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ETHNONYMS: Bibo, Nomad River peoples


Identification. Gebusi identify themselves as a distinctive Gebusi-speaking cultural group within the Nomad River area of the East Strickland River Plain, Western Province, Papua New Guinea. Gebusi perceive selective similarities between themselves and other Nomad River groups such as the Honibo, the Samo, and to a lesser extent the Bedamini to the east.

Location. Gebusi live near the northern edge of New Guinea's large south central lowland rain forest at approximately 6°17-22 S and 142°118-125 E. They are bordered on the north by the Hamam River, on the northwest by the Nomad River and the Nomad government station, and on the south by the Rentoul River. The dominant landform is relict alluvial plain, with erosion forming accordant ridges and valleys with relief up to 75 meters despite a flat rain-forest appearance from the air and a maximum elevation of 200 meters above sea level. Soils are clayey with no stone except in larger river beds. Primary rain-forest canopy is ubiquitous Except over larger rivers and small settlement and garden clearings. Monthly median high temperature ranges between 32.5° C and 38° C, with an overall high of 42 ° C. Rainfall averages 416.5 centimeters a year, with a variable dry season from June to early November. Humidity is very high.

Demography. Gebusi numbered approximately 450 in 1980-1982, with a population density of 2.6 persons per square kilometer. Gebusi have suffered depopulation, partly from introduced epidemic influenza as well as from tuberculosis and other pulmonary and gastrointestinal diseases, resulting in an estimated 24 percent natural population decline from November 1967 to January 1982. This decline was counterbalanced by population inmigration, mostly from Bedamini to the east, leading to a net territorial population increase of 1.3 persons per year over this period.

Linguistic Affiliation. The linguist S. A. Wurm classifies Gebusi as part of the East Strickland Language Family within the South-Central New Guinea Stock of the Trans-New Guinea Phylum. Gebusi are part of a chain of related dialects extending from the Strickland River east to Mount Bosavi and Mount Sisa. A partial break in this chain exists between Gebusi and the Bedamini to their east, who share only 32 percent of their cognates. Bedamini expansion may have eradicated linguistic groups that were once intermediate.

History and Cultural Relations

Gebusi are one of some dozen cultural and linguistic groups inhabiting the Strickland-Bosavi area. Each ethnic group claims distinct customs and a named language. Features Common to the entire area include: traditional residence in a communal longhouse, with men and women sleeping separately; social organization based on small dispersed patriclans, adult males coresiding through a combination of agnatic, affinal, and matrilateral ties; spirit mediumship in all-night spirit seances focusing on sickness and curing, sorcery or witchcraft, collective subsistence, and conflict; a single-stage initiation or celebratory transition into adult manhood; and all-night dance and songfest rituals between longhouses, during which a beautifully costumed dancer is accompanied by plaintive songs. Raiding between adjacent ethnic groups was common. Gebusi were the target of raids particularly by the much larger Bedamini population to their north and east, which has intruded strongly into border areas. Bedamini were pacified by government patrols in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Gebusi were first effectively contacted in 1962 and have had little subsequent contact with outsiders except for yearly government patrols, a recently established mission station (begun in the mid-1980s), and highly sporadic work with Western geological survey crews northeast of Nomad. In 1980-1982, spirit seances, sorcery inquests, male initiation, and ritual homosexuality were still practiced.


