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ETHNONYMS: Gahuku, Garfuku, Gorokans


Identification. The name "Gahuku," like "Gama," is that of a tribe or district group, but the former has been extended by linguists to include a congeries of such units and the Common language they speak.

Location. Gahuku occupy the open grassland and ridges immediately to the west of the town of Goroka, which is located at 6°5 S, 145°25 E and serves as the administrative center of the Goroka District of the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Bounded to the north by the Bismarck Range, the Goroka Valley is drained by the Asaro and Bena Bena rivers and lies at an elevation of about 1,200 meters, with surrounding mountains reaching over 3,000 meters. Centuries of forest clearance have left little timber in the Region, though the extensive grasslands are now being reForested through administration-sponsored schemes. A marked dry season sometimes led to periodic food shortages in the past, but about 190 centimeters of rain fall annually, mostly from November to March.

Demography. At first European contact in 1930, there were an estimated 50,000 people living in the Goroka area, but it is difficult to say how many of those were Gahuku. Currently, slightly more than 16,000 Gahuku speakers are Officially recognized.

linguistic Affiliation. Some linguists consider Gahuku to be a dialect, with Asaro (or Gururumba), of the Gahuku-Asaro language, which is grouped with Benabena, Fore, Gende, Gimi, Kamano, Siane, and Yabiyufa in the East-Central Family of the East New Guinea Highlands Stock of Non-Austronesian languages. Many Gahuku are bilingual in Asaro, Benabena, or Siane, and nowadays most younger adults and children speak Tok Pisin, with increasing numbers learning English in schools.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological evidence from the Kafiavana rock shelter indicates the presence of hunting and gathering populations in the Goroka Valley at about 9,000 b.c., with the transition to horticulture occurring probably thousands of years ago. While ancient trade linkages to distant coastal populations are suggested by cowrie shells dated at 7,000 b.c., the Gahuku did not experience direct contact with Westerners until 1930, in the form of an Australian gold prospecting party. This was soon followed by the creation of an aerodrome at nearby Bena Bena and the arrival of Lutheran missionaries in 1932. Goroka was established as an Australian administrative post in 1939, and World War II brought over 1,000 American and Australian servicemen to Bena Bena and Goroka. Postwar roads, airstrips, economic development, political changes, and proximity to the town of Goroka have all brought Gahuku fully into the modern world.


Prior to intensive European influence, Gahuku villages, with populations ranging from 70 to 700 people, consisted of twenty to fifty houses, occupied by women and children, laid out in a straight line with one or two men's houses at the end. Villages were enclosed with double palisades and located on narrow tops of ridges for defensive purposes. Temporary houses were erected in the surrounding gardens, beyond which pigs were put out to graze in the grassy, unclaimed area separating villages. Groves of casuarinas and bamboo, as well as their ridge locations, clearly identified villages as distinct entities, and they were indeed centers of ritual and Ceremonial life. Since pacification, villages have become more spread out, and traditional conically shaped grass houses have been replaced in many cases with rectangular houses with walls of woven cane and bamboo.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Gahuku Subsistence is still based largely on garden crops, among which sweet potatoes are predominant, while bananas, yams, taro, greens, and legumes are also important. Mainly because of the lack of forest, hunting has been of little significance in Recent times, but domestic pigs are a major source of protein as well as being of vital importance in exchange relationships. Since the 1950s, cash crops, especially coffee, have provided cash income, as have some employment opportunities in nearby Goroka.

Industrial Arts. Traditional implements, including wooden digging sticks and stone adzes, were manufactured from local materials but have now largely been replaced with steel tools. Men's bark "G-strings" and women's string aprons have also yielded to Western clothing. Locally made bows and arrows are still possessed and used by most men.

Trade. Until the 1930s the Gahuku lived in a fairly closed world, maintaining trade and exchange relationships with their nearest neighbors such as Asaro and Benabena and extending to the Ramu Valley, circulating salt, shells, pigs, plumes, and stone axes. Modern trade stores have now diminished the importance of these exchanges.

