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ETHNONYMS: Eipodumanang, Goliath, Kimyal, Mek


Identification. The Eipo and their neighbors live in the Daerah Jayawijaya of the Indonesian Province of Irian Jaya. The Eipo usually refer to themselves as "Eipodumanang," which means "the ones living on the banks of the Eipo River," but the term "Eipo" is sometimes extended to include the inhabitants of adjacent valleys. The term "Mek" (meaning water, or river) has been introduced by linguists and anthropologists to designate the fairly uniform languages and cultural traditions in this area.

Location. The Eipo inhabit approximately 150 square kilometers of land in the southernmost (upper) section of the Eipomek Valley, at approximately 4°25-4°27 S, 140°00-140°05 E. Settlements are found at elevations Between 1,600 and 2,100 meters, but surrounding mountain ranges reach 4,600 meters. The terrain is for the most part steeply incised. Anthropogenic grassland is found in a wide circle around the villages. Rain forest exists between the garden areas and covers the mountains above about 2,400 meters up to the tree line at 3,500 meters. Annual rainfall in 1975-1976 was 590 centimeters, with rain mostly falling daily in the afternoons and evenings. Temperatures range from about 11-13° to 21-25° C. Little seasonal change is to be observed, but the time of flowering of a particular tree (Eodia sp.) is taken by the Eipo as a marker of certain feasts and other activities. In 1976 two severe earthquakes destroyed large areas of garden land and some villages; it is likely that similar catastrophes have occurred in the past.

Demography. The Eipo numbered close to 800 people in 1980; indications are that the population is growing.

Linguistic Affiliation. Eipo, of which there are three dialects, is a member of the Mek Family of Non-Austronesian languages, clearly separate from the Ok languages to the east, the Yali and Dani languages to the west, and languages spoken to the north and south. Local people traditionally understandand, to a lesser extent, speakone or two dialects or languages other than their own. Children usually learn their speech from their mothers (who, due to rules of exogamy, often come from different valleys) and often do not adopt the dialect spoken by the majority in a particular village. Bahasa Indonesia, unknown before the 1970s, is slowly gaining ground as a lingua franca.

History and Cultural Relations

No archaeological data are available for the Mek region, and ethnohistoric surveys are missing as well. It is probable, However, that parts of the Mek area have been inhabited for many thousands of years. Linguistic and historical research on the introduction and diffusion of tobacco shows that the Mek (and their Ok neighbors to the east) may have been central in this process, and comparative studies on religious beliefs prove that important concepts (e.g., that of a mythical ancestral creator) have traveled from east to west. While it is unknown as yet at what time the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas ) was introduced, one can conclude from the significance of taro (Colocasia esculenta ) in all ceremonial religious contexts that this latter food plant was of vital importance in pre-Ipomoean times. The first known contact by outsiders with Mek peoples was made by a team of Dutch surveyors early in this century; they met a group of people near Mount Goliath in the south of the area and reported the first recorded words of a Mek language. Some other groups were contacted in 1959 in the course of a French expedition across West New Guinea. Its leader, Pierre Gaisseau, later returned with a film team and Indonesian military personnel in 1969, parachuting into the southern Eipo Valley where they conducted a small but sound survey on the area and the people. Members of an interdisciplinary German research team conducted research in the Eipo Valley and some adjacent areas between 1974 and 1980.


