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ETHNONYM: Bush Mekeo


Identification. The Mekeo peoples live in village communities on the coastal plain of southeast Papua New Guinea. Although they divided themselves traditionally into four distinct tribes, the people share a language, a culture, and a pattern of social organization that vary only slightly from tribe to tribe.

Location. The Mekeo region lies between 7° 15 and 8°45 S and 146°20 and 146°45 E, 100 kilometers to the Northwest of the capital city, Port Moresby. It consists of nearly 400 square kilometers of low-lying fluvial plain with varied grassland, forest, riverine, and swamp habitats. Villages are situated along the meandering tributaries of the Angabanga and Biaru rivers. There are two seasons: a "wet," during the Northwest monsoon from December until April; and a "dry," from May through November. Annual rainfall averages between 100 and 180 centimeters, and temperatures fluctuate Between 20° and 30° C.

Demography. Very rough estimates of the precontact population range from 10,000 to 20,000. Probably 80 to 90 percent of the population died from epidemic diseases during the first fifty years of contact. In 1980, the population was 8,603. Densest concentrations exist in the central villages of Veifa'a, Aipiana, and Inawi, with over 1,000 persons each. Other villages range between 150 and 900 persons. All Communities today are administered as part of the Kairuku Subprovince headquartered at Bereina township (population 577). Roughly one-fifth of ethnic Mekeo now live in Port Moresby or the other towns and cities of Papua New Guinea, supported by wage or other cash income.

linguistic Affiliation. There are three dialects of Mekeo, which belongs to the Central Family of the Western Subgroup of Austronesian languages.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological evidence indicates the Mekeo region has been inhabited by presumably Austronesian-speaking agriculturalists for at least the last 2,000 years. Oral traditions cite a dispersal from the ancient villages of Isoisovapu and Isoisovinosupposedly, a joke over whether a bird's screams came from its mouth or its anus led to a quarrel among the ancestors, and in anger they separated to found distinct villages and tribes. Contacts with Europeans began in 1846 and intensified from 1875 onward with the arrival of French Catholic missionaries (Sacred Heart order). British colonial agents "pacified" the Mekeo and brought them under administrative control in 1890. In the early decades, the people suffered numerous epidemics of foreign disease and massive depopulation. The waves of death led to an escalation of traditional sorcery for which the Mekeo are still renowned. Under Australian domination after 1906, villagers were often forced to carry supplies for government patrols into the mountainous interior. At home, they were required to plant cash crops, dig latrines, pay an annual tax, and clear footpaths and cemeteries. In 1929 and 1941, there were brief outbreaks of anti-European millenarian (cargo cult) activity. During World War II, many men were conscripted as carriers for the Allied forces. Since then, increased educational opportunities, the nearby growth of Port Moresby as an urban center, new local, provincial, and national policies, and rious development projects have combined to expand Mekeo perspectives well beyond the village horizon. Nevertheless, the people retain a culturally conservative outlook. PreContact relations among Mekeo and neighboring Roro, Kuni, Kabadi, Goilala, and Toaripi tribal groups concentrated on warfare and trade in traditional wealth. Since contact, intergroup hostility has been expressed mostly in terms of Sorcery suspicion and accusations. Marriage across tribal lines remains infrequent, but it is increasing. Many trade relations among the inland and coastal networks have persisted into modern times, but their importance is gradually diminishing.


