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Contemporary Warfare in the New Guinea Highlands

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New Guinea highlanders can go to war with each other to avenge ghosts or to exct revenge for the killing of one of their one. As we have to seen from other reports, or lessens we have discussed, people don’t seen to comprehend the complex interrelationship among the various parts of their own social system.

The leaders of Papua New Guinea see intertribal fighting as a major social problem with severe economic consequences. Although fighting is not new to them, warfare seems to re-emerge in 1970s with a new set of causes. It is believed that the introduction of western goods may have resulted in changes in economic arrangements, marriage patterns, and, ultimately, warfare.

A little information about how warfare started and its causes:

After decades of pacification and relative peace, intergroup warfare reemerged in the Papua New Guinea highlands during the late 1960s and early 1970s, only a few years before national independence in 1975. The outcomes of this warfare were death and destruction, martial law, and delay in highlands development schemes.

Possible explanations:

a. psychological insecurity surrounding political independence from Australian rule

b. disappointment at the slow speed of development

c. relaxation of government control which suppressed fighting since the pacification process began.

But none of these explanations has looked at changes in the structure or infrastructure of highlands societies themselves which could account for behavioral changes in the management conflict.

Traditionally, groups maintained differential access to resources such as stone used for axes and salt. Ace heads and salt were produced in local areas and traded for valuables available elsewhere. The introduction of and distribution of items such as salt and steel aces reduced the necessity for trade, thereby altering the need for intertribal marriage as well as reducing extratribal contacts of a type which facilitated marriage between persons of different tribes. The reduction of intertribal marriage, over time, resulted in a decrease of the web of affinal and nonagnatic kin ties which had provided linkages between autonomous tribal political units. The result of this reduction of intertribal marriage is the resurgence of tribal fighting.

Some researchers believed that once tribal fighting ended, men would be able to wander farther afield and develop relationships with single teenage girls over a wide area. Pacification, then, might reasonably be expected to result in an increase of intertribal marriage.


Warfare in traditional highlands societies has been regarded as chronic, incessant, and is said to have been accepted as part of social living in most areas. Indeed, the pattern of warfare was one of the most continuous and violent on record. Some neighboring groups maintained relations of permanent hostility and had little to do with one another. In contrast, most neighboring tribes intermarried and attended one another;s ceremonies.

Pacification was an early goal of the colonial administration. By the end of 1930s, fighting was rare in the vicinity of Simbu province government stations. By 1940, Australian authority was accepted and attacks on strangers and tribal fighting had nearly ended, although the entire highlands was not pacified until 1960s. This period also witnessed the introduction of Western goods such as salt and the steel axe.

From the end of WW2 through 1970s, educational and business opportunities expanded, local government and village courts were introduced, and national self-government was attained in 1975. Highlanders came to expect that development would lead to material gains.

Tribal warfare began to reemerge as a significant national problem in about 1970, 5 yrs before independence. By 1973, the government had become concerned that the situation might deteriorate to a point that they could no longer effectively administer parts of the highlands.

Scholars used psychological and socio-structural analysis out of the 5 major theories to explain the recent emergence of tribal warfare. ( biological evolution, psychological theories, cultural evolution, ecological adaptation, and social-structural analysis )

Others argue that the problem on rising warfare lies in the perception that the government, especially the courts, has become weaker and that this had led to the breakdown in law and order. However, the police force increased. So they concluded that the police force, even if they increased, had last its powers for several reasons. Also, these kiaps ( field officers ) has also lost their control over access to goods. And because the Enga ( maybe some tribe or whatever ) had attached great importance to trade-goods, they followed the kiaps and stop fighting. But because of their loss of control over those goods, they don’t listen anymore. The Enga would stop fighting because they don’t want to lose those things.

Contemporary violence is sometimes thought to be a protest rising out of psychological strain created by the drastic social change of an imposed economic and political system. In a 1973 paper, Bill Standish describes the period leading up to independence as one of stress, tension, and insecurity. He argues that the fighting is an expression of primordial attachments in the face of political insecurity surrounding national independence from Australian colonial rule. It is also suggested that during the colonial period, expectations for the future included security, wealth, and the improvement of life. Disappointed that these goals have not been realized is expressed in disorder.

Ethnographic Background – The Mul Community

Mul is the capital of Simbu province. Mul is the central portion of a larger tribal territory. The area is densely populated. Land is either cultivated or fallow in grass or scrub regrowth. With 295 persons per square mile on cultivatable land, this density is high compared with other highland groups.

The people of Mul are Simbus. Mul residents trace kinship through males, and their social groupings are patrilineal. Hierarchical segments link themselves as father/son, while parallel segments are seen as brothers. However, they are less concerned with this overall construct and tend to interact in terms of group composition and alignments. The likelihood of an individual conflict escalating into warfare is directly related to the structural distance between conflicting parties.

The largest political group to unite in warfare is the tribe, a group of several thousand individuals. Tribes are segmented into clans whose members see themselves as unifies group. The subclan section ( or one-blood group ) is the first to mobilize for warfare. The potential for expansion of such conflicts depends to a large degree on whether the relative position of the groups in the segmentary system land itself to opposing alignments at the higher levels of segmentation and upon the past relations between the groups.

Within the subclan section, there are moral restrictions on internal fighting. If comembers become extremely angry, they may attack with fists, clubs, or staffs, but with no axes, arrows or spears. These restrictions are related to the notion that members of the subclan have “one-blood”, and that this common blood should not be shed.