Division of Labor. Gahuku tasks were traditionally assigned almost exclusively by age and sex, with no occupational specialization. Young girls began early to learn their primary responsibilities of gardening, cooking, weaving string bags, and caring for children. Boys spent their childhood in play, but with initiation began to assume their male tasks of hunting, land clearing, construction, and warfare.

Land Tenure. While stands of bamboo and casuarinas were individually owned by the men who planted them, land was held collectively by patrilineal descent groups, Membership in which conferred rights of use. In the vicinity of settlements such rights were clearly defined, but they became shadowy beyond those limits. With enemy groups often less than an hour's walk away, land outside of the garden areas was often contested. Individual claims to land, while not based in custom, have become increasingly important, and they have become grounds for disputes with the rise of Entrepreneurship, especially regarding coffee plantations.


Kin Groups and Descent. Gahuku reproduction beliefs allocate only a secondary role to women, who are viewed as mere receptacles for a man's semen, and a closer spiritual tie is held to obtain between a father and his child than that Between a child and its mother. Descent is, accordingly, traced through males. The male members of patrilineages, tracing their descent through about four generations to a shared ancestor, usually reside together in the same village, where they exercise rights to specific areas of land and undertake communal labor tasks. Their identity is stressed further through ownership of pairs of sacred flutes and through the pooling and sharing of resources in bride-wealth transactions. Lineages are also joined into subclans and clans, which are named despite the lack of precise knowledge of all genealogical links that unite them. Clans are exogamous, are predominantly localized with their own plots of land, and act as corporate groups in a wide range of activities, including warfare.

Kinship Terminology. Gahuku distinguish between older and younger siblings, reflecting a general concern with seniority, but sibling terms are extended widely to all of the same generation within both the lineage and clan. The use of kin terms is modified by real age differences and for males by agemate relationships, which usually come about through coinitiation and are marked by close bonds.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. While a central theme of Gahuku culture is that the "female principle" is antagonistic and dangerous to men, traditionally a man was considered as nothing, and could never become a full member of the community, without a wife who would bear him children. In the context of male initiation ceremonies, a group of males (at about 15 years of age) would be formally betrothed to girls (of about the same age) selected by lineage elders. Upon betrothal, a girl moved to her fiancé's village and into his mother's house. A newly betrothed male was secluded for a period of weeks while adult men gave him instruction, following which he was enjoined to avoid his betrothed completely for up to seven years before cohabitation could occur. During that period he would engage in institutionalized courtship in friendly villages, trying to persuade other girls to elope with him. Not uncommonly, betrothals were broken off when the girl was considered to be maturing too quickly or when she ran off with an older male. When the time for cohabitation arrived, the groom shot an arrow into his bride's thigh, they shared a meal in public, and she was ceremonially conducted to her new house in her husband's village. Like betrothals, few marriages were Permanent, ending with the wife's desertion or litigation initiated by the husband or his lineage mates suing for the return of the bride-wealth (most commonly because of childlessness, which was invariably blamed on the woman). Polygyny, although allowed, was practiced by relatively few men. Under the influence of missions, schools, and other agents of change, long betrothals, if not arranged marriages, are now a thing of the past.

Domestic Unit. Given the belief that women were dangerous to men, male children were inducted into the men's house at about 10 years of age, where they lived with all initiated males of the village. The traditional household, then, consisted of a woman, her unmarried daughters, and young sons. A man's cowives, between whom relations were almost invariably hostile, were housed separately. While husbands and wives occasionally worked together in gardens, sexual segregation was extensive. Nowadays, however, married couples increasingly share residences, with the nuclear family forming the typical household.

Inheritance. Land claims of the deceased reverted to other members of the lineage or clan, and movable property Typically was claimed by surviving male relatives.

Socialization. Children have always been at the center of adult attention in Gahuku culture, but men traditionally had little to do with male children until they moved into the men's house. Thus, early child rearing was left almost exclusively in the hands of women and older siblings. Beginning at about age 5, males underwent a series of initiation Ceremonies, gradually being placed under the authority and supervision of the adult male community.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Beyond the village, the tribe was the largest social grouping, encompassing 300-1,000 people. Comprised of two or more clans, it was named (e.g., "Gahuku" or "Gama"); it claimed a common territory; and its male members, supposing a common origin of some kind, were joined in friendship, allowing no warfare within the tribe and acting as a unit in carrying out initiation ceremonies and pig festivals. Sometimes pairs of tribes joined in alliance for warfare purposes; all tribes stood in permanent friend or enemy relationships with other like units.

