ban). A log cut by someone who subsequently dies may be left as a memory, and designated for a memorial feast. In past times, the dead were wrapped in bark and leaves and exposed on a platform in the branches of a tree. The place would be avoided until decomposition was finished as fluids and then the bones would fall to the forest floor to be removed to a dry cave ossuary where their kin might visit them seeking assistance. Such memorial logs are taken down and a fire made outside to burn the deceased’s effects, such as clothes or wood-chips from the last tree they felled, with the wish that the spirit (finik) goes and stays in Dakapbinal, (p.40) or some other place of the dead, perhaps above the Map escarpment which rises a kilometre behind the village. In destroying these effects, people say they will not think so much about their loss any more.

But other logs on the atin buk never move. Sooted logs (some bearing the marks of stone-axes) are sometimes kept as permanent memories, occasionally dripping a greasy oil onto the floor below, although inside they are bone dry. A different kind of hold is exerted on those seated below by as ban awem (important log in place), which are set in place precisely as a man whispers a spell (lukom) and cautions the women who cook in the hearth against ever moving much less burning it. Using their important hidden names (awem win), the speaker asks either kwiyam (the ground cuscus), or siliwe (the white-shouldered fairy wren) to stay in place forever, ‘[kwiyam/siliwe] abin teintein’. Kwiyam sleeps in a hole in the ground or under a tree and grazes in the canopy. Were the log to be moved or consumed by the fire, the appetites of these women and those they feed would quicken—rather than the hearth ashes imparting a dry and appetite-satisfying quality (aukor) to the taros, such that only one or two corms would fuel a day’s work, the movement of the log might lead to hunger and increased movement away from the hearth to harvest and plant distant gardens more often. Perhaps a woman might even be lured away to another village. Older women say that when their husbands became big-headed with the lightness and strength that their own efforts had afforded them, they used to easily revoke the effect—by returning to the household before their monthly flows were through—leaving their husband’s skin dull and heavy, and their ability to wander considerably reduced. But men sometimes say ‘the hearth is mother’ and advise younger people to stay close to where they can be fed and looked after. This concern that appetite increases movement within people and movements away from the hearth, is addressed by emplacing kwiyam or siliwe on the atin buk—such that they might hold the women close by, through fastening appetites by ensuring the appetite-satisfying quality of the taros cooked in the hearth. Taros might then ideally emerge dry and strong, with roasted skins split open and ‘like ashes’ on the inside. Perhaps here again, the stillness at the base of a tree trunk is a counterpoint to the tendency for movement around the crown.


Montane rainforest surrounds Bolivip, sited on a level at 1,100 m in the deep Bol valley (which feeds into the Fly River system near Olsobip), (p.41) ranging from 600 m up towards 3,000 m where cloud forest extends across a limestone karst plateau with areas of alpine grasslands. Bolivip divides the forest in several ways: by elevation between hot (gip) and cold (towlim) places where most crops and pandanus are tended, and the high cloud forest (atinang); and by usage between primary forest (sep, gunsak), gardens (yong), old garden sites (binal), spirit sites (awem tem), and house clearings (abip). Shaped by very high rainfall and fast-flowing streams and rivers, the area is characterized by steep ridges and deep valleys. The sun (atan) follows the course of the Bol River, rising above the head of the valley—having truly risen over Oksapmin to the north-east where, some say, it was originally born—and setting on Bultem in the west. Oksapmin and Bultem are also seen as the source of taro, marsupials, types of stone-axes, particular wealth items, and certain forms of story and ritual. Throughout the year, the sun ‘roams along the ridges either side of Mt Faium’: moving from the right-hand or south side during the drier or ‘blue’ season in atan abip (sun place or village) when the less frequent afternoon rains seem to lengthen the days (periods between November and February when the wild pandanus-nut saris ready); and from the left-hand side towards the wet season when the valley is permanently filled by a drizzling cloud (from June to early September when the as kibiyom tree is flowering). People sometimes describe Bolivip as ‘in the middle’—at some distance and remove from the sources of certain effects in the region. Further along these conduits from Telefomin, Oksapmin, and Bultem—which by virtue of their positions as a base (miit), are regarded as having the role of ‘problem solvers’—Bolivip turns to these origin points for support. Amongst taro spells used at harvest, one women told how the taros must not be finished with anything like the haste shown when itolim the tree-frog jumps from a tree, and how she warns the passing clouds not to carry the taro away with them, but to leave them for people from Oksapmin who should eat first.

Throughout the forest, vegetation, the sounds of running water, and bird-song provide continual orientation—some birds, such as the wren dimanok, often accompany people, telling them where to go, and what they might find. These calls are often identified by people walking together as the familiar voices and intonation of a particular person—perhaps a deceased mother, father, or mother’s brother who is known to be helpful. Other birds, such as the female gubalim astrapia have a repertoire that includes some very sorrowful songs—under these sentiments the heads of even a boisterous line of walkers fall into thoughtful silence. Other birds seem to sing a welcome from the big trees, and are engaged by men returning the calls to see if they can pull them closer, or by joking with them by (p.42) turning the calls around. Away from the streams where women fish and gather frogs, the big forest is the place of men hunting for birds and marsupials or collecting house materials—men talk of knowing to go to the forest when they feel lazy, when their appearance has been dulled (kal doung) by fire hearth ashes. They say that there is no hiding that one has been to the forest: it changes a person’s appearance by cleaning the skin with the ‘water’ in plant leaves (as wok)—which is also said to give new blood and leaves a person with a shining (lamlamso, ‘with shine’; finikso, ‘with spirit’) and light appearance (kal fong).

The weekend visitors to the Fakam house passed on the news brought from Tabubil town by passengers who had returned in the plane that passed overhead a few days previously, and passed on small gifts of store food and plastic containers filled with the waste lard from the deep-fat friers in the Tabubil Camp-One Mess. These were particularly appreciated—the children rushed about picking young taro leaves (bot), and making bundles of them layered with the fat and salt to be cooked over the fire until soft. They also brought gossip (weng gerul, ‘talk on the breeze’) suggesting that some people in Bolivip were blaming the recent rain on the absence and distance from the village of several important men of renown and cult guardians (kinim awem). Distances are described relatively through the terms kabi (farther), kami (farther still), and kawi (farthest)—people often point directions with the nose and lips, and these suffixes deploy the lips in progressive extension—or are described in terms of base, trunk, and crown reaching out to some relative point. Although the sturdy atin am houses in Bolivip (as atin abip) are the ‘bases’ where people spend most time, they regularly go away to forest and garden imin am houses placed as the ‘crown’, which involve some activity to reach them, and anticipate shorter durations of occupancy in these imin abip places. House construction also becomes more temporary in moving from the substantial walled dil am (min dil is the firstborn child; as, dil is the first-cut, lowest, and sturdiest log) of the village, to rougher eip am half-way houses, and to temporary arikarik am (‘last houses’) which often need repairs to make them habitable.

