Mountain Arapesh

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Mountain Arapesh

ETHNONYMS: Arapesh, Bukiyip


Identification. The name "Mountain Arapesh" is used today to designate speakers of the three eastern dialects of the Arapesh language in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. The people described here, however, are the group Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune intended by the name, the people who occupied the southern two-thirds of the northeast dialect region. Although the Mountain Arapesh are called "Pukia" and "Bukiyip" by their neighbors, they have no name for themselves: "Arapesh" is simply their word for "friends" or "humans."

Location. Mountain Arapesh territory is located in the central mountains of the coastal Prince Alexander and Torricelli ranges, between 3°27 and 3°34 S and 143°09 and 143° 19 E. Annual rainfall exceeds 250 centimeters over most of the area.

Demography. In 1932, there were at least thirteen and possibly more than twenty Mountain Arapesh "localities" with 200-300 people each, giving a total population between about 2,600 and 6,000 and a population density somewhere in the range of 9-20 persons per square kilometer.

Linguistic Affiliation. Mountain Arapesh is the northern-most of the Bukiyip dialects, which are linguistically chained with the Muhiang dialects to the west. This dialect chain is part of the Arapesh Language Family, commonly assigned to the Kombio Stock of the Torricelli Phylum.

History and Cultural Retenons

The Mountain Arapesh are bordered by the Ndu-speaking Boiken in the east, the Kaboibus Arapesh (Mead's "Plains Arapesh") in the south, the Muhiang Arapesh in the west, and the Beach Arapesh in the north. Beyond the fact that their occupation of the coastal ranges predates the arrival of the Ndu-speaking people to their south, little is known of the Mountain Arapesh prior to European contact around the turn of the century. Contact itself had an enormous impact on their life: by the time Mead and Fortune studied them in 1932, stone tools had disappeared, warfare had been suppressed for over a decade, missionaries had become regular visitors, more than 20 percent of adult males were away working on European stations or plantations, and there had been at least one cargo cult. During World War II, fierce fighting between the Japanese and Australians prompted many Mountain Arapesh to desert their villages for the bush, and the following decade saw large-scale migration out of the mountains to the coast and inland foothills. Consequently, it is doubtful if life in the few Mountain Arapesh settlements remaining today bears much resemblance to that described by Mead and Fortune.


The Mountain Arapesh lived in small hamlets of about six houses located on the leveled crests of densely forested, razor-backed ridges. Each hamlet was owned by a patrilineage, though under the fluid nature of Mountain Arapesh social organization, residents often included households belonging to other patrilineages. In each locality, there was also a central wabul, or "feasting village," where the locality's ceremonial feasts and tambaran cult houses were sited. There were two basic house structures: the pile house, raised 3 feet off the ground on stilts and occasionally gabled; and the ground house, built directly on the earth. They were thatched with sago palm fronds or tiles of sago leaflets and walled with sago bark shingles, sago fronds, or coconut fronds.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The mainstays of Mountain Arapesh subsistence were yams and taro, cultivated separately by slash-and-burn horticulture, and a feasting dependence on sago. Supplements included bananas, greens, sugarcane, bamboo sprouts, breadfruit, coconuts, and a wide variety of game, including pigs, cassowaries, a range of smaller ground and arboreal mammals, birds, grubs, and fish. Pigs and dogs were the main domestic animals.

Industrial Arts. Mountain Arapesh manufactures included tools, weapons, cooking and eating utensils, net bags, basketry, clothing, and body ornaments.

Trade. Self-sufficient in subsistence items, the Mountain Arapesh nonetheless were active participants in the Sepik Basin's extensive ritual, artistic, and ceremonial trade. Their principal traffic was in stone tools, bows, net bags, pottery, carved plates, masks, shell valuables, dogs' teeth, musical instruments, magic, songs, and dance complexes. Their own productions for this trade were rather meager, prompting Mead to label them an "importing culture," but they occasionally exported pigs, puppies, net bags, carved plates, sago, bird feathers, tobacco, and hospitality.

