Mae Enga

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Mae Enga

ETHNONYMS: Western Central Enga


Identification. The Mae form a cultural and geographical subdivision of the Enga, who comprise most of the inhabitants of Enga Province in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea. The Melpa to the east first called them Enga, a name that European explorers and later the people themselves have adopted.

Location. Wabag, the administrative center of Enga Province, is situated at about 5°30 S and 143°45 E. Mae exploit river valleys and mountain slopes between about 1,820 and 2,700 meters above sea level. Forested high ridges are uninhabited. Mean annual rainfall is about 300 centimeters, varying between 228 and 320 centimeters. Rain falls about 265 days a year, but there is a summer wet season (November to April) and a winter dry season (May to October). Winter droughts may occur, and at altitudes above 2,500 meters, winter frosts are common; both may cause food shortages.

Demography. In 1960 the then Wabag Subdistrict of about 8,710 square kilometers supported an indigenous Population estimated at 115,000, of whom about 30,000 were Mae. Central Enga population densities ranged from about 19 to 115 persons per square kilometer. By the mid-1980s the population of Enga Province exceeded 175,000, including at least 45,000 Mae, and population densities were generally higher.

linguistic Affiliation. Mae speak a dialect of Enga, one of the West-Central Family of the Central Highlands Stock of Papuan languages of Papua New Guinea.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological research in the central highlands indicates that horticulturalists were active in the Enga area at least 2,000 years ago, and probably earlier. These pre-Ipomean cultivators were presumably ancestral to present-day Enga, but their place of origin is unknown. Enga, including Mae, have for centuries maintained with non-Enga neighbors social contacts such as marriage, sharing of rituals, economic Exchanges, and raiding. In 1930 Enga first encountered European gold prospectors and in 1938 field officers of the Australian colonial administration. By 1948 Wabag Subdistrict headquarters was established and the government permitted miners and Christian missionaries to enter the area. Between 1963 and 1973 the administration set up six elected local government councils, representatives of which in 1973 comprised a district-wide Area Authority. In 1964 Enga, like other residents of the then Territory of Papua New Guinea, elected representatives to the new House of Assembly, which in 1975 became the National Parliament after the country secured political independence from Australia. In 1974 Enga Province was proclaimed and in 1978 Enga elected a Provincial assembly and government.


Mae do not live in compact villages. Men and women occupy separate houses dispersed among the gardens and groves in the territory held by each clan parish, whose population of clansmen, their in-married wives, and their children averages about 400 persons and exploits about 5.2 square kilometers of irregular terrain. One-story dwellings hug the ground and are built with double-planked walls and thickly thatched roofs to keep out cold and rain. Houses are all much the same size and are externally similar but, whereas a woman's house usually shelters one wife, her unwed daughters, her infant sons, several pigs, and family valuables, the average men's house contains about six or seven closely related agnates, Including boys, and their equipment. Wabag township is now a public service and commercial center of between 2,000 and 3,000 residents (including 100 or more non-Enga and Europeans) and has paved streets, Australian-style wooden houses, electricity, and piped water. All-weather roads link Wabag with administrative posts and mission stations within Enga and with neighboring provincial centers.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Mae were and most remain subsistence gardeners. They employ an intensive and productive system of long-fallow swidden cultivation, which utilizes family labor, simple tools, and effective techniques of composting and draining to grow the staple sweet potatoes, supplemented by taro, bananas, sugarcane, Pandanus nuts, beans, and various leaf greens, as well as introduced potatoes, maize, and peanuts. Since the 1960s coffee, pyrethrum, potatoes, and, most recently, orchids have become the main commercial products of the cultivators. Domestic pig raising, important in the horticultural cycle, not only provides most of the meat in the daily diet but also the pork and live pigs that figure in public distributions of valuables to mark marriages, illnesses, deaths, and homicides. Small herds of introduced cattle, water buffalo, sheep, and goats are kept but have little commercial significance.

Industrial Arts and Trade. Traditionally Mae traded ash salt and occasionally pigs and pandanus nuts with neighboring societies in return for regional specialties, including cosmetic tree oil, stone axe blades, palm and forest woods to make weapons and drums, plumes, and marine shells. At home these and other valuables such as pigs and cassowaries circulated freely through the Te ceremonial exchange cycle and the prestations associated with births, deaths, and Marriages. Local crafts were (and still are) limited mainly to men's construction of houses and bridges and production of weapons, implements, and personal ornaments, while women made net carrying bags and men's aprons. Artisans competent in Western trades are scarce in Enga and most of these, especially mechanics, carpenters, and builders, work for the National Works Authority based in Wabag. Also located there are the few bank branches and general stores that serve the Mae. Scattered through the clan territories are scores of tiny and unprofitable trade stores that sell canned foods, kerosene, soap, cigarettes, etc., as well as a number of all-night dance halls where beer is sold and a few bush garages and carpentry workshops. Many women sell small quantities of vegetables at local markets that have sprung up in Wabag and near missions and schools. Some women with sewing machines make simple clothes for the market.

