ETHNONYMS: Sigaba, Sigawa
Identification. "Sio" is the name of a Papua New Guinea people, of their group of four villages, and of their language (also spoken in Nambariwa, a small coastal village to the east). The word means "they put, take up position," and was adopted by the people themselves, in place of their traditional name "Sigaba," less than a century ago.
Location. The Sio inhabit tropical savanna situated on the north coast of the Huon Peninsula in Morobe Province. They are located at 147°20′ E and 6°50′ S. Although predominantly grassland, the area includes extensive tracts of rain forest, and Sio territory also includes several miles of fringing reef, a large lagoon, and a small offshore island where, prior to World War II, most of the Sio-speaking people resided. Precipitation is markedly seasonal, with only a fifth or less of the annual rainfall occurring during the southeast trade wind season from May to October. Drought years and poor harvests occur, but with varying severity.
Demography. At the time of initial European contact in the late nineteenth century, the Sio numbered about 700. The population had increased to 1,500 by the mid-1960s, and in the generation since it has doubled once again.
Linguistic Affiliation. Sio is an Austronesian language that lacks "close relatives" among the dozens of Austronesian languages spoken by the coastal and island peoples of the region. Beginning before 1920, a written form of the language, for liturgical purposes, was produced by German missionaries and Sio catechists. Currently, with the help of missionary linguists, the people are recording traditional myths and folktales.
History and Cultural Relations
A Sio youth, abducted by German officials and introduced to the governor of the colony, played a key role in establishing peaceful relations between the Sio and Whites during the German colonial period (1884-1914). A Lutheran mission station was established at Sio in 1910, and the same youth, now grown and an appointed village headman, helped lead the people toward mass conversion to Christianity in 1919. Since then a succession of leaders have conducted Sio's relations with outside agencies, drawing to the community varied benefits while insisting that land and resources remain under local control. In 1959, a government primary school opened and a regional service cooperative for marketing the copra and coffee of village producers was inaugurated. Both the school and the co-op owed much to Sio initiative. In the mid-1960s, Sio was incorporated in a local government council. Developments of the 1980s included cattle ranching, the formation of a Sio company engaged in logging of hardwoods in conjunction with an Asian firm, and, to compensate for the decline of the copra market—copra having been the principal cash crop—the extensive planting of cocoa.
For two to three centuries the Sio lived on a tiny offshore island (later known as the "Dorfinsel" to the German colonists). The island village was divided into residential wards, each of them densely packed with houses that were typically occupied by two or three nuclear families. Each ward also had a men's ceremonial house. The island village was destroyed during World War II and was not rebuilt. Instead, the people established four villages on the opposite mainland, all of them near the sites of prehistoric Sio villages. The houses are rectangular pile dwellings roofed with sago-leaf thatch. Men's clubhouses, of similar design, were not built in the postwar villages, and this signaled the demise of the traditional men's organization together with male initiation.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Shifting cultivation, mainly of yams in fenced grassland plantations divided into household plots, absorbs the largest share of domestic labor and is the basis of subsistence. Subsidiary crops include bananas, taro, sweet potatoes, edible pitpit, sugarcane, and introduced cultigens such as squash, manioc, and corn. Economic trees include coconut, sago, betel nut, and pandanus. Cattle have been added to the traditional domestic animais: pigs, dogs, and chickens. Fishing by a variety of techniques and reef collecting contribute significantly to the food supply. Feral-pig hunting by means of fire, dogs, and bows and arrows, a ritual associated with the annual burning of the grassland in preparation for cultivation, is the only productive form of hunting. Over the years, coconut plantings that were greatly extended beginning in the late 1930s have been a principal source of cash income. Attempts at cultivating dry rice, peanuts, and coffee failed. Current efforts and plans focus on timber, cocoa, cattle, and wet rice cultivation on cut-over hillsides.
Industrial Arts. Principal crafts are pottery—cooking pots made by women by means of the paddle-and-anvil technique—and outrigger canoes. Many objects in daily or frequent use—stone axes, mats, wooden bowls, bark cloth, bows and arrows, and drums—were imported.
Trade. External trade helped to alleviate seasonal food shortages and also brought a variety of goods, some of which were retraded. Pots, fish, and coconuts were traded for taro and sweet potatoes from the interior. In the Sio view, pottery was the basis of their trading, not only with the interior peoples but also with neighboring coastal peoples and the Siassi Island seaborne traders who visited them twice annually.
Division of Labor. Pig hunting and most of the work in yam cultivation, canoe and house building, and festive cooking are done by men. Pot making, weaving net bags, daily cooking, and much of the work in pig tending are done by women. Both men and women fish, though by different methods, and both prepare and sell copra. Cooperation beyond the household is at its widest in the annual pig hunts and in building houses and canoes. Traditionally, digging-stick teams of three to six men did the heavy work of tilling the ground for planting; aside from that work, the labor of members of a household was sufficient.
Land Tenure. Ownership of estates consisting of scattered and named tracts of land is vested in patrilineal lineages. Each lineage is headed by a senior male who is styled "father of the land" (tono tama ) and whose superior knowledge of genealogy and histories of landholdings is brought to bear in the event of disputes. Gardening land, however, is not scarce and disputes are rare. Moreover, since tillage teams whose members are frequently affines or maternal relatives garden together, people regularly enjoy temporary use rights to land that belongs to lineages other than their own.
Kin Groups and Descent. Every Sio is a member by birth of a patrilineal descent group (lineage). There is no term for "lineage," nor are the various lineages named. Rather they are known by the names of their heads, who tend to be firstborn sons. The lineage is principally a custodial landholding group and rarely assembles as an action group. Male members of the lineage, however, tend to live in residential clusters and frequently combine in gardening associations and for house building and other tasks.
