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ETHNONYMS: Morehead, Nambu, Trans-Fly


Identification. The term "Keraki" generally refers to one of several small transhumant cultural groups living near the Morehead River in the Trans-Fly region of Papua New Guinea, applying principally to Nambu speakers but also Including some of their immediate neighbors. The name also refers to one of the roughly nine small "tribes" into which the Keraki are divided.

Location. Keraki territory lies in the southwestern part of Papua New Guinea, just to the east of the Morehead River, at about 9° S by 142° E. The area is characterized by extremes of climate. During a considerable part of the rainy season, especially between January and March, much of the land is under water, and the Keraki are obliged to take up residence in semipermanent villages in one of a few locations along high ground. The rains abate in May or June, the country dries up, the land becomes parched, and the Keraki move to locations along one of the lagoons or larger streams, within reach of water. At the height of the dry season, the people often live in small clearings in the forest to escape the considerable heat.

Demography. In 1931, the ethnographic present for this report, F. E. Williams estimated the entire Keraki population at about 700-800. Recent estimates indicated 700 Nambu speakers and another 800 speakers of the Tonda and Lower Morehead languages.

Linguistic Affiliation. Nambu, Tonda, and Lower Morehead are three of the seven small Non-Austronesian Languages that make up the Morehead and Upper Maro Rivers Family.

History and Cultural Relations

Owing to its sparse and scattered population, inhospitable climate, and apparent lack of potential for development, the Morehead area was little affected by European contact in the 1920s and 1930s when F. E. Williams conducted his basic ethnographic research. Even today, the region is somewhat isolated, with very little economic development. Cultural Relations and communications among groups are hampered by flooding of the area in the wet season, lack of water in the dry season, and, in the precontact and early-contact era, by the constant raiding of powerful headhunters from across the border to the west.


The semipermanent villages are usually located in or on the edge of a forest area, on high ground. The village itself is a clearing, planted with coconut palms, with houses irregularly scattered about. Gardens ring the village, and decorative plants and flowers grow within. Houses are of several types. The mongo-viví, or "proper" house, is a long, oblong building with a ridged roof, stamped and hardened clay floor, and semicircular verandas on either end. A good-sized house is about 9 meters long, 3.6 meters wide, and 2.4 meters high, although dimensions vary considerably. These houses are used primarily for food storage, especially for yams. Typically, Villages also contain a number of shelters, called gua-mongo, under which Keraki spread their mats. These shelters are Simple open-sided structures consisting of four poles supporting a ridged roof. In contrast to the semipermanent villages, the temporary villageswhich might be used as dry-season settlements, headquarters for large hunting parties, or other temporary encampmentsusually contain only haphazard, roughly built houses, shelters, and lean-tos, with little attempt made to clear the brush.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Keraki are subsistence farmers who practice swidden or slash-and-burn horticulture. Their staple crop is the lesser yam (Dioscorea esculenta ) . Gardens are prepared at the end of the dry season and completed by October or November, when the first sounds of thunder signal the beginning of the planting season. Several families usually cooperate in clearing a tract of land, which is subsequently divided into individually owned plots of about 45 meters square, separated from one another by timber markers laid along the ground. The entire area is customarily fenced against wild pigs, wallabies, etc. By June the yam vines, attached to 2-meter-long poles, have begun to turn yellow, and the harvest beginsdesultorily at first, then more seriously as the vines wither. Yams are levered up or dug out with heavy spatulate digging sticks, then picked out by hand, and later sorted into piles for cooking, replanting, or for feasts. Other important root crops are taro, manioc, and sweet potatoes. Sugarcane, coconuts, and bananas are also grown, and various other fruits, especially papayas, complement the Keraki diet. Sago is rare and highly prized, thriving only in the few sago swamps that exist in Keraki territory. Garden produce is supplemented by hunting, mainly for wallabies. These animals are taken either individually or collectively, by means of a drive, which is sometimes aided by grass burning. Cassowaries and wild pigs are hunted too, although pigs are also raised in small enclosures. Fishing is employed using a variety of techniques including stationary traps, hook and line, shooting with bow and arrow, and stupefying with poison root, but fish contribute relatively little to the Keraki diet.