From the air, Gebusi settlements appear as isolated footprints of clearing amid sprawling rain forest. In 1980-1982 there were seventeen principal residence sites with an average population of 26.5 persons and a range of 6 to 54 Persons. Although widely spaced, smaller settlements tend to orient socially around larger ones, at which initiations and larger feasts and dances are held. Larger settlements have a communal longhouse 20 meters or more in length, roofed with sago palm leaves. The common cooking/socializing area of the longhouse is on ground level, with elevated rear portions sex-segregated into collective male and female sleeping and socializing areas. Longhouses are supplemented by numerous small garden houses and shelters occupied temporarily during extended gardening and foraging activities. Gebusi life-style is extremely mobile. On an average night 45 percent of the village's permanent residents have left the village for a garden house, a foraging shelter, or another longhouse settlement.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Gebusi Subsistence combines rudimentary gardening, sago-palm processing, foraging, and fishing. Hunting is sporadically practiced and husbandry of semidomesticated pigs is rudimentary. Bananas are the primary starch staple, constituting perhaps 65-70 percent of the starch diet. Sago supplies roughly 25-30 percent and root crops about 5-10 percent of starch intake. Most Gardens are unfenced, quickly cleared, and filled primarily with banana plots. Gebusi get their protein mostly from casual foraging activities that yield grubs, bird eggs, nuts, and riverine fauna. Despite this, many children appear malnourished, with large, symmetrically distended abdomens and underdeveloped musculature.

Industrial Arts. Gebusi industrial arts include the making by men of bows and arrows, drums, tobacco pipes, palmspathe bowls, ritual decorations, andsince the introduction of steel axes and adzescanoes; women weave fine net bags, sago pouches, ritual chest bands, and string skirts, and they also make bark tapa. In 1980-1982, cash cropping, wage labor, and outmigration were negligible, and there were no trade stores among Gebusi or at the Nomad station.

Trade. Indigenous trade was conducted opportunistically with no standard rates of exchange. Trade items produced by Gebusi included tobacco and dogs'-teeth necklaces. These were traded with adjacent groups for red ocher, cuscus-bone arrow tips, pearl-shell slivers, and, precolonially, ax heads made from stone found near the Strickland River.

Division of Labor. Men hunt, fish, cut down trees (including sago palms), build houses, and make weapons and most ritual decorations; women process sago, carry most garden produce and firewood, do most weeding and harvesting, and make string bags, skirts, sago baskets, and bark cloth.

Land Tenure. Land rights are patrilineal, but residence confers extensive usufructuary land rights and privileges. Most Gebusi do not live on or cultivate their fathers' land, though they may visit such land to exploit sago palms, nut trees, or special foraging resources. In principle, entire Patricians have rights to bounded areas of land, but clan members tend to be residentially dispersed outside of these areas. Conversely, intrusive or refugee clans, which may have no clan land in Gebusi territory, can be numerically and politically prominent within their communities. Land is not a significant matter of dispute and there is no discernible land shortage.


Kin Groups and Descent. The only named and enduring Gebusi kinship group is the patrician, with a population ranging from one to sixty-seven members, averaging eighteen. Clans recognize nominal "sibling" ties to a few other clans based on putative coresidence in the past. Genealogies are extremely shallow, with agnatic linkage traceable only to first or second cousins. Clans are residentially dispersed, with de facto subclans and patrilines virtually autonomous from one another despite having only one to three adult male members.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is bifurcate merging with Omaha cross-generational merging between mother/mother's brother's daughter, mother's brother/mother's brother's son, and child/sister's child. Affinal ties are extended from the entire wife-giving clan to the individual groom only.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is ideally sister exchange; same-generation exchange of women between clans constitutes 52 percent of first marriages. A countervailing ideal of nonreciprocated romantic marriage is also strong. In either case, Marriage is accompanied by neither bride-wealth nor bride-service. Divorce and polygyny are both infrequent; 14 percent of completed marriages are terminated by divorce, and 7 percent of married men are married polygynously. Polygyny Usually results from the levirate; the small patriline or subclan has first claims over the widowed wives of its deceased men, just as it takes primary responsibility for supplying "sisters" in reciprocity for its male members' wives. Postmarital residence may be uxori/matrilocal, neolocal, or viri/patrilocal, with some statistical bias toward virilocality.

