views updated Jun 27 2018


ETHNONYMS: Fiwaga, Foe, Foi'i, Kutubuans, Mobi, Mubi


Identification. The Foi inhabit the Mubi River Valley and the shores of Lake Kutubu on the fringe of the southern highlands in Papua New Guinea. They divide themselves into three subgroups: the gurubumena, or "Kutubu people"; the awamena, the middle-Mubi Valley dwellers; and the foimena proper, the so-called Lower Foi who reside near the junction of the Mubi and Kikori rivers. The term "Foi" formerly applied to the common language of all three subgroups. It was subsequently employed as an ethnonym by the first missionaries.

Location. Most members of the Foi population inhabit the banks of the middle reaches of the Mubi River, between approximately 143°25 and 143°35 E and between 6°27 and 6°30 S. The alluvial Mubi River Valley is approximately 670 meters in altitude and abuts the higher ranges of the central highlands in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. The region is in every sense intermediate between the highlands valleys to the north and the coastal regions of the Gulf Province to the south. The southeasterly monsoon brings considerable rainfall during the middle months of the year, while the months between October and March are relatively drier.

Demography. The 1979 Papua New Guinea National Census counted some 4,000 Foi and accounted for another 400 Foi living elsewhere in the country. Foi territory comprises 1,689 square kilometers, and the population density is 2.4 persons per square kilometer. However, the Foi settlement area is restricted to the banks of the Mubi River and the shores of Lake Kutubu; over 60 percent of their land is Reserved for hunting and is not permanently inhabited. The Foi are consequently separated from their neighbors by buffer zones of uninhabited bush. To the north are the Angal-speaking groups of the Nembi Plateau; to the southwest are the Fasu or Namu Po people; to the east are Kewa speakers of the Erave River Valley. Directly south of the Foi are small groups of Kasere, Ikobi, and Namumi speakers of the interior Gulf Province.

Linguistic Affiliation. Foi and Fiwaga are the only Languages within the East Kutubuan Family of the Kutubuan Language Stock. It is closely related only to the languages of the West Kutubuan Family, which includes the Fasu, Kasere, and Namumi languages, but it also exhibits some small amount of cognation with other interior Papuan languages such as Mikaruan (Daribi) and Kaluli.

History and Cultural Relations

It is likely that the Foi first entered the Mubi Valley from the southwest, bringing domesticated sago with them. Although the Foi were briefly contacted along the southern reaches of their territory at different times by explorers moving inland from the Papuan Gulf coast, it was not until Ivan Champion first sighted Lake Kutubu in 1935 and consequently visited the lake on foot during his Bamu-Purari patrol that regular contact was established between the Foi and Europeans in the form of the patrol post at Lake Kutubu. The Unevangelized Fields Mission began activities at both Lake Kutubu and the middle Mubi Valley in 1951, and by the late 1960s the traditional religious life of the Foi had been largely superseded by Christianity. From 1950 the Foi were administered from various highlands patrol posts until the early 1970s, when a new administrative center was built and government health stations were reestablished in the Mubi Valley. Australian administrators introduced various European and other foreign vegetables to the area, including Singapore taro, pumpkins, chokos, Cavendish bananas, and pineapples. In 1988, large oil reserves were discovered west of Lake Kutubu in Fasu territory. The Foi of the upper Mubi Valley Traditionally traded and occasionally fought with their highlands neighbors to the north. They exported the reddish oil of the kara'o tree (Campnosperma brevipetiolata) and in return received pearl shells, pigs, and ax blades. The Foi of Lake Kutubu were rather more under the influence, because of their close ties with the intervening Fasu people, with the Bosavi complex to the west, and it appears as if the boys' homosexual initiation cult, the gisaro-kosa ceremonial complex, and other Bosavi cultural traits had moved eastward into Foi territory shortly before Champion's contact. In the last twenty years, the more populous and politically ascendant peoples of the highlands have exerted some amount of cultural hegemony over the Foi. The Foi have therefore experimented with the southern highlands pork-and-pearl-shell exchange in recent years. Relations with eastern and southern neighbors appear to have been more tenuous.


