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ETHNONYMS: Aiome Pygmies, Gants, Ganz


Identification. Gainj is the name for approximately 1,500 people who distinguish themselves from their culturally similar neighbors on the basis of language and territorial affiliation.

Location. The Gainj live in the Takwi Valley of the Western Schrader Range in Papua New Guinea's Madang Province. On the northernmost fringe of the central highlands, the valley covers approximately 55 square kilometers, centered at 144°40 E and 5° 14 S. The area receives almost 500 centimeters of rain annually, with the heaviest rainfall occurring from December to April. The mean daily temperature, 22-24° C, varies little across seasons.

Demography. The 1,500 Gainj live in approximately twenty widely dispersed local groups, which vary in size from about 30 to 200 individuals. Local groups are ephemeral, with a half-life of about two generations; a continuous process of fission and fusion maintains the total number of groups at a fairly constant level. In recent years, the population growth rate has not been significantly different from zero, except for a brief period of growth following the first major influenza epidemic in 1969. Population size appears to be maintained by low fertility and density-dependent mortality. Life expectancy at birth is 29.0 years for females and 32.4 years for males; infant mortality is about 165 per 1,000 live births, with a slightly higher rate for females than for males.

Linguistic Affiliation. Gainj is classified with Kalam and Kobon in the Kalam Family of the East New Guinea Highlands Stock of Papuan languages. Many Gainj are multi-lingual, most commonly in Kalam, although men are also likely to speak Tok Pisin, and some schoolchildren speak Pisin and some basic English.

History and Cultural Relations

The first Australian colonial contact occurred in 1953, but the Gainj remained largely unaffected by the colonial government until the establishment of Simbai Patrol Post, 30 kilometers to the west, in 1959. The area was declared pacified in 1963, and male labor recruitment for coastal plantations began immediately and continues today. The Anglican church established a mission in 1969 and a school in 1974, now administered by the provincial government. A major event in Gainj history was the introduction of coffee as a cash crop in 1973, which has led in recent years to the development of a road and an airstrip in the area. Both pacification and these new routes out of the valley have led to more extensive relations with neighboring groups and the migration of some Gainj into the lowland areas near Aiome.


Settlement is widely dispersed; there are no villages or nucleated settlements. House sites are distributed through the valley within bounded, nonoverlapping, named territories (kunyung ) which operate as ritual and political entities. This term describes both the territory and the people who are said to belong to it. House sites are usually selected on the basis of available level ground, water supply, and proximity to current gardens. Each house is ideally occupied by a nuclear family and is primarily a place for sleeping and storing personal possessions. Houses are ovoid in shape and made of wooden frames covered with sheets of bark; roofs are thatched with sago palm leaves.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Gainj are classic slash-and-burn horticulturalists. They clear land in secondary forest, cultivate plots for one to two years, and then permit them to lie fallow for eight to twelve years, to a maximum of about thirty years. Sweet potatoes are the staple crop; taro and yams also make up a lesser but significant part of the diet. Bananas, sugarcane, breadfruit, pandanus, pitpit, and a large number of domestic and wild greens supplement the basic root-crop diet. Introduced cultigens, such as corn, pumpkins, cassava, papayas, cucumbers, and pineapples, are grown in small amounts. Pigs and chickens are kept in small numbers but are rarely eaten, since they are valued as elements in bride-wealth and exchange. Men do some hunting, but this contributes little to household maintenance. Snakes, lizards, eels, insects, and rats are eaten but their total nutritive value is slight. In 1978, the Gainj marketed their first major coffee crop and are now the major coffee producers for Madang Province. Cash cropping has fostered local business cooperatives which buy and sell coffee beans and operate local stores in which coffee profits are used to buy manufactured items and imported foods such as rice, canned beef, and fish.

Industrial Arts. The most important locally produced items are all-purpose string carrying bags and skirts. Mats and some traditional weapons, spears and bows and arrows, are still manufactured.

Trade. The larger region within which the Gainj live was important in precontact times as a funnel for marine shells (especially cowrie and bailer shells) being traded up into the central highlands, and the Gainj participated in that trade to some degree. In addition, the Gainj area was an important source of bird of paradise plumes for the central highlands. More recently, the Gainj have taken advantage of their fringe highland location by trading lowland cassowaries up to the central highlands, where they are used in bride-wealth payments.