The villages of the Eipo and their neighbors in the Mek area have 30-250 inhabitants and are usually built on spots that facilitate defense. One or more circular men's houses (which often have sacred functions) occupy conspicuous places, either in the center or at the end of the village. The much smaller and less well-built family houses, also of circular shape but sometimes with rectangular roofs, are the locations for family-centered activities. Women stay in seclusion houses, usually situated at the periphery of the village, during menstruation, childbirth, and puerperium, and sometimes during serious illnesses and for sanctuary. All men's houses and most family houses have elevated floors and a central fireplace. Protection against the cold of the night is not very adequate. Due to mission influence, which chiefly employs Dani evangelists and teachers, Dani house styles are becoming fashionable.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Eipo and the Mek in general are skillful horticulturalists and make their gardens in various places: sometimes on steep self-draining mountain slopes, but also in flat, wet areas where ditching and building mounds are particularly important for the main staple crop, sweet potatoes. Mulching is widespread. Fallow periods are fifteen years or more; sufficient regeneration of the soil is judged by the size of a tree (Trema tomentosa ) that soon starts to grow in old gardens. Numerous varieties of taro, some of which reach considerable size and weight, are also cultivated. They are reserved for ceremonies, especially feasts for guests. Other cultigens include leafy greens (which contribute most of the vegetable protein, especially for men), bananas, sugarcane, edible pitpit, native asparagus (Setaria palmifolia), various pandanus species, and other wild foods. Beans, cheyote (Secchium edule), cucumbers, maize, cassava, and peanuts have been introduced and successfully cultivated. The few domesticated pigs do not contribute much to the diet, only about one gram per day person; they are carefully raised and usually used only in ceremonial contexts. Small marsupials are snared or hunted, often with the help of dogs, but hunting is done more to satisfy emotional needs than to provide meat. Women and girls obtain valuable animal protein in the form of frogs, tadpoles, lizards, snakes, spiders, and other insects as well as the eggs and larvae of these animals. Tradition and religious taboos reserve these foods as well as most of the bird species for infants, girls, and women. In the past decade, the Eipo have become dependent on mission stations as sources of modern tools, clothing, tinned food, and other goods, which are purchased with money received from selling services or products to the mission.

Industrial Arts. The material culture is poor, even compared to other highlands groups, and when research was begun in 1974, the Eipo and many of their neighbors were still using stone, bone, and wooden tools. Their worldly belongings include string bags, bows, arrows, stone adzes, stone knives and scrapers, wooden digging sticks, boars' tusks and marsupial teeth used as carving tools, bone daggers and awls, lianas for starting fires by friction, bamboo or calabash containers for water, penis gourds for the men, and grass skirts for girls and women. The Mek cook in hot ashes, bamboo containers over the open fire, or in earth ovens for larger groups of people, especially guests.

Trade. The Eipo and other Mek groups may seem self-sufficient now, but traditionally they relied on various goods from the outside. Unpolished stone adze blades were produced by specialists in the Heime Valley and exchanged mainly for string bags and garden products. Other items that had to be imported included black-palm wood for bows, feathers of birds of paradise and cassowaries, and various highly valued shells.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, the only specialists were producers of stone adze blades; all other work activities were carried out, sometimes in sex-specific ways, by everyone. The clearing of virgin forest (rarely done traditionally), the felling of larger trees, and the building of houses or log and cane bridges are all male tasks. The physically demanding work of clearing secondary vegetation for new gardens is done jointly by men and women, as are various activities in the gardens, such as preparing the ground, planting, weeding, and harvesting. With regard to the latter, the women have a heavier workload than do men and are known to carry their own body weight (about 40 kilograms) for several kilometers at a time. Hunting and snaring, as well as killing domesticated pigs, is done by the men. Women make most of the handicrafts, Especially string bags of various sizes.

Land Tenure, All land, with the possible exception of that in the very high mountains, belongs to individuals (mostly men) or clans. In the latter case the corresponding rights are usually exercised by the clans' most influential male Members. Some clans, namely those who are said to have "always" lived in a certain area, may own much more land than others; in a few cases "latecomers" may not have any land property at all. Still, enough garden land is made available to everyone in a process of formal distribution. Among the Eipo it is possible to gain use rights to land that one has made into a garden if it has been unused or unclaimed for a certain period of time. Individually owned or clan-owned garden land is marked by specially planted Cordyline shrubs, the connecting lines of which designate the sacrosanct borders. Despite this, disputes over land are quite common and can lead to armed fights.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is reckoned patrilineally. Clan origins are dated back to mythical times. Animals, the sun, and the moon are considered the respective foreFathers of clans and are worshipped as totems. Patricians and patrlineages are exogamous, a rule that is quite strictly adhered to, even when choosing premarital or extramarital lovers. Even children know surprisingly well the details of the intricate kinship network.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terms follow the conventions of the Omaha type of system. Additional classification principles include the specification that mother's brother, mother's father's brother's son, and mother's brother's son are all called by the same term.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Eipo term ka signifies a marriageable clan, lineage, or partner; kaib means to secure a marriageable partner and is the term for arranging a marriage. This form is seen as ideal, but in reality it does not occur too often because both the bride and groom have the right to reject the arrangement and because love affairs are quite common. The latter may lead either directly to marriage or to the man's abducting the consenting woman from her husband, to whom she is often married as a second wife. Rather than a payment of bride-price there is a system of mutual exchange of gifts: the groom's side and that of the bride hand over substantial valuables, shell and feather decorations, tools, etc. With a few Exceptions, particularly in young couples, virilocality is the rule. In the 1970s 12 percent of the men lived in polygynous Marriages, all with two wives, except for one man who had three. Because of the facultative polygyny and the imbalanced sex ratio (133 for all age groups, a result of preferential female infanticide, which is one of the mechanisms controlling Population size), approximately 5 percent of all men must live Permanently without a spouse, whereas virtually all sexually active and/or physically healthy women are married. In one case, a woman was "officially" living with two brothers. Whether such polyandrous settings are institutionalized Marriages or ad-hoc solutions is unknown. Premarital sexual intercourse is allowed. Fidelity is expected of married persons but not always observed. Separation, divorce, and remarriage occur frequently.

