Archive for the Fieldwork (Melanesia) Category

Update on Climate Change and Traditional Knowledge conference

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), General Anthro, Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales, Oceania, Torres Islands, Vanuatu on July 9, 2011 by salul

Some more detailed info regarding our upcoming presentation for the IPMPCC conference.

Seasonal environmental practices and climate fluctuations in Melanesia.

An assessment of small island societies in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.

Frederick H. DAMON[1]



a paper to be presented within the context of the workshop:

Indigenous Peoples, Marginalized Populations and Climate Change: Vulnerability, Adaptation and Traditional Knowledge*

19 – 21 July 2011,

Mexico City, Mexico

I. Introduction

II. Changing Scenes in eastern Papua New Guinea

  1. Background to Milne Bay Province, PNG
  2. Sea level changes
  3. Crossing times. The new confusions…

III. Torres Islands

  1. The physical environment and traditional knowledge
  2. Regular (annual) climatic fluctuations
  3. Longer term fluctuations (quakes, and the 7 and 14-17 year cycles; and ENSO)

Climate change impact and adaptation

[1] Department of Social Anthropology, University of Virginia, USA

[2] Centro de Estudios de Asia y África, El Colegio de México, MEXICO

* Organized by the United Nations University (UNU), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Workshop: Climate, Adaptation and Vulnerability

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), General Anthro, Melanesia, Oceania, Torres Islands, Vanuatu on June 9, 2011 by salul

Next month Fred Damon (my mentor and colleague from UVa) and I will be presenting a paper at an international workshop titled Indigenous Peoples, Marginalized Populations and Climate Change: Vulnerability, Adaptation and Traditional Knowledge.

I’m particularly glad about having had our paper accepted for this event, because it will allow us to come into contact with some of the great work that the UN, the Christensen Fund, and other important agencies are carrying out in Melanesia in relation to traditional knowledge and climate change.

Herewith the details:

Frederick H. DAMON


[1]Department of Social Anthropology, University of Virginia, USA

[2] Centro de Estudios de Asia y África, El Colegio de México, MEXICO

Seasonal environmental practices and climate fluctuations in Melanesia. An assessment of small island societies in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.

Keywords Seasonal production systems, climate fluctuations, indigenous adaptability, small island societies, Melanesia

The aim of this paper is to offer an overview of environmental knowledge practices and short- and long-term climate fluctuations in relation to two small Pacific Islands’ societies in the region of the Western Pacific commonly known as Melanesia. The societies in question are located 1) in the island of Muyuw (Woodlark Island), on the northern side of the Kula ring, in Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, and 2) in the Torres Islands, in the north of the Vanuatu archipelago. The principal object of our paper is to offer a critical assessment of the contemporary state of human-environmental relations in these communities, with special attention to the inherent adaptability of the food production systems of each society, as well as the multifarious forms of guardianship and exploitation of forest and marine resources. We will include descriptions of the manner in which local productive and ritual activity relates to climate fluctuations, and attempt to draw conclusions regarding the potential adaptability of these traditional practices in relation to the consequences of anthropogenic climate change in the near future. For the past decade the authors of this paper have carried out collaborative research regarding the seasonal environmental activities of both island groups. Since 2008, with support from the National Science Foundation, we have carried out an ambitious, comparative research initiative undertaken with more than 15 colleagues who specialize in different areas of the Pacific Islands, Asia and the Americas; our primary focus has been the flexibility of traditional environmental knowledge in different parts of the Pacific Rim and Islands. This work has been facilitated by closely collaborating with specific local actors. In the case of Vanuatu, this has involved the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and National Museum through its unique Extension Fieldworkers’ Program, which is aimed at enabling the participation of local people in the processes and output of scientific research. In the case of Muyuw, Damon has worked closely and on a long term basis with various key informants in relation to the analysis of forest growth and the use and conceptualization of trees in the construction and use of Kula-related canoes.

