Identification. Lesu is a village on the east coast of the island of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. Lesu also refers to the people who live in the village. The Lesu are one of the nine main indigenous ethnolinguistic groups of New Ireland. Other groups include the Nokon, Mandak, Usen Barok, Nusu, and Lavongai. There is no social cohesion among these groups and, prior to European dominance, various groups as well as villages within groups were often at war with one another. Contact between villages is confined mainly to joint attendance at ceremonies. This summary describes Lesu as it existed in the late 1920s. More recent information is generally unavailable, although it can be assumed that Lesu has been largely Westernized and there is reason to believe that the Lesu language is no longer spoken.
Location. Lesu village runs for about 5 kilometers along the northeast coast of New Ireland at 2° 30′ S and 151° E. The environment is tropical with life oriented both to the sea and to the interior with palm trees, bamboo groves, taro gardens, and heavy undergrowth.
Demography. The precontact population of Lesu is unknown. The Lesu experienced severe depopulation while under German control from 1884 to 1915 due to recruitment of men and women as laborers on copra plantations on and off the island and because of the spread of diseases, especially tuberculosis. In 1930 there were 232 people in Lesu. Current estimates of 1,100 speakers of the Notsi language include Lesu and some of their neighbors.
Linguistic Affiliation. Lesu villagers speak Notsi, a member of the Northern New Ireland Subgroup and New Ireland-Tolai Group of Austronesian languages.
History and Cultural Relations
The precontact history of Lesu is unknown. The Lesu were localized on the east coast at the time of European contact. New Ireland was visited by Dutch, English, and French explorers and traders in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Germany controlled New Ireland as a colony from 1884 to 1914. During this period many Lesu were recruited to work on German and English plantations elsewhere on the island and on other islands, and a road was built with native labor along the east coast. These two developments brought the Lesu into more frequent contact both with Europeans and other New Ireland groups. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, missionaries entered New Ireland; the Lesu eventually were influenced most by Roman Catholic and Methodist missionaries. In 1914, New Ireland came under Australian control and remained so until 1942 when the island was occupied by Japan. Australia resumed control in 1945. In 1949 New Ireland became part of the Trust Territory of New Guinea and has been a province of the nation of Papua New Guinea since 1975.
Lesu consists of fifteen named hamlets, all located along the sea. The hamlets contain from two to eight thatched, bamboo-walled houses and a communal cooking area. Larger hamlets also have men's houses on the shore, a cemetary, and cook houses. There is also a mission station. An individual's identity is based on residence both in Lesu and in a specific hamlet. Taro gardens are located inland, with Lesu land extending 8 or 9 kilometers in from the sea.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Lesu are slash-and-burn horticulturalists, with taro being the staple crop grown in fenced gardens a kilometer or more inland from the village. Yams are also grown, though they are less important than for other New Ireland groups. Fish are taken with nets, traps, or spears; crabs, mussels, and coconuts are gathered; and wild pigs are hunted. At various times, subsistence activities have been supplemented by income derived from the sale of land, wage labor on coconut plantations, and work for colonial governments. Specialists are paid for their services with shell money (tsera ) or European currency. Magicians and healers command high fees for their services, although all service providers—such as dancers at ceremonies and house builders—are paid.
Industrial Arts. Baskets are plaited from coconut-palm leaves, fishing nets are woven from plant fibers, and carving is done in wood and tortoiseshell. Canoe building had disappeared by the 1930s. Malanggan, ritual carvings used in death rituals, are the most important crafted objects. They are made by specialists working under carefully controlled conditions; in the past only men were allowed to see them.
Trade. Exchange between individuals and groups was based on reciprocity and the purchase of goods and services through the payment of tsera. A unit of tsera is one arm's length of strung flat shells. Tsera were made by specialists on the island of Lavongai, north of New Ireland. Items were never sold at a profit (i.e., for more than they were first purchased for). With the establishment of Australian control, the shilling replaced the tsera as the medium of exchange.
Division of Labor. Most tasks are assigned on the basis of sex. Men clear gardens, plant trees, gather sago, fish, hunt, prepare meat for cooking, build and repair houses, and make masks, canoes, nets, spears, and ornaments. Women plant taro and yams, gather crabs, feed pigs, haul water, keep house, and carry most burdens. Both men and women make mats and baskets, care for children, and serve as healers and magicians. Women are restricted from certain categories of knowledge such as some myths, some types of magic, and some supernatural beliefs. Magicians, healers, carvers, and net weavers traditionally were paid part-time specialists.
Land Tenure. The Lesu distinguish between two types of land. Clan land, which is in small parcels, is where the clan totemic animals live and is owned by the clan. All other land and rights to use of the sea are owned communally by the entire village. The custom is for people to plant gardens on land previously used by their parents, preferably the wife's parents. Ownership of trees and plants on the land rests with the individual gardener, who is usually the woman who works the plot. Purchase of land by colonial governments has complicated the question of ownership.
Kin Groups and Descent. Lesu society is divided into two exogamous moieties, the Hawk (Telenga) and the Eagle (Kongkong) moieties. Each moiety is composed of a number of matrilineal clans, with each clan associated with totemic animals and parcels of land or sections of sea. Moieties maintain reciprocal ritual obligations regarding pregnancy, birth, first menstruation, circumcision, marriage, and death. Clans are the basic economic unit and clan members are expected to cooperate in all major projects. However, individuals are often conflicted over loyalties to the clan versus those to their residential family. While the inheritance of status strictly follows the matrilineal line, the rules governing the inheritance of property are less rigid, though items generally go from a man to his sister's son.
