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ETHNONYMS: Kainantu, Ndumba, Ommura, Taiora


Identification. The Tairora live in the Kainantu District of the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Group names and place names are usually the same; for example, "Tairora" (or "Tai-ora") is the name of a phratry, settlement, and creek near the present-day town of Kainantu. This designation was generalized by Europeans in the 1920s to include all of the much larger ethnolinguistic group.

Location. Tairora speakers occupy about 1,035 square kilometers of the region south and east of Kainantu, at 145°45 to 146°15 E and 6°15 to 6°45 S. With annual rainfall of 220-250 centimeters, the region is a catchment area for the Ramu and Lamari River headwaters. The terrain is highly diverse, with large, open grassland dominating the northern basins at elevations of 1,625 to 1,880 meters above sea level, and steeply incised forest- or grass-covered ridges in the south, where the Kratke Range culminates in Mount Piora, at 3,450 meters. The climate is fairly uniform throughout the Region, with cool nights, warm days, and relatively wet and dry seasons that alternate with the southeast and northwest monsoons, respectively.

Demography. Current estimates for Tairora speakers place the population at about 14,000, reflecting a steady, if slight, rate of increase since European contact. Nowadays, sizable numbers of Tairora, especially from northern settlements, emigrate to the towns of Kainantu, Goroka, and Lae.

linguistic Affiliation. Tairora, with at least five dialects, is a member of the Eastern Family of Non-Austronesian Languages in the East New Guinea Highlands Stock. Many Tairora are bilingual with neighboring languages (Agarabi, Auyana, Binumarien, Gadsup, and Kamano in the north; Awa and Waffa in the south) and currently most males and younger women are fluent in Tok Pisin. Summer Institute of Linguistics translators have produced a considerable amount of religious and educational material in Tairora, but the number of people who are literate in their own language is still fairly small.

History and Cultural Relations

People, perhaps ancestral to Tairora, have occupied the Region for at least 18,000 years. The earliest-known era archaeologically, the Mamu Phase, appears to have been a period of continuous growth and development, with subsistence based in hunting and collecting. After 3,000 B.P., in the Tentika Phase, evidence for sedentarism occurs, as do other suggestions of the adoption of horticulture. In general, oral traditions point to Tairora homelands to the west and southwest, but groups' origin myths tend to be highly localized. Tairora territory abuts those of other language groups on all sides, and many different sources have contributed to the linguistic and cultural diversity of the region. Since earliest contact with European missionaries, gold prospectors, and administrators (beginning in the 1920s in the north and 1950s in the south), the Tairora social universe has expanded considerably. The establishment of the Upper Ramu Patrol Post (now Kainantu) in 1932 and the Aiyura Agricultural Experimental Station in 1937both in the northwere notable events, beginning the processes of pacification and economic Development leading to the current situation, in which Tairora play a prominent role in provincial government.


Settlements in northern Tairora are generally closer together and more nucleated than in the south, where they tend to be hamlet clusters about a half day's walk apart. Most settlements are found at elevations between 1,500 and 1,900 meters, and typically they each had 200-250 residents until Recent population surges. Traditionally, wherever allowed by the terrain, ridge-top locations were preferred for defensive purposes; also for defense, except for a few groups living in the open grasslands of the north, settlements were surrounded with high palisades. In an arrangement used until the 1960s in the north, and still used in much of the south, Tairora settlements focused on one or more large, separately palisaded men's houses, with women's houses clustered below (where slope permitted) and with seclusion housesused by women during menstruation and childbirth and sometimes for sanctuaryseparated from living areas and usually surrounded by their own fences. The traditional style for all houses is circular, with low grass and timber walls and conical thatched roofs, windowless and tightly insulated against the night cold. Increasingly nowadays, Tairora have adopted rectangular house styles with walls of woven bamboo.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Tairora derive most of their subsistence from a wide variety of gardens. Sweet potatoes are the dominant root crop, although yams and taro are also major sources of carbohydrates, especially in the south. Tairora are sophisticated horticulturalists, employing fallowing, mounding of sweet potatoes, and ditching of gardens; in the south, elaborate systems of bamboo pipes are used to irrigate taro gardens. Other important crops include legumes, maize, bananas, sugarcane, and leafy greens; tree crops include pandanus nuts and, in some areas, betel nuts. Domestic pigs are a major source of protein, but they are generally killed and the pork exchanged only on ceremonial occasions. Hunting and collecting also yield food, especially in the more heavily forested south where both game and wild plant foods are more abundant; everywhere, however, game has special salience in rituals and ceremonial prestations. The forests, and to a lesser extent the grasslands, also serve as the source of countless raw materials for manufacture, medicines, and ornamentation. In recent decades various cash crops have been tried by Tairora, with coffee being the most successful; in the north, cattle raising has also become an Important source of monetary income.