Review: “South Pacific” documentary (BBC, 2009)

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), Melanesia, Oceania, Rapa Nui, Torres Islands, Vanuatu on January 1, 2011 by salul

A little under two years ago, in early 2008, I arrived in the Torres Islands for a return fieldwork visit. I soon discovered that I had narrowly missed a film crew from the Beeb who had left two weeks previously. As I understood it, they had spent most of their time on the small islet of Metoma, under the care of Jean Pierre Laloyer, the senior member and head of the family who lives on and claims ancestral possession of Metoma (As is the case in many of these instances, this is a recent development and disputed by a few people in the Torres; but it seems secure since nobody else has been able to muster enough ‘counter’ proof of possession to seriously challenge the Laloyer claim. I digress a bit, but “uncle Jean” came to mind because the series producers cast him in the role of timeless, untroubled inhabitant of a small slice of paradise).

The object of the BBC film crew’s interest in Metoma was to obtain high quality footage of the notorious Birgus latro (coconut crab), for which this tiny islet has become well known in Vanuatu, given the relatively good health and large numbers that characterise its isolated population. This association is recent, partly a result of Jean Pierre having placed a ban on crab hunting several years ago. But I digress.

My friend David Hunt holding up a Birgus latro on Tegua Island (2010)

The resulting footage, as observed in the first episode of the BBC’s recent documentary series “South Pacific” is really magnificent. Certainly, it is unique – and I say this having observed Birgus and pursued research related to it for over a decade. The footage is, in this respect, very much in line with the  astounding quality most of the other clips of Pacific Islands’ wildlife which constitute the centrepiece of this series. Prominent examples include the astonishing panoramic of tens of thousands of migrating emperor pinguins on Macquarie Island, in the extreme southern reaches of New Zealand’s Southern Oceanic possessions; the shoot of graceful Galapagos Islands’ penguins and sea lions; a saltwater crocodile off the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal; and the extremely shy dingiso in the forested highlands of Papua New Guinea. There’s more, but my intention is not to offer a comprehensive list, but an overall commentary.

If we are to judge it on the basis of its intending to be primarily a wildlife documentary, I think that this series is very successful on several counts, one of which is the tenacity and technical expertise with which the production team pursued their prey. Moreover, it scores high marks for focusing the audience’s attention, throughout at least two episodes, on the particularities of biogeography and the gradually declining biodiversity of Pacific Islands as one moves from West (New Guinea) to East (Island Melanesia; Central Polynesia), North East (Hawai’i) and eventually South-West (Aotearoa) across the Ocean. Amazing footage aside, the clear and informative manner in which the faunal and floral population of the Pacific Islands played out over tens of thousands of years has not, to the best of my awareness, been explained with such care in a documentary series of this kind before. The fact that my own research focuses on anthropological ecology but that even I learned a few new facts from this series is really the best tribute I can pay to the way in which the producers successfully portrayed the historical ecology of the Pacific here. Finally, there is also the matter of the really nice musical score, and various tracks employed throughout, some of which I understand to be from contemporary Maori groups. All of this makes for a really satisfying experience.

Having said that, it is perhaps a slightly worrying sign of how much more demanding the industry and cynical we (the viewing public) have become over the past three or four decades that the most serious wildlife documentary teams worldwide (and the beeb is up there with NG, Discovery and others) now find it absolutely indispensable to go to enormous, sometimes excessive, lengths to try to produce “new”, hence attractive footage in order to fulfill the overblown expectations of a ho-hum public and an industry that is obsessed with ratings and record-breaking firsts.

In this regard, while I think that it is to the credit of the Beeb people that they added a section titled “South Pacific Diaries” at the end of each episode that explains the logistical obstacles that their various photographers and staff had to overcome to obtain this or that particular piece of outstanding footage, it is also slightly annoying how they seem to feel they had to inflate

The Selva River in Vanua Lava. Here be salties (in the recent past).

the challenges involved in these procedures in order to provoke an (even greater?) sense of awe in their viewers.

For example, what are we to think when the particular photographer who was chasing after saltwater crocodiles in the Solomons seems to push the claim that the very presence of these creatures as far East as the Solomons is almost the stuff of legend? Well, actually, it isn’t. That should be clear simply from viewing the horrendous effects of the attacks of these creatures on local villagers. But, most importantly, the presence of these creatures has been confirmed for many years even further East, in Vanua Lava (Banks Islands) for example, where a couple of crocs terrorised the local population in the 1980s, and even as far afield as Fiji. (See here for a recent article explaining the manner in which these creatures appear to displace themselves across the vast distances between archipalagi in the South West Pacific.)