Foi communal life centers around a men's longhouse, wherein reside the representatives of anywhere between three and thirteen patrilineally composed exogamous dispersed clans. Villages range in size from about 20 people to almost 300. In the village, women reside in smaller houses flanking the longhouse; the longhouse can reach lengths of 55 meters. The separate domiciles of men and women stem from Foi men's belief that contact with women's menstrual secretions is deleterious to their health. The Foi subsistence economy, however, revolves around nuclear family bush houses, Scattered in the territory surrounding the longhouse village, where a man, his wives, and children reside on the man's property. Most Foi move back and forth between bush and longhouse regularly, but the longhouse is technically only a public, ceremonial venue. Mubi River villages are close to the river itself and much traffic is by dugout canoe.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Foi depend upon the following subsistence methods roughly in this order of importance: sago processing, gardening, tree crop cultivation (including marita pandanus and breadfruit), foraging, fishing, and hunting. In addition, pigs are semidomesticated and are slaughtered both casually and, on ceremonial occasions, in large numbers. Traditionally, the Foi tended to Divide their year into seasons, dominated by the onset of the rainy season in early mid-year, at which time they left the Village and moved to the hunting preserves where they would trap, fish, and forage until the drier weather returned around October. They then returned to the village to cut new gardens (according to standard swidden methods), make sago, and care for pigs.

Trade. Foi men traditionally carried on and still maintain a vigorous trade with their highlands neighbors to the north. They export kara'o oil, black-palm bows, and cassowaries and in return receive pearl shells and shoats. In premission times, they also received cult objects and procedures in trade.

Division of Labor. Foi subsistence tasks are sexually dimorphic: women process sago, tend gardens, forage, check traps and weirs, care for pigs and children, and weave baskets and string bags. Men build houses and canoes, fashion weapons, do the initial tasks of garden land preparation and sago grove management, build traps and weirs, hunt with ax and dog, and engage in trade and ceremonial exchange. In premission times, the men also performed fertility and healing ceremonies.

Land Tenure. Land is owned by local clan segments as corporate units, though its individual members assert more or less permanent usufructuary rights in certain tracts. These rights are usually passed on from father to son. Women maintain their husbands' productive resources but maintain rights in their natal clans' lands, should the occasion arise. Land can be sold, and in precontact times it was often granted to immigrants as a means of extending patronage to refugees from other areas.


Kin Groups and Descent. The local totemically named patrilineal clan is the exogamous unit among the Foi and varies considerably in size. Smaller unnamed "lineages" consisting of a man and his adult sons are the units of marriage negotiation, though the local clan is the unit of exogamy and bride-wealth distribution. Descent is patrilineal. Orphaned children are sometimes claimed by their mother's brother, the clan of "true origin" in the Foi view.

Kinship Terminology. To the extent that this is a useful characterization, the Foi have an Iroquois-type terminology. Adults often address each other by their teknonyms if not otherwise related. In the past, reciprocal food-sharing names (special personal names used by those who shared food Without obligation to do so) were common as modes of address, and children of people who shared such a name often called each other by their parents' food-sharing name.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Betrothal is arranged by the fathers of boys and girls at an early age. Upon the presentation of bride-wealth (consisting of pearl shells, cowrie shells, meat, and currency) by the groom's father and mother's brother to the same relatives of the bride, a girl takes up residence in her husband's house. Bride-wealth payments are often made in installments that stretch out for years after marriage. When a person dies, the spouse's clan makes funeral payments to the father's, mother's, and mother's mother's clans of the deceased. These payments effectively cancel any residual claims of outstanding bride-wealth. Divorce is infrequent. Polygyny is practiced by a small number of men.

Domestic Unit. A man has one or more bush houses in various parts of his territory where he and his wife or wives process sago, garden, and care for pigs. A man and his grown sons often live close enough to each other for their wives to cooperate in subsistence tasks.

Inheritance. A man passes on his wealth, land, and other property to his sons, real and adopted.

Socialization. Children stay with their mothers in the women's houses until about age 2, when boys move into the men's house with their fathers. Foi children learn by trialand-error imitation rather than overt instruction and reward/punishment.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. Three or four villages occupying contiguous territories, whose longhouses are close to each other, constitute an extended community. Less than 10 percent of all marriages take place between villages from Different extended communities. Within this unit, set battles did not occur, though sorcery and homicide did. The extended community was the traditional unit of warfare alliance and nowadays is the political unit of ceremonial exchange. In the 1970s the Foi borrowed the pork-and-shell-exchange cycle of their highlands neighbors. This involves periodic large-scale pig slaughters, fueled by the collection and disbursement of pledges of shell wealth. Debts in pork and shells accumulate with each pig kill and villages take turns in discharging their obligations to creditors. These activities are coordinated and controlled by big-men.

Social Control. Within each local clan, one or two men occupy positions of respect and authority, based on former prowess in warfare, success in negotiating marriages and Exchange relationships, oratorical ability, magic, skill in healing, and reputed knowledge of sorcery. Each village has two to four such big-men who represent the village as a whole to outsiders. "Social control" among Foi depends on the degree to which the astuteness and judgment of big-men is acknowledged by other men.

