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The Dani Tribe of New Guinea

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This paper reviews the cultural practices of the Dani Tribe of New Guinea. The primitive lifestyle, dress and superstitious beliefs are an important part of Dani Stone Age customs. The ritualistic warfare being unique to Dani culture is discusses as a special area of interest.

The tribes were discovered in 1938 living in the Baliem valley in isolation from the rest of the world. The Dani tribes were using stone axes, bows, arrows and spears and practicing cannibalism, Men barely clad in their penis gourd, women using grass skirt to hide the lower parts of their body were some of the practices of the tribe.

 The discovery of the tribe numbering in tens of thousands was a historical find for the anthropologists, an excellent opportunity to study the real live Stone Age community, its customs and culture. It was also a boon for the tourists.

Exposure to the modern world is gradually resulting in disappearance of the Stone Age culture as Dani learn the ways of the present and gradually find a new culture that carries only some of the traditional practices to the present times. Introduction to civilization has closed the window of golden opportunity for studying the Stone Age civilization.


Dani tribe of New Guinea is a part of the ‘Disappearing World’ as the people isolated from the rest of the world come into close contact with the civilized world. The ancient customs, archaic tribal practices and primitive lifestyle are being replaced with education, knowledge and exposure to the present world. The discovery of this large tribe provided the anthropologists an opportunity to learn about the development of human civilization. The change from Stone Age to the 20th century in a matter of a few decades makes the tribe worthy of potential scientific interest to anthropologists, psychologist and sociologist.

There is no doubt that exposure to the civilization will soon consign the ancient Dani customs to the history books. The tourism industry will have to work hard to preserve some of the traditional villages while the next generation of Stone Age women will look for opportunity to work as carnival strippers for the benefit of the tourists [Meiselas, 1976], a giant step indeed.

This essay describes cultural anthropology of the Dani tribe of New Guinea. Dani tribe’s discovery in 1938 provided the world a unique opportunity to observe and understand how ancient man lived in a primitive society and learn from first hand experience of a period that otherwise was only known to us from the archeological studies.

Geography of Dani Tribe Habitat

Spanish & Portuguese sailors discovered the Island of New Guinea in early 16th century [Ploeg, 2002]. All colonizing power laid claims on parts of New Guinea; Netherlands, Britain, Spain even France and Germany controlled portions of New Guinea. The high-density forest resulting from an average rainfall of 400 inches per year prevented the discovery of the Dani Tribes living in isolation from the rest of the world. Although reports of initial contacts with Dani people in 1905 exist, the real contacts began when in 1938, when Archbold surveying the area for a suitable site for an airfield discovered the agricultural terraces in the Grand Valley of Baliem River Area of New Guinea. This discovery resulted in the first contact with Dani tribes numbering in tens of thousands.  Baliem Grand Valley is 45 miles long and about 9- 19 miles wide. As in the early civilizations, the river was the lifeblood of the primitive residents of the area providing water of agriculture, horticulture, breeding pigs and the daily needs of the tribes [Irian Jaya, 2001].

Danis now numbering around 275000 can be divided into three dialect groups. Linguist Myron Bromley studied the languages of Dani people and found that on linguistic basis Danis could be divided into three dialect groups: north, central and south. The northern and southern dialects were mutually unintelligible but the central zone Dani could understand the other two [Irian Jaya, 2001].

Cultural Shock for the Dani

Culture means different things to different people. For Javanese Indonesians, Danis would be described as savages with no culture and helping Danis means forcing them to abandon their practices. For Catholic and Protestants trying to convert the primitive people all of the Dani customs, their dress, and their superstitions mean concerted efforts to convert them to Christianity as soon as possible.  This sudden influx of alien knowledge and new beliefs and customs must have brought psychological challenges for the primitive people.

 [Butt, 1992] working with Indonesian health workers on an internationally funded child and woman health initiative, found that  failure to show understanding towards Dani indigenous beliefs and their superstitions regarding spirits and witchcraft reduced the impact of the program.  Dani women continued with their traditional practices while pretending to be following the modern methods being advocated by the health workers [Butt, 1992]. Similarly, conversion to Christianity remained an uphill struggle as Dani converting to Christianity also continued to practice their beliefs, superstitions and cultural practices [Irian Jaya, 2001].