The issue here is that one is often left with the feeling that some wildlife photographers and support staff seem to feel the need to make exaggerated claims upon processes that imply entering places that are really not all that dangerous or inaccessible – depending, of course, on what exactly it is you intend to do there. It is therefore incumbent on the particular intention of those entering that can make it all seem so much more complicated – from the simple fact of having to lug tonnes of equipment to the far reaches of the planet, for starters. So while I would not for a moment dispute the various logistical difficulties through which these teams sometimes have put themselves in order to bring us their amazing footage, I do find it irritating that there is a tendency to trump up the exotic and the dangerous in the whole process, as though they were supermen entering dangerous, inhuman conditions in otherwise uninhabitable and unwelcome sites.

My point is this: that kind of hyperbole doesn’t usually stand up to the fact that many of the contexts into which they are getting themselves happen to have sustained local populations for thousands of years. Not to mention ever greater numbers of passing visitors -from thrill-seeking backpackers to civil servants to missionaries- whose very presence and everyday experiences tend to cast the overblown representations of the hardy Western camerapeople in a rather less than flattering light.

And I’m sorry if I seem curmudgeonly here, but for years I have observed how various different sorts of passersby to areas like North Vanuatu or the South East Solomons really come to inhabit their make-believe worlds of adventure, excitement and difficulty even while they’re in the very presence of people with far less kit and certainly a less inflated sense of themselves who happen to call those faraway places “home”. I am reminded of an especially unpleasant photographer for the French division of National Geographic who, as he passed through North Vanuatu on his way to Vanikoro with the aid of a massive crew of scientists and French marines aboard a rather hypermodern navy frigate out of Nouméa, attempted to convince me that they were to be the “first white people” who were to disembark and spend a few nights on Vanikoro and other remote and dangerous places…like the Torres Islands.

Not so alien, after all.

When I reminded him that permanent contact with Europeans had been established in both regions since the mid-nineteenth century and that I myself had been residing for over a year in the Torres he simply ignored me. (This, by the way, mirrors my experience with many other foreigners arriving in the Torres; the presence of a white man among the savages just really seems to generate a sense of total disinterest, and most of them cope with it by ignoring it away rather than facing up to the fact that they are not so “remote” or amazing as they would like to think). To their credit, this guy’s support staff suppressed some cynical smiles and threw a wink my way, but I was not impressed. Months later, I ran into an image of just this same photographer affecting an extremely manly and “explorateur”-like pose as he stood in the middle of a nasty-looking swamp in Vanikoro, within the pages of the NG magazine dedicated to that particular expedition’s results. I have no patience for these displays. But I digress (again).

So apart from my genuine admiration for the wildlife shoots, and my particular annoyance with the reproduction of exotic stereotypes, what else did I make of the “South Pacific” documentary?

Well, at the risk of cementing my reputation as a hypercritical curmudgeon, I will say that I have two other significant quibbles regarding the manner in which the producers chose to represent the Pacific Islands in this particular series. Both are related not to wildlife -arguably the strong point, indeed the main point, of the show- but to the societies of some of the places in which they filmed. I am thinking especially of the first and fifth episodes, the only ones in which human cultures are specifically addressed. The other episodes, as I recall, only mention human history and actions tangentially, in ways that make much more sense within a documentary series that is meant to be dedicated to non-human environmental phenomena and creatures, and not to “culture” or history per se.