Commenting on the problems brought by the prolonged rain, the gossip suggested that the kinim awem had, for some in the village, stayed too far away for too long—and that they could solve things by returning to Bolivip. Asked who were the base or sources (miit weng) of such talk, the new arrivals protested that their carrying the gossip was just ‘canopy talk’ (kuk weng)—rather than voicing this heavy talk (weng irum) or making accusations themselves, they were just passing on what they heard going about, and for which they were not answerable.

(p.43) People often explain one thing through another—these kinim awem men, and the cult head (kamaukim) in particular, are likened to the large as walap tree upon which many other forest trees lean for support. People describe how, through sorrowful feelings (kiin kiin; lit. eye-eye) that have people thinking on others, and through exchanging assistance, food, and care (dakoradakora; ‘helping, helping’), they ‘go into each other, like interlocking roots in the forest’. This supportive interdependence involves others in the consequences of action, and is typically gestured by locking both hands together, palms flat and facing down, with the fingers and knuckles interdigitated despite efforts to pull them apart. People say that standing alone they would just get ‘blown over’, and remark how ‘strong people grow like trees—as they grow up, they grow down’, developing a base (miit) ‘to stand up on and grow strong’ (tor; to stand, to grow). Some women described how many things grow from a tender white shoot (tuum), and would indicate this growing point in taro plants, in aem pandanus, in fish, in pigs, and in children—gristle in the nose (metum)—and commented on how a straight nose revealed a good disposition. A discussion amongst some young men over whether stones (tum) were alive and grew turned on whether they too had a tuum or not—people knew stones moved around, having found types with distant origins. Advice given to young men warns of the dangers of stealing and adultery: someone will get cross and shoot an arrow into their thigh, bringing part of the inside muscle with it for all to see when it is removed. Two hardwood trees, kapta and ibit, are amongst the strongest in the forest, and each has a red shiny layer (lamlam) beneath their bark. When people see the muscle on the arrow, they will say that ‘Your mother and father gave you kapta and ibit to make you strong, but now you have spoiled yourself As initiates grow, the knowledge, skill, and advice they learn makes them strong—this is also called lamlam, and they are told to keep it well hidden in their thighs. ‘Tree canopies touching together’ is a euphemism for sexual intercourse—trees are said to reproduce when male and female trees touch canopies if they grow close together, which mixes their ‘as wok’ (tree ‘water’, gris) together, which is otherwise spread and mixed either by birds moving from tree to tree or else blown through the forest when it becomes mixed with rain water and moved by breezes. One man suggested that ‘some trees are really like human beings’, and told of a man sheltering against a large as farim fig tree (in Farimgubip hamlet, which is named after the event), and how he became held fast by the fly roots, wrapped and slowly absorbed into the tree until only his eyes were visible to his distraught wife as she arrived to say goodbye.

(p.44) People describe the movement through life and the process of ageing in terms of a journey descending down from the top of a tree—where infants move about from one thing to another as their attention is diverted and they follow different paths—to the base where the very elderly remain in the house, with their finger- and toe-nails curling over with little use, unable even to relieve themselves outside. Those in the middle of life are especially active in making gardens—to feed children and those who look to them for support, and to build up the number of gardens in different places which contain increased stocks and multiple varieties of staple plants—in anticipation of dividing and giving half a taro garden to each child as they marry Having built up these stocks into numerous gardens from the plants given to them by their respective parents, these plants are progressively gifted away until only a small number of gardens are kept. Women whose houses are known for plentiful food win renown for their generosity. Some men are active in growing and spreading their name by developing ‘branches’ through kinimbip visits with exchange partners (lup; ‘seed’) and friends (takon; ‘branch’) in often distant villages which might give ‘fruits’ (gim), such as cowrie shells (bonang), decorative bird feathers (awon kalim kait), tobacco (sauk), piglets (kong man), and looped net-bags (men). Without these efforts, people say someone might ‘just grow upwards and drop their leaves beneath themselves’. When such distant visitors arrive they should be given hot food and tobacco and allowed to come around to talking about what brought them in their own time. Hosts are advised that they have to be like the low balem shrub that grows alongside streams and spreads a flat fan of growth reaching out, over and just above the water, and which often becomes pushed down and submerged by the weight of flooding water in spate—they remain held in the house, without going off even to nearby gardens, thinking instead about what might satisfy the visitors. Such respect and care is expected to be carefully reciprocated during future visits. The waxing and waning moon (kaiyop) also moves differently as it ages on a journey through the sky—from growing (tan), to full moon (mining), and then dying (fasel). One man explained how the moon first rises beyond where the Bol and Fly rivers join (to the south-west of Bolivip, where the sun sets), then journeys farther and farther into the sky on each subsequent night until completely full, when it also remains directly above the village throughout the day. However, in dying it rises instead from above the Map escarpment (to the north-east, where the sun rises), and appears on each subsequent night lower and lower above the mountain edge until it finally sets and disappears behind it. This journey also connects the source of fey stone-axes to the source of mok stone-axes. (p.45) Dominicus would sometimes call me ‘nuk kaiyop’ (marsupial moon), and advise that both older and younger people would look to me for the gifts of this middle age—helping people to see and have things they might not otherwise taste, as if helping them to move farther and reach things that are harder to find. This would often be accompanied with the remark that now he was becoming like a child again, and it was my turn to look after him.


Some days before the weekenders arrived at the house at Fakam carrying the gossip complaining of the separation and absence of the kinim awem, the eldest amongst them had collected a hand-sized flat stone, and asked me whether they had shown me these flat ifi tum, which originate from the Ifitaman plain, when I was in Telefomin. Having removed the glowing hot stone with the fire-tongs, he held it out in the rain, whispering a name just as a cloud of steam rose up in a rush, aiming to chase the rain clouds away—and which brought blue skies within an hour. Opinions in the house suggested the returning and continuing rain was really due to those in Bolivip using the fish-poison vine (maet) in the rivers there, or those collecting tree-mushrooms, or simply due to the moon’s (kaiyop) position. It went without saying that these men, by their very presence and proximity, were also supporting these gardeners and their plants. Yet such talk pulls the kinim awem back—reminding them that the yolam cult house in the village has a particular hold on their own movements and health. After increasing rain and further disturbing noises reached the house, some kinim awem capitulated and took themselves back to visit Bolivip for a few days—returning to the Fakam gardens again once both rain and gossip had subsided and quietened down.