Division oí Labor. Division of labor by sex is marked among Mae. Men undertake the initial concentrated and heavy work of clearing, fencing, ditching, and deep tilling of gardens and coffee plots, after which their wives and daughters sustain the constant round of planting, weeding, repairing fences, and daily harvesting of food plants, plus picking and processing coffee in season. Women also tend family pigs, care for infants, prepare and cook food, and carry firewood and water. Men build all houses, while women gather grass for thatch and provide food for the workers. In short, women's work provisions Mae domestic economy and supports male and political and ceremonial activities.

Land Tenure. Within the 520 or so square kilometers comprising the Mae district, sharply localized patricians traditionally claimed rights to all the arable lands and other high forests and marshlands whose resources they could exploit; and neighboring clans frequently engaged in bitter warfare to defend or to extend their territories. Since the 1960s the combination of a rapidly increasing population and the diversion of arable areas from food growing to coffee and cattle production has exacerbated interclan conflicts over access to land and other economic assets, as well as to political office. The numbers of Mae emigrating to other provinces to seek urban or rural employment have not been so great as to ameliorate the situation.


Kin Groups and Descent. All Mae are members of segmentary agnatic descent structures, within which residential and cultivation rights to land are successively divided. The largest agnatic descent group, with as many as 6,000 Members, is the eponymously named and nonexogamous phratry, each of which comprises a cluster of contiguous clans (average about eight, range four to twenty) whose eponymous founders are thought to be sons of the phratry founder. The mean size of the exogamous and localized patricians is about 400 members, with a range from about 100 to 1,500. A clan contains from two to eight named subclans generated by the putative sons of the clan founder. The subclan in turn is Divided into from two to four named patrilineages established by sons of the subclan founder. Patrilineages contain twenty or more elementary (monogamous) and composite (polygynous) families whose heads are usually held to be greatgrandsons of the lineage founder.

Kinship Terminology. The Iroquois bifurcate-merging system of kin terms, which the Mae system resembles, distinguishes generation levels but not seniority within generations. Mae also recognize terminologically four wider categories of kin: agnates, other patrilateral cognates, matrilateral cognates, and affines.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Until the 1960s polygyny was an indicator of social and economic worth, and about 15 percent of married men had two or more wives; nowadays monogamy is becoming more common. The levirate is the only marriage prescription, and most of the numerous prohibitions are phrased in terms of agnatic descent-group affiliation. The most important are that a man should not wed within his own patrician or within the subclans of his mother or his current wives. Parents, especially fathers, generally choose the spouses when their children first marry. Postmarital residence ideally is patrivirilocal. Because marriage unites the clans of both bride and groom in valued long-term exchange relations, divorce is difficult to achieve, even by husbands. Adultery is deplored, and the few erring wives are brutally punished. All of these norms and constraints have eroded noticeably of late due to the influence of secular education and Christian missions, wage earning and mobility of young adults, and the growing consumption of alcohol.

Domestic Unit. Because men regard female sexual characteristics, especially menstruation, as potentially dangerous, women may never enter men's houses and men, although they visit their wives' houses to discuss family matters, do not sleep there. Nevertheless, the elementary family of husband, wife, and unwed children constitutes the basic unit of Domestic production and reproduction. A polygynous man directs the pig tending and cultivation done separately by his wives in their individual households, and he coordinates their activities to meet the public demands of his clan or its component segments.

Inheritance. Men bequeath rights to socially significant property such as land, trees, crops, houses, pigs, and cassowaries more or less equally to their sons as these sons marry. Daughters at marriage receive domestic equipment from their mothers.

Socialization. Women train their daughters in domestic and gardening skills from infancy until adolescence, when they marry and join their husbands' clan parishes. At about age 6 or 7, boys enter the men's house of their father and his close agnates, all of whom share in the boys' economic, Political, and ritual education.

Sociopolitical Organization

Since 1975, Mae have been citizens of the Nation-state of Papua New Guinea, a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations with a Westminster system of government.

Social Organization. Traditional Mae society was relatively egalitarian and economically homogeneous and remains largely so in the 1980s despite the effects of international commerce. The 120 or so patricians are still significant landholding units, and they and their component segments are corporately involved in a wide variety of events. A clan engages in warfare and peacemaking; initiates payments of pigs and, today, money as homicide compensation for slain enemies and allies; organizes large-scale distributions of pigs and valuables in the elaborate interclan ceremonial exchange cycle; and participates in irregularly held rituals to propitiate clan ancestors. No hereditary or formally elected clan chiefs direct these activities; they are coordinated by able and influential men who, through their past managerial successes, have acquired "big names." The arable land of a clan is Divided among its subclans, which hold funeral feasts for their dead, exchange pork and other valuables with matrilateral kin of the deceased, and also compensate the matrikin of Members who have been insulted, injured, or ill. Bachelors usually organize their purificatory rituals on a subclan basis. Subclan land is in turn divided among component patrilineages, whose members contribute valuables to bride-price or to Return gifts as their juniors wed those of lineages in other clans. Lineage members also help each other in house building and in clearing garden land. Today clan solidarity, as well as interclan hostility, importantly determines who individual voters support in national, provincial, and local council elections. All of these Australian-inspired governmental entities provide the extraclan public services, such as schools, clinics, courts, constabulary, post offices, and roads, on which Mae now depend heavily.