The first episode, “Ocean of Islands”, includes bits of footage and trivia on populations in South Raga and Tanna (Vanuatu), as well as Anuta Island in the SE Solomons. Sadly, as far as Vanuatu is concerned, they seem to have gone for the easy catch of the same old exotic images of Vanuatu that virtually every other visitor, tour guide and photographer go – paying enormous amounts of money in order to obtain original footage of the inevitable Pentecost “land dive” (Naghol) and the Tannese Toka dance. As for the land dive, I must respectfully declare my vision of it as a hyped up event which, although based on the revival of a genuine seasonal agricultural ritual, long ago morphed into a particularly tiring form of tourist-oriented theatre accessible mainly to non-locals -wealthy tourists and foreign film crews come to mind- willing to part with hundreds of dollars for the right to record or snap pictures of the event. Think this is a bit harsh? Come on, a cursory search easily proves my point (e.g. the NG’s most recent version of the event, which, although happily sanitised for the broader reading and viewing public, was actually fraught with problems given the excessive monetary demands of locals on the reporters and photographers, and their unseemly reactions to said demands – as several of us learned at the time).

Even though the angles and slow motion of the high-definition footage obtained by the BBC of Raga land divers is, once again, an impressive and likely “first-ever” stunt, it really serves no relevant point regarding the place of local cultural practices and

The entry signpost for the Vatthe Conservation Area, in Big Bay (Santo), in 2004; an early and important local initiative in environmental management in Vanuatu.

knowledge in relation to Pacific Islands’ wildlife. Seems to me it would have been infinitely more interesting to present some of the many rather less folkloric but environmentally significant actions that are being taken in local communities across Island Melanesia to revive traditional environmental knowledges and marine resource management -several examples from Malakula and Santo come to mind. Sadly, both the depiction of the Raga land divers and the Tannese Toka dancers fixates on images of semi-naked (hence firmly premodern) islanders seemingly absorbed in timeless, if colourful, ritual acts.

The film crew did slightly better when it came to presenting life on Anuta. Both the footage and the manner in which they represent local environmental knowledge in action is rather more interesting, even though once again they lay it on a bit when it comes to highlighting how “isolated” and tiny this place is. Hint: so are most other islands in Remote Oceania, but then that’s one of the reasons that Polynesian migrations and inter-island links are so fascinating. They are anything BUT isolated. They did themselves no favour when they then bizarrely decided to contrast the “ecocidal” Rapa Nui with the rather more “eco-friendly” Anutans, a comparison that is a bit strained, considering that in episode five (“Strange Islands”) they again represent Easter Island as a desolate and ecologically damaged place, but then go on to nuance the tired “Collapse” version of Rapa Nui history with some of the newer thinking on the ecological changes that transformed that island’s landscape as a

Rapa Nui dance troupe in Hanga Roa (Aug. 2010). Not quite the extinct, ecocidal primitives.

result of human contact, between 800 and 600 years ago (think Terry Hunt et al regarding the Polynesian rat and its appetite for the nut of the extinct Jubaea palm). Nevertheless, it seems that the fact that they had Rick Feinberg on as a consultant for their stint on Anuta was important in helping to improve their overall representation of the place and its people.

For all its exaggeration of the isolation and tiny dimensions of Anuta, the documentary team’s depiction actually does come across as more culturally sensitive and informative…again, in relation to the principal theme of this series, which is meant to be the environment and animals of the Pacific Islands. Moral of this particular story? It pays to get a hold a good anthropologist as adviser!

In sum, I would enthusiastically recommend this series for the sheer ambition and quality of its footage, and because it does manage to accurately and informatively convey a set of relevant data and images regarding the history and present state of important aspects of the Pacific Islands’ geography, wildlife and environments. It does so in ways which I had not come across before in other documentaries about the region (I was, BTW, especially pleased and impressed with their depiction of the Palolo worm, a process for which I was contacted early in the show’s production, back in late ’07 or early ’08, but in which I eventually had no direct hand). However, the series gets rather lower marks regarding the strange, almost capricious, and generally fragmented and inaccurate ways in which local cultural practices and contexts are inserted.

NOTE (inserted 3-06-11): The theme music for the series is taken from the rendering of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by the late great Iz Kamakawiwo’ole, a legend of contemporary Hawaiian music.

New research data derived from “Moana” exhibit

Posted in Exposición Moana, Fieldwork (Melanesia), General Anthro, Melanesia, Torres Islands on May 1, 2010 by salul

Na-Hawhaw from Motalava, Banks Islands, Vanuatu

This post is about one of the first significant research spin-offs to emerge directly from one of the objects displayed in the Moana exhibit, which will be open to the public until 30 June at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

I am referring to the object pictured here as it appears within its display case in one of the “Atua” halls of the Moana exhibit. This board comes from the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachussetts, and its meaning had hitherto been virtually unkown.