During those housebound days, the antics of a couple of infant boys also competed for attention. One was with his middle-aged parents, the other with his mother’s mother and father who were caring for him as their own (his unmarried mother had found things too difficult, having fallen pregnant in Tabubil town).Younger men, especially, insist that the first word an infant voices is ‘natim’ (father), and that children will listen to their fathers more readily than their mothers. Whereas both infants could give disturbing displays of continuous crying (simple sham was met by joking remarks about the child pretending [ibakanin;giaman] or ‘going on strike’ like Ok Tedi mine workers), the second boy was exemplary. Having flicked a key-chain straight into his mother-grandmother’s eye, the boy complained against a pause in (p.46) attention whilst she hunched over, heating the back of a finger by the fire and pressing it to her eye to soothe the pain. Perhaps this neglect seemed more intentional to him than the injury to her eye. Feigning a few blows with the unwieldy cooking-tongs, the boy then landed a couple of solid rounds on her neck and head. And when the woman sat up holding her face and waved a pretend smack, the boy cried out his hurt at this unfair reaction. Someone passed him some peeled sweet pit-pit, but he only howled and threw these around as part of his attempts to draw the woman’s affections back. Whilst the eye received further attention, the child brandished the tongs and then started to pee—the crying eased as he looked down at his stream falling onto their bark sleeping-mat, and both flows subsided momentarily as the woman looked over, but they soon began again. He cried a little more when the mother-grandmother used the tongs to feign a tap at the source, but he continued peeing until empty. At this he was swept up in the woman’s arms and laid on his back in her lap with affectionate fuss, but the two tokenly patted cuffs set him off again—this shame (fitam) initially escalated the noises, but also finally yielded a placating apology. With unconditional flourishes of attention restored, the boy soon quietened down again. Afterwards, when the pair were away from the house, one man explained that although the boy was breast-fed by the woman, he knew she was not his mother, and described how her patience was necessary if the boy were to grow better than a tanaban—a child with only one parent—who are likened to poorly growing taro plant ‘children’ who are not regularly visited in the garden or attended to through several rounds of weeding.

Gardeners talk of their taro plants and children with the same considerable affection and sorrowful feelings (see Figure 7). Having returned to Bolivip after a month of clearing, harvesting, and planting the gardens over at Fakam, the first small boy’s father was moved to tears when, some weeks later, we talked about the plants growing out there; they would be producing their first new roots and leaves now, listening happily to the running water, being fed by wok (‘water’; gris) from fallen leaves from the dried trees, which might also have dropped twigs and branches that crush young plants or puncture their leaves. The man left Bolivip early the next morning, returning again late in the day, reassured. His plants were together with those of his wife’s parents and his mother’s brother (momnak) in a large triangular garden at the confluence of the Luplupsimbang stream and the rushing Tannabang River. This sorrow is only partly explained by the memories of those who had first gifted a certain variety, or by the developing interest of a parent watching a particular plant grow through successive gardens.

(p.47) Occasionally, an entirely new variety of taro is found—growing from a rhizome but without a mother-plant—having spontaneously emerged amongst broken ground in some unfamiliar part of the forest. Such new taros are given by a sapkal (ghost of the dead) relative, and are highly sought after—carefully marked with a stick or fenced in when first found to show it has a carer. Once lifted, people say the taro should be rubbed in nearby soil so that ‘it has something to eat’ when it arrives in a new garden, otherwise the taros there will complain that ‘it has come expecting to eat our ground’. In deference, a new taro variety plant is inserted into a hole made with the finger rather than a digging stick (anggal)—even though it may be given a choice place such as in the ashes of a garden fire (bakan as). A favoured taro plant that does not grow so well as those around it might be shamed by moving it away from its friends towards the outside of the next garden, where it is more exposed to the rat (sinok); the taro is expected to reflect, ‘Father is unhappy with me and has put me out here amongst these others; I must try and grow big.’ There is a tangible appreciation of the size, number, colour, and rich texture of thick taro leaves, warm to the hands that brush them and reach down to release the caught tip of a tightly scrolled new leaf as it emerges in a loop from the preceding leaf stalk—this lifting touch under the leaf is like the fond strokes under a person’s chin given in affection. These touches are given with a gentle tenderness—like those one young girl would jokingly give to her infant brother’s penis when he was beginning to respond to his name, and like those some women know how to give in shaping a newborn’s nose, eyes, and ears so as to reveal the care into which they have been born. Prolonged scrolling in the emerging leaf creates a short crease mark, parallel to the diagonal edge, on the left side of taro leaves once they have unfolded. As with a person’s skin tone and shine, healthy plants have a depth to their skin that captures the light with a matt gleam and draws admiration. Taros suffering injury or illness from pests or disease are readily apparent; their skin is loose and dull, their posture weakened, they drop their faces and look at the ground like someone who is hungry or sad. Taut stalks and leaves have the taros oscillating in the morning breeze when the sun brings light and warmth. Steady flutters of leaves falling from the tall drying shade trees accompany these early breezes, which are eased into stillness, ‘held’ by the sun rising higher until fully overhead by midday. Although this moment, when the sun appears on top of the sky, is one of some vulnerability to sickness entering through the fontanelle (gubrim)—and the moment chosen by healers to call on the sun-spirit atanim to expunge such sickness—it is also a moment when the sun is fully able to ‘cook’ the below-ground base of the taro (p.48) plants. It is even said that an unnamed figure—some say ‘a man’—comes at night and helps the taros to hold each other, shaking hands or leaving their places to run around and play. But in the morning, between the shadows cast across the garden, the taros appear alight, shimmering playfully in the youthful sunshine—happily nodding, ‘dancing and rejoicing to see their mother or father coming to see them’ (itol, dance; irak, happy, rejoice). This was the thought that had moved the man. Whatever people’s uncertainty over whether taros have finik (spirit), taros evidently animate that of their parents.