Division of Labor. There is a sharp sexual division of labor. Women bear the major burden of everyday physical work. Women bear, nurse, and care for children; burn, plant, tend, and harvest gardens; provide wood and water; prepare and cook food; tend pigs; manufacture string and weave it into bags and skirts; collect wild foods and raw materials; maintain house sites; and care for the sick and dying. Women also maintain, harvest, process, and carry coffee. Men's labor is more sporadic and dramatic. No longer warriors, they clear and fence gardens, build houses, hunt, plant and sell coffee, and control ritual and politics.

Land Tenure. Gainj say "Yandena ofu" (I make gardens) in a particular kunyung. This applies to kunyung in which they have gardened, are currently gardening, and may garden in the future. Like the Kalam and Kopon, they are unusual in having no corporate groups controlling access to land or exercising rights over land as a group estate. Gainj garden in their own kunyung, in their birthplaces, and in the kunyung or birthplace of any grandparent, parent, sibling, cross cousin, spouse, or child. Access to land is also provided through corresponding spousal relationships. Men and women enjoy access to land and may garden in virtually all of the named territories. While there is no concept of individual ownership of land, for as long as an individual uses land it belongs to him or her, in the sense that he or she has exclusive rights to its produce. Trees can be individually owned and can be passed on at their owner's death. Once a garden has been abandoned, its owner retains no residual rights to it and the land is restored to the common fund. There is always a balance of land being withdrawn from and returned to the common fund. The semipermanent nature of coffee trees will undoubtedly affect further land use and availability.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is reckoned bilaterally. There are no descent groups. The important kinship groups are the nuclear family, the kindred, and the kunyung.

Kinship Terminology. On the first ascending generation, terminology is bifurcate merging. Terminology for one's own generation is more difficult to classify. Parallel cousins and opposite-sex cross cousins are called by the same terms as opposite-sex siblings; however, same-sex cross cousins are called by different terms than same-sex siblings. The terminology can be called modified Hawaiian, consistent with the generational terminology in the first descending and second ascending generations, or modified Iroquois, consistent with the bifurcate-merging terminology of the first ascending generation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Virtually all Gainj marry. The exogamous unit is the bilateral kindred, with membership delimited by the first degree of collaterality. Sister exchange is permitted but not preferred; it obviates bride-wealth if exchange is simultaneous. All other marriages require payment from the groom's kin to the bride's, although Gainj bride-wealths are small by highland standards. There is a preference for kunyung exogamy, but there are no negative sanctions for kunyungendogamous marriages. Once a child has been born there is virtually no divorce. Men usually remarry after the death of a wife, while widow remarriage is correlated with the number of children a woman has borne. Postmarital residence is ideally patrivirilocal, but there is considerable variation in actual living arrangements. Polygyny is highly valued, but most marriages are monogamous.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is the household composed, ideally, of a nuclear family, although many households do in fact include nonnuclear members. The household is the basic unit of consumption and production.

Inheritance. Since land is not owned, the only heritable items are personal property, which is generally distributed along same-sex networks, although there are no rules as to disposition.

Socialization. Young children of both sexes are primarily socialized by mothers, although other concerned adults are often part of the process. Boys are initiated between ages 10 and 15; at that time they move into bachelors' houses, away from their mothers' influence. While it is not unknown for a child to be punished physically, it is unusual. Children are often permitted to learn the outcome of dangerous situations (e.g., playing near a fire) by painful experience.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, the kunyung acted as a group in ritual and warfare, although ties of cognatic kinship could excuse a man from fighting. Membership is not automatic, and descent is never invoked as a principle of recruitment. Group composition is phrased in terms of a shared, continuing, and primary nourishment from gardens within the territory. All those individuals who have received their principal nourishment from the gardens of the same territory share membership and kinship. While membership is fluid, changing membership requires considerable time, and people, particularly in-marrying women, may consider themselves members of two kunyung during the time their membership is in the process of change.