The object in question is described, in the PEM’s database, as a “board image for Sukwe (men’s graded rituals), Bank Is. [sic], Vanuatu” (PEM catalogue number E52699). It is recorded as having been collected in 1972 in Motalava, and subsequently donated, in 1995, by no less a controversial character than the recently deceased D. Carleton Gajdusek.* The board’s dimensions are: 2.5 cms thick, 78.8cms long and 9.5cms wide.

Until a few weeks ago, this was all the data available for this object. Due to the strikingly beautiful photograph that was taken of it, the designer of the exhibition catalogue, Ms Natalia Rojas, decided to use it as the cover photo for the Atua section of said tome. Consequently, I wrote up a brief description of it, for the catalogue, which described it in much the same terms, namely, as a board from Motalava that probably represented powerful beings and was related to the Sukwe.

However, thanks to the fact that I distributed images of some of the objects in Moana for which we possessed relatively little information, including the Motalava “spirit board”, the above image eventually made its way to the monitor of my good friend and colleague, the linguist Alexandre François.

Motivated by the relative mystery of the image depicted on this board, Alex dug around in his incredibly rich database of Motalavan and Banks Islands images and information…and came up with an incredible find. In sum, he ran into a photo which he took in recent years on the West coast of the large island of Gaua.

A man Gaua with a tattoo of the "Spirit of the Dancer". (c) Alexandre François.

“Na-hawhaw” [nahawˈhaw]
‘the Dancer: name of a customary design or tattoo used by initiated men, representing a dancer with a symmetrical body, and arms raised as in the manly Haw dance’
— Language: Mwotlap, Motalava I., Banks Is, Vanuatu.

Furthermore, the Haw dance which Alex describes was recently recorded by Éric Wittersheim for the documentary Le Salaire du Poète, which was produced on Motalava in collaboration with Alex. A short clip of the Haw dance can be seen in this brief video uploaded by Éric on Youtube.

Alex also provided the following information regarding this video extract:

The hawhaw-ing dancers appear at 00’39” in the background, and dance around the musicians, holding Cycad palms (only allowed to initiated men).

In a follow up message Alex advanced even more information:

I believe that the vertical symmetry of the design (you may want to call it the “Spirit of the Dancer”, because of course it is understood as a Spirit or Supernatural being) reflects the vertical symmetry of the dancer’s body in the prototypical Haw dance. That is, a good Haw-ing dancer will raise his knees up in the same way as he moves his elbows up and down. [I found it hard at the beginning but it’s fun: try it in your living room!]
Often it’s only the leader in the line of dancers who performs the total body movement, while his followers will mostly move their arms. (This is visible from another piece of Eric’s film which is not online).

“haw tēy nem̄el” ‘dance with a cycas palm’. (c) Alexandre François.

He also provided this image of his nominal father from Motalava, a man by the name of Moses, as he engages in a hawhaw dance.

For my part, I immediately recognised the Hawhaw dance as being related to a type of dancing from the Torres Islands known locally (in Lo-Toga language) as nehuwe, thereby further confirming that it has links to ritual dancing across the Banks and Torres (at least as far as Motalava, Gaua and the Torres are concerned).

Fortunately, all of the above data reached me just in the nick of time, so I was able to modify the contents of the label that accompanies object E52669 in the Moana exhibition. Hence, for the first time since it was collected, we were able to provide a more accurate description of this board, and in the process generate a set of important new references regarding ritual dancing, grade taking and aesthetic values related to the material and visual cultures of North Vanuatu.

I cannot think of a more fitting and satisfying tribute to the Moana exhibition than the above story. I thank Alex, first and foremost, and the people of Motalava, the Banks and Torres Islands for their collective knowledge, from which they draw an amazing capacity to constantly surprise us with the richness of their creations.

*That Gajdusek may have visited Motalava in the early 1970s is quite likely, since this date coincides with a brief research stint that he carried out in the neighbouring South East Solomons during that period. The research in question was part of a broader team effort to obtain biomedical and genetic data in order to attempt a reconstruction of the genetic history of some of the societies of this region; a relevant summary of the results of this effort can be consulted here.