People would often explain one thing through another—as in these examples, trees and taro plants commonly featured in descriptions of kinship and cult. One Sunday morning, the song-writer teacher whose children were to become tanaban soon enough, gave another vivid homily at the service in the community hall whose cement-slab floor and windows kept the inside cool for the women and men sitting crossed-legged on either side to create an aisle running forward to a home-made timber altar-desk and benches for a couple of guitarists. When it was the school’s turn for the service, the hall was smart with checkered tablecloth, candles, and empty red tinned-fish cans of gathered flowers—the two-foot high statue of the Virgin Mary was usually capped with an upside down white trumpet flower. After reading passages from Genesis (2:18–24) and Mark (10:2–16)—God’s pronouncement that to live alone is not good; the making of animal and bird companions for Adam to name; the taking of a rib to make Woman; of leaving mother and father to cleave as ‘one flesh’ in marriage; the prohibition on divorce; of receiving God’s touch in childhood—the teacher produced a leafy vine: ‘everything has a mother and father; this vine is the father and these leaves are the children. If the vine is planted, then the children will grow, but if only the leaves are planted they won’t grow. This piece with two leaves is like husband and wife, like a new sprout produced by the community.’ One of the two leaves was picked, and a different kind of much larger leaf was held in its place—the congregation was left to recognize the point. The remaining leaves were then plucked one by one and allowed to fall to the floor: ‘What will happen to them now? Everything must grow with and from the vine.’ Retelling the story afterwards, he said that people ‘would see my example and realize for themselves’ that this ‘touched’ an ongoing episode of a man who now wished to divorce his wife on the grounds that their fathers were brothers (making them ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ as patrilateral parallel cousins)—adding that people might see the vine as a patrilineal clan (kinim miit), or the marriage, or the community, or as Jesus. Such a marriage brings forebodings (p.49) about the health and appetite-satisfying qualities of the aem panadanus fruit and the taro.


Similar scenes were, perhaps, unfolding back in Bolivip village, in the Angkaiyakmin offshoot villages Selbang, Biangabip, Serebip, Simintimbip, Sogomgabip, and in the Wangbin settlement near Tabubil. In recounting the sources of their customary ‘paths’ of ancestral example or precedent (kukup miit, ‘example base or origin’; kukup leip, ‘example path’), the origins of the ground (bakan miit), and the origins of the ‘clans’ (kinim miit), Bolivip points to Telefomin, many days walk away to the north-west across the mountains. Adventures are told of Afek, the ‘Old Woman’, and her younger brother (whose name is widely known but rarely spoken—never in the presence of kinim awem, nor in the vicinity of the yolam cult house). Widest-known of these Afek stories (Afek sung) is an episode about the origins of men’s and women’s houses (kinim am and wanang am respectively), when she was tricked by her younger brother into swapping houses. Originally, Afek made and occupied a house known as the Telefolip in a hamlet of the same name, but was unable to sleep due to a constant itching, caused by the brother having surreptitiously spread the fine needles from stinging-nettles all over the floor. In the morning, Afek had moved into a village house and left the larger house to her brother. Awaking rested and refreshed the following day, Afek saw her younger brother emerging resplendent from the Telefolip—and promptly suggested they make the exchange permanent.

The spread of the ancestor cult throughout the region is also traced to Telefomin where this impressive Telefolip or Amaukam ‘mother house’ is more than twice the size of the yolam cult house in Katokabip hamlet. The Bolivip cult’s strength and efficacy is drawn in part from the Telefolip, regarded as a ‘mother taro plant’ (iman aukun) to Bolivip’s ‘taro child’ (iman man): people say that, were the mother to die, all the children would die as a consequence. This greater importance as the original base, said to have been rebuilt many times on the same site using the same post-holes, compares to the yolam houses which are occasionally re-sited—the first yolam in Bolivip stood at Engtikin on a rise above the village (now marked by a mound and cordyline fence) but was moved after it was destroyed by fire. Even men who had not visited the Telefolip made a point of remarking that whereas its walls use unsplit logs, the Katokabip yolam uses only split timbers.

(p.50) Telefolip exemplifies a widespread village plan that has two rows of houses facing each other across a wide cleared plaza, and with a fenced cult house enclosure at the head of the plaza facing up between the other houses. Each kinim miit is ultimately able to trace their origin path to one of these houses. The three Telefolmin men with whom I had stayed in Ofektaman village in 1990, and with whom I first travelled to Bolivip in 1994, were soon able to establish connections through marriage via Golgobip village to the west, and between themselves as Tamanmin and the Mifol in Bolivip—both kinim miit trace their origins to the same house in Telefolip. Travelling through to Tabubil once, the plane landed briefly in Eliptaman, north of Telefomin—my elder brother leapt out and soon returned with his arms full of cucumbers and cooked corn, having simply approached a group taking shade under a tree and called the name of his father, of Mifol, and of Bolivip. In dispersing from Telefolip, the kinim miit (‘man-base’; ‘man-origin’) came to Bolivip at different times and by various routes. Some came directly underground along now sealed-up paths (likened to the maiyop [‘penis’], taro rhizome connecting a ‘mother’ plant and new offshoot) and emerging from the ground at awem ser tem, a large limestone boulder in the village. These first emergers are Maptemkaiyak (those from inside Map escarpment). Others travelled directly overground by specific mountain paths. Others came indirectly, either by emerging from underground elsewhere before later continuing overland, or else coming to Bolivip after stopping elsewhere on an interrupted overland journey.

This diaspora from Telefolip created an extensive village at Bolivip in which the kinim miit settled in four hamlets—Katokabip, Woksimbip, Dametakalabip, and Farimgubip.

Maplimkaiyak (those beside the Map escarpment) in Katokabip hamlet:

Fik murup kasel; Bol Tukum; Afungmurup kasel; Fur mokamal; Min

murup; Alap murup (Fukulan, Nenam, Firiok, Afung kair; Kwer mokamal).

Kinim miit alep (‘two clans’) in Woksimbip hamlet:

Mifol (Dil kair, Eip kair, Afung kair); Ibiral.

Dimurup kasel in Dametakalabip hamlet:

Dimurup kasel (Abiwok, Mamal, Saluk); Lumkai; Kimkar; Awon


Wokfiak in Farimgubip hamlet:

Wokfiak (Yom kair, Sawel kair, Fatik awen); Omkaiyak.

