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ETHNONYMS: Asaro, Miruma


Identification. The Gururumba are one of nine political sovereignties located in the upper valley of the Asaro River in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.

Location. The Upper Asaro Valley is part of the Goroka Valley system, bounded on the east by a section of the Bismarck Mountains and on the west by the Asaro Range. The Gururumba control approximately 140 square kilometers on the west side of the valley at elevations ranging from 1,800 to 2,300 meters. Some 100 square kilometers of this is arable land and the rest is covered with semitropical rain forest. The climate is marked by an annual rainfall of 254 centimeters or more, with 75 percent of it falling in a November-April wet season.

Demography. In 1960 the Gururumba numbered about 1,300 of the 13,500 residents of the Upper Asaro Census Division, reflecting a population increase of about 10 percent during the previous decade. The cessation of indigenous warfare and the introduction of a rudimentary health-care system may largely account for this increase, as is also true of recent estimates of over 18,000 Asaro speakers.

Linguistic Affiliation. The people of the Upper Asaro Valley speak a dialect of the Gahuku-Asaro language in the East-Central Family of Papuan languages. Neo-Melanesian (Tok Pisin), a lingua franca introduced in the 1930s by Australians and others, is also commonly spoken.

History and Cultural Relations

The Gururumba and the other sovereignties in the Upper Asaro Valley all have traditional oral narratives that tell of their once being part of a smaller common population living farther downriver from where they are now. Warfare is said to have broken out, and the population split into various factions that moved to the different parts of the upper valley where their descendants are currently found. Archaeological evidence indicates that people have been living in this part of the highlands for some thousands of years. This long period of relative isolation was broken in the 1930s when Australian gold prospectors entered the region. There followed a period of exploration and the introduction of Pax Australiana. The Gururumba were first contacted by an Australian government patrol in 1948, and a one-track dirt road was extended into their territory in 1957. Prior to European contact the Gururumba had little exposure to peoples outside their valley boundaries. They knew and traded with other peoples with different languages, most important of whom were the Chimbu living across the 3,700-meter Asaro-Chimbu Divide. They were regarded by the Gururumba as powerful people and were actively recruited to establish permanent residences among them. The Gururumba were also familiar with the Gende-speaking peoples living in the Bismarck Mountains and the Gahuku and Siane speakers to the southwest and southeast.


About one-third of Gururumba territory is in dense forest cover; the remaining portion is open grassland, studded with gardens and stands of planted casuarinas. Major villages, containing 150-300 people, are located between the Asaro River and the forest line, arranged in a linear pattern if located on ridges, or in a rectangular arrangement if not. The latter Villages were also sites of important ceremonial events, which hundreds of people from other sovereignties and language groups would attend for several days at a time. Prior to European contact the villages were somewhat smaller, palisaded, and located in less-open positions on ridges closer to the Forest for defensive reasons. Houses were round in floor plan with a center pole supporting radial rafters and a thatched roof. The walls were made of a double row of wooden stakes lined with grass and sealed with horizontal strips of tree bark. Each village consisted of one or two large houses, where all the adult men slept and ate together, and a series of smaller houses: one for each married woman, her unmarried daughters, and young sons. In either case, the houses were divided into a front half, where the door and hearth were located, and a back half used as a storage and sleeping area.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence was dependent on a system of swidden horticulture supplemented by hunting and gathering. The major domesticated food plants were sweet potatoes, yams, taro, sugarcane, and a variety of greens. Pandanus was a major wild food plant. The pig was the main domesticated food animal, but it was not raised primarily to yield a continuous meat supply. Pigs were Important as prestations between individuals and groups, and they were slaughtered and eaten in such a manner as to facilitate the political economy rather than the larder. Many kinds of birds, marsupials, rodents, and reptiles were hunted and eaten, although primarily by women and children as these animals as food were taboo to adult men. Corn, peanuts, soybeans, and a variety of other European vegetables have been grown since the 1950s, as has coffee, which was the first Commercial enterprise for the Gururumba.

Industrial Arts. There were no specialized artisans in traditional Gururumba society. Almost every adult knew how to produce the material necessities, although some people were recognized as being particularly adept at a certain process and thus their help was sometimes sought, as in making a particular kind of intricately decorated arrow.