Fieldwork 2010: Into the network

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), Melanesia, Torres Islands, Vanuatu on April 10, 2010 by salul


I recently spent some five weeks carrying out new ethnographic fieldwork in the Torres Islands, but have only now finally been able to find the time to sit down quietly and write a brief summary and some reflections thereof.

In simple terms, this was an opportunistic trip. In fact, it was really about reconnecting with my people on the islands. But there was no special research agenda, no particular objectives, other than to continue to chase after materials to do with Torres Islands ontology, especially as it relates to cosmogony, the living and the dead, and especially the kinship system. Ah, the kinship system. That old ethnographic bugbear. Just when I think I have pretty much exhausted every avenue, every productive question, every possible angle, and NOW I finally have  grasp of it, something new comes up that turns out to be absolutely crucial, and there we go again. Well, it did it again (as I will explain presently). I also visited libraries, cultural centres, and took a quick trip back to Kanaky.

So, I will summarise the itinerary here and then get down to details in the next post.

Jif ("chief") Pita Wotekwo

I spent two weeks on the Torres Islands, during which I caught up with all sorts of news, beginning with the sad discovery that chief Pita Wotekwo’s wife passed away last year. I was also finally able to ascertain that last year’s triple earthquake (three within the span of a half hour, the strongest of which reached 7.8 mag, on 9 October) DID produce a tsunami. In fact, it seems to have produced up to three tidal waves, or at least one large tidal wave and two subsequent tidal surges. However, despite damage to some villages, the death count was minuscule. At least in absolute terms. In relative terms, these were people whose names I knew and who live in a community of less than 1,000; five families, in all the Torres Group. So not inconsiderable. But still, not catastrophic, as I had at one point feared it might have been.

During my time on Loh something else happened.

I was adopted. That is to say, I went through the formal exchange ceremony by which I was inducted into a family. Chief Peter’s family. Suddenly I had a father, uncles, a mother, sisters, brothers, and, most important of all negemeltok, “taboo family members”, otherwise known as in-laws. My best friend, informant, colleague, ethnographic trainee, in fact, is my brother-in-law, and I soon discovered that they take the taboo on not naming in-laws quite seriously. I can no longer name him (he’s the guy in the canoe in my bio page on this blog) except by the official title of tauien, or taui, i.e., brother-in-law.

The taui and the salul

Humbling and honorific as this all was (and potentially dangerous, when I had to down three large shells of fresh kava on an empty stomach, one after the other, during the ceremony), it was also intimidating.

The next morning I found I was a bit panicky. Claustrophobic, is the precise term for the feeling I got. All of a sudden I was one of “them” (I know that sounds terrible, but you get my meaning). I was no longer the foreigner, the ignorant white man, the crazy salul who suddenly shows up unannounced and cavorts all over the place to his heart’s content. Now I have a name, and a place, and have to respect those of others. I have close family (some of whom, let’s be honest, are not people I made great friends with in over a decade), and I have to respect certain taboos about entering other areas of the village and speaking to certain people in certain ways.

Even talking to my taui was now slightly awkward. I used to joke with him a lot, calling him Mr William, and basically not having to mind how I addressed him. True, I still have a joking relationship, but it is qualified by all sorts of kin-related conditions.

I think one of my uncles best summarised it when he was quoting a long list of names from people in other islands, many of whom I have never met before, who are now part of my “family”. He said, quite literally translated BTW, “You are now part of the network. You’re connected, wherever you go.”

Talk about coconut wireless-turned-GPS.

So that was really the key event during my time on the Torres.

What came thereafter was a brief and frustrated trip to Luganville (Santo Island) with my tauien in tow, in order to try to reach the end of the Cumberland Peninsula. We had managed to sort out all of the logistics, lining

Ngan Jila Tjibaou

up trucks, boats and a couple of distant contacts in North Santo, when I came down with a strange and extremely frightening fever that forced me, very reluctantly, to ditch that last week of forest trekking.