Kinship Terminology. Kin terms follow the Iroquois system.
Marriage. In the past, polygynous marriage was preferred, and many men had two wives, with a few very wealthy men having three or four. Polyandry also occurred, though with considerably less frequency. Under European influence, all marriages are now monogamous. Cross-cousin marriage was preferred, with a mother's brother's daughter's daughter or father's sister's daughter's daughter the most desirable mate for a man. This preference meant that men often married a woman one generation removed from themselves. Divorce was easy and frequent, with the wife always retaining custody of the children. Postmarital residence is matrilocal, though marriages within a hamlet were common, and therefore men often did not have to relocate to a new one. For the Lesu, incest was the most serious norm violation, so various restrictions and taboos operated to control contact between men and women whose relations would be considered incestuous.
Domestic Unit. The nuclear family household is the basic domestic unit. It consists of the husband, wife, unmarried daughters, and sons under the age of 9 or 10. Boys older than 9 or 10, unmarried men, and men whose wives are pregnant or nursing live in the men's house, though much of their daily activity centers on the household. In polygynous families, each wife and her children usually occupied a separate dwelling.
Inheritance. Although inheritance of knowledge and material objects is preferentially matrilineal, in practice the desires of the owner of the property or the family are more influential than the clan rules.
Socialization. Infants are indulged by their mothers and fathers and developmental events such as the first tooth are marked by feasts. Children are observers of and participants in the daily lives of the adults in their household and in the community. Very early on, a clear distinction is made between boys and girls, with the two kept separate. Age groups for boys are encouraged but not for girls. In the past, boys age 8 to 11 underwent an elaborate initiation rite, lasting eight months with an additional two months for preparations. The rite included seclusion in a specially built dwellng, circumcision, feasting, dancing, speech making, and an exchange of wealth. The initiation rite was always accompanied by the malanggan rite during which the malanggans were displayed and then destroyed. Under Roman Catholic influence, the duration of the initiation rite was shortened and it was followed by instruction at the mission. First menstruation was marked by feasting and ritual bathing which signified that the girl was now an adult and ready to marry.
Social Organization. An individual's place in the Lesu social order was based on kinship, locality, and gender. The exogamous nature of the moieties and the reciprocity involved in relations between individuals, families, clans, and the moieties were the major forces welding the fifteen hamlets into a cohesive group. Status distinctions between individuals and families were based on wealth and degree of magical knowledge, which itself provided wealth through payments for magical services.
Political Organization. Community leaders (orang ) were important old men in each clan who formed an informal council that decided issues for the village. Orang status was not inherited but was based on age, wealth, strength of personality, magical knowledge, and oratorical ability. In the past, there was also a warrior chief—a role that disappeared with the cessation of intervillage warfare. Under European administration an intermediary (luluai ) was appointed to act as the village's representative. This person was sometimes also an orang, but whether he was or not, he always consulted with the orang council. Today, village representatives are elected.
Social Control. Incestuous relations were the most serious violations of norms and various mechanisms such as taboos and avoidance served to prevent incest from ever occurring.
Conflict. Prior to German colonization, warfare between the Lesu and other island groups was evidently quite common. Wars were often begun for revenge and ended through negotiation and the payment of compensation. Conflict between the Lesu hamlets was rare.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Lesu religion centered on the use of magic to control virtually all aspects of life. Various types of magic were distinguished, including taro, rain, fishing, shark, war, love, black (to kill), and magic to counteract black magic. Magic was created through the recitation of spells. Under the influence of Christian missionaries, Christian beliefs came to coexist with traditional ones.
Religious Practitioners. Magicians were the ritual specialists. Both men and women could be magicians, though most were men. Magicians were paid for their services and were often the wealthiest and highest-status individuals in the village. Each magician had extensive knowledge of only one type of magic, plus some basic knowledge of medical magic. Magicians thought to practice black magic might be put to death by the relatives of the victim.
Ceremonies. Ceremonies were held for all the major lifecycle events—birth, initiation of boys, first menstruation of girls, marriage, and death. Ceremonies involved dancing, drumming, and feasting. Malanggan rites, which might be conducted separately or, more commonly, as part of the male-initation ceremony, were the most significant ceremonial events.
Arts. As noted above, wood carving, especially of the malanggans, is the most elaborated art form. All rituals are accompanied by dancing, both by men and women, with the former often costumed and masked. More elaborate dances are accompanied by drumming and singing. Body decoration is considered important and takes the form of hair decorations and facial makeup. The Lesu have a rich mythology and repertoire of folktales, many of which are recited or acted out as part of ritual activities.
Medicine. Illness is attributed to either natural causes or magic. The former are treated by healers (men or women) who use plant treatments such as passing leaves over the wound or having the patient chew certain leaves. Illnesses attributed to magic are treated by magicians who seek to counteract the magic.
Death and Afterlife. The Lesu believe in ghosts of the dead who can be called on to assist the living. However, the services of such ghosts do not play a major role in daily life or in religious belief and practice. Death is marked by a ceremony with wailing, dancing, feasting, and gift exchange. The deceased is buried in a coffin in the cemetery. After the burial, various taboos and restrictions disrupt normal activities in the hamlet for some weeks. The higher the social status of the deceased, the more elaborate the rites.
Powdermaker, Hortense (1933). Life in Lesu: The Study of a Melanesian Society in New Ireland. New York: Norton.