Division of Labor. There was a distinct division of labor. Men were responsible for fighting, hunting, clearing and fencing gardens, planting and harvesting the yams and sago, cooking ceremonial food, carving, and building houses. Women reared pigs, did the daily cooking and most of the portering, planted and harvested taro, bananas, and greens, fetched water, and foraged for firewood, bush foods, caterpillars, and grubs. Both sexes participated in child care, fishing, and the manufacture of ornaments, clothing, and twine.

Land Tenure. The living conceived of themselves not as owning the land but rather as belonging to it. The land, the trees growing on it, and the game supported by it belonged to the shades and walin (spirit of the lineage), and in this sense land was associated with the lineage. In theory, a man could dispose of the lands he inherited as he wished; in practice, he favored his sons, though sometimes he conferred land on his brothers' or on his sisters' husbands and sons. Fishing and transit rights were vested in the settlement as a whole.


Kin Groups and Descent. The principal kin groups had a patrilineal ideology, often spanning many generations, but Individuals frequently affiliated with, or were adopted into, groups to which they had no patrilineal link. Some of these "patrilineages" recognized themselves as collateral descendants of an eponymous ancestor and therefore could be called "clans." Patrilineages were named and totemically identified with a walin (plural: walinab ) spirit. Alitoa locality contained eleven such patrilineages, each with an average of 3.8 households and twenty members.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology was of the Omaha type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Arapesh girl was betrothed between the ages of about 6 and 10 to a husband a few years her senior. According to Mead, sometime before the appearance of her secondary sexual characteristics she moved to his hamlet to be "fed and grown .. . Until she becomes one of them." Marriage was proscribed within one's own lineage and with those from which one's lineage had either given or received women in the preceding three generations. Marriage involved bride-wealth payments and initiated a relationship in which shell valuables and raw meat moved from the groom's to the bride's descent group at the births, woundings, and deaths of their children. According to Mead, "for one marriage that fails .. . the great majority succeed"; divorces, when they occurred, were engineered as "abductions" of the wife. A preference was expressed for "true" or "near" sister exchange, but only about 4 percent of Alitoa-locality marriages were real sister exchanges. Marriage was virilocal, with many women marrying beyond the locality (55 percent in Alitoa), usually towards the sea. Polygyny was pervasive: sixteen of the forty-two households in Alitoa locality were polygynous. Men with more than one wife benefited in a multitude of political, Economic, and social ways, but polygyny resulted most Commonly from the levirate.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear, frequently polygynous, Family formed the basic household, with the father's parents, unmarried siblings, and sons' betrotheds the most common additions. This group averaged five individuals, with a range of about two to nine, and occupied either an entire hamlet or several adjacent houses in a hamlet.

Inheritance. Individuals owned whatever they had made, purchased, or been given, and they could dispose of it as they wished. Some clans owned ginyau, or traditional heirlooms, but it is unclear how these items were inherited.

Socialization. Although mothers devoted more time to child rearing than fathers, both parents delighted in the task. As the child grew older, he or she often left the parental home to stay awhile with other relatives, and around the age of 7 or 8, girls went to live with and be raised by their betrothed's kin. Gentleness, docility, responsiveness, and cooperativeness were the cardinal virtues that the socialization process sought to instill.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. The patrilineages of several Hamlets formed a named "hamlet center" or "village." Several hamlet centers in turn formed a "locality" or "sovereign group" of 200 to 300 people: Alitoa locality had four hamlet centers and a total population of 217. Localities were territorially defined and, in essence, were military confederacies. Their patrilineages were divided on a territorial basis between the Ginyau and Iwhul moieties, totemically represented in most cases by the hawk and parrot, respectively. Adult males inherited, usually patrilineally, a competitive exchange partner (buanyin ) from the opposite moiety, and the exchange of yams, pigs, and game between these partners played a prominent role in political practice. There being no concept of rank, hereditary authority, or organized leadership, politics revolved around big-men, who climbed to influence on the basis of ability, ambition, and performance in feast giving and exchanges with buanyin, gift friends, and gabunyan partners. Gift friendships and gabunyan partnerships were the principal links besides marriage among localities. Each patrilineage had gift friends in neighboring localities, and these partnerships linked localities into one of three major trading "roads" that crossed the mountains from the inland foothills to the sea, providing safe routes to move abroad and trade in "Secular" items of ceremonial and artistic culture. The gabunyan partnerships existed between the most important men of the localities and were vehicles by which a locality purchased the "esoteric" dance complexes, masks, and services related to the wareh (tambaran) initiation cult.