Despite undergoing the cultural shock of knowing the unacceptability of their customs and beliefs, Danis have shown incredible adaptability of adjusting to the new ways of the modern world. In 1969, Heider an anthropologist known for his work with the Dani tribe found the Danis using stone axes, bows, arrows and spears. Heider and other anthropologists work created a huge interest in the Danis as a primitive people living in the middle of 20th Century with Stone Age customs with penis gourd, cannibalism, Stone Age tools and primitive lifestyle [Heider, 1996]. A search of Internet today results in thousands of pages of information alluring tourists to that corner of the world. Heider visited Dani tribe again in 1995 and found that the stone-age Dani found in 1940s are disappearing fast. While the anthropologists may moan the gradual disappearance of the Dani of the Stone Age, our desire to see the old Dani culture preserved in its entirety is unrealistic as the Stone Age Danis cultural practices were a part of their isolation.

Cultural Practices of Dani Tribe

At the time of discovery of the tribe, Dani did not know how to work with metals had not learned to weave and wore no cloth clothes. Their attempt to cover the human body meant a penis gourd for men and grass skirt for women. Dani lived in straw or wooden huts, ‘honai’, traded with cowries shell as currency. The Dani were expert agriculturist and mostly lived on potatoes as staple diet. Danis most prized possessions are their pigs. Men’s wealth is measured in the number of pigs they have.

Dani men are polygamous and depending on their wealth, they can marry as many times as they like. Dani men have to give pigs in exchange for women. The women of the family have to do all the housework, look after the children, tend to the pigs and work in the potato fields as men sit and chat. [Meiselas, 2003] and [Meiselas, 1976] present a photographic anthropological account of Baliem Valley Danis and their transformation with time.

Dani’s ritualistic battles were one of their most talked about custom when hundreds of warriors faced their enemy with bodies shining with pig grease for placation of ghosts. In Dani culture two types of wars were normally fought: secular war and ritualistic war. Ritualistic wars were for placation of ghosts and secular wars were fought over women and pigs.

The language of Danis is the largest spoken non­-Melanesian language on the island with an estimated 190,000 speakers. As mentioned above the Dani language can be broadly divided into three dialects where Northern Baliem valley Dani cannot understand the southern valley Danis while the central Baliem Dani can follow all three dialects. Eleanor Rosh used Dani language to prove that Sapir-Whorf hypotheses that language determines ones conceptual system [Will, 1998]. She showed that while Dani language only recognized two colors, dark and light but Dani were able to distinguish various colors. She showed that primary color categories were psychologically real for speakers of Dani, even though they were not named [Rosch, 1973].

Dani Superstitions

The Stone-Age Danis were superstitious people believing that spirits of the dead come to haunt them. The ritualistic wars were staged to placate the spirits. The women in the family used to cut off their fingers to impress the spirit of a departing soul [Irian Jaya, 2001]The upper digits of the outer two fingers of the girl in the family were axed and the girl was slapped hard at the same time to ‘kill the leaves’. [Heider, 1996] reported that ‘every female older than 10 had lost four to six fingers to impress the spirits’.

Dani religion also revolves around spirit placation. For Danis annoying the spirits means disaster and poverty. Therefore, ceremonies such as cutting the fingers, pig killings were all to win the favor from the ghosts and departing soul. Men killed by the enemy represented powerful ghosts and had to be pleased with revenge. These powerful ghosts could cast a spell on the enemy after which the enemy could be more easily killed in battle [Heider, 1996] and [Irian Jaya, 2001]. The really important of the tribes were mummified after their death so that the generation after them could see them and benefit from their presence. These are smoked bodies of the departed dignitary. Each village has its ancestral mummies.

The children born in Dani family are usually underweight. “The Dani believe that an infant up to the age of about three months should be kept as quiet as possible, in a cool and dark net-bag slung over the mother’s back or hung on a hook inside a cookhouse, during the hot daytime hours. Babies should be bathed in a safe space where malevolent dead ancestors cannot affect the health of the child“[Butt, 1992]. Dani men stay away from their wives after they have given birth to a child for 5 years. This practice support polygamy. The men and women sleep in separate quarters [Heider, 1996].