Domestic Unit. A family house is usually occupied by a woman, her husband (who may at times, however, eat and sleep in the men's house), her daughters, her sons younger than about 13 years old, and unmarried or elderly relatives. The confined space is often also shared with a dog or a smaller pig or two. Husband and wife may work together, and the gardens and adjacent areas are preferred places for sexual intercourse.

Inheritance. Inheritance is through the patriline. Tools, body decorations, and the like may also be given to other Persons, especially if the deceased was unmarried.

Socialization. Infants grow up in an emotionally protective environment with much body contact, especially with their mothers, and are breast-fed on demand. Birth intervals are at least three years, but child spacing will probably decrease in the course of acculturation. Infants receive a variety of social, emotional, and intellectual stimuli as they frequently interact with various persons of different ages and sexes. The principle of granting all of a child's wishes is gradually replaced by educational and economic demands. More than actual corporeal punishment, the threat of it keeps children fairly well disciplined. Girls help with various domestic duties earlier than do boys. Beyond the age of about 3 years, socialization takes place more and more in peer groups. In the last one or two decades mission schools have introduced hitherto-unknown formal education, and they are taking over part of the Socialization process.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In order of increasing complexity and decreasing consanguineality, the following social levels exist: extended families, coresident groups, lineages and clans, men's house communities, villages, and political alliances of a number of villages. Among members of the same lineage or clan, loyalty is usually high. Men's-house communities, led by specific clans, play an important role as work groups and in political decision making.

Political Organization. On the basis of their intellectual, oratorical, social, and physical power, sisinang (big-men) lead village communities as persons who take initiative, pursue plans, and respect rules and traditions, though they also use them to their advantage. In this protomeritocracy, leadership is dependent on the actual power of the leader. Persons who show signs of losing their capacities lose their positions, too. Inheritance of big-man status from father to son is not institutionalized, but it sometimes occurs de facto.

Social Control. Big-men exercise a certain amount of Social control, but more important is the process of enforcing social norms through public opinion. This process, in turn, is effected through gossip, discussion of disputed issues, and the use of extrahuman powers in black magic allegedly performed by female or male witches. The infliction of illness thus functions as punishment for social wrongdoing.

Conflict. Despite the fact that the Eipo are usually friendly and controlled, the potential for aggressive acts is quite high and does not need much triggering. Until recently, in both intraalliance fights and interalliance warfare, approximately 3-4 persons per 1,000 inhabitants died of violence per year. Verbal quarrels and physical attacks with sticks, stone adzes, and arrows was the usual sequence of escalation leading to fights in the village. Neighbors in adjacent valleys sometimes were hereditary enemies who fought wars that were less ritualized (and therefore less controlled) than the intraalliance fights; in the past these conflicts occasionally led to cannibalism. Formal peace ceremonies ended these wars for periods of months or years. Warfare against ideologically defined and dehumanized "others" increased one's own sense of identity and strengthened bonds within the group.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The visible world is considered to be inhabited by numerous, usually monstrous, beings: souls of the deceased, zoomorphic spirits of the forests and rivers, and powerful shapers of nature and bringers of culture who, since mythical times, have influenced the life of people. Yaleenye (a name that means "the one coming from the east") is the most prominent such culture hero. Mythical powers, symbolized by holy relics, were traditionally housed and honored in sacred men's houses. Various ceremonies that pervaded everyday life were performed to ensure the well-being of humans, domestic animals, and food plants. Fundamentalist Christianity has replacedsometimes radicallytraditional practices and, to a lesser extent, beliefs. Syncretic ideas and ceremonies are quite common and cargo-cult concepts exist.