So I returned to Vila, the taui returned to Loh Island, and I quickly decided to take advantage of the extra time and money and ended up going to Nouméa and doing some very productive work at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, at the South Pacific Commission, at the IRD library and at the Museum of New Caledonia.

I also carried out work with the Video and Sound Unit at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. Jakob, the head of the unit, was fantastic, and we produced several good videos with previously unedited materials from Tanna, Banks Islands and Ambrym.

Finally, while passing through Sydney on my way back to the Mexican plateau, I managed to get in a very pleasant, rewarding and also necessarily eye-opening evening catching up with Kirk Huffman and Yvonne.

Nevotdule (sacred/ancestral stones), Loh Island

I returned with piles of books, photocopies and even two full fieldbooks worth of notes. No ethnographer can wish for a better result, and once again it was worth every cent, every antimalarial pill and every feverish sweat that washed over me during my illness.

Ecological variability and ritual cycles in North Vanuatu

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), Torres Islands on January 5, 2010 by salul

For some time now I have been reflecting (and preparing some collaborative materials) on the subject of ecological variability in relation to key ritual practices in the Torres Islands. The motivation for these ideas comes primarily from the gradual realisation, over the past decade, of medium and long term fluctuations by which certain key environmental factors (humidity of fertile soils,  rainfall and drought, ) horticultural products – especially, but not exclusively, kava – have appeared and disappeared from the local horizon of productive and ritual cycles by which Torres islanders organize their seasonal activities – horticulture, inter-island movements, ritualised exchange, which of course includes Church-related activities, etc.

Here, specifically, I just want to point to the manner in which ENSO, aka El Niño, had an apparently direct effect, over the past decade, on local people’s capacity to grow kava, and thence to organize the previously mentioned lehtemet rituals of grade-taking for uninitiated men.

While the fact that island societies in the South West Pacific are subject to mid- and long-term ecological fluctuations is not necessarily breaking news, especially to the community of biologists, ecologists and natural scientists studying the Austronesian world, the issue is that the specific environmental and meteorological factors at play in these variable – hence, only predictable with large degrees of uncertainty – cycles have only recently been taken more seriously by social anthropologists interested in things like food production, seasonal practices, climate vulnerability, etc. A cross-section of exemplars regarding this subject can be referenced herehere, here and here.

When one considers that food production takes up an absolutely vital and predominant part of people’s daily and long term effort across the Melanesian islands, and that it is a determinant factor behind the labour that is put into organizing ritualised exchange, it becomes increasingly clear that we have to pay more attention to what is happening, not just within spaces of social production but over time, to the environments in which local communities play out their cultural practices. This, I would argue is a corollary of the study of the array of “local/non-local” forces, flows of information and economic processes related to the environment (subjects that fall partly within the purview of political ecology, of which there have been several good and important contributions in recent years).

As for me, I only gradually discovered the surprising role that ENSO seems to have had, probably for centuries, on the timing of key ritual activities in the Torres Islands. The best, but not only, example that I can put forward is what I considered to be the unusually variable and infrequent celebration of the aforementioned lehtemet ceremony, by which young men begin the process by which, over the course of a lifetime, one or two of them eventually grow to become the most powerful magicians and high-ranking men of the islands.

In essence, this ritual requires that sponsors, aspiring initiates and various key participants in the lehtemet, are seen to be able to produce important quantities of kava (negí in the local language of Lo-Toga), which should preferably come from local gardens.

The issue here is that for long periods of time – which appear to correspond to the variable years of inactivity or low-intensity activity that characterise the time between one major ENSO event and the next – the soils of the Torres Islands tend to suffer from excessive drought, a condition which renders them particularly inadequate for cultivating kava. For reasons which are still not entirely clear to me, but appear to relate to very subtle aspects of overall rainfall patterns, the dryness of local soils tends to be slightly less intense on the windward hillsides of the islands of Toga and Hiw, hence rendering some of the gardeners from these two islands relatively important as sponsors for ceremonies in which some kava simply must be had (funerals, etc). It is therefore on these two islands that the cultivation of the local variety, or cultivar, of negí, known as “red kava” for the colour of its root, has been kept and continued from generation to generation. Interestingly, the islanders distinguish quite clearly between at least six different major soil types and up to 10 major and minor soils combined (these islands are very small coral uplifts, so the amount of differentiation, and people’s acute awareness of it, is quite surprising); sometimes, soil types appear to change in relation to mean annual temperatures and rainfall –  at least, this is how Torres islanders explain it.

