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Identification. The name "Usino" refers to the inhabitants of four lowland social and territorial units (parishes), each corresponding to a dialect of the Usino language. Although all speakers of the language are known to the Usino people as "Tariba," they distinguish between mountain and lowland speakers. This summary focuses on the lowlanders, who call themselves "Usino folovo" or "Usino men," because Usino is the name of the central village of the lowland region. Prior to contact, these parishes rarely united as a single sociopolitical unit and had no collective name for themselves, Despite intensive social and linguistic alliance.

Location. The Usino people live in Madang Province of Papua New Guinea in three major villages and seven hamlets, all of which are centered in the Ramu River Valley near Usino Patrol Post, just east of the Ramu River. To the west rise the Bismarck Mountains and to the east the Finisterre Mountains rise to about 1200 meters. The area is steamy tropical rain forest, characterized by rich biotic resources and two climatic seasons, a wet season from December to May and a dry season from May to November. Located 60 meters above sea level, the dense rain forest is crisscrossed by numerous streams and rivers utilized for canoe travel and fishing. Because yearly rainfall approximates 508 centimeters, these waterways flood, turning the rain forest into swamp during the wet season.

Demography. The land is sparsely populated with about 2.7 persons per square kilometer. In 1974, 250 Usino people resided in three centralized villages, but since then the Population has increased to about 400, owing in part to a rise in the birth rate and the return of wage laborers and their families.

Linguistic Affiliation. The term "Usino people" refers to inhabitants of a geographic region, near Usino village in the lowlands, rather than to a linguistic isolate. The Usino Language also encompasses groups in several mountain villages. It appears to be closely related to Sumau (or Garia) in the Finisterre Mountains and to Danaru and Urugina in the Upper Ramu Valley. These four languages comprise the Peka Family of the Rai Coast Stock of Non-Austronesian Languages. Most Usino people can understand at least one or two neighboring languages, and all except the oldest Usino women now speak Tok Pisin as well.

History and Cultural Relations

Little is known about the origins of the Usino people; linguistic evidence suggests that they may derive from the Madang coastal area to the east. Usino people date first European contact in the late 1920s when the German Lutheran mission first settled in the Finisterre Mountains. Apparently, Indigenous missionaries from the coast were the only source of regular foreign influence, while European government and mission patrols from Madang and Bundi made frequent visits until the 1960s. During World War II, German and indigenous missionaries returned to their homes while Usino People scattered to the bush during the fighting between Americans and Japanese in the region. When the missionaries Returned in the late 1940s and 1950s, Christianity had been eclipsed by cargo cults, which flourished until the mid-1960s. Although an indigenous Lutheran missionary settled in Usino village in 1980, traditional beliefs remain strong. Prior to the establishment of Usino Patrol Post and airstrip in 1967, access to the port town of Madang entailed a four-day trek. In 1974, a feeder road from the Lae-Madang Highway connected Usino Patrol Post with the coast and the Highlands. In 1981, when Walium supplanted Usino Patrol Post as the Upper Ramu District headquarters, the airstrip and health center closed, and Usino people were alienated from their primary source of cash income. Usino responded to these recidivistic trends in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s with a sense of increased relative isolation.


Until mission contact in the 1930s, Usino resided in Scattered homesteads, gardening and hunting within their traditional parish territories. Afterward they formed one large Village in accord with government policy. The site of this village changed several times and fission occurred about 1967, creating two major villages, the largest of which is Usino. Each Village and hamlet is in a constant state of internal flux with regard to residence patterns and household membership. Houses are built year-round as extended families outgrow their homes or as families nucleate. Rectangular houses, made of bush materials, encircle a central common. In the past, initiated men usually resided in one house that doubled as a male cult house, but they could live with their families if they wished. Until recently, residential patterns reflected traditional beliefs about ritual pollution; if men and women shared a house, they partitioned their sleeping areas, and women had isolated menstrual huts on the edge of the village. In 1974, women observed menstrual seclusion in the backs of their houses, with separate back doors for their exclusive use. Since 1981, there are no more back doors, although women still observe menstrual seclusion.


