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ETHNONYMS: Ekagi, Ekari, Me, Tapiro


Identification. The Kapauku live in the central highlands of western New Guinea, now Irian Jaya. Although they are generally treated as a single cultural group, there are variations in dialect and in social and cultural practice across Kapauku territory. The name "Kapauku" was given them by neighboring groups to the south, and the Moni Papuans, their neighbors to the north, call them "Ekari," but they call themselves "Me," which means "the people."

Location. The Kapauku occupy an ecologically diverse Region of the west-central highlands, between 135°25 and 137° E and 3°25 and 4° 10 S. Most of the region is above 1,500 meters, with three large lakes (Paniai, Tage, and Tigi), and five vegetation zones, including much tropical rain forest. Rainfall is plentiful and the average daily temperature ranges from 20° C to 60° C.

Demography. In the 1960s, the Kapauku population was estimated at about 45,000; today they number about 100,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Kapauku language (Ekagi) is classified within the Ekagi-Wodani-Moni Family of Papuan languages.

History and Cultural Relations

There is little information available regarding the history of the Kapauku prior to European contact, but they have long been horticulturalists (both intensive and extensive) and traders in the region. An important intertribal trade network linking the south coast of New Guinea to the interior ran Directly through Kapauku territory, bringing the people of the region into contact with peoples and goods from far beyond their own territorial borders. European contact with the Kapauku did not occur until 1938, when a Dutch government post was established at Paniai Lake. It was quickly abandoned with the Japanese invasion of New Guinea. In 1946 the post was reestablished, and a few Catholic and Protestant missionaries returned to the area.


The Kapauku village settlement is a loose cluster of about fifteen dwellings, typically housing about 120 people. Houses are not oriented to one another in any formal plan, as Individuals are free to build wherever they please, as long as proper title or lease is held to the piece of land upon which the house is to be built. Dwellings consist, minimally, of a large house (owa), an elevated structure with a space beneath in which to shelter domesticated pigs. This building is divided into halves separated by a plank partition. The front half is the emaage, or men's dormitory. The back section is subdivided into kugu, or individual "apartments," one for each woman and her Children. If the owa is insufficient to provide space for wives and children, outbuildings (called tone ) are added.


Leopold Pospisil, the leading authority on the Kapauku, labels their economy as "primitive capitalism" characterized by the pursuit of wealth in the form of cowrie shell money, status distinctions based on such wealth, and an ethic of individualism.

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Kapauku Subsistence is based on the sweet potato, to which about 90 percent of cultivated land is devoted, and pig husbandry. Sweet potatoes are grown both for human consumption and to feed the pigs that, through sales, are a basic source of income and wealth. Commonly grown, but constituting a far smaller portion of the diet, are a spinach-like green (idaja), bananas, and taro. In the densely populated Kamu Valley, hunting is of small importance due to a paucity of large game animals, but it is indulged in by men as sport. Edible fish are absent from the lakes, but crayfish, dragonfly larvae, certain types of beetles, and frogs augment the diet, as do rats and bats. Farming is done both on the mountain slopes and in the valleys. Upland gardens are given over to the extensive cultivation of sweet potatoes, with long fallow periods between plantings. In the valleys a more intensive method is followed, using both mixed cropping and crop rotation. Households will generally cultivate at least one of each type of garden.

Industrial Arts. Kapauku manufacture is limited and, for the most part, not specialized. Net bags, for utilitarian and for decorative purposes, are made from woven tree bark, as are the armbands and necklaces worn by both men and women. Also made from this bark are women's aprons. Kapauku also manufacture stone axes and knives, flint chips, and grinding stones. From bamboo they make knives for the carving of pork and for surgical use. Other carving tools are fashioned from rat teeth and bird claws, and agricultural tools include weeding, planting, and harvesting sticks. Weaponry consists of bows and arrows, the latter of which may be tipped with long blades of bamboo.

