Archive for the Melanesia Category

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.

Colloque “Montrer/oculter”, 3-4 mars, MQB (Paris)

Posted in General Anthro, Melanesia, Mesoamerica, Museum-related stuff, Oceania, Uncategorized, Vanuatu on March 3, 2011 by salul


Les actions de modifications de la visibilité dans des contextes rituels.

Approches comparatives

Musée du Quai Branly

Jeudi 3 mars

9h45   Introduction

Anne-Christine Taylor (musée du quai Branly): Présentation

Session 1

10h00 Olivia Kindl (Colegio de San Luis): « Exhibition et camouflage d’offrandes dans un désert mexicain. Pratiques artistiques et rituelles sur les hauts plateaux de San Luis Potosí »

10h45 Johannes Neurath (Collège de France/LAS – Museo Nacional de Antropología): « Opening the earth-oven, closing the umbilicus: ceremonial pits and sacrificial stones among the Huichols »

11h30 Pause café

11h45 Pierre-Olivier Dittmar (EHESS/CRH): « Trois rituels de visibilité au Moyen Âge »

Discussion animée par Brigitte Derlon (EHESS/LAS)

Session 2

15h Perig Pitrou (musée du quai Branly – LAS): « Ce que l’on doit montrer, ce qu’il faut cacher. La ritualisation du pouvoir politique dans la Sierra Mixe (Mexique) »

15h45 Ethelia Ruiz Medrano (INAH – Santander Visiting Fellow, Harvard): « To Hide and to Show Power. The Case of the Codex of the Convent of Tlaquiltenango, Morelos »

16h30 pause

16h45 Guilhem Olivier (IIH-UNAM): « Occulter les dieux et révéler les rois : les paquets sacrés dans les rituels d’intronisation mexica »

Discussion animée par Giovanni Careri (EHESS)

Vendredi 4 mars

Session 3

9h45 Marcello Carastro (EHESS):  titre à préciser

10h30 Stéphan Dugast (IRD): « Quelle effigie pour les génies? Des devins aux masques chez les Bwaba du Burkina Faso »

11h15 Pause café

11h30 Margarita Valdovinos (U. Texas Austin): « L’occultation de la vie d’un mort-vivant. Pratiques funéraires chez les Cora du Nayarit »

12h15 Carlos Mondragón (Colegio de México): «Encompassment and revelation. Double skins and transformations in Oceania and Ancient Mexico»

Discussion animée par Philippe Descola (Collège de France – EHESS/ LAS)

Session 4

15h Patrick Perez (ENSAT Toulouse), « De la place de danse à la kiva. Dynamique du montrer/cacher chez les Hopi (Arizona) »

15h45 Dimitri Karadimas (CNRS/LAS): « Images de flûtes, sons des esprits dans le rituel de Yurupari (Amazonie du Nord-Ouest) »

16h30 pause

16h45 Morad Montazami (musée du Quai Branly – EHESS): « La procession comme performance ou l’art de sortir du musée »

Discussion animée par Michael Houseman (EPHE/ CEMAf)

Double feature: Shifting ontologies, et la transformation de l’être

Posted in General Anthro, Melanesia, Mesoamerica, Torres Islands, Vanuatu on February 19, 2011 by salul

Vendredi 4 Mars, Salle du cinéma, Musée du Quai Branly

The transformation of ‘being’ and its implications for rituals of concealment and revelation in Mesoamerica

dans le colloque

Montrer/Occulter. Les actions de modifications de la visibilité dans des contextes rituels. Approches comparatives

organisé par le groupe de recherche « Ontologie des images, figuration et relations rituelles » (Insituto de Investigación Historicas / UNAM – MQB)

et le Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale (CNRS)



Shifting Ontologies in Melanesia and Mesoamerica.

Joint paper by C. Mondragon & Johannes Neurath

Magic Circle Seminar

Friday 11 March, 11AM Pier’s Vitebsky’s office

Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge


ABSTRACT for Shifting Ontologies:

This paper offers a comparative discussion about the ritual articulations between transformation and reciprocal exchange in two different culture regions – the Huichol of NW Mexico and the Torres Islands, Vanuatu. Our intention is to problematise the continuing notion that ritual practices are informed by stable, hence transcendental, ontological regimes. By contrast, we argue that ontologies do not stand in an isomorphic relationship to ‘culture’ and are best understood as the heterogeneous and dynamic products of creative action. We concentrate on two well-known ceremonial rituals from the so-called peripheries of Mesoamerica and Melanesia. In both cases we observe moments of uncertainty and shifts between contrasting, even irreconcilable, principles of existence and prescriptive value systems. Our field of comparison for both contexts is the tension between rituals acts of reciprocity (gifts) vs. transformation (‘free gifts’).

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.

RAMSI y la discusión sobre sociedades no-estatales

Posted in Melanesia, Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales on May 28, 2010 by salul
[La nota siguiente la he rescatado de un extracto descartado de un borrador más grande que actualmente estoy editando para publicar como capítulo en un libro sobre sociedades no-estatales. Lo reproduzco aquí, en castellano, con el objetivo doble de dar a conocer a los lectores hispanoparlantes de este blog ciertos datos básicos –por lo demás poco accesibles para el público iberoamericano– sobre la política regional australiana en el Pacífico occidental, así como para ofrecer materiales concretos para reflexión en relación con el tema de las sociedades no estatales]

Sirva un ejemplo reciente para ilustrar la manera en que las sociedades estatales hegemónicas en el Pacífico actúan y se imaginan en relación con las sociedades de “pequeña escala” en la Melanesia.

