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Identification. Speakers of the Gnau language live in the West Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. "Gnau" is the word for "no" in the local language. While they constitute a linguistic group, Gnau do not define themselves as members of a population extending beyond the village or villages known to them personally.

Location. Gnau villages are found on forested mountain ridges between the Nopan and Assini rivers in the Lumi Subdistrict of West Sepik Province, roughly between 142°9 and 142°21 E and 3°32 to 3°45 S. The environment is mostly lowland tropical rain forest and the climate is hot and humid, with a dry season lasting from November to March. Average annual rainfall is approximately 250 centimeters.

Demography. In 1981 the population of Gnau speakers was estimated at 980 people. Earlier population figures are unavailable or nonexistent, although there is evidence that as many as one-third of the Gnau died during a dysentery epidemic in the 1930s.

Linguistic Affiliation. Gnau, together with Olo (Wape) and others, is a member of the Wapei Family of Non-Austronesian languages. Today nearly all men and boys as well as some women and girls also speak Tok Pisin.

History and Cultural Relations

Prior to Western contact, Gnau villages were relatively isolated, apparently not participating at all in the extensive trade network that crisscrossed the region. Extravillage relations appear to have been limited to immediately neighboring groups and were often hostile in character. In the 1930s, Australian labor recruiters began to visit the area and Gnau men were hired for two-year terms on coastal copra plantations. World War II had little direct effect on Gnau life, but plantation workers, whose return to their home villages was delayed by the war, became important agents of social change in the postwar years. An Australian patrol post was established in the region in 1949, and by 1955 the administration had largely succeeded in ending Gnau intervillage warfare. The relative peace thus introduced resulted in an expansion of village hunting and gardening territory, and fostered more peaceful relations between individual Gnau villages. In 1951 a Franciscan mission was built in the area, followed in 1958 by an evangelical Protestant one. The missions established an airstrip, stores, schools, and a hospital. Gnau became taxpayers in 1957 and received the vote in 1964, when they began electing members of the National Assembly and, later, local government councillors. Taken all together, these contacts have transformed the Gnau from isolated villagers to a group defined by outsiders as a single people who are increasingly involved in the regional and national polity and economy.


Gnau villages are built on hilltops, 300 meters or more above sea levela settlement choice likely derived from the need for defense dating back to the precontact times of chronic intervillage hostilities. Villages are subdivided into named hamlets and subhamlets. Hamlets are surrounded by coconut palms, with village gardens located in the forest in the valleys below. Hamlets consist of men's houses, dwelling houses for women and their children, and "day houses" where men gather together and eat during the day. In the past each Hamlet had one large men's house rather than the several smaller ones found today. Substantial houses and sometimes smaller huts are also built and maintained near the gardens.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Gnau economy consists of slash-and-burn horticulture, hunting, gathering, fishing, and, most recently, participation in the regional cash economy. Although most men work for two years or more as laborers on copra plantations and on government projects, the Gnau are still somewhat isolated from the regional economy when compared to other, neighboring groups. Sago was the traditional staple, today supplemented with taro, yams, sweet potatoes, corn, bananas, pawpaws, pitpit, breadfruit, beans, coconuts, and sugarcane grown in the gardens. A family might maintain as many as six gardens simultaneously, integrating horticultural practices with hunting and gathering activities. Rice is grown as a cash crop only; the Gnau themselves purchase from stores what rice appears in their own diet. Pigs, wallabies, and cassowaries are the principal animals hunted. Fishing is done with nets or poision. Eggs, grubs, insects, and reptiles are gathered to round out the protein component of the Gnau diet.

Industrial Arts. The Gnau traditionally were self-sufficient in meeting their material needs, producing stone axes, bows and arrows, knives, baskets, string, fish nets, net bags, skirts, ornaments of shell and feather, containers, animal traps, wooden boxes, and armbands. Many of these items are still manufactured locally today. In the past they also made clay pots.

Trade. Because of this basic self-sufficiency, trade did not play a large role in the Gnau economy. Only a few items, notably shell ornaments and stone adze heads, were occasionally acquired from beyond the community. With the coming of the mission stations, the introduction of a government presence in the area, and the beginning of wage labor on the plantations, the Gnau have become more dependent on goods purchased at the local stores.