Trade. Trade is carried out intra- and interregionally and intertribally, with trade links extending to the Mimika people of the coast. The two most important trade commodities are pigs and salt. Trade is generally conducted in shell currency, pigs, or extensions of credit, and the bulk of trading occurs during pig feasts and at the pig markets. Barter is a relatively unimportant means by which goods may be transferred. All distributions of food incur a debt on the part of each recipient to repay in kind to the giver. Pospisil notes that the Kapauku are lively participants in the selling of pigs and pork. Shell money (and sometimes an obligation to provide pork) is required in payment to a shaman for the performance of magic.

Division of Labor. There is a sexual division of labor. Tasks held to be the exclusive province of men include the planning of agricultural production, digging ditches, making garden beds, felling trees, building fences, planting and harvesting bananas, tobacco, chili peppers, and apuu (a particular variety of yam), while the burning of gardens, planting sugarcane, manioc, squash, and maize, as well as the harvesting of sugarcane, manioc, and ginger, are preferentially but not necessarily done by males. Exclusively female tasks include the planting of sweet potatoes and jatu (an edible grass, Setaria palmifolia ) and weeding. Other tasks, such as planting and weeding taro and harvesting sweet potatoes, are usually done by women. All other tasks relating to agriculture are carried out by members of both sexes. The gathering of crayfish, water beetles, tadpoles, dragonfly larvae, and hogs is largely the task of women; the hunting of large game is an infrequent enterprise and is done only by men. Small game is hunted by young men and boys. Pigs and chickens, while usually owned by males, are tended by women or adolescent children, but only males are allowed to kill and butcher them. The weaving of utilitarian net bags is a woman's job, while the production of the more ornate and colorful decorative bags is the Province of males.

Land Tenure. A particular piece of land is the property of the house owner, always male, with use rights accorded to members of his household. Sons inherit land from their Fathers. Ownership implies rights of alienation of the land as well as usufruct rights.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kapauku reckon descent along both maternal and paternal lines, but villages are patrilineal and exogamous, with postmarital residence generally patrilocal. The most important Kapauku kinship group is the sib, a named, ideally exogamous, totemic, patrilineal group whose members share a belief in a common apical ancestor. Two or more sibs group into loosely united phratries that have Common totemic taboos but are not exogamous. Many of the sibs are further split into moieties. Kinship ties with other lineages (through affines) give rise to larger, political amalgamations known as "confederations."

Kinship Terminology. Kapauku kinship terminology is of the Iroquois type, but it diverges in the way in which parallel and cross cousins are differentiated: the sex of the nearest and the most distant link connecting the individual to his or her cousin determines cross- or parallel-cousin status. Kapauku kinship terms differentiate among paternal and maternal relatives, affinal and consanguineal relatives, and generationally.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is ideally arranged between the Families of the prospective groom and brothers and mother of the prospective bride. The preferences of the woman are considered secondary to the possibility of collecting a high Brideprice but, in practice, her mother may set a forbiddingly high bride-price to discourage an unacceptable suitor. Elopements, while considered improper, occur with some frequency. In such cases the families of the eloping couple will likely accept the union by negotiating a bride-price after the fact. Courtship is often conducted in the context of the pig feast, when young men and women arrive at the host village from neighboring villages to dance and to be seen by Members of the opposite sex. Premarital sex, while not approved of because of its possible negative effect on a woman's Brideprice, is generally not punished. Premarital pregnancy, However, is severely disapproved. Divorce involves the return of bride-price, and the children generally remain with their mother until they reach the age of about 7, at which time they join their father's village. Polygyny, as an indicator of the husband's ability to pay multiple bride-prices, is the ideal. A widow is expected to remarry within a suitable period following the death of her husband, unless she is quite old or very sick, but the levirate is not assumed.

Domestic Unit. The household consists, minimally, of a nuclear family, but it more commonly also includes consanguineal or affinal kinsmen and their wives and children as well. In the case of wealthy and prestigious men, there may also be apprentices or political supporters and their wives and children. The household is the basic Kapauku unit of Residence and, to a large extent, of production and consumption. Within the household, the house owner is titular head, responsible for organizing production activities and maintaining cooperation among the male household members. However, each married male has sole authority over the affairs of his wife or wives and his offspring, an authority which even the head of household cannot usurp.

