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ETHNONYMS: Boadzi, Suki


Identification. Boazi is the name of a language spoken by approximately 2,500 people who live along the middle reaches of the Fly River and along the central and northern shores of Lake Murray in the southern lowlands of New Guinea. Boazi speakers use the name "Boazi" to refer to their language, but their names for themselves are the names of the eight territorial groups into which they are divided. The use of the name "Boazi" (both by Boazi speakers and others) to refer to all Boazi speakers (or in some cases to refer to those who live along the Fly River as opposed to those who live around Lake Murray) is the result of the recent colonial and current postcolonial context in which Boazi speakers live. Prior to the colonial period, there does not seem to have been any conception of group membership beyond the territorial group. Nonetheless, the eight Boazi-speaking territorial groups share a common history, culture, and social structure. Early colonial documents also refer to Boazi speakers as "Suki," a name now reserved for culturally similar people living farther down the Fly River.

Location. The Lake Murray-Middle Fly area is located between 6°30 and 8° S, and 141° and 141°5 E. The dominant geographical features of the area are the Fly River, with its 10-kilometer-wide floodplain, and Lake Murray, which is 60 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide at its widest point. Away from the river and lake are low ridges covered with open forest or closed canopy rain forest. In the marginally lower areas between these ridges are extensive sago swamps from which Boazi speakers get most of their food. The area receives 250 centimeters of rain per year, over half of which falls during the northwest monsoon, which lasts from late December to mid-April.

Demography. In 1980 there were approximately 2,500 Boazi speakers. The population density of the Lake Murray-Middle Fly area is about 0.3 person per square kilometer. There is no reliable information on population growth or decline.

Linguistic Affiliation. According to C. L. Voorhoeve (1970), Boazi is spoken in three dialects: Kuni at Lake Murray, and North Boazi and South Boazi along the Fly River. The Boazi language is one of two languages in the Boazi Language Family, the other being Zimakani which is spoken around the southern part of Lake Murray and the confluence of the Fly and Strickland rivers. The Boazi Language Family is the easternmost of the three language families in the Marind Stock, which is part of the Trans-New Guinea Phylum.

History and Cultural Relations

Boazi speakers are culturally similar to groups to the south and west of the Lake Murray-Middle Fly area, including the Suki, Yéi-nan, Marind-anim, Bian Marind, and the tribes of the Trans-Fly, but they are culturally very different from the peoples who live to the north of the Lake Murray-Middle Fly area such as the Yonggom, Aekyom (or Awin), and the Pare speakers. To date no archaeological research has been done in the Lake Murray-Middle Fly area. It is therefore impossible to say with any certainty how long people have been in the area or where the ancestors of the present-day Boazi speakers came from. Boazi speakers claim that their ancestors originated in the Lake Murray-Middle Fly area itself, and Boazi oral history records various military conquests and subsequent movements of people within the Lake Murray-Middle Fly area prior to the arrival of Europeans. The first contact between Boazi speakers and Europeans took place in June 1876 during d'Albertis's exploration of the Fly River. d'Albertis had brief hostile encounters with people along the middle reaches of the river both during his ascent and during his descent later that year. For the fifty years following d'Albertis's visit, Boazi speakers both along the Fly River and at Lake Murray had only brief and sporadic contacts with Europeans. In the late 1920s, in response to head-hunting raids by Boazi speakers on peoples close to Australian and Dutch government stations, the colonial administrations both of the Australian Territory of Papua and of Dutch New Guinea began trying to pacify the Boazi speakers of the Middle Fly. This led to a period of Dutch control and proselytization by Dutch Catholic missionaries in the Middle Fly from 1930 to 1956. Dutch control did not, however, extend to the Lake Murray area where traditional warfare continued into the late 1940s. In 1956, Boazi speakers became citizens of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea.


Villages range in population from about 50 to 600 persons. Families alternate between living in a village and living in small camps near their sago swamps and hunting grounds. Both villages and camps are usually built on low islands or peninsulas in the swamps and marshes of the Fly River floodplain. All villages have a separate house for unmarried men. This house is physically removed from the rest of the village and serves as the married men's clubhouse and the repository of the central objects of the men's secret cult. Traditionally, houses were simple, open-sided structures with dirt floors, sleeping platforms of split Areca palm, and roofs of sago leaves or Melaleuca bark. Today, however, houses have raised floors of split palm and walls of sago palm frond stems in addition to their sago-thatch roofs.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Boazi speakers are primarily hunters, fishermen, and sago makers. The Lake Murray-Middle Fly area is extraordinarily rich in wildlife. Wild pigs, cassowaries, wallabies, and deer abound. The forests and marshlands are home to many types of birds, including goura pigeons, bush fowl, ducks, and geese, and the rivers and lakes contain a great variety of fish as well as turtles and crocodiles. Hunting is done with bows and arrows, using a variety of hunting techniques, including stalking, blinds, and driving game toward hunters with fire or noise. Dogs are often used in hunting larger game. Boazi speakers fish with traps, spears, hooks, and commercially made nylon nets. The most important food item, however, is sago, a starch extracted from the pith of the sago palm (Metroxylon sagu ), which grows naturally in the extensive freshwater swamps of the area. Boazi speakers also plant coconut palms, bananas, and some tubers, but gardening plays only a minor role in their adaptation to the environment.