Conflict. "Warfare was good Arapesh custom," and approximately half of the older men claimed at least one battle kill to their credit. Sometimes war broke out among the patrilineages of a locality, but more usually it occurred among localities, especially those lying on different trade routes. Interlocality fighting was precipitated primarily by the abduction of women (with their consent), and it took the form of ambushes on hamlets or confrontations across traditional Battlefields situated on locality frontiers. On very rare occasions, conflict within a patrilineage also precipitated homicide.

Social Control. Mead may have overemphasized the gentle and unaggressive nature of Mountain Arapesh life, but it is clear that docility and altruism were highly valued. There were few mechanisms for controlling deviance but, inFormally, gossip and ostracism evidently were used to advantage. At a more formal level, sorcery and invocations to the ancestors were available to the disgruntled, and a man could revenge himself on a delinquent sister's husband by cursing the sister and her children to death. Men who had been publically abused by a wife or young relative might be subject to the discipline of the tambaran, also called the wareh, carried out by a group of men who came at night to destroy some man's property.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Mountain Arapesh cosmology was not tightly integrated. The elements of the universe were viewed as either "given" or as the vaguely defined creations of walinab spirits, and they were believed principally to be influenced by ancestral spirits, walinab, and magical forces. The principal supernaturals were the walinab spirits and the ancestral shades. The giant walinab were responsible for rainbows. Lesser walinab occupied waterholes, bogs, and declivities and occasionally appeared as monstrous, two-headed snakes or lizards or as deformed animals. Each patrilineage was identified with a walin spirit that was believed to associate mystically with the group's ancestral shades and guard its lands against trespass and transgression.

Religious Practitioners. Since knowledge of many magical and ritual practices was widely diffused through the Community, there was limited opportunity for the emergence of formal religious or magical specialists. The main exception was the patrilineage with the traditional right to act as incisor in male initiation, though an individual or patrilineage occasionally gained a temporary specialism in some novel, Imported ritual practice.

Ceremonies. The main ceremonies were associated with the life cycle, the wareh (tambaran), and feasts for exchange partners. Birth, preadolescent growth, initiation, marriage, menstruation, and death were observed for both sexes in rites varying in complexity from the simple taboos associated with preadolescent growth to the elaborate, interlocality male initiation rituals. Tambaran rituals, involving a noise-making device represented as a being, were staged during male initiations or when an important man had been insulted by a wife or young relative. Large ceremonies were also held to feast buanyin or gabunyan as a return for previous feasts, to "pay" for initiation services, to celebrate house construction, or to purchase elements of the tambaran complex.

Arts. Although most graphic, plastic, and ephemeral art was imported, the Mountain Arapesh produced plaited armlets and belts, dogs'-teeth decorations, ornamented spinning tops, masks, painted sago-bark panels, and slit gongs. Songs appear to have been the major ephemeral productions.

Medicine. The principal cause of sickness was sorcery performed on a victim's exuviae, though ancestral spirits, walinab, pollution by females or the young, protective magic placed on property, and infractions of ritual and taboo were also frequently blamed.

Death and Afterlife. The soul (mishin ) was believed to survive death as a white spirit that departed variously to the ocean, its patrilineage's walin or borderlands, or to old bread-fruit trees. After relatives had been summoned on the slit gongs, the corpse was mourned formally for up to a day and then buried in a grave at the center of the hamlet plaza, under a little house containing some food and the deceased's Personal property. The bones of particularly esteemed Individuals were later exhumed and, in the case of males, used magically to acquire the deceased's special abilities.

See alsoYangoru Boiken


Fortune, Reo F. (1939). "Arapesh Warfare." American Anthropologist 41:22-41.

Mead, Margaret (1939-1949). The Mountain Arapesh. 5 vols. New York: American Museum of Natural History Anthropological Papers.

Rubel, Paula G., and Abraham Rosman (1978). Your Own Pigs You May Not Eat. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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Mountain Arapesh

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Mountain Arapesh