Villages are typically rectangular in layout and cleared of all vegetation except coconut palms, betel palms, and breadfruit trees. Domestic dwellings are raised on stilts and roofed with palm thatch or corrugated iron. Interior rooms include a kitchen and sleeping room(s). Most casual socializing occurs outside, on an attached platform or veranda. Houses are aligned in rows along both sides of the open central thoroughfare that runs the length of the village. Architecturally impressive clan clubhouses face one another from opposite ends. The houses of clan chiefs and sorcerers are specially decorated and constructed of more durable materials than those of ordinary villagers. Bachelors' dormitories are erected to the rear of the other buildings. Each village also has a church and cemetery erected nearby. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for some enterprising Mekeos to operate small Commercial village trade stores.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Mekeo are primarily slash-and-burn agriculturalists. They subsist chiefly on sweet potatoes, taro, coconuts, plantains, yams, bread-fruit, sugarcane, and a variety of other indigenous and introduced crops. Pigs and fowl are also domesticated, but they are usually reserved for ceremonial occasions. Nonetheless, Villagers are able to supplement their vegetable diets substantially by hunting wild game (bush pigs, wallabies, cassowaries, and other birds) and fishing. Since contact, many commercial ventures have been launched by the government and missions or at the people's own initiative, involving rice, copra, coffee, cattle, and cocoa production, as well as trucking, fishing, canoeing, and trade-store retailing; most have proven unsuccessful in the long run. In recent years, a few families have benefited from mechanized dry-rice production. The most significant sources of cash for many villagers remain the lucrative betel-nut trade in Port Moresby and the wages sent home by salaried relatives living in urban centers.

Industrial Arts. Most adult men and women are competent in all gender-appropriate activities as defined by the Culture, although differing degrees of individual skill are acknowledged. Men and women both possess carpentry skills, but different and complementary ones. Men perform the tasks of canoe construction, wood carving, and tool and weapon manufacture. Women spend much of their leisure time weaving string bags.

Trade. The Mekeo region is crisscrossed by a network of hereditary trade partnerships between individuals and groups. Fellow tribesmen and women exchange food, pigs, pots, string bags, valuables of shell, feathers, and dogs' teeth, and nowadays money at marriage, death, and various other occasions. Along intertribal trade routes in the past, pottery, salt, pigs, dogs, dried meat, lime, betel nuts, shells, tooth and feather valuables, bark and bark cloth, canoes, black palm for weapons, stone axe heads, carved cassowary-bone implements, and pandanus nuts were commonly traded. Weekly markets are still held where Mekeo women exchange their garden produce for fish and shellfish caught by the coastal Roro peoples.

Division of Labor. Tasks are assigned chiefly according to age and gender. Men do the heavier cutting and clearing of food gardens, women the lighter clearing, planting, and harvesting. Only men hunt, but both women and men fish according to distinct methods. Women are responsible for the cooking and serving of food, whereas men specialize in Preparing and secretly wielding their various types of magic and sorcery ritual. Young and old help in child rearing, but it is grandparents and elder sisters who tend to young children when the parents are occupied. From the age of 10 or so (nowadays, upon completion of school) until they marry, adolescent males are freed from the demands of work and concentrate on courting and love magic. In the past, the young men also served as the community's warriors.

Land Tenure. All land is owned by patrilineal clan groupings. The "peace chief" of each clan has nominal control of its lands, but for important decisions he must consult the entire clan as a unit. All members of the clan, male and female, possess rights to particular tracts for gardening, hunting, fishing, and house sites, primarily according to where their fathers had worked and lived. Usually, though, it is only the male members who actually exert these rights and pass them on to their children. Persons of other clans are often allowed access to garden land, but they are forbidden to plant permanent tree crops (e.g., coconut or betel palms) as these are owned separately from land and serve as boundary markers. The Recent adoption of commercial rice farming in some areas has economically favored those families and clans with claims to large tracts of land.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kin groups (ikupu ) are based on patrilineal descent, and ideally they include lineage, subclan, clan, and moiety units. Male members of a lineage are closely related through male links, usually reside and garden cooperatively, and have hereditary claim to the same kinds of specialized ritual knowledge (e.g., peace, sorcery, curing, war, weather, hunting). Male members of lineages who collaborate on a day-to-day basis, who gather at the same clubhouse, and who come under the authority of the same "peace chief," constitute a subclan's core. Subclans usually form the residential blocks of village organization. Distantly related subclans, each with their own chiefs and other officials, are ranked as senior and junior branches of the same clan and, whether they live together in the same village or not, are expected to participate in feasts and ceremonies as a unit. In some instances traditionally, a patrilineal connection was presumed to unite distinct clans of a tribe into moieties.