Industrial Arts. Boazi speakers are preindustrial and, prior to the arrival of White men, used only stone tools. Any adult can produce virtually all of the implements necessary for day-to-day living from materials found in the local environment.

Trade. Prior to pacification, Boazi speakers raided their neighbors for the few things which they could not produce themselvesmost importantly, stone for tools, since the Lake Murray-Middle Fly area has no stone. Today, they are able to buy steel tools, metal pots, Western clothes, and some European foods from small, indigenously owned trade stores in the area. Money is obtained primarily from the sale of crocodile skins or from contract labor outside the Lake Murray-Middle Fly area.

Division of Labor. Boazi speakers have a loosely defined sexual division of labor. Hunting, making bows and arrows, carving paddles, cutting canoes, and building houses are considered men's work, although some aspects of house building, such as making roof panels from sago palm leaves, may be done by either men or women. Women's work includes making sago, gathering firewood, cooking, and weaving baskets and mats. Most other tasks may be done by either sex. In Durkheim's terms, the Boazi exhibit a high degree of mechanical solidarity with little interdependence of tasks and virtually no specialization of labor. The nuclear family is the maximum unit of production.

Land Tenure. Within the territory of a territorial group, individual tracts of land are owned communally by totemic groups or, in some cases, patrilineages. Individuals can obtain access to forest products (e.g., trees for canoes) or the right to hunt in a particular area through matrilateral or affinal ties as well as through membership in the totemic group that owns a tract of land. Within the landholdings of a totemic group, sago swamps are owned by individual members of that group. Coconut palms, banana stands, and other garden plants are owned by the people who planted them.


Kin Groups. Each Boazi speaker is a member of a lineage, a totemic group, and a moiety. Lineages are named for their apical ancestors, and totemic groups have animals such as the pig, cassowary, crocodile, and various types of fish as their to-tems. Totemic groups are divided into moieties, one consisting of groups with land-animal totems and the other consisting of groups with water-animal totems. While Boazi speakers talk about lineages, totemic groups, and moieties as if they all recruit members through patrilineal descent and are hierarchically organized, there are important differences in the recruitment of members between lineages on the one hand and totemic groups and moieties on the other. An individual always belongs to the same lineage as his or her father, but in the recruitment of individuals to totemic groups and moieties, patrilineal descent is subordinated to the principles governing marriage exchanges: a man gives a woman to a man in the opposite moiety from whom he receives a wife; and a man should belong to the same lineage, and therefore the same totemic group and moiety, as the woman he gives in exchange for his wife. In cases in which a man gives his uterine sister, or another woman from his totemic group, in exchange for his wife, the marriage-exchange principle and the principle of patrilineal descent have the same resultthat is, the man will continue to belong to his father's totemic group and moiety. But when a man gives a woman from a lineage that is part of another totemic group, he will change his totemic group, and in some instances his moiety, to that of the woman whom he has given in exchange for his wife.

Kinship Terminology. While descent is patrilineal, kinship is reckoned bilaterally. Boazi kinship terms distinguish between cross cousins and parallel cousins, and separate terms are used for father's older brother, father's younger brother, father's sister, mother's older sister, mother's younger sister, and mother's brother. Both father's older brother and mother's older sister are addressed and referred to as though they were members of the grandparental generation. In addition to their use with actual kinsmen and kinswomen, kinship terms (denoting relative age and membership in the same or opposite moiety as the speaker) are used both in addressing and in referring to all Boazi speakers.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is by the exchange of women, preferably uterine sisters, between men of opposite moieties. In addition to a rule of moiety exogamy, there are restrictions on marriages between individuals who are closely related matrilaterally. Marriages are usually between members of the same territorial group, although there is no rule of group endogamy. Marriages are usually arranged by the fathers and the mothers' brothers of the men and women involved. Following marriage, a man is expected to help his wife's father with hunting and heavy labor. This is facilitated by a pattern of uxorilocal postmarital residence, which usually continues at least until a couple has two or three children. While polygyny was a part of the traditional culture of Boazi speakers, today, under the increasing influence of Christianity, most marriages are monogamous.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the typical domestic unit, although the people living in the same house may include parents or widowed sisters of the husband or wife, and married daughters and their husbands and children. In some instances, pairs of brothers and their families may live in the same house. As mentioned earlier, unmarried men sleep in a separate house although they regularly visit their natal families or married siblings.