Marriage and Warfare

Marriage and warfare are linked in the minds of New Guinea highlanders. Early writers report indigenous notions that highlanders marry their enemies. In an extensive study of Enga warfare, Meggitt supports these assertions by reporting quite string correlations between rates of intergroup marriage and killing.

But this notion is still under doubt. It is highly unlikely that warfare causes marriage. It is difficult to arrange marriages between hostile groups. The association between marriage and warfare can be reduced to 2 separate relationships.

a. highlanders most frequently marry their neighbors

b. highlanders most frequently go to war with their neighbors

This is like so because in the highlands, where travel is restricted and relations are multiplex, neighbors are the parties most likely to be involved in a dispute.

During wedding ceremonies, speeches proclaim that the groups of the bride and the groom should remain in friendly terms and exchange visits and food. The marriage creates individual ties and obligations outside the clan. Whenever a formal food presentation occurs between clans, the donors and recipients are relate to one another through marriage. Thus, extratribal relatives play an important role in conflict situations. Extratribal relatives act as an intermediary whenever conflict arises. Moreover, affines played some role in attempting to prevent warfare and were important in restoring peace.

Moreover, the frequency of intergroup marriage is related to the expansion or containment of a dispute. That is, the more intermarriage occurs, the greater the change that disputes will be handled without violence or that the violence can be contained.

In sum, while there is an apparent correlation between marriage and warfare, marriage in fact, establishes a social relationship which acts primarily as a constraint upon the expansion of a dispute. Also, it is not merely the marriage ties between groups, but also between them and their allies. Lastly, the frequency of marriage, or density of the affinal web, is related to efficacy of conflict management process.

Changing Pattern of Intertribal Marriage

The data in the table reveal a statistically significant change in the marriage pattern in the anticipated

direction. The table tells us the proportion of marriage ties within and between the tribes, before and after western influence. We see that there is a decline in marriage between tribes after contact of the western influence and an increase of marriages within tribes after contact. We can also see that the total marriages before contact is greater than the total marriage after contact.

The argument presented here is that the dramatic reduction of intertribal marriage rates had significant implications for the structure of relations between politically autonomous tribal groups.

A Secondary Analysis

Same results as above given that the analysis was based on the Naregu tribe( or Central Simbu ) while the first one is based from the Mul. There are more total marriages in post-1930 which is said to be the time where Europeans arrived than is it pre-1930. But still the increase and decrease between tribes and within follow the same pattern as the first analysis.

It is said that Paula Brown ( the one who made this data on the second analysis ) was observing the initial stages of a process of change initiated by a reduction in the necessity for trade.

Trade and Marriage

Given the conventional wisdom that pacification would lead to greater intertribal contact and therefore, an increase in the rate of intertribal marriage, it remains to be explained why the proportion of intertribal marriages decreased.


a. Young men typically explained that they do not find wives from other area because they are tired. They just do not have any desire to travel the long distance to visit women of other areas when there are women close at hand.

b. Older men described the ways of young men and women met prospective spouses from other tribes prior to the coming of European. They say that when they were young, trade was very important. Salt, stone, axes, bird of paradise, feathers, shells of different kinds, pandanus oil, carpul fur and the like were traded between tribes during trading expeditions. The old man used to dress up with their finest decorations and travel to places that women would want to marry them.

In hearing this reason, reports are made that links intertribal marriage and trade for scarce necessity and luxury resources. It is also said that the introduction of European goods has an effect upon trade.

Upon the Introduction of Western goods, trade between people was elimited and others are reduced. No one wants stone axe anymore with the introduction of steel axe. Other products become readily available at the stores. And the need for other things was reduced and what may increase is the need for cash. The remaining trade relations were reliant upon the need for luxury items such as shells and feathers.

With the introduction of Western goods and the reduction of trade, both the need and the opportunity for intermarriage declined. Intertribal marriage was functional in that it facilitated intergroup economic transactions.

An early paper on Siani linked trade and marriage directly by focusing on the exchange of non-utilitarian valuables which occurred at marriage and at the rites of passage for children of the marriage. Trading took the form of ceremonial gist exchange between affines.

The European settlements near Siana increased their wealth and therefore, the movement of women in that direction becomes more pronounced.

Wealthy neighbors are to increase wife-giving. It is easy to see that once wealth is more evenly distributed, this reason for marrying out will no longer be of major consequences.

Particularly in the many areas of the highlands where marriages were arranged by families with minimal, or without, consultation with the bride and groom, consideration of trade relations was likely to play a role I the selection of the spouse. Families had an interest in the establishment or maintenance of trade relations. At the same time that the function of intertribal marriage for maintaining economic system in terms of access to necessary resources was eliminated, the decline in trade itself reduced the opportunity to make marriage arrangements between non-adjacent groups. Opportunity for marriage is not random but may be structured by factors such as class, caste, religious affiliation, sorority membership, or political borders.

In sum, the argument here is that the replacement, by western goods, of resources secured through trade reduced the economic need for intergroup marriage and the opportunity to arrange such marriages. The effects of these changes were not felt immediately because of the extent relations between groups. Over time, fewer and fewer intertribal marriage were arranged to replace those of the passing generation. The net effect was a gradual decay of the web of affinal and non-agnatic ties which cut across tribal boundaries.


One of the functions of intertribal marriage was the facilitation of trade between autonomous political groups. With the early introduction of Western goods, particularly steel axes and salt, local production was discontinued, so declined the opportunity to make marriage arrangements between non adjacent groups.

Intertribal marriages provided a linkage through which groups could communicate, and a mechanism and reason for containing conflict. With the decline in intergroup marriage over time, the likelihood of a dispute expanding into full-scale warfare increased.

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