Domestic Unit. A married couple form the basic gardening unit, though many subsistence, foraging, and domestic tasks are conducted collectively by groups of men or women. The effective domestic unit is typically two or three nuclear families related by close agnatic, affinal, or matrilateral ties. Settlement coresidence among adult male wife's brother/sister's husband is 68 percent of that actually possible, 82 percent among mother's brother/sister's son, 85 percent among father's brother's son, 88 percent among wife's father/daughter's husband, and 92 percent among brothers. The settlement as a whole is comprised of several interrelated extended family clusters and is a domestic unit in sponsoring feasts.

Inheritance. Aside from long-term land resources such as sago palms or nut trees, there is little material property to inheritperhaps only a pearl-shell sliver or a pigand any such items are typically bequeathed to sons.

Socialization. This aspect of Gebusi life is generally affectionate and benign. Fathers as well as mothers are indulgent with young children; older children are seldom yelled at and virtually never struck. Boys' transition to the men's sleeping section of the longhouse is gradual and noncoercive, occurring between ages 4 and 7. Male initiation is a celebratory and nontraumatic transition to manhood at 17 to 23 years of age.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. The Gebusi social and political order is extremely decentralized, with no secular leadership positions (i.e., no recognized big-men, headmen, senior elders, or war leaders). Adult men are surprisingly noncompetitive as well as egalitarian, and they are self-effacing rather than boastful; collective decisions emerge from general consensus. Settlements tend to act as de facto political units in feast giving and fighting, diverse clan affiliations among coresident men notwithstanding. Single-stage initiation and subsequent marriage confer full adult male status. There is Little if any social inequality between wife givers and wife takers; affines exchange food equally in ongoing relationships regardless of the balance of women in marriage between them. Food gifts and subsequent exchanges affirm social ties in a noncompetitive fashion both within and between settlements. Gebusi do not use bride-wealth, bride-service, or homicide compensation. They employ person-for-person reciprocity in marriage and sorcery retribution where possible. Gender relations are a significant dimension of Gebusi sociopolitical organization; communal male prerogatives include legitimate control of rituals, feast giving, bow-and-arrow fighting, and large-scale collective activity. Women frequently participate as singers but dance only at initiations, are generally excluded from spirit seances, and may be sporadically beaten without reprisal by husbands. Women seclude themselves in their section of the longhouse during peak menstruation and males harbor nominal beliefs of female sexual and menstrual contamination. However, such belief appears to be more a topic of ribald male joking than a source of personal anxiety. Many women exercise significant influence in spousal choicenorms of sister exchange notwithstandingand marital harmony is the norm on a quotidian basis. Male views of women are ambivalent, ranging from a positive image of women as attractive sexual partners and helpersprominently encoded in the persona of the beneficent spirit womanto derogatory attitudes concerning the sexual, productive, and reproductive status of older women.

Social Control and Conflict. Warfare between Gebusi settlement communities was infrequent in contrast to systematic raiding upon Gebusi by Bedamini. Gebusi ritual fights between settlements sometimes escalated to club-wielding brawls but rarely to bow-and-arrow fighting; they seldom resulted in casualties. The same is true of fights erupting occasionally over nonreciprocal marriage and adultery accusation. The most virulent incidents of Gebusi social control and conflict stem from sorcery attribution. Unlike many New Guinea societies, Gebusi sorcery suspects are often publicly accused, forced to undergo difficult divinatory trials, and executed. Between about 1940 and 1982, 29 percent of female deaths and 35 percent of male deaths were homicides, the vast majority resulting from sorcery attributions. The 33 percent of adult deaths due to physical violence extrapolates to a yearly homicide rate of at least 568 per 100,000 over the 42-year period. Yet there is no evidence that sorcery packets are actually made or used by Gebusi; Gebusi sorcery is the projective attribution of deviance. Most older individuals are eventually accused of sorcery. The perception of impartiality in elaborate spiritual inquests corresponds with both the consensus of diverse clan members to execute of one of their own community members as a sorcerer and the lack of violent resistance or revenge by the accused's kin. Statistically, however, sorcery attribution and attendant homicide are most common between affines related via nonreciprocal marriage, with both wife givers and wife receivers killed in equivalent numbers.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Gebusi cosmos is populated by Numerous spirits, including those of fish, birds, and other animals. Of particular importance are the true spirit people (to di os ), who aid the Gebusi in finding the causes of sickness, the identity of sorcerers, the location of lost pigs, and the success of anticipated hunting expeditions. Although spirits may cause transient illness, virtually all deaths among humans are believed to be caused by other living Gebusi through either sorcery or homicide. Sorcery is also seen as a predisposing cause of accidental death and suicide. Following spiritual indictment, sorcery suspects are enjoined to perform corpse or sago divinations in a largely futile attempt to establish their innocence.