Political Organization. Within the lineage, authority was linked to seniority and publicly held by males, who were regarded as the custodians of customary lore and knowledge. Beyond the boundaries of kin groups, an individual might become "a man with a name," renowned for his aggressive tendencies and skill in warfare, balanced with diplomacy. Such big-men often had outstanding oratorical abilities and served as leaders. Because "character" was believed to be inherited from one's father, a son was expected to succeed his father as "a man with a name," but succession was not automatic. With European contact, village officials were appointed by the Australian administration, and these officials have now been replaced with elected members of the provincial government.

Social Control. Showing disrespect for elders, lack of regard for agemates, failures to support fellow clan members or meet other obligations among kin, breaking rules of exogamy, incest, and adultery within the subclan or clan were grounds for public shaming or physical aggression, which was a predisposition of both sexes. Moots, with big-men taking major roles, aimed at peaceful resolution through consensus.

Conflict. While physical violence and feuding (hina ) could erupt within groups as large as the tribe, this was considered as only a temporary solution to differences; eventually the dispute was to be resolved peacefully through compensation or ceremonial reconciliation. True warfare (rova ), seen as a permanent state of existence between tribes and endemic until it was proscribed in 1950 by the Australian administration, could be considered a dominant orientation of Gahuku culture. Battles and raids, triggered by unresolved disputes over land or sorcery accusations, were conducted each dry season, with the objectives of destroying settlements and Gardens, killing as many of the enemy group as possible, and forcing the survivors to seek refuge with allied clans or tribes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, Gahuku possessed no systematic cosmology. They believed in no gods, and few demons or other malignant spirits inhabited their world. On the other hand, an impersonal supernatural force was tapped through ritual, especially through the deployment of sacred flutes that, when blown, united men with each other and their ancestors, endowing them with powers of growth and fertility. While Lutheran missionaries have settled in the area since the 1930s, their progress in converting the Gahuku to Christianity was slow until recent years.

Religious Practitioners. No formal priesthood existed, with major roles in rituals and ceremonies allocated simply to elders who were viewed as repositories of the requisite knowledge.

Ceremonies. Annually, during the dry season, male initiation ceremonies were held over a period of months, inducting groups of agemates into the nama cult of the men's house. These rites typically concluded with a pig festival also lasting several months, during which group obligations (e.g., to allies) were discharged through gifts of pigs and pork. Less regularly, perhaps every three to five years, a fertility rite was conducted to stimulate the growth of crops and both pig and human populations. Nowadays, Christian holidays, such as Christmas, are occasions for public festivals.

Arts. Like other New Guinea highlanders, Gahuku confine their artistic production almost totally to body decoration and ornamentation for ceremonies, festivals, and courtship.

Medicine. Bush medicines and purification techniques were traditionally employed on a self-help basis, but increasingly nowadays Western medical facilities are used.

Death and Afterlife. All deaths, whatever their apparent proximate causes, were attributed to sorcery, with women viewed as the principal accomplices, if not actual agents. A "breath-soul" animating principle was believed simply to depart at death, leaving behind only a shade, which usually showed no interest in the living. Until the introduction of Christianity, no belief in an afterworld existed for the Gahuku.

See also Gururumba, Siane, Tairora


Finney, Ben R. (1973). Big-Men and Business: Entrepreneurship and Economic Growth in the New Guinea Highlands. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.

Finney, Ben R. (1987). Business Development in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Pacific Islands Development Program Research Report no. 6. Honolulu: East-West Center.

Read, Kenneth E. (1952). "Nama Cult of the Central Highlands, New Guinea." Oceania 23:1-25.

Read, Kenneth E. (1954). "Cultures of the Central Highlands, New Guinea." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 10:1-43.

Read, Kenneth E. (1965). The High Valley. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Rev. ed. 1980. New York: Columbia University Press.

Read, Kenneth E. (1986). Return to the High Valley: Coming Full Circle. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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