Subsistence and Commercial Actívities. The Usino Subsistence base has changed little in the past four generations. The production of taro, bananas, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tapioca, and yams characterizes the swidden horticultural economy. Coconuts, betel nuts, papayas, and tobacco are also cultivated in village plots. Garden produce is supplemented by bush foraging, fishing, and the hunting of wild pigs, cassowaries, bandicoots and other small marsupials, birds, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, and insects. Pig husbandry is practiced to a lesser extent than in the highlands. Although most Usino men have engaged in contractual labor on the coast for a year or two, at present Usino access to wage labor is minimal. Until the late 1980s, attempts at commercial Production of coffee, rice, and peanuts were unsuccessful, and cattle projects have engendered few profits.

Industrial Arts. Usino people traditionally manufactured carved wooden bowls, one of their major items of exchange. Additional handicrafts include canoes, drums, bark cloth from the paper mulberry tree, woven bamboo mats for house walls, pandanus baskets, spears, bows, and woven-fiber net bags.

Trade. Usino is an entrepreneurial community, Economically and geographically intermediate in several important trade networks extending across the Ramu Valley. Unlike neighboring highland areas, the Usino bush abounds with wildlife and is a source of feral pigs, cassowaries, bird of paradise plumes, Victoria pigeon and hornbill feathers, lizards, opossum meat and fur, and mussel shells for lime. In addition to being richer in natural resources than the bordering Mountain groups, Usino produces wooden bowls, betel nuts, tobacco, taro, and coconutslowland products highly valued by upland groups. Usino's location, intermediate between two mountain ranges, ensures its entrepreneurial role as goods from the Bismarck Mountains flow through Usino to the Finisterres and vice versa. Usino's position as a trading center allows it to survive as an in-marrying group, maintaining exchange relationships with outside groups by means other than marriage.

Division of Labor. A relatively sharp sexual division of labor characterizes Usino life. Men work collectively at hunting, carving canoes, building garden fences and houses, planning and conducting exchange ceremonies, and performing harvest and initiation rituals. They also perform planting and hunting rituals and magic, curing, manufacture of tools and weapons, and public oratory. Women are primarily responsible for child care, cooking, collecting firewood, weaving net bags, and weeding and harvesting gardens. Girls begin these tasks at about age 5, while boys are relatively free to play until adolescence. Women cooperate with men in several tasks, collecting grass for thatch, hunting small rodents and carrying home the meat, clearing the undergrowth in new gardens as men fell the large trees, making lime, planting gardens, Preparing sago, and preparing vegetables while men undertake the cooking at public feasts. Both men and women fish, but by different methods. Recently women have joined their husbands in the production of cash crops.

Land Tenure. Parish membership entails hereditary land rights to a particular associated terrritory, collectively owned by a group of patrilineal kin. Usufruct is usually transmitted according to patrilineal inheritance rules, but cognatic principles play a large part in determining land-use alternatives. Despite the patrilineal ideal, a majority of men actually utilize land obtained through affiliation with mothers or wives. Although a person relinquishes ownership rights to his natal territory if he leaves and his children become members of another parish, most people maintain limited hunting and fishing rights in their native parish by virtue of strong family ties and continuity of use. Because no discernible population pressure yet exists, borrowing land is relatively easy; a man and his children can eventually gain rights to land of another Usino parish by helping the owners cultivate the land. Ideally, children inherit land from their father if he has paid bride-price and child-price. Otherwise, children remain Members of their maternal parish, and they inherit land accordingly.


Kin Groupe and Descent. The largest local group in Usino is the parish, a named social and territorial unit. A parish is composed of persons associated with a certain tract of land, bearing a distinct name, and forming a political unit. There are four such traditional units, and members have grouped along kinship lines into three villages. At present each Usino parish is divided into two social and territorial subunits, or "carpels." A carpel is an exogamous unilinear group, or patrilineage, which has its social center within a parish territory. Descent is patrilineal; by making a payment for his wife and each child, a father attains rights to his children and thereby establishes claims to his daughter's bride-price as well as to child-price for his daughter's children. Despite the patrilineal ideal, however, a child will remain a member of the mother's patrilineage unless bought by the father. Although child-price is functionally an autonomous payment, it is seen by most as an extension of the bride-price.