It appears that all Angkaiyakmin were together in Bolivip during an incident when visitors from Feranmin passed on some empty tin cans thought to impart everlasting life that they had acquired from the (p.51) Telefolmin after a white man who had arrived and departed by following the Sepik River (most likely Dr Richard Thurnwald in 1914) had discarded them. Between the empty tin can episode and ‘first contact’ in 1926 and 1927, when Karius and Champion’s Northwest Patrol visited Bolivip, people suggested that the Wokfiak Kawileiptaremin moved more permanently to garden areas to the south now called Biangabip. Jack Thurston led a group escaping from the Japanese invasion in 1942, and rested in Bolivip, having backtracked along the north-west patrol’s route over the central mountains. Beginning with a patrol in 1957, the Australian administration began settling people into what had been small collections of garden houses on the path between Bolivip and Olsobip, in order to enforce pacification and maintain the paths to facilitate travel and census-taking—the villages of Serebip, Simintimbip and Sogomgabip are ultimately results of these moves. Selbang was settled in 1968. With the construction of an airstrip and mission station at Gatik (towards the head of the Bol valley), many people relocated there—until a large landslide on Christmas day 1976 triggered the Montfort Catholic Mission to later withdraw their base to Kiunga. Having grown as an offshoot from Telefolip, people describe how Bolivip has ‘reached out and produced offshoots of its own’—the Angkaiyakmin villages of Biangabip, Sogomgabip, Serebip and Simintimbip and Selbang—some went even further afield, joining up with other groups (Sarap Tukum moved to Duminak village far to the south; Ning kalin also moved south, becoming part of the Yakamkaiyakmin; Kawileiptaremin moved south to Biangabip; and Nalapleiptaremin moved to Biangabip and Selbang).

The example of two of my younger brothers, from the Fukulan and the Mokamal respectively—two kinim miit which are inseparable from the present composition of Katokabip hamlet but which have their own distinctive history of paths leading there—manifest instances out of which these diasporic processes of spreading movement and domiciliary coalescence are composed.

From Telefolip, the Falomlokleiptaremin (‘those who came by the Falom mountain path’) arrived in Imigabip to the west of Bolivip, and joined with Lumkaimin who had first emerged at Lumtem. A small boy tasted some white (namal) sap bubbles (mok) boiling out from the end of some as bamning wood burning in a garden fire—and was named Mokamal. One of Mokamal’s sons left Imigabip and came to Bolivip where he was shown some land by the Maptemkaiyak, and originated the Fur mokamal. Generations later, one of his descendants, Suwal, married two wives—those born to the second wife became the Ibiral. Around the same time, a woman fled from the flies at Feranmin (several days to the north (p.52) across the mountains, and further upstream from Telefomin on the infant Sepik River)—her husband followed her to Bolivip, but she was adamant that, although the marriage remained, she would not return to Feranmin. The husband decided to divide himself between Bolivip and Feranmin, working with his penis and stone-axe to satisfy both wives. Tansogomnak, born to Suwal’s first wife, advised the husband that he would care for the renegade wife whilst he was away. A son born to the Bolivip-based wife reciprocated this care by becoming close friends with Tansogomnak’s own son—their respective descendants became the Fukulan, Nenam, Firiok, and Afungkair (four kinim miit known together under the name Alap murup, ‘father’s descendants’); and the Min murup kinim miit (‘son’s descendants’) who became part of Mokamal. Later, the Abun kaiyak and Kwer mokamal, who had emerged elsewhere and travelled to Bolivip, came under the care of the Mokamal and are now regarded as part of them also.

Through his two wives, then, Suwal continued the Mokamal and originated the Ibiral—who have grown in number and have long resided in Feisabip hamlet together with the Mifol kinim miit, with whom they have a pattern of exchanging sisters (abuyaan) and are known together as ‘kinim miit alep’ (‘two clans’). Ibiral, then are ‘two clans’ in alternative senses—paired with the Mokamal through Suwal, and paired with the Mifol through sister-exchange and residence. And the close friendship between Tansogomnak’s son and the Feranmin man’s son, resulted in Alap murup becoming one name covering many separate kinim miit, whereas the Min murup became just one kinim miit amongst many under the Mokamal name. Summoning up the names of Falomlokleiptaremin (a shared path), ‘Suwal’ (an ancestor), ‘Feranmin’ (a Min group and village), or ‘Feisabip’ (a hamlet) would each evoke, define, and activate a distinctive grouping. When both of my younger brothers once tore off their T-shirts and ran to join a fight in Woksimbip hamlet, their calling the name of ‘Katokabip’ carried distinctive evocations—whereas one was reminding his affines of the base they offended by harming his sister, the other was inducing not only their own mutual support, but also appealing to a shared path and history of residence and marriage amongst both sides now fighting that might also serve to obscure his own divided allegiances in the dispute.

Rather than recalling some systemic operations in which the kinim miit are prioritized as a base unit of sociality, these accounts summon up memories of movements (such as overlanders joining with emergers) along the paths by which several Min villages (Telefolip, Imigabip, Feranmin, and Bolivip) and several named groups (Telefolmin, Faiwolmin, Feranmin, and Angkaiyakmin) have come into connection. Through histories of diaspora, (p.53) marriage, reciprocity, and enmity, Angkaiyakmin regard themselves as both a distinct ‘Min’ group, and share some kinim miit in common with other named groups. Whereas people might describe a ‘Min group’ or ‘village’ in terms of the kimin miit composing it, they might equally turn to give an alternative description beginning from a kinim miit name and recounting the various villages or other groups where those who compose it are to be found. In these examples, the kinim miit appear as an outcome in which ramifying processes such as patrilineality, marriage, affection, and residence are combined and resolved into a name that holds their different rationales and movements together, stilled in similarity within itself—yet with the potential to reveal versions of this diversity whenever the name is activated.

This containment of potential diversity recalls Telefolip, from where the ‘mother house’ spread out cognate examples of itself along paths and by precedents to the smaller yolam cult houses, which it continues to support, and as the original base where all the kinim miit were still together—before gathering in and spreading out again from other places. Through their descriptions of one thing through another, the Telefolip appears to Bolivip like a mother taro plant nourishing a host of taro-child-shoots running under and over ground throughout the region—possibly as far as from the Strickland Gorge in the east, to Mt Juliana across the international border in Indonesian Irian Jaya in the west.


Having collected small bundles of watercress and bot (young taro leaves), I was idling away the late afternoon, bouncing—to a rhythm I couldn’t quite place—on the branch of a felled tree at the garden’s edge, waiting for Dominicus, who was engrossed in cutting a second encircling row of zigzags higher up the speckled grey-white bark of a large kilam tree, and then making a long cut straight down the trunk to connect them. We were absorbed together by the work. As he worked around the tree, sliding the bush-knife blade up and down beneath the bark (kal; ‘skin’), the lengthening peel was steadied until the whole section came off neatly in one piece. We caught each other’s eye and laughed spontaneously at the achievement and at the concentration which had held us, only just that moment broken as the bed roll was shouldered with a toothy-grinned chuckle—‘kilam kal!’ That moment and those zig-zag marks would be captured amongst the other happenstances, carved into the coloured designs on the Innupbirbinal Karomeng shield six months later.