Religious Practitioners. Spirit people are contacted by male spirit mediums in all-night spirit seances held on average once every eleven days. The spirit medium sits quietly in a darkened longhouse and self-induces a trance. His own spirit departs and is replaced by beautiful spirit women who chant: in high falsetto voices. Their songs are echoed line by line by a chorus of men who sit around the spirit medium. During the seance, spirits perform spirit-world cures for sick Gebusi and have strong de facto authority in making sorcery pronouncements. Spirit mediums should be neutral parties in any Sorcery attribution and have no special authority except via the spirit world in seances. They are not remunerated for their services, which are considered a civic duty.

Ceremonies. The harmony and beneficence of the Gebusi spirit world is celebrated in an all-night dance performed at feasts and other important occasions. The elaborate and standardized costume of the male dancer(s) brings together in iconographic form the diverse spirits of the upper and lower worlds, symbolizing their unity and harmony in dance. Sociologically parallel is the overcoming of real and/or ritual antagonism between visitors and hosts through feasting, drinking kava, dancing, and ribald male camaraderie during the night. On occasion, male homosexual liaisons take place in the privacy of the bush outside the longhouse. Gebusi believe boys must be orally inseminated to obtain male life force and attain adulthood. Insemination continues during adolescence and culminates in the male initiation (wa kawala, or "child becomes big") between ages 17 and 23. Initiation is largely benign. Initiates receive costume parts and other gifts from diverse initiation sponsors and reciprocate with major food gifts. Novices are ultimately dressed in beautiful red bird-of-paradise (spirit-woman) costumes and are the focus of several days of feasting and ceremony attended by most Gebusi.

Arts. Gebusi make fine initiation arrows, armbands, and string bags, and they design elaborate dance and initiation costumes.

Medicine. Curing is done primarily via the spirit world; there is little intervention of a physical nature.

Death and Afterlife. A divinatory outcome indicating guilt of a sorcery suspect validates the spirits' indictment and foreshadows execution and cannibalism of the suspect, whose spirit reincarnates thereafter as a dangerous wild pig. Until recently, bodies of persons killed as sorcerers were butchered and cooked with sago and greens in a feasting oven and cannibalized fully, except for the intestines, which were discarded. The cooked body was distributed and eaten widely throughout the community, excluding close relatives and classificatory agnates of the deceased. Other Gebusi are not cannibalized and upon death reincarnate in bird, animal, and fish forms appropriate to their age and sex. A funeral feast is held when death results from sickness or accident.

See alsoKaluli


Knauft, Bruce M. (1985). Good Company and Violence: Sorcery and Social Action in a Lowland New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Knauft, Bruce M. (1985). "Ritual Form and Permutation in New Guinea." American Ethnologist 12:321-340.

Knauft, Bruce M. (1986). "Text and Social Practice: Narrative 'Longing' and Bisexuality among the Gebusi of New Guinea." Ethos 4:252-281.

Knauft, Bruce M. (1987). "Reconsidering Violence in Simple Human Societies: Homicide among the Gebusi of New Guinea." Current Anthropology 28:457-500.

Knauft, Bruce M. (1989). "Imagery, Pronouncement, and the Aesthetics of Reception in Gebusi Spirit Mediumship." In The Religious Imagination in New Guinea, edited by Gilbert Herdt and Michele Stephen, 67-98. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.