Kinship Terminology. Deviating from standard systems, in Usino paternal parallel cousins are merged with siblings while cross cousins are distinguished from maternal parallel cousins. The distinction between cross and parallel cousins is important, and matrikin play an important social role for each individual. Relative age is an important marker; parents' younger siblings are lumped with parents, but parents' older siblings are called "grandmother" and "grandfather." There is also terminological merging between grandparents and grandchildren, distinguished by sex. Great-grandparents and great-grandchildren call one another "husband" or "wife." Affinal kin are distinguished from consanguineal kin. Intracommunity marriage results in many overlapping kin categories.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygyny in Usino is accepted but not preferred, and it is practiced by only about 18 percent of the families. Successful polygynous unions are initiated by the cowives themselves. Preferential intraparish marriage and sister Exchange characterize Usino, and if suitable mates are not available within the opposite carpel, spouses are selected from other Usino parishes. Consequently, a multiplicity of affinal and cognatic ties connect Usino parishes. Intergroup alliances are maintained through trade partnerships rather than marriage. Divorces do not threaten the system of alliance and exchange, and they are accomplished with relative ease. Low population density and minimal cash income limit access to wealth and goods, prohibiting large bride-price prestations, and there are no marriage-payment negotiations. Partners are officially betrothed by their parents, sometimes as children, but in practice young people often choose their own mates. Women generally choose their second husbands. Postmarital residence is usually virilocal, but most parish members live their entire lives within Usino territory, if not in the same village.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic and economic unit is the household, composed of either a nuclear or extended family.

Inheritance. Inheritance is patrilineal, once bride-price and child-price are paid by the husband to his affines.

Socialization. Education is primarily informal, through observation and imitation; relatively few children attend the primary school 6.4 kilometers away, and only a few Usino men have attended high school. Scolding and physical punishment are frequently used to impress upon children their responsibilities.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The cultural-linguistic unit that includes the mountain speakers of Usino is called a "phyle" since the word "tribe" is inappropriate for a group which lacks corporate existence. The phyle is divided into smaller units, based on slight differences in culture. The lowland Usino subphyle is divided into four "parishes," political units associated with defined tracts of land. Members of these parishes have grouped along kinship lines into villages and hamlets, but members of extraphyle parishes are also incorporated into the villages. Each Usino parish is subdivided into two smaller social and territorial subunits called carpels, the exogamous patrilineal groups (discussed previously) that have their Social centers within parish territory. The Usino social structure is one of discrete multicarpellary parishes, because each parish has a set of unilinear kinship groups that belong to it and to it alone. Parishes in this system may be self-sufficient, and in precontact times they always were. Unlike the neighboring mountain-dwelling Garia, Usino people have definite Territorial groups with fixed boundaries.

Political Organization. Each patrilineage, or carpel, has a patriarch who oversees land and ritual that is patrilineally Inherited, but for the most part he is a figurehead for the Descent group. Actual leadership depends on a combination of personal qualities. The vernacular term for big-man (namagem ) means "good man" and can refer to any man who excels in some way. Almost all men over age 40 are considered namagem in some capacity, but leaders are those who excel in activities such as accumulating pigs, wealth, or trade partners and who demonstrate skill at initiating and directing communal activities. There are no distinctive visual symbols of Economic differentiation and no obvious differences in standard of living, consumption, or material wealth. What little status differentiation exists is based on acquired trade ties, the possession of powerful ritual names and secrets, or access to cash.

Social Control. Internal hostilities are managed through informal mechanisms such as gossip, physical confrontation, threat of sorcery, and health beliefs that attribute illness to unresolved grievances, disharmony, and intervention by ancestral spirits. Pigs destroying gardens, bride-price and childprice, marital disputes, and trespass on hunting rights are primary sources of interpersonal conflict. In a washing Ceremony, disputants absolve one another of transgression. Village moots or courts consider those cases that defy informal settlement, and government courts are used as a last resort.