Industrial Arts. Apart from structures, such as palisades, fences, bridges, and houses, a partial inventory of locally produced goods includes weapons (bows, arrows, clubs, spears [in the north], and shields); implements (digging sticks, wooden spades [in the north], adzes, knives, and daggers); and string bags, pandanus sleeping mats, and bamboo cooking tubes (with wooden cooking cylinders also manufactured in the north). Locally made traditional clothing for both sexes includes skirts or sporrans made of pounded bark strips or rushes and, in the north, wooden "codpieces" for men.

Trade. From neighbors at lower elevations to the east, Tairora obtain black palm for arrow shafts and bow, adze, and axe staves; bark cloth for capes worn by both sexes; and shells for ornamentation. Stone adze blades were traded in from any sources available and, in the south, Tairora were important distributors in the Baruya salt trade. Major export items include rush skirts, string bags, and plumes. By the 1980s, many of these items had been replaced by Western goods that were now available in indigenously owned trade stores.

Division of Labor. Except for modern skills such as auto mechanics or carpentry that are known only to a few, there is no occupational specialization, although some individuals are renowned as exceptionally good weavers of string bags or arrow makers. Each man is able to build houses and fences, clear garden land, hunt, and fashion his own weapons and implements, just as all women are gardeners and skilled in making string bags, sleeping mats, and items of clothing for both sexes. Construction tasks are male responsibilities, as are clearing garden land, fencing, and ditching; women are charged with planting, weeding, and harvesting of crops, with the exception of tree crops, bananas, sugarcane, yams, and taro, which are the province of males. Both sexes collect wild plant foods opportunistically. Cooking of vegetable foods is largely a female task, while men generally both butcher and cook domestic and wild meats.

Land Tenure. In principle, all land, whether for gardening or forest resources, is held by patrilineal descent groups, though residence in itself usually confers rights of usufruct. However, when land disputes arise, claims to land associated with either one's father's or mother's clan are usually stronger than those based solely on residence, with elders called upon to authenticate both genealogy and history of use. Water-courses, paths, fences, and hamlets or village open areas are generally considered the common property of all who live in a settlement.


Kin Groups and Descent. A patrilineal ideology ascribes at birth membership in one's fathers lineage and clan, although residence in itself can blur such distinctions, especially in the north, where immigrants (such as refugees in time of war) acquire the status of "quasiagnates." Patricians are named and exogamous but not localized; while land in any settlement is associated with particular clans, clan segments may reside (and claim land) in a number of neighboring settlements. Clan members seldom act as a unit in Ceremonies, exchange, or war.

Kinship Terminology. In the north, kin terms are of a modified Iroquois type, with collaterals in Ego's generation other than mother's brother's children, and all collaterals in the first descending generation other than sister's children, being terminologically equivalent to a man's own children. Farther south, terms for mother's kin show Omaha-type tendencies; however, choices of terms are complicated by bride-wealth exchange.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Pairs of clans often have long-standing patterns of intermarriage, with adult males negotiating complex bride-wealth payments. Settlements have high rates of endogamy, but this practice is not an explicit preference; substantial numbers of women in-marry from enemy groups, with Marriages in the past sometimes incorporated into peace-making ceremonies. Individuals of both sexes typically are assigned likely spouses while still in childhood, with formal betrothal deferred until young adulthood. Virilocality is the norm, with a new bride usually moving into the house of her groom's mother, but exceptions can occur. Polygyny is allowed, though few men have more than one wife; cowives typically live in different hamlets and usually object strongly to their husbands' polygyny. Divorce or extended separation is not unusual, but they are formal options only for men; Traditionally, a married woman's only alternatives to an unhappy Marriage were running away or suicide. Remarriage for both divorcees and widows is usual; there are very few permanent bachelors and virtually no women (apart from albinos and lepers) who go through life unmarried.

Domestic Unit. Traditionally, out of concern for the supposed debilitating effects of contact with women, all males past the age of 10-12 lived in men's houses; a family Household would include one or more adult women (sometimes a mother and daughter, or sisters), their uninitiated sons, and unmarried daughters. Variants include households of several nubile young women or young bachelors. Increasingly, especially in the north, Tairora are adopting the practice of Nuclear families residing in a single household. Husbands and wives seldom form a work unit, except in early stages of Garden preparation.

Inheritance. Upon death, gardens and movable property ideally are claimed by adult unmarried children; otherwise they are divided among married sons.