(p.54) Another kind of design had captured together three young men with the initials B, R, and A whose fortunes—in a short-lived darts tournament that flourished during long nights of petty gambling in Bolivip’s community hall—were reported by visitors to the house. The joke was that together they were the ‘BRA’, whose strength and target-finding accuracy was likened to—and thereby borrowed from—the guerrilla Bougainville Revolutionary Army, then actively engaged in secessionist fighting with the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF), and which had closed the Bougainville copper mine in 1989. After the second plane crash, a contingent of PNGDF had been called in as a calming influence when the Ok Tedi mine was briefly closed down by a protest over unfulfilled gavman promises of roads into the mountain villages—and I shared a commercial flight back to Port Moresby with some soldiers who produced a collection of photo albums of their children, resplendent in sunglasses and Rambo head-bandanas, and of their unit dug in and holed up together at a machine-gun bunker overlooking a torn forested valley, and who spoke now of their duty and now of the shame at ‘brothers’ fighting like this. Whilst the joke and the darts lasted, their chalked and charcoaled ‘BRA’ became briefly ubiquitous, before getting scuffed, rain-washed, and written over by other names of a new fashion. Another time, two of these three were part of a wider Katokabip hamlet fad for calling each other ‘Budo!’—at every opportunity it seemed—after overhearing some Tari men from Southern Highlands Province using it amongst themselves as they drank beer by the Ok Tedi River in Tabubil. Some young mothers residing near each other in Feisabip hamlet began using ‘badi’ (‘buddy’) of their closest female friends and kin, but their basketball team ‘Badi-Mates’ held together for just a few months. These names that temporarily gather people together—often with vigour akin to names drawing on other idioms of kinship—may endure to be re-activated long after the happening. For example, years after those Fakam gardens were cleared, planted, weeded, and eaten, people who shared the house during those times would recall the events—and their particular membership (which had moved on to other garden places, some going their own way)—with the term ‘Fakam alimal’. Staying together in a house for even one night is sufficient to constitute an alimal and—if it was a memorably high time of ribald jokes and stories through the night—enough for the occasion and those grouped together by it to be summoned up by the reference. ‘Alimal’ encompasses without exclusivity, regardless of other divisions such as kinim miit—or indeed, whether the happening is fleeting, ongoing or repeated. As such, alimal contains, embodies, and names specific moments and clusterings, (p.55) capturing and summoning the happenstances by which people become close for a particular time and purpose.

People often point to the opening of new conduits—notably Ok Tedi—which have brought people from each province in PNG to Tabubil, and seen Min people travelling along work and marriage paths across PNG. Just as Angkaiyakmin wandering around Tabubil will point out so-and-so from Tifalmin, Urapmin, or Oksapmin, and comment on the characteristics of people from other provinces they see, they also keep an eye out—in the illicit gardens planted around the outskirts of Tabubil—for varieties of taro and sweet-potato (which first arrived in Bolivip through movements caused by the mine) that are new to them. For example, Balusim (balus is aeroplane) was brought back from Madang—where it was decorating an Australian’s flower border—by a Feranmin man who happened to be visiting, and who was given the plant after a disagreement over whether it was something to eat or not. Gaborengal and Namelaynal each came from Selbang; Woruk and Latok were stolen from Golgobip during a fighting raid; Bisken, Amongen, and Gesamuk are also from Golgobip, but were freely given. Gardeners are constantly on the lookout for new varieties—motivated both to expand their collections and because the very multiplicity of varieties in a garden ‘makes the garden last longer—if you only plant favorites (min iman) or un-favourites (wy iman), then you’ll either finish the tasty ones quickly or else feel unlike eating the tasteless ones’. Dominicus’ wife once showed me a prized taro corm with twin growing points (lakan iman), cupping her breasts with her hands to emphasize the significance, and telling me that she quickly lifted the taro, severed the two stalks and hid the corm before other people saw—knowing that they would all pester her to be given an example. Varieties are told most distinctively by the colouring of stalks, though people will hold a leaf and turn it over for other clues. Varieties brought from Telefomin are said to flower more frequently—one indication, alongside fewer stalks and drier yellowing leaves, that the taros are ready to be lifted. They will know which varieties are ang iman—wrapped in a leaf as they cook—and which are al iman, and be able to tell from the sight of a cleaned corm which are which. People say that an ang iman cooked in the fire-ashes without a leaf wrapping—as if it were al iman—will harm the plant from which it was severed, now planted in a new garden. Children in the house could easily match up a pile of cleaned corms—with their ‘heads’ (gubom) ‘facing away from the hearth so that they will not see and be angered by the fate of their friends’—with the large bundle of stalks from which they were cut (see Figure 8). The piles brought back to the house by each gardener are given (p.56) out to others in the house each day—if the variety is not recognized, people will ask so as to ensure they cook the taro correctly.

The man who was overcome with sorrow for his taro children would take me round his garden introducing his plants to me by name—reminding me that they had grown by that boulder or that tree in the old garden, telling me which ones I had carried in a bundle on my back and which ones I had planted, and showing me again the pleasure of seeing his efforts rewarded, having planted the taros together with those whose company they enjoy (see Figure 9). In doing so he pointed sometimes to the stalk colours, sometimes tearing a leaf edge to show me that, although the stalks were different colours, the ‘blood’ that ran from the tear was the same colour (clear, yellowish, pinkish)—‘taros have their own blood and their own clans’—sometimes by pointing out that two very different-looking plants were ‘mother and child’, and sometimes by describing a genealogy amongst certain varieties which reminded me of the often complicated histories of alliances and movements whereby the kinim miit populated Bolivip. These comments added to a running commentary on the name of the taro variety, who had given him the plant, where it originally came from, which other varieties it likes to be near, which garden places he had recently grown it in, and how it had grown when recently planted below the Dap limestone escarpment, which was known to give large and strong corms. Having begun pointing out the varieties in his garden, he would occasionally turn his description to a particular variety, recounting the various other gardens in which examples of the variety might be found. By the time we had described the varieties and recorded the specific histories of the plants composing several nearby gardens, only half a dozen new varieties subsequently appeared in surveys of each of the remaining gardens.

As the man spoke—about the plants that Dominicus had given his daughter when this man married her; about the plants that the older gardener had given him; about those given by a deceased but very successful hunter at Fakam; and about the plant he had just been given for helping his cousin-brother, the father-grandfather of the tantrum-boy—he seemed also to be describing the connections between the people in the house at Fakam, and the connections they had to the people who had previously gardened there and who were now able to assist in keeping pests away and in attributing good growth. Through their descriptions, the people in the house were reflected in the taros in the garden—perhaps in some way, the house copied (kikseip) the garden—as if the histories, connections, and movements of one were evident in the other.