Industrial Arts. Keraki have few manufactures beyond the simple utilitarian objects used in their daily lives. Personal ornaments are few. The only particularly well-finished pieces of woodwork are the drum, about 1 meter long, tapering to a longish waist in the middle, with a handle of one piece; the spatula, used for scooping out the pulpy interior of yams; and a boomerang-shaped hair ornament. Formerly, Keraki headhunters lavished considerable care on the making of carved, painted or barbed arrows for use in raids, and they also carved delicate wands or clubs called parasi, which were shattered over the heads of victims. Perhaps their most finely made objects are textiles, including mats, embroidered carrying bags, plaited belts and armlets, and finely worked women's mourning dresses.

Trade. Keraki engage in such considerable barter of all sorts of objects with neighboring peoples that it is difficult for the ethnographer to identify truly indigenous manufactures. However, since the Morehead area lacks appropriate natural stone, their most important trade was for stone axes and club heads, which, together with painted arrows, they obtained from the Wiram people in exchange for melo shells, used as a men's pubic covering. Other stone was obtained from Buji, on the coast near the mouth of the Mai Kussa River.

Division of Labor. As in most tribal societies, Keraki division of labor is based on age and sex. Women clean the houses and grounds, cook day-to-day meals, make textiles, and take primary responsibility for the children. Men hunt, build houses and shelters, conduct ritual matters, and do much of the cooking for feasts. Garden work is done by both sexes, although the sexes do perform slightly different tasks, with men doing most of the heavy felling, clearing, fencing, planting, and harvesting and women doing most of the daily weeding, cleaning, and harvesting.

Land Tenure. While the population density of the Morehead area is only about 0.2 person to the square kilometer, and the land is vast in proportion to the people, there are nevertheless rules of ownership, control, and inheritance of land. These rules are more closely observed for good land close to the semipermanent villages than for relatively useless land far from habitation sites. The whole territory is divided into large, named areas of about 13 to 15.5 square kilometers each, separated by natural boundaries and nominally owned by one of the nine Keraki tribes, but actually belonging to one of the villages of the tribe. Each of these major tracts is Divided into a number of individually owned minor tracts. The yure, or owner of the land, gives formal permission to garden on the land, although this is commonly given to all who ask. Succession to yure-ownership is from father, through younger brother, and back to son; land may also be partitioned among sons and brothers.


Kin Groups and Descent. Keraki society is divided into exogamous moieties of unequal size. One of these moieties is subdivided into three major sections. This moiety system overlays a system of local totemic groups. Descent is reckoned patrilineally.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Iroquois type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is generally arranged by men, through "sister exchange," although "sisters" are frequently classificatory. Since two couples are created simultaneously, someone (typically a "bride") may still be adolescent when these Exchanges are technically effected. In such cases, the girl becomes a member of the husband's household, even if the husband is still residing in the young men's house, and years may pass before the marriage is actually consummated. Polygyny is common: only about 55 percent of marriages are Monogamous. Mates are chosen from outside the moiety and, Generally, from outside the local totemic group. The levirate and sororate are both loosely practiced in a classificatory sense. Divorce is rare: since it directly affects another couple, considerable social pressure is brought to bear on women to uphold the marriage contract.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is the household, generally consisting of a man, his wife or wives, and their younger children. Occasionally a close relative may reside with them, but households are typically small and simply constituted.

Inheritance. Inheritance is normally patrilineal. A woman will leave her possessions to the "sons' wives" who live in her village.

Socialization. Keraki have no form of institutionalized instruction except during the seclusion and initiation of young boys, when they learn the secrets of the bullroarer and "sacred pipe," learn of hunting and other rituals, and hear secret mythological stories. At other times, children of both sexes are left to observe the day-to-day norms of behavior and to conduct themselves accordingly. By the norms of Western Society, parents are quite indulgent and somewhat neglectful, although they do instruct and scold children when necessary.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Keraki society is divided into tribes, with each tribe having three or four local section groups. Most villages belong predominantly to one section or another. Even when two sections are represented in the same village, section members live together. These local section groups, united by ties of kinship, common interest, and fellowship, are the most important units of Keraki social Organization. They hunt together, make sago together, and often garden together. They cooperate in ritual matters: the group owns the major bullroarer and combines to initiate boys, it cooperates in fertility and death rituals, it acts as a group in the exchange of marriage partners, and it collectively organizes feasts. Formerly it raided together. These exogamous local groups become affinally linked to one another through exchange marriages. The two husbands become tambera or exchange partners, and they perform ritual services for each other's children. Other males of approximately the same age become kamat (sisters' husbands or wives' brothers), offering hospitality and friendship to their counterparts in the opposite local group.