Division of Labor. Men hunt, build houses, maintain paths, make weapons and tools, and work at jobs outside the villages. Women gather water and firewood, make string, net bags, and other items, and have primary responsibilty for child care. Both men and women fish and gather wild foods. Cooking sago is done by women, but some other foods are cooked exclusively by men, and much day-to-day cooking is done equally often by men and women.

Land Tenure. All village land, garden plots, and stands of breadfruit, sago, and coconut palms are named and owned by the patrilineages of the men currently using them.


Kin Groups and Descent. Gnau descent is reckoned patrilineally, and genealogies are traced to a much greater depthbetween five and fifteen generationsthan is commonly the case among New Guinea peoples. The descent groups are not localized in single villages, although in most cases a mythological charter connects the most distant known ancestors to specific locales. Within descent groups, individual lineages stand in "brother" relationships to one another. The largest descent groups, consisting of all people who trace patrilineal ties back to the founding ancestors and to associated ancient sites, are crosscut or even contradicted by local claims of direct ancestry, within which "brotherhood" may be ascribed by virtue of no criterion other than length of residence. Thus, although fairly accurate genealogies are maintained over a great many generations, agnation can and often is manipulated. For this to be done, however, any justification for claiming agnatic relationships is necessarily located in the remote past.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is based on the two concepts of "brotherhood" and "seniority," couched within the framework of a locationally defined descent group. All men who descended from the same founding ancestor and who are members of the same generation are classed as "brothers" and further distinguished as senior or junior with regard to one another.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The agnatically constituted descent groups of the Gnau are exogamous, but villages, consisting as they most frequently do of members of a number of descent groups, are not necessarily so. Marriages are arranged between the Families of the prospective spouses, and the new wife takes up residence with her husband. The rights associated with her that were previously held by her father and brothers pass to her husband upon payment of bride-wealth. The marriage remains provisional until the birth of the first child, however, so bride-wealth is not distributed until that time. Although this payment confers rights in and authority over the child on its father, the mother's brother retains some rights and obligations as well. A husband must be compensated for his wife's adultery by her lover or the latter is subject to attack by the offended husband. Neither widows nor widowers are socially required to remarry, but it is important for a widower to find himself a new wife to cook for him and care for his children. Widows may often seek to avoid remarriage in order not to obscure or confuse the rights of her children from her earlier marriage.

Domestic Unit. The conjugal unit of husband and wife plus their children does not correspond to a residential unit. The wife lives in her dwelling house with her small sons and her daughters until they marry, while the husband sleeps in a men's house that is shared with his brothers and older sons. Lacking coresidential markers of relationship, the smallest family unit can be defined in terms of those individuals for whom a woman cooks on a daily basis: these will be her husband and her unmarried offspring. The larger sense of family, constituting the range of individuals cooperatively involved in provisioning the household through pursuits other than gardening, will also include the husband's brothers. A widowed female with young children, if she chooses to remain unmarried, will attach herself to her brother's household, while a widowed man with no daughter old enough to cook for him may join the household of a married older brother.

Inheritance. Land and ritual lore are the most important heritable items in Gnau society, and they belong to the lineage. Access to both passes from fathers to sons. Although elder and younger brothers are distinguished terminologically and have different obligations, this distinction is not mirrored in inheritance patterns: older males do not inherit differently than their younger male siblings do. "Temporary" property, such as trees and produce, are inherited individually by a man's sons at the discretion of the owner. Women do not inherit.

Socialization. Very young children stay with their mothers, but as they become old enough to wander about they enjoy a great deal of freedom. As a boy grows up he moves from his mother's house to the men's house of his father's lineage and plays in groups with other boys of the village. Both boys and girls pick up necessary practical knowledge through observation and mimicking in play the behavior of their elders. The day-to-day care of young children falls largely to the mother, but certain points in the child's development call for ritual performances involving both paternal and maternal kin. During these times traditional knowledge and ritual lore are passed along. The mother's brother is expected to hold a Ceremony that removes dietary taboos when a child reaches about 3 years of age, and he is also intimately involved in the puberty ceremonies of both boys and girls. The father and the father's lineage are obligated to compensate the mother's brother for this ritual involvement and to provide food for the accompanying feasts.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social units are organized according to two separate principles. The first is locational, based on claims of attachment to the place of one's birth and of one's ancestors' birth. Thus an individual's membership in a village is in part defined by the fact that he or she was born there, parents came from there, or a more distant ancestor can be shown to have been born there. Patrilineal descent provides the second principle of organization, establishing separate subdivisions (hamlets) within the confines of a single village and further subdivisions within the hamlet itself. Units of social cooperation and obligation are couched in terms of brotherhood relations or ties established by marriage.