Conflict. While major warfare between foreign and distant villages was not endemic, sorcery, ambush, and assassination were certainly regular occurrences in traditional times. Fear of sorcery and revenge killing and considerations of high death-compensation payments to the victim's kin constituted moderately effective sanctions against violence and homicide in the past; ethical commandments and fear of retribution in the Christian afterlife passed on by missionaries have been absorbed as models and incentives for correct behavior. Homicide and violence today are rare, suicide less so.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In traditional times, Foi men engaged in a variety of cult activities all designed to ensure fertility and heal sickness by appeasing ghosts. All sickness except that caused by sorcery was believed to occur through the agency of ghosts. In addition, men sought to acquire ghosts' powers of magic, prescience, and sorcery for themselves. According to the Foi, all dead people become ghosts, and the power and the malevolence of certain kinds of ghosts are a result of the manner of death: violent homicide produces the most virulently malevolent and powerful ghosts, while the ghosts of dead people who die more peacefully are less efficacious and dangerous. Ghosts take the form of certain birds, chiefly fruit- and nectar-eating birds. The trees which attract such birds, including several Ficus varieties, are considered the favored abode of ghosts. Other places thought to attract ghosts are the spots where powerful magic spells were once performed, still pools of water, and whirlpools formed in sharp bends in the rivers. In the past, men fasted and slept near these places to establish contact with ghosts in dreams. Such cult activity ended in the late 1960s following effective missionization.

Religious Practitioners. Certain men became skilled in such healing techniques and renowned for their rapport with powerful ghosts. These men also took the initiative for inducting young boys into the cult secrets. Men attempt to Purchase knowledge of sorcery and the associated substances, often from neigboring peoples. Knowledge of effective sorcery is associated with big-men.

Ceremonies. The "Bi'a'a Guabora" (arrowhead cult) was a secret male fertility cult designed to ensure success in hunting. Its rites were performed in conjunction with funeral Ceremonies, widow remarriage, and the completion of a new longhouse. The usane habora was the major traditional healing ceremony. It was followed by a slaughter of pigs and the Exchange for pork or shell wealth and nighttime men's dancing accompanied by drums. The sorohabora was a more secular pig kill and exchange to celebrate the completion of a new longhouse or an especially large canoe. The nighttime performances at these ceremonies included the singing of laments in the memory of deceased men. More recently, the Foi have borrowed the Mendi-Nipa sa pig kill and exchange, which has provided them with links to the regional exchange networks of the southern highlands.

Arts. The most highly developed art form among the Foi is ceremonial song-poetry, composed by women as sago work songs and performed by men. These songs are laments composed to commemorate deceased men. They make use of a wide range of imagery, the most important of which is the linking of the deceased's lifespan to the series of places he occupied and made use of during his life. The Foi also have a large corpus of myths that they recite in casual recreational contexts. Graphic art, by contrast, is nonexistent.

Medicine. The "Usi" and "Hisare" (ghost-appeasement cults) were the major cults of the middle Mubi area. They involved the preparation of certain potions, the learning of techniques of foreign-body removal from afflicted persons, and instruction in sorcery. Something over 60 percent of all boys were inducted into Usi in pre-1960 times. Adult men were also subject to a number of food taboos in traditional times, the rationale of which was to prevent premature aging and weakness by avoiding items associated with femaleness and old age. These taboos have relaxed somewhat since 1970.

Death and Afterlife. Ghosts were expected to leave the community of the living and take up residence in the afterworld located in the distant east. This belief now competes with vague ideas concerning Christian Heaven. A widow is thought likely to attract the attention of her dead husband's ghost and is considered particularly dangerous to other men for some time after her husband's death. For this reason, widows who are about to remarry have to undergo various purification rituals designed to forestall the anger of their former husbands' ghosts. Ghosts are also believed to be the agents by which men can induce illness in their sisters' children if they become frustrated over insufficiencies in the bride-wealth they have received for these women. On the other hand, men seek through dreams and in their healing cult rites to establish contact with ghosts whom they consider the source of magical techniques and knowledge of future events.

See alsoKahili, Kewa, Mendi


Weiner, James F. (1987). "Diseases of the Soul: Sickness, Agency, and the Men's Cult among the Foi of New Guinea." In Dealing with Inequality, edited by M. Strathern. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weiner, James F. (1988). The Heart of the Pearl Shell: The Mythological Dimension of Foi Sociality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weiner, James F., ed. (1988). Mountain Papuans: Historical and Comparative Perspectives from New Guinea Fringe Highlands Societies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Williams, F. E. (1940). Natives of Lake Kutubu, Papua. Oceania Monograph no. 6. Sydney: Oceania Publications.



views updated Jun 11 2018

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