Chewing on an ENSO-related bumper crop (?) on Loh Island. (c) C. Mondragon

When I first arrived in the Torres, in early 1999, just after a particularly intense ENSO event, most people declared that there was no kava in the islands. They didn’t just mean that there was no kava available, but seemed to imply that kava just wasn’t something that people planted or could cultivate in the Torres. This version of things was repeated to me over and over, until a visit in late 2007, when I realised that there was suddenly an abundance of kava gardens in all four of the main islands in the group. My surprise was compounded when I learned that, in fact, these kava plants had been maturing for over five years, and that it had been the first crop taken from the batches that had allowed the local community to organize their most recent lehtemet earlier in the decade.

In sum, after much inquiring into soil types and distribution, aridity, rainfall patterns and genealogical memories of rich garden sites and successful past gardeners (during my last field stint in 2008) I began to realise that there seems to be a pattern of long-term drought and short-term rainfall that tantalisingly fits into broader fluctuations associated with ENSO throughout the past century. Just to be clear, precision here is not what I am after, i.e. a direct correlation between ENSO and local kava production, but rather for broader patterns of rapid adaptation which Torres gardeners and ritual actors have developed over time in relation to their highly variable environment. This adaptability involves close monitoring of soils, humidity, seasonal variation in the combination of different garden crops in order to protect kava plantings, and various important meteorological factors (including the intensity of cyclones in different years).

I don’t think, nor have I seen any evidence to prove, that this adaptability is contained in a coherent, easily identifiable corpus of traditional environmental knowledge. Rather, I suspect that it is built into local systems of food production. Importantly, variability is also built into local ritual cycles in a way that allows for long-term inactivity (decades can pass between one and another lehtemet) because, as I pointed out above, ENSO is neither predictable nor reliable as an indicator for specific moments of horticultural practice. Nevertheless, I think what all this points to is the way in which certain practices and knowledge, as well as lifecycles and social structures, probably contain subtle but significant ways of interacting with broader environmental fluctuations.

It will be interesting, as I elaborate on my own work, to see how these data and insights are teased out and presented in the research of other colleagues.

Comparing ritual worlds: Sacrifice and reciprocity in Melanesia and Mesoamerica

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), General Anthro, Mesoamerica on March 5, 2009 by salul

Here it is folks. For all of those who have been waiting to finally see some substance behind the grandiloquent hints at grand comparativism between both culture regions. Upcoming seminar talk for tomorrow (Thursday 5 March, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, UNAM):

Rituals of transformation and shifting ontologies:

Rethinking sacrifice and reciprocity in Mesoamerica and Melanesia

Carlos Mondragón (ColMex) & Johannes Neurath (INAH)


This paper offers a discussion about the plurality of ontological principles as manifested in key rituals of reciprocity and sacrifice in two different societies – namely, the Huichol of North West Mexico and the people of the Torres Islands in Maritime Melanesia. Our aim is to problematise the assumption that while ritual practices and regimes of value have been considered processual, fluid and diverse, they ultimately rely on stable value systems. Ontologies, by any other name. By analysing new ethnographic data regarding rituals of existential transformation – specifically, the vision quest of the Huichol and the tamate ceremony – in Mesoamerica and Melanesia, we arrive at the conclusion that the problem is not a diversity of ritual forms, but of principles of existence. Throughout the ritual sequence, the participants in these events generate contrasting, and indeed incompatible, models of sacrifice (asymmetrical exchange) and idealised reciprocity (symmetrical exchange) that point to the open-ended and creative potential of the ontologies on which ritual action is grounded. The principle aim of the paper is to compare how two societies that draw on seemingly coherent “wholes” (Mesoamerican cosmologies, Melanesian principles of exchange) actually deploy multiple templates for ritual action which make manifest the contradiction of taking “ontology” for granted.