Inheritance. Personal items, such as bows and arrows, penis sheaths, etc., are interred or otherwise left with the corpse of the deceased. Land and accrued wealth is inherited by males through the paternal line, ideally by the deceased's first-born son. If there is no son, a man's eldest brother inherits. Women do not inherit land.

Socialization. Children learn adult roles through observation and by specific training. Boys leave their mothers' apartments at the age of about 7 to live in the men's dormitory, at which time they are explicitly exposed to the expected adult male behaviors. There is no male initiation ceremony. Girls, upon achieving their menarche, undergo a brief period (two days, two nights) of semiseclusion in a menstrual hut during the time of their first two menstruations. During this time they are instructed in the responsibilities and skills of adulthood by close female relatives. After these periods of seclusion, girls put aside the skirtlike apparel of childhood and begin to wear the bark-thong wrap of adulthood.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Kapauku patrilineage is a nonlocalized grouping whose membership claims descent from a common apical ancestor. Its dispersed character makes it inutile for political purposes; rather, its functions pertain to the regulation of marriage, the establishment of interpersonal obligations of support (both personal and economic), and religion. The sib establishes shared totemic taboos that involve its members in relations of mutual ritual obligation, particularly in the matter of redressing taboo violations. Most day-to-day rights and obligations are incurred within the localized patrilineal group; it is to members of this group that an Individual will turn for assistance in amassing the bride-wealth necessary for marriage, as well as for allies in conflicts arising with outsiders. Within the village, households are relatively autonomous, as each household head is able to call on fellow members for support in economic and ritual endeavors.

Political Organization. Kapauku leadership is based on personal influence, developed through the accumulation of wealth in shells and pigs, particularly through sponsoring pig feasts. A headman (tonowi ) uses his prestige and wealth to induce the compliance of others, particularly through the Extension or refusal of credit. Again, the principle of organization is based upon the tracing of at least putative kinship ties, and the larger the group of individuals united in a political unit, the more these ties are based on tradition rather than demonstrable links. The most inclusive politically organized group is the confederacy, which consists of two or more localized lineages that may or may not belong to the same sib. Such groups unite for defense as well as for offense against nonmember groups. The leader of the strongest lineage is also the leader of the confederacy, and as such this leader is responsible for adjudicating disputes to avoid the possibility of intraconfederacy feuding. He is equally responsible for representing the confederacy in dealings and dispute settlement with outsiders, deciding upon the necessity of war, and negotiating terms of peace with hostile groups. Leadership is ostensibly the province of men only, but in practice considerable influence may be wielded by women.

Social Control. Social control is effected in Kapauku local groups by inducement rather than by force. The primary form of inducement is the extension or withdrawal of credit. Since a headman's supporters are tied to him through his economic largess, the threat of a withdrawal of credit, or of a premature demand for repayment, provides strong inducement for Others to accede to the headman's wishes. Sanctions such as public scolding or shooting an arrow into a miscreant's thigh are common, but in such cases the party being punished has the opportunity to fight back. Kin-based obligations to seek vengeance for the death of a lineage member are often invoked. Less frequently, to punish sorcerers, ostracism or death may be inflicted.

Conflict. Kapauku do not care for war, but members of a lineage are obligated to avenge the death of their kin. Warfare almost never occurs below the level of the confederacy, and it is most frequently occasioned by divorce. Wars are fought exclusively with bows and arrows. At the more localized level, disputes over economic interests or factional splits between two powerful headmen may lead to outbreaks of hostility to the point of violence. Such occasions may require the intervention of confederacy headmen.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Kapauku believe that the universe was created by Ugatame, who has predetermined all that occurs or has occurred within it. Ugatame is not, strictly speaking, anthropomorphized, although a creation mythin which disease and mortality were first brought to the Kapaukuattributes to Ugatame the combined characters of a young woman and a tall young man. Ugatame dwells Beyond the sky and is manifested in, but is not identical to, the sun and the moon. It is believed that, along with the physical universe, Ugatame created a number of spirits. These spirits, essentially incorporeal, frequently appear to Kapauku in the form of shadows among the trees, which can be heard to make scratching or whistling sounds. Less commonly, they will appear in dreams or visions, at times assuming human form. They can be enlisted by the dreamer or visionary as guardians and helpers, for good or for ill. The souls of the dead can similarly be persuaded to help their surviving kin.