Political Organization. There are no hereditary political positions among the Gainj. Traditionally, local big-men were associated with each territory; the basis of their temporary ascendancy was their skill as fight leaders. The extensive competitive exchange systems that characterize many groups in the central highlands did not operate among the Gainj. Kunyung were the most important political units and their major function was warfare. However, even in warfare, individuals were permitted choice on the basis of conflicting cognatic kinship ties. Today, political unity is expressed in ritual dances and in business cooperatives, whose leaders are spoken of as big-men waging business wars. As is the case in much of highland New Guinea, a system of male dominance permits men to exploit the productive and reproductive abilities of women to their own political and economic advantage.

Social Control. Although the Gainj are citizens of Papua New Guinea and subject to its laws, the legal system operates as social control only in the most serious and public cases. On a more quotidian level, talk, including gossip and public discussion of improper behavior, are more important. By far the major form of social control is fear of sorcery and of sorcery accusations.

Conflict. Traditionally, warfare occurred between Gainj kunyung and between Gainj and Kalam. In the latter, participants were those kunyung directly involved and any allies they could muster, with no expectation that all Gainj would be involved. Warfare was small-scale, composed of forays rather than battles, and was usually precipitated by disputes between individuals or the need to avenge deaths. Gainj note that since pacification, sorcery and sorcery accusations have increased, and "fighting has gone secret."

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Malevolent spirits, associated with mythical cannibals and sorcerers, are believed to inhabit the permanently cloud-covered primary forest of higher altitudes. Each kunyung is said to have such a place associated with it that is safe for members but dangerous for nonmembers. Ancestral ghosts are believed to be at best neutral; at worst they are malevolent and cause illness and death among the living. There is a pervasive fear of human sorcerers. Some Gainj have become members of the Anglican church, but for most people membership appears to be nominal.

Religious Practitioners. Gainj recognize traditional healers and sorcerers.

Ceremonies. The major ceremony is a dance (nyink ), which one kunyung sponsors while others attend as guests. Traditionally, nyinks ended a male initiation, but with fewer youth being initiated, dances may now be held to celebrate the opening of a trade store or the formation of a business cooperative. Men, decorated and wearing elaborate headdresses, sing, dance, and drum from dusk to dawn, before an audience of men, women, and children from the entire valley. Nyinks are still often the occasion for paying outstanding debts and beginning marriage payments.

Arts. As in much of the highlands, the principal art form is body decoration and the construction of elaborate headdresses.

Medicine. There are very few surviving traditional medical practitioners, mostly very old men. Like a number of highland peoples, the Gainj value Western medicine and would like to have greater access to it. There is a corresponding denigration of traditional medicine, and younger Gainj are not learning traditional methods. Moreover, local representatives of the provincial government and missionaries have discouraged traditional medicine, going so far as to imprison admitted practitioners. The traditional pharmacopoeia relied heavily on plants, especially ginger and stinging nettles. A local plant is also said to have been effective as both a contraceptive and an abortifacient. Occasionally, people still sacrifice pigs to ancestors in an attempt to cure illness.

Death and Afterlife. All deaths are believed to be caused by sorcery or by malevolent spirits. Ancestral ghosts are thought to inhabit the areas in which they died and may visit evil upon the living. They can be ritually appeased; sorcerers cannot.


Johnson, Patricia L. (1981). "When Dying Is Better Than Living: Female Suicide among the Gainj of Papua New Guinea." Ethnology 20:325-334.

Johnson, Patricia L. (1982). "Gainj Kinship and Social Organization." Ph.D dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Johnson, Patricia L. (1988). "Women and Development: A Highland New Guinea Example." Human Ecology 16: 105-122.

Long, J. C., J. M. Naidu, H. W. Mohrenweiser, H. Gershowitz, P. L. Johnson, J. W. Wood, and P. E. Smouse (1986). "Genetic Characterization of Gainj- and Kalam-Speaking Peoples of Papua New Guinea." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 70:75-96.

Wood, James W., Patricia L. Johnson, and Kenneth L. Campbell (1985). "Demographic and Endocrinological Aspects of Low Natural Fertility in Highland New Guinea." Journal of Biosocial Science 17:57-79.

Wood, James W., Daina Lai, Patricia L. Johnson, Kenneth L. Campbell, and Ila A. Maslar (1985). "Lactation and Birth Spacing in Highland New Guinea." Journal of Biosocial Science, Supplement 9:159-173.