Many of the tribes in New Guinea practiced cannibalism. Dani are not considered to be common cannibals. The practice was more common among the Korowai and Kombai tribes living in south East New Guinea. There are records of Dani eating dead enemies [Ploeg, 2002].  The practice caused Kuru, a neurological degenerative disease among the women who were the normal cannibals. The practice was banned in 1959. The abhorrent practice was one of the most talked about area of the Stone Age New Guinea [Gray, 1999].

An Important Area of Dani Culture

Dani culture was indeed unique. The primitive people’s life style, dress, superstitious beliefs, languages and customs are a part of an ancient civilization. The cultural issue I found most interesting is their ritualistic warfare. [Heider, 1996] and [Larson, 1987] provide excellent accounts of the Dani warfare. Dani tribes have organized themselves in territorial alliances and confederation, each alliance led by one or more Big Men. Larson reported twelve alliances among the Grand Valley tribes. Each alliance was separated by a no-man’s land with manned watchtower.

Dani’s warfare was of two type secular warfare and ritualistic warfare. Secular wars were fought for emotional reasons and were violent and explosive. Dani used to invade an opponent’s settlements burning hoses, destroying property, desecrating graveyards and killing indiscriminately. Men, women, children old or disabled all were legitimate target in Secular War. Secular Wars were a result of rage, which could happen over women, pigs or a number of property related reasons.

These ‘routs’ could occur as a result of interpersonal dispute, pre-dawn surprise attack or even in the course of ritual battle. Danis were intelligent enough to know the consequences of Secular Wars and tried to resolve these disputes through peaceful means. [Larson, 1987] collected data on these disputes and found that more than 70% of the disputes were resolved through persuasion, mediation or compensatory payment. Larson reported that the remaining 30% (actually numbering 53 in Larson’s data) resulted in some form of violence ranging from use of sticks and stones escalating to bows and arrows and even to ambushes, killing and continuous raids. Larson reported that during his data collection period seventeen disputes (9% of total in his data on Dani warfare) culminated in the entire alliances being involved on both sides and a call for ritual battle [Larson, 1987].

Ritual battles were organized to prevent the Secular Wars [Heider, 1996]. These were pre-planned with no element of surprise. These ritual wars took place when confederation of one alliance challenged the confederation of other alliance. Both parties rallied leaders of alliance to participate in the Secular wars. If allies were sufficiently enraged and acceded to the ‘owner of the war’ pleas then the alliance challenged the other party and a date and time was fixed for the ritualistic war.

In these cases, the ritualistic wars were a matter of honor, placating the spirits by winning the ritual wars. The wars also served to assert the superiority of the alliance and even if the war ended in a stalemate, it identified the strength and weaknesses of both parties [Heider, 1996].

Once the challenge for a ritualistic war was accepted, the parties decided a no-man land near the tribes as the location for the war. The weapons used in the wars were typically bow and arrows, multiple throwing spears and a jabbing spear [Heider, 1996]. A jabbing spear usable in close combat was never used during the ritualistic war field in the accounts given by Heider and Larson.

The warriors of Dani tribe used to ‘dress-up’ to appear threatening to the enemy, faces and torsos smeared with pig grease, and soot or dark clay [Heider, 1996]. The war leaders dressed up in military attire with plumes shells and ornaments.

The ritual war began with a display of ferocity; both warring parties displayed their weapons, performed mock threatening maneuvers, screamed in high pitch war cries and trampled on the ground or nearby garden. When the parties faced each other in the battlefield, they kept a fair distance and dared each other to make the first move. The braver warriors moved hesitantly to within 15 to 20 yards of each other with their spears while the others threw arrows high up in the air at the enemy, which the enemy soldiers could void by being vigilant. The ‘armies’ on both sides were divided into first battle lines of the braver warriors, followed by a line of warriors with spears and a reserve force of resting warriors. The warring soldiers could retire at any time to rest or replenish their weapons. During the battle the leaders and the people gathered to support their alliance shouted insults at the opposition to boost the morale of their warriors. Each skirmishes lasted for 30-45 minutes [Larson, 1987] followed by a rest of about 20 minutes when causalities were counted and new maneuvers decided.