Inheritance. Boazi speakers have few inheritable artifacts or wealth objects. An individual's few personal effects are either buried with the person or distributed to his or her children. A man's sago swamps and coconut palms are divided among his sons, and in some cases among his sons and daughters.

Socialization. Infants and children are raised primarily by their mothers or their oldest sisters. Children are encouraged to be independent and physically competent, and they are discouraged from showing pain and ridiculed if they fall down or hurt themselves. For boys, the freedom of childhood continues, with only slight restrictions, until they marry. Girls, however, are increasingly pressured to accept responsibility and to be productive from about the age of 9 or 10.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. While social relations among Boazi-speaking men are egalitarian, social relations between the sexes are unequal, with men having more power than women. Traditionally, the only leadership position was that of war leader (kamok-anem ). This position was generally occupied by married men between 30 and 45 years of age who earned the position by demonstrating courage and cunning in warfare. Today, each Boazi village has an elected representative to the local government council which is the lowest level of representative government in Papua New Guinea.

Political Organization. The maximal political units are the territorial groups, which range in population from 50 to 1,000 people. In Boazi, these territorial groups are called mangge izwam or "land people." Traditionally, each territorial group lived in a constant state of war with its neighbors, and even today relations between territorial groups are often tense and occasionally hostile, and the borders between groups are under almost constant dispute. A person belongs to the territorial group into which he or she is born. Each territorial group has two types of members: miavek and bwiatak. The former are patrilineal descendents of one of the original members of the territorial group. The latter are individuals who have come to live with the territorial group, either through their own migration or through the migration of one of their patrilineal ancestors. Because they are descended from the original members of the territorial group, miavek members have somewhat stronger claims to land and sago swamps.

Social Control. Social control is maintained through threats of physical retaliation and sorcery. Both forms of social control have been seriously undermined, however, by the colonial and postcolonial governments and by Christian missionaries. The government has made both physical retaliation and sorcery criminal offenses, and the teachings of missionaries have led many young Boazi speakers to question the efficacy of sorcery.

Conflict. Warfare was an important part of traditional Boazi culture. Boazi speakers were fierce headhunters and cannibals who were feared by many groups in the southern lowlands of New Guinea. Even today, conflicts between territorial groups are continual, with most conflicts stemming from disputes over women or land. There is also considerable strife within territorial groups, but in these cases individuals have the option of moving to another camp or village.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Most Boazi speakers believe in a combination of Christianity and traditional beliefs in ghosts, spirits, sorcery, and the power of magical objects. Elements of Christian mythology are often mixed with Boazi mythology. Boazi speakers believe in a variety of supernatural beings including ghosts, spirits associated with particular locations, and forest and marsh spirits. Many forest and marsh spirits play only minor roles in day-to-day life, but ghosts and the spirits associated with particular locations are believed to be the source of both benevolent and malevolent magical power. Beliefs in traditional supernatural beings are often mixed with beliefs in Christian supernatural beings.

Religious Practitioners. Although some Boazi speakers are recognized as having greater knowledge of sorcery and greater magical powers than others, sorcery and magic can, according to Boazi tradition, be learned by any man and by some women.

Ceremonies. Many traditional ceremonies, including male initiation, were closely tied to head-hunting and therefore are no longer performed. Tame-pig feasts, which include appeals to spirits and which traditionally preceded a head-hunting raid, are still occasionally held.

Arts. Boazi speakers produce little representational or abstract art. Traditionally, they made elaborate trophies from the heads of their head-hunting victims, but these are no longer produced. Musical instruments include large hourglass drums and bullroarers. Dances to the accompaniment of drums are held to celebrate marriages, national and Christian religious holidays, and the end of the traditional period of mourning.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to spirits, sorcery, the breaking of postpartum taboos, excessive amounts of impure blood in the body, and (for men) contact with menstrual blood. A variety of traditional medical techniques are used; prominent among these are bleeding to remove the impure blood and burning to relieve pain.

Death and Afterlife. Death is the most important lifecycle event. Mourning consists of one or two days of wailing and dirges before the body is buried. After the burial, a formal period of mourning is observed which usually lasts about forty days. During this time, people are supposed to speak in low voices and are not permitted to beat their drums. At the end of the mourning period, a large feast is held for the community, but the spirit of the dead person is believed to frequent the village or camp until his or her death has been avenged.

See alsoMarind-anim


Busse, Mark (1987). "Sister Exchange among the Wamek of the Middle Fly." Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego.

Voorhoeve, C. L. (1970). "The Languages of the Lake Murray Area." In Papers in New Guinea Linguistics, edited by S. Wurm, no. 10. Pacific Linguistics, Series A, no. 25. Canberra: Australian National University.