(p.57) In making concurrent gardens at different stages of maturation and in different places, by following distinct paths to mutual kin, people may well garden together with different people there—temporarily constituting their gardens and particular alimal clusters alike. The varietal mix of their taro stocks reflects each distinctive location and evidences the gifts of plants amongst the gardeners; it also poses these acquired plants as supplements to those first given upon marriage—the planted garden presents a history of past and present help and supports (dakoradakora), and captures these movements, fortunes, and connections for the duration of one growing season. As such, the composition of a garden appears also to manifest the composition of supports a gardener enjoys at a particular moment in the happenstances and maturation of kin obligations, and affords a more specific impression of who someone has been acting with in mind. As an instance capturing this flux, the planted taro garden appositely reveals and makes manifest these supports by which persons are composed of other persons.

The older people had been asked in advance about the garden site when it was first proposed: what events had taken place in the vicinity; the qualities of the taros (long and plentiful stalks or shorter and fewer stalks but large corms); what kinds of pests, rots, and diseases the place had attracted; and whether spells and techniques had been used (if they had then repeating them again, even after so much time had passed, would ‘double up and be too much’ and have an opposite and detrimental effect. For example, gubom, the soft corm rot (which leaves only the ‘head’) is said to have been caused by taros receiving too much of Afek’s vaginal mucus. The older people were asked, especially, about the characters of the deceased previous gardeners, and whether there were particular enmities or affections between them and the kin of these prospective gardeners. Often these plant and garden histories revealed more depth and detail than the shallow and truncated genealogies that people carried about themselves.


Back at the house, Dominicus had laid out his kilam kal sleeping-mat. I was stretched out with my feet close to the older gardener, the rain-chaser—who was rubbing my legs and saying he would plant cordyline plants where my feet and head were as a memory marking out the space I had once occupied. Before the gardens were finished and closed, we would spend many late afternoons together as I came to appreciate his attention to making the garden beautiful, and to admire the sparing grace with which he (p.58) worked. Across the fire, another man, with a name for finding several new taro varieties, was telling of having found one that was ‘black’ (very dark maroon) and which subsequently produced some stalks that were green tinted with maroon, and some stalks that were ‘white’ (very light green)—each of which became a new variety with its own name and history of whence it came. Named for the finder, the travels of examples given away would carry, and thereby grow, the name of the finder also. His story arose from my continued puzzlement, having been shown a descendant of the plant and examples of its children earlier in the day, and wondering how one variety could produce another so very different—at the time he’d said with an unperturbed smile ‘I know…I was surprised too…but look, it happened!’ With this he gently lifted his right shoulder towards his head which was leant over to the right with a mild tremble, like a breeze-quivered leaf—an indication that there was no knowing, and nothing more to be said.

In telling of the connection that first led him to clear a garden at Luplupsimbang, the older gardener said he was following a woman named Gamuk of the Fik Murup Kasel (one of the Maptemkaiyak clans who first emerged directly in Bolivip). Gamuk, he said, had four children—the Fukulan, the Firiok, the Nenam, and the Afungkair. And yet in the patrilineal reckoning by which both male and female children take on their father’s kinim miit, each of Gamuk’s children would take on that of her husband. Now, recall how, in outlining the paths of the Mokamal and the Fukulan as examples of kinim miit movements and compositions earlier, one outcome of the close friendship between Tansogomnak’s son and the Feranmin husband’s son was the grouping of four kinim miit—the Fukulan, the Firiok, the Nenam, and the Afungkair—under the name Alap murup. This account truncates the events whereby Tansogomnak’s son gave rise to the four as descendants—and yet, by the same patrilineal reckoning his descendants would each have taken on the same kinim miit. But although both accounts operate as an example or precedent for the path being traced or followed, neither adheres very strictly to the assertion portraying patrilineal reckoning as some ideal. In different ways, each truncates a story having located an apical figure—reminiscent perhaps of accounts which feature the apical Old Woman, Afek, and indicative of a pragmatic acceptance, an anticipation verging on a reliance, that events are often persuasive by dint of their erratic yields: ‘But look, it happened!’ In these examples, what appears so compelling is that a parent produced notable children who continued in carrying the renown—as if these were versions of memories in which those who had once occupied these spaces produced marks and (p.59) paths for others to follow. And yet, by establishing an example of pieces brought together, each story does the same thing—arranging branches of distant kin of various removes so as to convey the trunk-like straightness of the path towards those now claiming them as supports.

Larger gardens are often established by a group working together on the initial tasks of cutting and removing trees; they then work separately to clear the undergrowth of smaller trees and shrubs on the smaller areas that will become planted with their own taros. Whereas both men and women share these tasks, men are more likely to be involved in felling trees and in killing those left standing by firing or ring-barking. Longer logs are placed on the ground to mark the divisions, and people occasionally joke of ‘rotting log’ (as sukul) and ‘soil’ (tawal), as euphemisms for the dead. Yet the divisions thus created between gardeners and the fortunes of their plants are all too real—a discussion arose one evening over the striking differences between the taros of an old woman and those of another middle-aged man, which had grown side by side in the garden and with only a rotting log between them. The lifting of the latter’s miserable taros had prompted talk about a past event when one of his predecessors was associated with the suspicious death of someone who had gardened in the vicinity—and of his neglecting the plants. Perhaps because the unsuccessful-gardener was also kinim awem—thereby having an important supporter—he had decided not to hear the advice (sawa) from others about gardening there. The discussion turned on the different paths connecting the two gardeners to those who had gardened in their place before them—and it was clear (not least from the man’s paltry taros) that their connections were as distinct and clearly divided as the areas of garden on either side of the ‘rotting log’. Whereas one conduit of connection led via the suspicious event, the other—obvious from the fecundity of the old woman’s plants—was more straightforward. These plants, then, are imagined as extensions of a gardener and an extension of their efficacy—in terms of their skill and knowledge, and as evidence of their capacity for respect and care. In some sense, every kindness might one day grow a taro.