Social Control and Conflict. Within the clan social Control is still largely exercised through public opinion, including ridicule, implicit threats by agnates to withdraw the economic support and labor on which all families rely, and the pervasive influence of prominent big-men in informal moots. The ultimate sanction, even within the household, is physical violence. Formerly clans within a phratry or neighborhood could resort to similar courts jointly steered by their big-men to reach reluctant compromises; but such negotiations, especially over land or pigs, frequently erupted in bloodshed. The Australian colonial administration supplemented courts with more formal and fairly effective Courts for Native Affairs, which after independence were replaced by Village Courts with elected local magistrates. Nevertheless, clans in conflict, whether over land encroachment or homicides, still turn quickly to warfare to settle matters despite attempts by armed mobile squads of national police to deter them.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The traditional system of Mae magicalreligious beliefs and practices, like those of other Central Enga, are strongly clan-based, and many animist assumptions still orient popular ideology and social behavior, despite the apparent impact of Christian mission proselytizing since 1948. Mae believe the sun and the moon, "the father and mother of us all," have procreated many generations of immortal sky people who resemble Enga in being organized in an agnatic segmentary society of warlike cultivators. Each celestial phratry sent a representative to earth to colonize the hitherto empty land. The now mortal founder of each terrestrial phratry married, had children, and allocated lands and property to his sons as they wed daughters of other phratry founders. Thus were originated the named fraternal clans, each of which today rightfully occupies the defined territory inherited patrilineally from the founder. Each clan still possesses some of the fertility stones carried to earth by the phratry founder. Buried in the clan's sacred grove, they are the locus of the spirits of all the clan ancestors, including ghosts of deceased grandfathers. A man therefore has the right to exploit a tract of land because, through his father, he is a legitimate member of that clan, shares in the totality of clan patrilineal spirit, and is intimately linked with the localized clan ancestors. In addition to the continuing, often injurious interventions into human affairs of recent ghosts and of ancestral spirits, Mae also assert the existence of aggressive anthropophagous demons and of huge pythons, both of which defend their mountain and forest domains from human intrusions.

Ceremonies. Although lethal sorcery is uncommon, many men privately use magic to enhance their personal well-being, to acquire valuables and pigs, and to ensure military success. Clan bachelors regularly seclude themselves in groups to remove by magic and by washing the dangerous effects of even inadvertent contacts with women, after which the whole clan feasts its neighbors to celebrate the young men's return to secular life. Women employ magic to cleanse themselves after menstruation and parturition and occasionally to protect their garden crops. Following a Family illness or death, a female medium conducts a seance or a male diviner bespells and cooks pork to identify the aggrieved ghost. The family head then kills pigs and ritually offers cooked pork to placate that ghost. Occurrences of clanwide disasters such as military defeats, crop failures, epidemic illnesses, or deaths of people or pigs stimulate clan leaders to arrange large-scale offerings of pork and game while hired ritual experts decorate the fertility stones to mollify the punitive clan ancestors.

Arts. The main expression of visual art is at clan festivals and rituals when dancing and singing men lavishly adorn themselves, and often their daughters, with plumes, shells, paints, and unguents. Musical forms and instruments are simple, but poetic and oratorical expression is elaborate. Formerly, painting and sculpture were uncommon, but since the 1970s a small school of Enga painters has flourished in Wabag.

Medicine. Local experts traditionally resorted to simples for minor complaints, bespelled foods for "magically induced" illnesses, and performed crude and often fatal surgery for serious arrow wounds. Nowadays, people usually visit Government and mission clinics for treatment.

Death and Afterlife. Death, whether violent or from illness, is usually attributed to ghostly malevolence, less often to human sorcery or to demons' attacks. It is always a significant political event, entailing simple burial ceremonies, lengthy domestic mourning, and elaborate funerary feasting and exchanges of pigs and valuables. The angry ghost of the deceased is expected to kill a family member in retaliation Before joining the corpus of clan ancestral spirits in the clan stones.

See alsoMelpa


Carrad, B., D. Lea, and K. Talyaga (1982). Enga: Foundations for Development. Annidale, N.S.W.: University of New England Press.

Gordon, R. J., and A. J. Meggitt (1985). Lauf and Order in the New Guinea Highlands. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England.

Meggitt, M. J. (1965). The Lineage System of the Mae Enga of New Guinea. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.

Meggitt, M. J. (1974). Studies in Enga History. Oceania Monograph no. 20. Sydney: Oceania Publications.

Meggitt, M. J. (1977). Blood Is Their Argument: Warfare among the Mae Enga. Palo Alto, Calif.: Mayfield.

Waddell, E. J. (1972). The Mound Builders. Seattle: University of Washington Press.