Political Organization. The Keraki recognize hereditary headmen of the local groups described above. However, since these local groups are patrilineally organized and typically very small, consisting of only about thirty persons, the headman is usually the eldest active male. Leadership passes to a younger brother and then to the eldest son of the original headman. The headman exercises very little real authority. His "decisions" merely reflect the general consensus of opinion. There is no formal leadership above the local group level.

Social Control. Social control within the group is maintained largely through a sense of conformity, knowledge of the importance of reciprocity, feelings of in-group solidarity and support, and general conservatism. These are bolstered by fears of public reprobation or ridicule, retaliation through violence or sorcery, and the possibility of supernatural retribution.

Conflict. Conflict within the local group is rare, owing to the social control mechanisms described above. Occasional thefts and sexual jealousies are the most common exceptions. Fighting with Keraki people from outside the local group is called guwari, in which the men from one village descend in open invasion on the men from another village. Loud, wordy quarrels might develop into general brawls, sometimes with sticks and arrows used as weapons, but these fights usually end in reconciliation. In contrast to this was the moku, or head-hunting raid, directed against non-Keraki people, most commonly the Gunduman. These raids took the form of unexpected, often predawn raids. Heads were quickly severed with bamboo knives and attached to cane head carriers, whereupon the entire party fled. Once in their camp, the raiders cooked the heads, often eating a bit of flesh, usually from the cheek, and cleaned the skulls, which they erected on poles as trophies. Men who had taken heads achieved status and some measure of influence within the group. The Keraki were comparatively peaceful, however, more often being the victims of the aggressive Marind or Wiram people than the victors themselves, and their head-hunting raids were rather infrequent.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Certain Keraki religious beliefs are embodied in myth and actually not known by a significant proportion of the population. There is an Originator and his family, who constitute the Sky Beings of gainjan times, when creatures were greater than they are today. These Sky Beings can grant or withhold favors to present-day human beings, and they may cause sickness by capturing a person's spirit. They may be appealed to through prayers or exhortations.

Religious Practitioners. The actions of Keraki religious practitioners are linked to the belief in magic, particularly sympathetic magic. All Keraki practice magic of various kinds, but specialist practitioners are of two main types: the rainmakers and the sorcerers.

Ceremonies. Keraki ritual life is quite varied. At the group level, exchange feasts are extremely important: they provide a stimulus for food production and bring together otherwise disparate groups. Hosts provide sociability, food, and sexual partners for male guests; these favors are then reciprocated at a return feast. At the individual level, by far the most Important ceremony of male youth is the period of seclusion and initiation mentioned above, where young boys are taught ritual and mythological lore. In a practice not uncommon in the Trans-Fly, the initiates are sodomized by men from the opposite moiety in order to promote the boys' growth.

Arts. Keraki arts include wood carving, textile making, and aspects of music and performance associated primarily with ritual.

Medicine. Sickness and death are often ascribed to Sorcery. Treatments for sorcery vary, but they often include bleeding or the extraction of some object introduced into the body.

Death and Afterlife. Deceased are buried in a house, often a yam house. The corpse is wrapped in bark and shallowly interred in a supine position with feet facing the south (toward the sea). Roughly a year of formal mourning and food avoidance follows, particularly for women, who cut their hair and then let it grow, refrain from washing, and wear makamaka, elaborate costumes constructed of multiple layers of plaited swamp grass. After interment, there is a small burial feast, followed by the erection of a small memorial and the burning of personal belongings. A larger feast signals the end of formal mourning. Women then remove the makamaka, and the memorial is uprooted. There is a belief in a soul that independently continues the existence of a person after death, but where it abides is unclear.

See also Marind-anim


Williams, Francis Edgar (1929). "Rainmaking on the River Morehead." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 59:379-397.

Williams, Francis Edgar (1936). Papuans of the Trans-Fly. Territory of Papua Anthropology Report no. 15. Oxford: Clarendon Press.