Desde mediados del 2003, Australia y Nueva Zelanda han protagonizado una costosísima intervención burocrático-militar en las Islas Salomón mediante un organismo multinacional conocido como RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands). La finalidad declarada de RAMSI es “estabilizar” al gobierno de las islas con el fin de garantizar la “seguridad” del mismo, y, por extensión, de aquella parte del Pacífico más próxima a Australia y Nueva Zelanda.

Formalmente RAMSI se define como “una colaboración entre el pueblo y el gobierno de las Islas Salomón, junto con quince países de la región del Pacífico [que tiene la finalidad] de establecer los cimientos de una estabilidad duradera, con seguridad y prosperidad, mediante un sistema mejorado de leyes, justicia y seguridad; [mediante] un gobierno más democrático y transparente, un crecimiento económico amplio y fuerte, y una mejor entrega de servicios [básicos].” (fuente:

Sin embargo, la historia de esta intervención y las cifras básicas disponibles sobre su composición nos confrontan con una serie de interrogantes que, en parte, subrayan las consecuencias reales que genera la imagen modernista de la Melanesia como una región empantanada en el tribalismo y el atraso pre-estatal.

Credit: AAP/Loyd Jones

Según diversas fuentes, RAMSI consiste principalmente de un contingente militar y policiaco conformado por entre 2,000 y 3,000 efectivos australianos y neozelandeses, acompañados por un número mucho menor de soldados y policías provenientes de Fiji y Samoa (cuya presencia es, sin embargo, relevante en la medida en que ha permitido mantener la ficción políticamente necesaria de que RAMSI consiste de una operación multinacional sancionada por los principales organismos regionales del Pacífico Sur).[1]

Más allá de los número precisos, la relevancia de RAMSI es que desde sus inicios ha mantenido como prioridad fundamental la manutención del órden social en Honiara, la capital de las Islas Salomón, y, en menor medida, en otros poblados estratégicos del archipiélago. No obstante una serie de incidentes violentos y problemáticos, esta misión ha sido considerada exitosa por sucesivos comandantes y voceros de RAMSI, dado que ha facilitado el trabajo de un segundo dispositivo, enormemente costoso, de tecnócratas – australianos, neozelandeses e internacionales.

Este segundo dispositivo también forma parte oficial del cuerpo y organigrama de RAMSI, pero está constituido por un núcleo de 130 asesores civiles, descritos como “economistas”, “asesores presupuestales” y “asistentes para el desarrollo” (development specialists), bajo cuya tutela se está erigiendo un nuevo sistema económico y gubernamental en Honiara.

Según diversos especialistas, las metas de este contingente civil coinciden de manera explícita con las prioridades elementales de seguridad, desarrollo social y co-dependencia político-económica que han percibido como indispensables para sus intereses los sucesivos gobiernos de izquierda y de derecha que han gobernado en Australia y Nueva Zelanda desde mediados de la década de 1990. Estos intereses incluyen el fortalecimiento de la infraestructura del Estado, y con ello el desarrollo de mejores condiciones de vida y desarrollo humano para la multiforme, desordenada y desvalida población tribal de las islas.[2]

Lo anterior sirve para ofrecer un ejemplo concreto de los efectos político-económicos tangibles y controversiales que tiende a producir la inquietante imagen que de sí mismos sostienen los actores estatales hegemónicos en el Océano Pacífico.

[1] A pesar de estar en contacto directo con diversos especialistas y centros de documentación australianos dedicados al análisis pormenorizado de RAMSI, me ha sido prácticamente imposible obtener cifras exactas en relación con los efectivos  recursos militares que constituyen este organismo. Es posible que la ausencia de cifras precisas se deba, en parte, a la naturaleza propia de operaciones militares en proceso, pero también a la creciente controversia doméstica que ha generado esta intervención entre la opinión pública australiana y neozelandesa. Con todo, el número original de elementos despachados durante la llamada Operación Helpem Fren (“Ayudar a nuestros amigos”, nombre derivado del Solomons Pidjin, lengua oficial de las Islas Salomón) en el 2003 fue de cuando menos 3,000 soldados australianos. Según RAMSI, esta cifra ha ido disminuyendo al mismo tiempo que ha crecido el número de aesores civiles despachados por el gobierno australiano a las Islas Salomón. Cita y datos de RAMSI consultados el 9 de abril de 2010 en el sitio

[2] Véase, sobre todo, Clive Moore, Happy Isles in Crisis: The Historical Causes for a failing State in Solomon Islands, 1998-2004, Canberra, Asia Pacific Press, 2005; Jon Fraenkel, The Manipulation of custom: From uprising to intervention in the Solomon Islands, Victoria University Press, 2005.

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.

Jared Diamond y las sociedades sin estado

Posted in General Anthro, Melanesia, Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales on April 29, 2010 by salul

Más tarde ampliaré este comentario, pero por lo pronto me parece importante darle difusión inmediata a la reciente respuesta del profesor Paul Sillitoe y Mako John Kuwimb al ya famoso artículo de Jared Diamond en el cual se buscaba perpetuar el mito de que las sociedades sin estado -mal llamadas “tribales”- son necesariamente presa del salvajismo primitivo que idiosincráticamente refleja la condición pre-estatal y pre-moderna del ser humano.

Para quienes no tienen el tiempo o la paciencia para leer la minuciosa respuesta de Sillitoe y Kuwimb, se pueden consultar dos buenos resúmenes sobre la disputa y sus contenidos aquí y aquí.

Ojo, vale la pena leer la respuesta de Michael Smith en la liga al blog de Savage Minds, la cual contiene varias observaciones saludables tanto para politólogos modernistas como para arqueólogos interesados en el surgimiento de las primeras conglomeraciones urbanas en la antigüedad euroasiática.

Nota (añadida el 16 de nov. de 2010): véase también comentarios más recientes en este blog relacionados con el trabajo de Diamond bajo la categoría de Sociedades no-estatales).