Kinship Terminology. Villagers use a Hawaiian-type System of classifying relatives, with terms differentiating kin according to generation, gender, and, in one's own generation, relative age, birth order, and marriageability.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Most villagers marry within their tribe, but by rule they must marry someone outside their own clan and their mother's clan. In the past, parents arranged the matches of their children prior to cohabitation. Most couples today elope, so the marital exchanges of pigs and other wealth Between in-laws take place after the birth of the first child. Under Catholic influence, relatively few marriages are polygynous, and divorce is fairly uncommon. In precontact times, divorce was also probably rare, because of the bride-wealth payments accompanying arranged marriages. Postmarital Residence is patrivirilocal by rule.

Domestic Unit. Mekeo households usually consist of a man, his wife, their unmarried children (excepting bachelor sons), and, once he marries, the eldest son, his wife, and their children. Kin of various other types are frequently included, however. In most daily activities, members of a household cooperate closely. In households with more than one married woman, couples garden on discrete plots, and each wife prepares food separately at her own hearth. Unmarried sons living in bachelors' dormitories or in the clan clubhouse contribute only minimal effort to household labors and receive little of its fruits.

Inheritance. Rights held by men with respect to house sites, garden land, shells and other valuables, magical spells and paraphernalia, and hereditary titles are ideally passed patrilineally. Eldest sons hold a distinct advantage over their younger brothers. Women's durable wealth in clay pots and cooking utensils is inherited by their sisters and daughters. Intimate personal property of both men and women is ritually destroyed in funeral ceremonies.

Socialization. Grandparents, siblings, and other kin help raise young children. Weaning and the arrival of a younger sibling coincide with the fairly abrupt withdrawal of maternal indulgences. A child is encouraged thereafter to find its primary gratification in the play and company of its peers. Elder siblings are held responsible for their juniors, and, above all, sharing is emphasized. Boys and girls are reinforced Differentially from early ages. At marriage, many young women suffer sudden trauma in being separated from their lifelong playmates.

Sociopolitical Organization

Through parliamentary elections and representation, Contemporary Mekeo villages are integrated as units into the local, subprovincial, provincial, and national governments of the independent country of Papua New Guinea.

Social Organization. Prior to European contact, Mekeo tribes were autonomous sociopolitical units organized by principles of patrilineal descent, cognatic kinship, hereditary chieftainship and sorcery, mutual support in war, and formalized "friend" relations between clans. "Friends" still intermarry preferentially and reciprocate hospitality and feasts. They ritually release each other from mourning, install one another's heirs to chiefly and sorcery office, and inaugurate each other's clan clubhouses. Relations among clanspeople and "friends" dominate daily village life.

Political Organization. Leadership and decision making are largely in the hands of hereditary clan and subclan Officials and ritual specialists. These offices are passed from Father to eldest son. The most important of these positions are the "peace chief (lopia ) and his "peace sorcerer" (unguanga ). Their legitimate sphere of authority concerns all aspects of interclan "friend" relations. The powers of "war chiefs" (iso ) and "war sorcerers" (fai'a ) are now obsolete, but titleholders are still accorded considerable respect. In the past, other specialists wielded ritual control over gardening, hunting, fishing, weather, courting, curing, and food distribution. Villagers are subject to the authority of their mothers' and spouses' clan officials as well as their own.

Social Control. Informal sanctions such as gossip and fear of public shame effect substantial control in most situations of daily village life. Serious infractions against the legitimate authority of the lopia are punished, or are believed to be punished, by the unguanga. Unguanga are said to use snakes and poisons as well as spiritual agents to make their victims fall sick or die. The Mekeo belief that all deaths are caused by Sorcery has greatly supported the power of sorcerers and chiefs. The introduction of money and European manufactured goods has reportedly allowed wealthy individuals to pay sorcerers illicitly to do their bidding, rather than that of the legitimate chiefs'. Government regulations are enforced by village courts, elected village councillors, police, government courts, and other state apparatuses. Catholic missionaries and Christian morality also foster conformity in many spheres of modern village life.