Religious Practitioners. Magical-religious practitioners are of two classes: shamans (who practice magic for good purposes) and sorcerers (who practice "black magic"). Both men and women can become shamans or sorcerers through the acquisition of spirit helpers in dreams or visions and through the successful (as gauged by perceived results) use of magic. The shaman practices curative and preventive magic, while the sorcerer is concerned with causing harm to others (through illness, death, or economic failure). Ghouls are older women whose souls have been replaced during sleep by rapacious spirits hungry for the taste of human flesh. The ghoul, by all appearances a normal woman during the day, travels abroad in the night to dig up the corpses of her possessing spirit's victims and make a feast of their flesh. Women believed to be possessed in this way are not killed, for their death would simply release the possessing spirit to find a new hostess. Rather, ghouls are held to be the helpers of sorcerers, whose black magic is held responsible for the women's condition. It is the sorcerer's magic that must be countered, or the sorcerer must be killed, to stop the depredations of a ghoul.

Ceremonies. One of the most important Kapauku Ceremonies is the juwo, or pig feast. This begins with a series of rituals associated with the construction of a dance house and feasting houses, after which follows a period of nightly dances, attended by people from villages throughout the area. After about three months a final feast is held wherein the sponsors slaughter many pigs and pork is distributed or sold. During this final feast day, trade in items of manufacture is also conducted.

Arts. Visual arts are not heavily represented in Kapauku culture, apart from the decorative net bags made by the men and the armbands and necklaces worn as bodily adornment. Dances, as part of the pig feast, are frequent. There are two principal dances, the waita tai and the tuupe. The ugaa, which is a song that begins with barking cheers, is followed by an individual's extemporaneous solo composition, the lyrics of which may contain gossip, local complaints, or a proposal of marriage.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to sorcerers or the spirits. Cures are accomplished by a shaman, who seeks a diagnosis and treatment from a spirit helper. Treatment includes the recitation of spells or prayers, the manipulation of magical plants, purification through the washing of body parts in water, and, at times, the extraction of bits of foreign matter from the body of the victim. Should an individual believe that he or she may be the target of sorcery, a preventive cure may be sought before the actual onset of illness.

Death and Afterlife. Death, regardless of the outward cause, is thought always to be caused by sorcerers or spirits. The soul goes to spend its days in the forest, but it returns to the village at night to assist its surviving kin or to seek vengeance in the case of wrongful death. There is no concept of an afterworld, in the sense of some "other" place in which the dead dwell. A principal concern of Kapauku funerary practices is the enlistment of the soul of the departed as guardian of its surviving kin. The more beloved or prestigious the deceased, the greater the care taken, through burial practices, to tempt them to such a role. The head is left exposed, sheltered under a cover of branches, but provided with a window. Cremation for fallen and unclaimed enemies and complete interment for those of little social status constitute the lower range of funerary attention.

See alsoMimika


Pospisil, Leopold (1958). Kapauku Papuans and Their Law. Yale University Publications in Anthropology, no. 54. New Haven, Conn.

Pospisil, Leopold (1960). "The Kapauku Papuans and Their Kinship System." Oceania, 30: 188-205.

Pospisil, Leopold (1963). Kapauku Papuan Economy. Yale University Publications in Anthropology, no. 67. New Haven, Conn. Reprint. 1972. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files.

Pospisil, Leopold (1978). The Kapauku Papuans of West New Guinea. 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.