Trade. Simple barter based on a system of equivalencies was the traditional mode of trade. Feathers of all kinds (but especially bird of paradise plumes), wood for bows, ornamental arrows, ceremonial stone axes, shells, salt, and pigs were important trade items, and the Gururumba made treks (at some risk) into other language areas, such as Gende and Siane, to obtain them.

Division of Labor. Division of labor was primarily by sex and age. The bulk of the gardening was done by the women, although certain garden tasks (cutting fence posts and building fences) were allotted to men, and certain plants (sugarcane and taro) were only grown by men. Men hunted, women collected; men built houses, women thatched; man made tools and weapons, women made a variety of bags, skirts, and bands of bast and other fibers; and men acted as guards against enemy attack while women worked in exposed gardens.

Land Tenure. The Gururumba comprise eight patriclans and it is through these that a person gains access to land. Each patriclan is named and identified with a territory clearly bounded by major ridge lines and watercourses, and encompassing all the major ecological zones, from the rich alluvial soils near the river through the hilly grassland and into the rain forest. The full extent of a clan territory is divided into named plots, each of which has a characteristic potential for certain kinds of crops and resources. These plots tend to be associated with particular lineages within clans, but one of the functions of clan leadership is to facilitate equitable distribution of productive and less productive plots.


Kin Groups and Descent. The most important sodalities and networks were based on kinship, descent, and their Extension through marriage. The patriclan was such a sodality, marked by a name and a territory. It also had two other important attributes and functions: it was exogamous, and thus controlled marriage; and it was the organizing unit for the idzi namo (pig festival), the climactic ceremonial event in an important cycle of prestations regulating the political economy. The genealogies of these units only extended back one or two generations beyond adult living members, however, and ended with two or three imputed "brothers" rather than a single named ancestor. This type of unit is signified by the bound morpheme-juhu, which was said to indicate "people who sit down together," thus emphasizing a commonality of place and purpose more than genealogy. Each patriclan is made up of three to five patrilineages and these are identified with particular founding males. Lineages were said to be to clans as staves are to a fence or internodal segments are to a stalk of bamboo. Again, the image emphasizes unity of segments rather than genealogical subordination. Other Important descent relationships are those between mother's brother and sister's son and between men whose mothers are sisters or are from the same clan, thus giving a matrilineal bias to an otherwise patrilineal system.

Kinship Terminology. The kin term system is characterized by Omaha-type cousin terminology, an extension of parental and sibling terms to clan mates, and an elaboration of terms marking relative age for siblings and parental siblings of both sexes.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are most importantly arrangements between clans rather than individuals, and residence is patrivirilocal. From the point of view of a male clan member it is important to send one's sisters and daughters as wives to as many other clans as possible to establish a network of reciprocities based on the obligations of kinship that develop through the joint responsibilities for children produced by these unions. Such networks were one of the main bases of political alliance among sovereignties. Divorce, then, most often involved negotiation between the two clans involved rather than between the individuals.

Domestic Unit. Because of residential segregation of the sexes, the domestic unit was not a residential unit. A woman, her unmarried daughters, and her sons who were too young to be taken into the men's house all lived together. The father/husband visited occasionally in their house but never slept there. He joined them on an almost daily basis to plan and carry out various tasks, but he spent most of his other time with the men's group.

Inheritance. Since males have ultimate control over land and its products, upon death claims to garden land would revert to the clan. Personal movable property might be claimed by the children of the deceased.

Socialization. Children have a variety of caretakers and Socializing agents including older siblings, any adult of the same lineage, and peers. The latter are especially important as prepubescent males often form their own dwelling and eating groups.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. The sovereignty to which the name "Gururumba" applies is a phratry: a group of patricians occupying contiguous territory and having a sense of common origin. In addition they see themselves as a peace group and as allies against enemy clans outside the phratry. Disputes internal to the phratry should be settled by means other than killing, and members should aid one another if attacked by outsiders. The phratry was also an important ritual unit in the past. Within the territory of each Upper Asaro Valley phratry there was a ceremonial structure (jabirisi ) where renewal rituals were performed at times when there was a consensus among the constituent clans that disastrous times had befallen them. Representatives of all of the clans participated. All phratries of the Upper Asaro Valley developed patterns of amity and enmity that shifted over time and could result in devastating warfare. Alliances among phratries were stabilized and maintained through a complex of Marriages and large-scale food and wealth exchanges. These were organized by "men whose names are known" or big-men who occupied positions of consensual leadership in particular clans primarily because they were known to be adept at alliance-building through manipulating marriages and Material resources such as pigs and shells.