Conflict. In the past, intertribal warfare was waged over land and in revenge for previous killings. With "pacification," conflict is expressed in competitive courting and feasting and in accusations of adultery and sorcery.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The religious experience of most villagers consists of elements drawn from traditional mythological and ritual sources and from Catholicism.

Religious Beliefe. The indigenous myths and rituals are focused upon the spirits of the ancestors and the immortal culture hero, Akaisa. Akaisa gave the people's ancestors all their customs and social institutions. Villagers now also revere the Christian figures of God, the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the saints. Many villagers liken Akaisa to a "Mekeo Jesus Christ." In addition to Akaisa, his younger brother, Tsabini, ancestral spirits, and the Christian figures, the Mekeo recognize a separate category of nonhuman, shape-changing bush spirits (faifai ) associated with particular animal species that live underground or underwater. When disturbed, these spirits can cause villagers to fall ill or human females to give birth to monsters.

Religious Practitioners. Clan chiefs and sorcerers are regarded as the ritual descendants of Akaisa and continue to wield his sacred powers in the performance of their offices. Other practitioners specialize in rituals of hunting, gardening, curing, courting, and so on, on behalf of their Communities. All adult men are competent to perform a variety of secret, inherited rituals vis-à-vis the spirits of their own ancestors. European and indigenous Catholic priests and catechists perform Christian sacraments and ceremonies.

Ceremonies. The most important religious ceremonies involve the public installation of clan chiefs and sorcerers, burial rites, and the lifting of mourning restrictions for relatives of the deceased. Other rituals attend birth, the first wearing of clothes, male indoctrination, marriage, pregnancy, and homicide. Catholic ceremonies include Mass and the other sacraments and festivals for the village patron saints.

Arts. All Mekeo graphic arts have a distinctive geometric motif. Named designs are represented in the carved insignia of chiefs' houses and clan clubhouses, female body tattoos, ceremonial dress and ornaments, face paint, woven string bags, men's dance drums, wooden weapons, lime gourds, and carved cassowary-bone utensils. Drums and flutes are played by men in traditional courting, but guitars have become popular with contemporary youths. For war chants and dances, spears and bows are banged as rhythm sticks. Magic spells, although secret, and songs of various styles all possess a poetic form.

Medicine. Numerous plant, animal, mineral, and human bodily substances are used by sorcerers and other specialists in effecting ritual changes in their intended victims, whether to make them ill, weak, lazy, fall in love, or die, or to alleviate these conditions. Most medicines are secret, and knowledge of them is passed from fathers to sons and mothers to daughters.

Death and Afterlife. Death is believed to be the combined result of human and spiritual agency. It is always a social, not just a biological, fact, and it calls for secret revenge by the surviving relatives. Public treatment of the dead is initially Directed toward burial and the expression of grief and loss. Months afterward, the mourning clan's lopia organizes a large feast at which "friends" in other clans are given special gifts of food. In return, the "friends" remove the mourners' pollution and restrictions so they can return safely to the world of the living. The deceased's bodily relics are publicly destroyed at the death feast, but close relatives will secretly keep hair, bones, or teeth for use in ritual and sorcery charms and as a means of communicating with the dead. Death feasts are also important in rearranging the relationships and obligations among the living in the absence of the deceased.

See alsoMafulu, Tauade


Guis, J. (1936). La vie des Papous. Paris: Dillen.

Hau'ofa, Epeli (1981). Mekeo: Inequality and Ambivalence in a Village Society. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Mosko, Mark S. (1985). Quadripartite Structures: Categories, Relations, and Homologies in Bush Mekeo Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Seligmann, C. G. (1910). The Melanesians of British New Guinea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.