Socialization. Responsibility for nurturing and socializing young children primarily falls on the women and older girls of a household; once male children are initiated and move into their fathers' men's houses, their socialization is largely taken over by adult males. Girls work side by side with their mothers from an early age, while boys are allowed to roam freely with age mates until adolescence. Distraction and oral admonishments are used rather than corporal punishment for young children, but older boys are sometimes disciplined severely in the men's house. Nowadays, and especially in the north, sizable numbers of children attend mission- or government-run schools, where parental supervision is limited.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Especially in the north, Tairora extend genealogical metaphors widely, qualifying strict reckoning of descent and kinship as social identities are based more importantly in residence. Also in the north, clans are linked in phratries, forming near-connubia within which warfare is disallowed; in the south, clans may be joined in exogamous, nonwarring pairs. Coresidents of a settlement act as a unit more often than do kin groups in warfare, ceremonies, and intercommunity exchanges. An egalitarian ethos pervades Social life, with an emphasis on individualism, though associations are strong among age mates of either sex.

Political Organization. Traditional leadership was of a big-man or "strong-man" type, with individuals attaining stature through warfare and management of affairs between communities. In recent decades, officials appointed by the Australian administration have been replaced with elected members of the provincial government.

Social Control. Disputes arise most commonly over Sorcery accusations, failures to meet compensation and bride-wealth obligations, marriage arrangements, land, depredations of pigs, and, nowadays, coffee theft. Parties are usually supported by kin and age mates in informal moots. Increasingly, disputes unresolved through informal means are referred to elected officials or formal courts in Kainantu.

Conflict. Physical violence is strongly discouraged within one's clan, but otherwise it is not infrequent, with domestic violence being especially common. Traditionally, warfare was endemic throughout Tairora, and it has seen a resurgence in the 1980s. Each settlement has "traditional enemies" among its immediate neighbors, though enmity/amity relations are subject to alternation over time, with periods of peace effected through formal ceremonies that often include Intermarriage. Competing claims to land are less often the source of intercommunity conflict than are murder and purported sorcery attacks.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Tairora cosmos is filled with supernatural beings of a wide variety, including ghosts, monstrous anthropomorphs, localized nature spirits, and zoomorphic forest spirits. Men's house rites draw on a generalized force available through ancestors, and diverse types of magic are employed by individuals. Since 1940 in the north and the 1960s in the south, a variety of Christian missions have operated, with a decreasing north-south gradient in numbers of converts.

Religious Practitioners. Most adult Tairora have knowledge of spells and magic to meet their individual needs. Knowledgeable elders of both sexes conduct rituals and ceremonies at the hamlet or settlement level, and some Individuals are noted diviners and shamans. Nowadays, too, many setdements have resident mission catechists.

Ceremonies. Life-cycle ceremonies include feasts for babies after they emerge from seclusion houses; septum- and ear-piercing (for both sexes, traditionally); first-menstruation and nubility rites; a two-stage sequence of male initiation; weddings; and funerals. Seasonal yam and winged-bean festivals and peacemaking ceremonies draw communities Together, as did periodic renewal ceremonies in the north. Recently in the north, public community dance festivals have become a source of income, with outsiders being charged admission.

Arts. As with other New Guinea highlanders, plastic arts play a limited role in Tairora artistic life; apart from Individual costuming and ornamentation on ceremonial occasions, decoration is largely restricted to string bags, arrows, and shields, though in the north men wore wooden frames with painted bark panels on occasions of public dancing. Jew's harps are played occasionally as private entertainment; Otherwise only hour-glass drums supplement the human voice. Several genres of oral literature provide evening household entertainment and instruction during ceremonies.

Medicine. Their natural environment supplies the Tairora with an extensive range of medicines, which most individuals obtain and administer themselves. Some individuals of both sexes are renowned diagnosticians and curers. Nowadays, most settlements have or are near a mission- or government-run medical aid post.

Death and Afterlife. Wakes are held for several days, at the conclusion of which the ghost possesses a local resident who transports it out of the settlement to begin its journey to the land of the dead, located to the northeast in the Markham Valley. There it will live a life that replicates the ordinary world, complete with gardens and pigs. The corpse left behind is traditionally buried in a grave with its individual fence on clan land.

See alsoFore, Gahuku-Gama, Gururumba


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Hays, Terence E., and Patricia H. Hays (1982). "Opposition and Complementarity of the Sexes in Ndumba Initiation." In Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiation in Papua New Guineat edited by Gilbert Herdt, 201-238. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Johnson, S. Ragnar (1982). "Food, Other Valuables, Payment, and the Relative Scale of Ommura Ceremonies (New Guinea)." Anthropos 77:509-523.

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