Religious Practitioners. Seers are the only ones who can communicate directly with the extrahuman sphere and its agents. They may also act as sorcerers, inflicting harm, disease, and death on others. Male cult leaders, who were sometimes also big-men, were responsible in the past for religious ceremonies. The small group of specialists in religious matters included healers.

Ceremonies. Until recently, the first and most important initiation of boys between about 4 and 15 years of age was a major event that involved participants from other valleys. It was held at intervals of about 10 years, depending on how many boys were available for this costly ceremony. Coinitiates kept a lifelong bond. Second and third stages involved, respectively, the bestowal of the cane waistband and penis gourd, and the presentation of the mum, a. back decoration that hung down from the head. Large and costly ceremonial dance feasts for visitors strengthened ties with trade and marriage partners from other valleys. Warfare and alliance formation involved ceremonies, and the killing of any enemy was celebrated triumphantly. More rarely, great ceremonies, bringing together inhabitants from distant, sometimes inimical valleys, were held to ensure the fertility of the soil.

Arts. The Eipo make very few carved or painted objects. Some Mek groups have sacred boards and large sacred shields that were not used in war. Drums are known only in some areas, but the Jew's harp is found everywhere. The texts of profane songs and sacred chants convincingly use powerful metaphors and are highly sophisticated examples of artistic expression.

Medicine. Compared to other areas of New Guinea, surprisingly few plant medicines are used. Leaves of the stinging nettle are applied as counterirritants. Other traditional (psychosomatic) treatments, carried out by healers who were Usually males, involved sacred pig's fat and chants to invoke the help of extrahuman powers. Healers usually were not paid for their services. In recent years modern medicines have been administered at some mission stations.

Death and Afterlife. The death of a person leads to emotional distress among others and is spontaneously and Ceremonially lamented, sometimes for months. The corpse traditionally was placed in a tree and protected against rainfall with bark and leaves. After mummification the body was put under the roof of a garden house. Later, in a third ceremony, the bones were placed under rock shelters. The complete cycle of ceremonies was not performed in all cases, and today through mission influence the dead are buried. The souls of the deceased are thought to leave the body, as they do during fainting spells or severe illness, and it is hoped that they will quickly proceed to the mythical ancestral village of their Respective clans high up in the mountains. The spirits of the dead are thought to be basically angry and jealous of the joys on earth, and people think they can come back to harm or, less frequently, to help the living.


Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I., W. Schiefenhövel, and V. Heeschen (1989). Kommunikation bei den Eipo: Eine humanethologische Bestandsaufnahme im zentralen Bergland von Irian ]aya (West-Neuguinea), Indonesien. Mensch, Kultur, und Umwelt im zentralen Bergland von West-Neuguinea, no. 19. Berlin: D. Reimer.

Heeschen, V., and W. Schiefenhövel (1983). Wörterbuch der Eipo-Sprache: Eipo-Deutsch-English. Mensch, Kultur, und Umwelt im zentralen Bergland von West-Neuguinea, no. 6. Berlin: D. Reimer.

Koch, G. (1984). Malingdam: Ethnographische Notizen über einen Siedlungsbereich im oberen Eipomek-Tal, zentralen Bergland von Irian Jaya (West-Neuguinea), Indonesien. Mensch, Kultur, und Umwelt im zentralen Bergland von West-Neuguinea, no. 15. Berlin: D. Reimer.

Schiefenhövel, W. (1988). Geburtsverhalten und reproduktive Strategien der Eipo: Ergebnisse humanethologischer und ethnmedizinischer Untersuchungen im zentralen Bergland von Irian ]aya (West-Neuguinea ), Indonesien. Mensch, Kultur, und Umwelt im zentralen Bergland von West-Neuguinea, no. 16. Berlin: D. Reimer.