Social Control and Conflict. Aside from personal quarrels, disputes might arise over land, especially plots with high potential for crops such as taro and others important in Exchange activities. Disputes could be extended to involve whole lineages, villages, sibs, or phratries; fighting (nande ) with hands, sticks, and stones might occur, but these conflicts were expected ultimately to be settled in moots presided over by big-men. Warfare (rovo), involving spears, axes, and arrows and intended to decimate the opposition, was restricted to enemy phratries and alliances, and it was endemic prior to European influence.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Traditional Gururumba religious belief is focused on an inner cosmos of bodily fluids, energies, and spirit entities. All people are believed to have a vital substance that actualizes them both physically and emotionally. Illness and death are primarily the result of some diminution of the power of this substance through not taking proper precautions to protect it or through making some attack on it by sorcery or witchcraft. In addition, women have a particularly potent power in the form of their natural fecundity, which can be harmful to men if the men do not properly protect themselves. This is the rationale for residential segregation of the sexes along with other taboos that restrict male-female contact. There are also some persons (gwumu, or witches) who are thought to have a substance in them that causes them to do harmful and malevolent things to others.

Religious Practitioners. There are a few individuals who function as shamanic curers, but they are only called in for difficult cases, particularly those involving sorcery.

Ceremonies and Arts. The pig festival was the prime arena for expressive culture. The groups who were guests at such events came splendidly arrayed in elaborate body decorations of feathers, fur, shells, pigment, and colorful fiber ornaments. As many as 2,000-5,000 people might be assembled on a dance ground with many groups simultaneously performing dances and mobile dramas ranging from the farcical to the mythical. Dancers at such an event would also Typically be wearing ingerebe on their heads. These decorations are small carved and painted boards fixed into the hair and surrounded with elaborate feather ornaments. They were also magical objects, believed to store up the energy of such events and later release it into gardens from trees where they were hung. Singing, drumming, and flute music were accompaniments to these events. Another such context was the initial installment of older boys into the men's house. The magical rituals transforming them from boys into men were kept secret from the women, but women made many of the special decorative items signaling adult male status first worn by these "new men" on their emergence from the men's house.

Medicine. Men's illnesses were generally attributed to semen loss or contamination by menstrual blood or to the causes to which all were vulnerable: sorcery, witchcraft, or attacks by ghosts. All adults knew some bush medicines and spells, but some older men were considered to know more and to be more adept. They would be brought in to divine the cause and prescribe a cure, especially in cases of suspected sorcery or witchcraft. Illness attributed to ghosts could be alleviated by propitiating or driving away the ghosts responsible.

Death and Afterlife. Death, especially for important men, was marked by a villagewide funeral ceremony, followed by burial, usually on land of the resident clan of the deceased. Each person was believed to have a spiritual essence, which was released at death; this essence might remain among the living for some time as a ghost. Ghosts occasionally helped the living by appearing in dreams and foretelling the future or revealing new magic, but more often they caused trouble Including illness, accidents, rainstorms, trouble with pigs, madness, and even death. They staged these attacks in response to perceived affronts to their esteem or physical remains.

See also Chimbu, Gahuku-Gama, Siane, Tairora


Newman, Philip L. (1962). "Sorcery, Religion, and the Man." Natural History 71:21-28.

Newman, Philip L. (1962). "Supernaturalism and Ritual among the Gururumba." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington.

Newman, Philip L. (1964). "Religious Belief and Ritual in a New Guinea Society." American Anthropologist 66:257-272.

Newman, Philip L. (1965). Knowing the Gururumba. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Newman, Philip L. (1981). "Sexual Politics and Witchcraft in Two New Guinea Societies." In Social Inequality: Comparative and Developmental Approaches, edited by Gerald D. Berreman, 103-121. New York: Academic Press.