Kinim miit relations are sometimes imaged as a tree. In terms of older at the base and young at the crown, the image works both ways: the base as origin point from which new generations appear, and the base as a point towards which people age. A further instance appears in the branching of kin terms: cousin terminology shows greatest differentiation among closest patrilineal (‘most male connected’) kin; siblings and patrilateral parallel cousins are distinguished by age and gender (bapnak, ning, bapkun, neng); cross-cousins, both matrilateral and patrilateral, share a single term (neik); all (p.60) matrilateral parallel cousins share a separate single term (kabarim). In tandem with these forms of reckoning, the close intimacy of support is often evidenced by the ‘straightness of talk’ (weng turon) used—respectfully indirect to affines and older people, direct with siblings or anyone else with whom one has become attached by ‘looking after their skin’ (kal kiin moyamin). For example, people often either ‘turn their words’ (weng fakong) or ask a sibling for assistance ‘straight’ but within earshot of affines, in order to leave people to realize for themselves what is being said, and what is being asked of them. It is always a combination of idioms—for example, shared substance, straightness of talk—drawn upon in enacting kinship such that, even at such moments as brideprice prestations (wanang karik) or mortuary gifts (kinim talim) making patrilineal ‘clanship’ explicit, one idiom extending a basis of connection—here blood deemed to pass only from the father—is cut across and limited by other bases. As manifested by the complex movements and histories of people and plants, it is the combination of these different footings that gives energies their force. Perhaps by virtue of close residence, care, or exchanges, people can find themselves contributing to a gift they will also receive. Aspirations in one idiom are often curtailed by another idiom, and constantly refigured in step with the action of social life.

A kinship connection through either a man or a woman creates a division—within and beyond the kinim miit—into the ‘man’s side’ (kinim kaiyak or kinim amio), and the ‘woman’s side’ (wanang kaiyak or wanang amio). A connection by mother, sister, or wife (as wanang) places wanang kaiyak, and a connection by either father or brother (as kinim) places kinim kaiyak. Both women and men are found on either side. The differences between wanang kaiyak and kinim kaiyak, together with the differences in the effects of people’s actions—the outcomes of the ways that people have actually behaved—are made obvious in certain moments, such as in decisions over who to share with in gardening or who to side with in a dispute. An important feature here is that, whereas a father and brother are claimed by a single kinim miit, the exogamy practised in marriage means that a mother and sister are claimed by the different kinim miit of their respective fathers—whereas kinim kaiyak share one kinim miit, wanang kaiyak are shared amongst more than one kinim miit. The division creates a side with one kind of kin, and a side with the possibility of more than one kind of kin—reminiscent of the asymmetrical effect accomplished in other circumstances by the example of a tree with one trunk and many more than one branch.

Particular life-cycle events—such as the wanang karik gift at marriage (called braidprais, ‘bride-price’; occasionally praidprais, ‘pride-price’), or the (p.61) kinim talin gift at death—group people by their kinds of action, and, like the divisions in a garden made by a rotting log, obviating and exacting the differences between people for a particular purpose. For example, the mortuary kinim talin (‘man-gift’) is given by the kinim kaiyak side over to the wanang kaiyak side—creating a division focused on the deceased, which brings into issue the responsibilities of acting as kin on either side. People emphasize the reciprocity (dakoradakora) of those connected to them, and consequently, of the talin gift as a paired and symmetrical exchange. For example, a person is wanang kaiyak to a mother’s brother (connected through the mother), and kinim kaiyak to a mother (connected through her husband, the father)—so the part of a talin received in respect of a mother’s brother (as wanang kaiyaik by people regarded here as father’s-sister’s kin), may be duly given in respect of a mother (as kinim kaiyak to mother’s brother’s kin). However, unlike the clear divisions made by a rotting log, it is not unusual to find people participating on both sides of a gift prestation—having made a donation and then ‘gone around the back’ to become a recipient (possibly, but not necessarily, even taking out exactly what was put in)—effectively acting out both sides of their support. One young man explained that he had lived close to an old woman and received much food and care from her, and felt compelled to mark this with a contribution to a talin gift of which he would later become a recipient. A difference between the sides emerged again when he said that, as wanang kaiyak, one could ‘go around the back’ by contributing to a gift one would later receive (thereby acting as a kind of kinim kaiyak), but one could not, as kinim kaiyak in the stricter sense, contribute and then go around to receive as a kind of wanang kaiyak. The direction of the talin gift, then, creates a division between a side with one kind of kin, and a side with the possibility of more than one kind of kin.

A striking example here is abip fukanin (‘village-thinking’, or ‘village-destroying’). Practised especially in cases of a swift and unexpected failure of health in someone living some distance away, the recently bereaved wanang kaiyak kin may assemble with feelings running high as soon as word of the death is received, and come demanding the talin immediately. Their unexpected arrival and swift request make clear their sorrow and anger in remonstrating against contributory lapses in care and attentiveness amongst those looking after the deceased. Someone who, as kinim kaiyak, has spent even one night away from the deceased and hears about the sudden death may even join with the angry group. As the wanang kaiyak approach the village of the deceased—perhaps armed with sticks, bows, bush-knives, and axes—anyone seeing them arrive will sensibly hide in their houses or in (p.62) nearby bushes and trees. Children found in their path are scared off and anyone within reach—regardless of whether they are kinim kaiyak or unconnected (sak)—can expect to be pushed aside or poked with a stick. Entering the village, the group may hit houses, dogs, pigs—anyone foolish enough to be around may receive a blow. As they get closer, with feelings running higher still, people express anger in their weeping—perhaps that when they last saw the deceased he or she was in good health or that they had long complained about this poverty of care. Within the surrounds of the deceased’s house, any pandanus or banana plants might be cut down, dogs clubbed or shot, the deceased’s pigs found and killed, the house belted, rocked, or attacked with axes—anyone here can expect a severe beating. In the most charged instances, the wanang kaiyak might enter the house and attack the kinim kaiyak sitting heads bowed in shame and sorrow—in some instances, the four fire-posts have been broken and the racks of firewood collapsed and brought down heavily, and hot fire-ashes thrown about as a response to the lack of care. Afterwards, the wanang kaiyak may visit the deceased’s gardens pulling out and destroying all the plants—perhaps retaining some for kinim kaiyak deemed to have cared sufficiently—so that no continuity is possible amongst those who have effectively severed any connection with the deceased by their lack of care. Even those bearing little connection to the deceased have a responsibility to care for those who live close by. But these exceptional abip fukanin excesses are progressively released and greatly intensify with proximity to the house and ultimately to the fire racks and hearth.



Figure 6. Sorrowful-gardener and nephew at a hunting house above Dap



Figure 7.Wok is another word for love’



Figure 8. Passing clouds warned against carrying away the appetite-satifying qualities of harvested taro



Figure 9. Graceful-gardener receives advice on sorting taro suckers