Conflict. Extraphyle raiding characterized external conflict until the 1920s and 1930s, when Usino voluntarily accepted pacification. Relations with other groups are generally amicable, but issues over exchange, land use, and sorcery occasionally require traditional methods of dispute settlementthat is, a moot or court in which the contending parties air their differences and seek consensus. If consensus is not attained, sorcery or appeal to government courts may follow.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. The secret ritual names of the mythological culture heroes and heroines are owned by patrilineages and are used in ritual for warfare, hunting, planting, harvesting, feasts, and magic: these secret names give rituals their power. Ownership of these names is the most valuable kind of ritual knowledge, but secret names of bush spiritsthose who protect parish land as well as the mischievous and Dangerous wild men and women spiritsmay also be invoked by patrilineages for protection and healing. Access to spiritual power is unequal; early missionaries burned some of the sacred names, rendering them ineffective, so some lineages lost this powerful knowledge. Additional secret names were lost when elders died before passing the names on to younger members. Also, some people have greater success in attracting the favor of spirits. Although Usino cargo cults ended in the 1970s, a strong cargo bias still underlies relationships with Europeans. Lutheran concepts of God have been added by some to the spiritual belief system, but traditional belief in spirits remains universal.

Religious Practitioners. Any man who seeks success in planting, hunting, and exchange must attempt to control the spirit world by giving gifts to the spirits and invoking their Ritual names. Most men inherit or buy a few names and rituals and occasionally observe taboos, in order to achieve material well-being, but there are also several kinds of ritual specialists in Usino. One or two specialize in dance ritual, making the dances ritually powerful so as to enhance intergroup Exchange and to attract potential mates. Two other men Control rituals for planting and harvesting. Other men control Rituals for male initiation, but female initiation, last conducted in 1975, was performed by specialists from outside Usino Because that ritual knowledge had been lost.

Ceremonies. Rituals are associated with nearly all activities: dances, initiations, warfare, hunting, curing, gardening, rainmaking, love magic, canoe and wooden bowl making, slit gong and drum making, feasts and exchanges, weddings, deaths, and births. Dance ceremonies, with singing and drumming, accompany most weddings and formal redistributive feasts. Public oratory and exchange of food and valued trade items mark most exchange ceremonies. Funerals are characterized by the ritual drinking of kava. Most sacred are the male cult ceremonies, including male initiationswhich involve seclusion of initiates, physical trials, and dancingfrom which women are excluded. Female initiation follows first menstruation, just prior to marriage. Male initiations are performed every few years. Hand-washing ceremonies end Ritual seclusion for mourners and cleanse them of ritual pollution.

Arts. Artistic endeavors include the carving of plain wooden bowls and drums, with minimal decoration. Some spears are decorated and net bags are dyed with simple designs. Dancing and ceremonial body decorations exhibit the most artistic elaboration.

Medicine. Minor illness is often traced to intragroup conflict and supernatural intervention (such as attacks by ghosts), but serious illness and death are generally attributed to sorcery from the mountains. Many illnesses are explained by soul loss, and curers are called upon to locate and retrieve the soul. In the past, two curers divined the causes of illnesses and treated them, but both men died without passing on their knowledge. Usino people now rely on a Garia healer, related by marriage, and the government health center.

Death and Afterlife. Ghosts of the deceased (gob ) are said to roam the village and, if offended, cause illness. A hand-washing ceremony following the mourning period Ritually buries the ghost. The ghosts of those who die violently, kenaime, may be especially dangerous, so control of them through spells and secret names is important for healers and big-men. Eventually gob disappear, some say to a mountain village. Traditionally the spirits of the dead offered no assistance to the living, but during the cargo cults of the 1950s and 1960s people went to their parents' graves and asked for their assistance in acquiring material goods.

See alsoGaria


Conton, Leslie (1977). "Women's Roles in a Man's World: Appearance and Reality in a Lowland New Guinea Village." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oregon, Eugene.

Conton, Leslie (1985). "Reproductive Decision-Making in the Upper Ramu District, Papua New Guinea: Cognitive Aspects of Adaptive Problem-Solving." Papua New Guinea Medical Journal 28:163-176.

Conton, Leslie (1985). "Social, Economic, and Ecological Parameters of Infant Feeding in Usino, Papua New Guinea." Ecology of Food and Nutrition 16:39-54.

Conton, Leslie, and David Eisler (1976). "The Ecology of Exchange in the Upper Ramu Valley." Oceania 47:134-143.

Eisler, David (1979). Continuity and Change in a Lowland Political System in Papua New Guinea. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oregon, Eugene.