Political Organization. Traditionally, Gnau communities had no recognized political unit or office and no overarching intervillage organization. Apart from skill in mobilizing people for defense in the days of intervillage warfare, kinship and affinal relations, deference of junior to elder, and personally achieved prestige were, and still are, the considerations that led to a man's being looked to as a leader. Since 1964, Gnau have begun participating in the election of representatives to the House of Assembly, and in 1967 they began selecting local government councillors. These developments have begun to bring the separate villages into more unified polities, and the newly instituted political offices serve as points of articulation between local communities and the national government.

Social Control. A system of taboos, many of them dietary, provides the framework for appropriate behavior. Infractions may be punished by the imposition of fines, as in the case of adultery. Some fear of retributive sorcery also contributes to social control, albeit in a negative sense: a woman's brother is thought to have the ritual and magical power necessary to influence the healthindeed, the lifeof her children, and he might withhold that power should the husband's lineage fail to fulfill its obligations to the child or refuse to cooperate with the wife's kin.

Conflict. Serious conflicts often arose between villages prior to Western contact, and fighting was considered to be a highly prestigious activity. Except for the prestige conferred by success in war, there seems to have been little other real basis for intervillage hostilities: garden land and access to game were plentiful and there was little else by way of intervil1age relations that might have given rise to friction. Gnau did not recruit allies throughout the region for warfare; rather, fighting was conducted on a strictly village-against-village basis.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Specific locations within Gnau territory are each associated with a descent-group founder, who is thought to have left behind the ritual knowledge and practical lore necessary to proper living. The activities of these founding personages and the knowledge they left behind are recounted in myths and songs, which also refer to a wide variety of spirits. These spirits are often invoked in garden ritual and their influence is thought to be necessary to the success of a crop.

Religious Practitioners. All men learn ritual lore throughout the process of their socialization. The mother's brother is the ritual specialist called in for most of a boy's initiations, and every adult male has garden magic to perform. The ability to cause a death through magic appears to have been specifically limited; through this means a man is believed able to kill his sister's son.

Ceremonies. Villagewide ceremonies accompany important life-cycle events as well as major undertakings such as the erection of a new men's house. Such occasions will involve feasting, song, and dance. Of particular importance in traditional Gnau life was the Tambin, the major male initiation rite held by the boy's mother's brother and supported through payments of wealth and the provision of a feast by the father's lineage. A parallel rite is held for girls upon attaining puberty. In the Tambin, a number of boys who have reached puberty go into seclusion together, during which time they are bled and also receive blood taken from their mothers' brothers. This bleeding, caused by cutting the mouth and the penis, is central to Gnau male ritual and is considered to be absolutely essential for a man's development. It appears to have no direct parallel in the ritual for females.

Arts. Gnau material culture appears to be utilitarian for the most part, but ornamental items of shell and feathers are made. Gnau songs are elaborate expressions of local mythology. Singing to the accompaniment of slit drums and ritual dance form important elements of any Gnau ceremony.

Medicine. Illness is thought to be largely the result of violations of taboos. Cures are believed to be effected through the observance of dietary taboos, the use of herbs, and bloodletting.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, when an individual died the Gnau laid the corpse out on a platform where it was smoke-dried; today interment is practiced. The spirits of the dead are thought to watch over their descendants and may appear to speak to their survivors in dreams. Their assistance is sought through spells and ritual.

See alsoWape


Lewis, Gilbert (1975). Knowledge of Illness in a Sepik Society: A Study of the Gnau, New Guinea. London: Athlone Press.

Lewis, Gilbert (1980). Day of Shining Red: An Essay on Understanding Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.