The Ritual war leaders ensured that causalities on both sides remained balanced otherwise the war could turn into a ‘rout’ [Larson, 1987]. The war for the day ended when light fell at the end of the day and could restart next day lasting as long as three months. The conduct of war, blunt weapons limited danger to both sides and [Heider, 1996] saw the conduct of war as competing communities attempt to keep hostilities under control, test enemy’s strength and as ‘man-power testing’ [Larson, 1987]. In very few cases, one of the warring parties proves to be so weak that it cannot maintain the balance of power. Larson listed two such occasions in the many ritualistic wars. In both of these cases (Larson’s 10th and 14th wars), the loosing party was pushed out of the valley [Larson, 1987].

The ritualistic wars minimized the need for Secular wars, maintained strength of Dani tribe by ensuring that they remained strong or risk being pushed out of the valley and served a useful purpose in the Stone Age Dani society.

Future for Dani Tribe

Soon after the discovery of Danis in 1938, the missionaries arrived in Baliem Valley to Valley to civilize the savages and turn them into good Christians and that started the end of the Stone Age Civilization. Many Danis converted to Christianity and learning that their dresses and customs were unacceptable to the modern world have adapted considerably. The old Dani civilization is difficult to find now. The interest created by the tourism in the area has developed an industry of which the peaceful Dani are becoming a willing partner. Even those who have become more used to shorts than their penis gourd can don the old gear for the benefit of the visiting tourist. The mummies can also be brought out for a few rupiahs (Indonesian Currency). [Meiselas, 1976], photographic anthropology ‘ Carnival Strippers’ is a good indication of how quickly Dani’s have adapted to the modern times where the tourism demands have created the usual requirements for the tourist related workers.

The Danis are still not connected with the rest of the world by road and only means of reaching the Baliem Valley is by small aircrafts. The roads have however been constructed within the Valley. We can expect all remnants of the Stone Age civilization to disappear when this last hurdle is also removed. The customs, the superstitions and traditions will however take a little longer to disappear as these are transferred from one generation to the other. The Dani still remain poor but the attention Danis have received during the last 60 years will ensure that even if the anthropologist loose interest in Danis, the tourist industry will keep some of the past culture alive.


  1. Butt, L., (1992) What anthropologists mean when they talk about culture: Conflicting discourses in development, McGill University  http://www.irja.org/anthro/lb.htm
  2. Gray, A., (1999), What is the Flavor of Human Flesh?, Presented at the Symposium Cultural and Historical Aspects of Foods, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon
  3. Heider, K.G., (1996), Grand Valley Dani: Peaceful Warriors (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology), 3rd Edition, (Paperback), 208 pages, Wadsworth Publishing; ISBN13: 978-0155051737
  4. Humphrey, S. and  Rider, R.,(2006) An Economic Analysis of Warrior Warfare, University of Mary Washington and California State University, San Marcos
  5. Irian Jaya’s Highlander, (2001), [Online] retrieved from Internet on 17th February 2007, http://www.bagus-discovery.com/hotel/puribagus_baliem_dani.html
  6. Larson, G., (1987), The Structure and Demography of the Cycle of Warfare among the Ilaga Dani of Irian Jaya, PhD dissertation, University of Michigan
  7. Meiselas, S., (1976) Carnival Strippers Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York (reprint (hardcover), 2003 164pp, Steidl ISBN 3-88243-954-8)
  8. Meiselas, S., (2003), Encounters with the Dani 176pp, hardcover, Steidl & Partners, ISBN 3-88243-930-0, Sept 2003
  9. Ploeg, A., (2002), “DE PAPOEA” What’s in a name, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 3(1), pp.75-101
  10. Rosch, E, (Eleanor Heider) (1973), Natural categories, Cognitive Psychology, 4, pp.328-350
  11. Sims, C., (2001), Stone Age Ways Surviving, Barely, the New York Times, March 11, 2001
  12. Will, U., (1998), And what if they say nothing….? (English Translation of Et quand ils n’en disent rien ……?), Cahiers de musiques traditionelles, vol.12, pp.175-185

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