Kinship Terminology. Cousin terms are of the generational or Hawaiian type. Avuncular terms are of the bifurcate-merging or Iroquois type.
Marriage. Sio as a whole, including the outlying village of Nambariwa, tended to be an endogamous unit. People with common great-grandparents are not supposed to marry. Lineages are exogamous and people whose fathers or grandfathers were associated in the same men's house, whatever their genealogical connections, were likewise forbidden to marry. Postmarital residence tends to be patrilocal, but exceptions are frequent. Bride-wealth payments of pigs and valuables are assembled from a variety of kinsmen and in local theory are a mark of respect for the bride. The status of women is high and marriage resembles the egalitarian, companionate form of the West. The levirate and sororate are not practiced. Polygyny was approved but tended to be confined to big-men. Divorce under traditional conditions is said to have been rare.
Domestic Unit. The household comprised of a nuclear family is the basic domestic unit.
Inheritance. Inheritance is patrilineal, though inter vivos gifts of pigs, valuables, and economic trees from men to their sisters' sons are common. Pot-making skills, implements, and decorative designs pass from mother to daughter.
Socialization. Traditional male initiation ceremonies, in which the youths' maternal uncles had a prominent role in instructing them in "the laws," lapsed in the 1920s. Mission schools since then, but mainly a government school since 1959, have provided primary education.
Social Organization. People regard their society as a body of kin who share a common language, culture, and territory and who are sharply set off from neighboring peoples. Dividing the body politic roughly in half are residential moieties, whose members maintain a friendly rivalry. The population is further subdivided into landowning patrilineages; the men of these groups formerly comprised men's clubhouses, whose activities included ancestral cult ritual and the not-so-friendly rivalries entailed in the competitive distribution of yams and pigs and exacting vengeance—or compensation—for death or injury inflicted by another group. Much of Sio social life, however, consists in participating in those relationships that serve to bind members of these groups together, namely, those between affines, maternal uncles and nephews, and age mates (formerly, men who had undergone initiation together as youths).
Political Organization. Traditional leaders combined a number of ascribed and achieved roles. First, they were firstborn sons, clubhouse leaders, and lineage heads. Second, they were expected to demonstrate superior performance in gardening, artisanship, trade, oratory, diplomacy, fighting skill, competitive feasting, and learning. Those who were preeminently successful in these varied activities, helped of course by their wives and supporters, were true big-men who wielded influence in the community at large.
Social Control. Antisocial and violent behaviors were dealt with by: the disposition to demand and accept compensation rather than to fight with weapons; the weight of public opinion, especially as articulated by influential leaders; and the fear of punishment by ancestral ghosts.
Conflict. The interior peoples were the traditional enemies in contrast to island and coastal neighbors with whom Sio had mainly peaceful dealings in trade. Their military posture was primarily defensive; the island village provided a natural defense and remote gardens were worked by associations that were large enough to cope with parties of raiders.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Ancestral ghosts who served as patron deities of the men's clubhouses and forest-dwelling spirits figured prominently in traditional beliefs. The ghosts were vengeful beings who, although they could be placated by the sacrifice of pigs, inflicted illness and death for transgressions of social rules. Spirits, whose usual form was that of hairy dwarfs but who also manifested themselves as animals or inanimate objects, were capricious in their behavior toward humans. Sometimes malevolent, causing mishaps, they might also reveal themselves to humans, in dreams for example, and offer magical knowledge in return for the observance of certain taboos. An otiose creator deity named Kindaeni is said to have created the universe. Magical knowledge and techniques were brought to bear in all areas of life, whether in growing crops, conducting a love affair, trading, healing, controlling the weather, or protecting against theft.
Religious Practitioners. Esoteric knowledge of myths, particular magical and divinatory techniques, and the like was highly valued, and many men possessed exclusive knowledge that they had inherited or sometimes purchased. Generally, the big-men who headed the clubhouse groups were specialists in yam magic, and their wealth in valuables allowed them to hire sorcerers.
Ceremonies. The rainy season of the northwest monsoon heralded the major ceremonies that were associated with male initiation and the large-scale distribution of food and pigs by which big-men (male clubhouse leaders) competed for status.
Arts. Dances performed on all major ceremonial occasions incorporate drums, singing, and elaborate headdresses and body ornamentation. Carving and painting skills are most notably demonstrated on the prows and planks of canoes, but most artifacts are decorated in some fashion. Musical instruments and noisemakers include wooden hand drums, conch trumpets, and bullroarers.
Death and Afterlife. The souls of people recently deceased were believed to remain in the village where they could cause accident and injury. Some months after burial, the souls were ceremonially induced to depart for the abode of the dead, a series of coastal bluffs several miles to the southeast. Supernatural causation was considered to be a factor in all deaths. If sorcery was suspected, as it often was, divination was used to identify the community of the sorcerer.
See also Selepet
Groves, W. C. (1934). "The Natives of Sio Island, South-Eastern New Guinea." Oceania 5:43-63.
Harding, Thomas G. (1967). "Ecological and Technical Factors in a Melanesian Gardening Cycle." Mankind 6:403-408.
Harding, Thomas G. (1967). "A History of Cargoism in Sio, Northeast New Guinea." Oceania 38:1-23.
Harding, Thomas G. (1967). "Money, Kinship, and Change in a New Guinea Economy." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 23:209-233.
Harding, Thomas G. (1967). Voyagers of the Vitiaz Strait. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
THOMAS G. HARDING