The Upper Sepik-Central New Guinea Project aims to explore the relationships between material culture on the one hand, and language, geographical propinquity, population, subsistence and environment on the other, in two adjacent regions of Papua New Guinea – the upper Sepik basin and the highlands of central New Guinea – during a relatively narrow time span before major impact by foreign cultures.

The data consists of objects of material culture, and the written information about those objects, located in museums and private collections within Australia and overseas, assembled as a single, virtual collection. The role of trade/exchange links, inter-marriage, population movements, communal rituals and warfare in affecting relationships among the variables will be assessed.

The two regions of the study are linked by the Sepik River that rises in central New Guinea and flows north then east through its upper basin. The Sepik was first explored by a Hamburg museum expedition 1908-10, then more thoroughly by Richard Thurnwald for a joint expedition by German museums during 1912-14 (Thurnwald 1914, 1916). Thurnwald followed the Sepik up to its source near Telefomin. He also explored its tributaries in the Upper Sepik Basin – the Yellow and Sand Rivers, the North River, the Hauser (Green) and October Rivers. During these expeditions, objects of material culture were collected, many of which are in the Berlin Museum (Kelm 1966). Click the map below to open an animated depiction of Thurnwald’s journeys in the upper Sepik Basin in a new window (Flash required).

From the south, Leo Austen explored the Fly River headwaters in 1922 and 1924, and Karius and Champion crossed the central ranges from the Fly to the Sepik headwaters in 1927 (Champion 1966). Two ethnographic collections were made during the Ward Williams gold prospecting expedition of 1935-6 (Campbell 1938; Kienzle & Campbell 1938, Williams 1961). In 1959 the Dutch conducted a multi-disciplinary expedition to the Sibil valley in what is now the Indonesian province of [West] Papua (Brongersma & Venema 1962; Kooijman 1962).

In 1963-4, Bryan Cranstone made a collection for the British Museum from the Telefomin–Tifalmin area (Cranstone 1965, 1968, 1990). In 1964, Barry Craig made a collection from Telefomin for the Australian Museum and in 1968, 1969 and 1972-3 he made further collections in both central New Guinea and the upper Sepik basin for state museums in Port Moresby, Sydney, Leiden and Berlin. In 1969 he completed a Masters thesis on the houseboards and warshields of central New Guinea and has continued publishing material from that area and the upper Sepik (see Bibliography).

houseboards (1).jpg

During the 1960s and 1970s, several researchers conducted fieldwork and made ethnographic collections at various locations within the two regions and subsequently have published various papers and books. Not many researchers have looked at the detailed forms and distribution of particular types of objects. Craig (1969, 1990, 1995) has looked at houseboards and warshields, arrows and smoking tubes and men’s house relic and trophy arrays.

Frank Tiesler (1984) examined the distribution of rattan cuirasses by reference to museum specimens. Maureen MacKenzie (1991) has researched looped string bags (‘bilums’) in central New Guinea. Although most of the collections were made after the displacement of stone tools by steel tools, Pétrequin & Pétrequin (1990) and Bud Hampton (1999) have demonstrated that useful information about stone tool manufacture and distribution could still be obtained in the field in [West] Papua in the 1970s and 1980s.

Collections to be studied

This ARC Linkage Project has recorded data and photographs of around 12,000 ethnographic objects from two geographical areas broadly different from each other.

a) The upper Sepik consists of a swampy riverine environment at 50–150 metres ASL, partly encircled by hills and mountains up to 1500 metres. The linguistic situation is heterogeneous. Fourteen language groups are in the study region; three each of the Trans-New Guinea and Kwomtari Phyla, four of the Sepik Phylum and four unrelated languages, for which around 5220 ethnographic objects were targetted for study (Table 1).

Exploitation of sago palms is supplemented with fruit and vegetable slash-and-burn gardening, minor pig husbandry, hunting, fishing and the gathering of wild foods. When most of the ethnographic material was collected in the 1960s and 1970s, c. 18,000 people were members of these language groups. First impressions are that cultural material is relatively heterogeneous and correlates to some extent with language differences.

b) Central New Guinea is a highlands environment ranging from 1500 to 4000 metres ASL at the headwaters of the Sepik, Fly and Digul rivers. The linguistic situation is relatively homogeneous. Eight language groups are in the study region, all of the Trans-New Guinea Phylum of languages (seven in the Ok Family and Oksapmin, a Sub-Phylum-Level Isolate), for which around 3220 ethnographic objects were targetted for study (Table 2).

Subsistence horticultural practices are based on sweet potato and/or taro, minor pig husbandry and some hunting. When most of the ethnographic material was collected (1930s-1960s), c. 30,000 people were members of these language groups. First impressions are that cultural material is relatively homogeneous and correlates with language homogeneity.

The post-graduate student, Andrew Fyfe, visited each museum and private collection, and recorded catalogue number, physical description, provenance and cultural information for each object on a laptop computer using an MS Excel database. Digital images were made of all objects included in the database. Attention was given to details of materials, technique, form, graphic design, and so forth.

Fyfe discovered several additional collections during the process and these were added to the targeted collections. The number of objects examined can be determined by reading the Progress Reports (click ‘Reports’ in the menu above).

How the collections will be analysed

Researchers at the Field Museum, Chicago, have analysed the distribution of over 6,000 ethnographic objects collected by A.B. Lewis and others during 1900-13 along the north coast of New Guinea, from [West] Papua to Madang (Papua New Guinea) (for some of their publications, see Field Museum WWW#1 and #2; Welsch, Terrell & Nadolski 1992; Welsch & Terrell 1994; Welsch 1996; Welsch & Terrell 1998). The geographic region examined by the Chicago team’s project is relatively uniform, being primarily coastal with small nearby islands and hills hinterland. Although linguistically diverse with 55 languages belonging to 5 unrelated language phyla along 700 kilometres of coastline, the people are claimed to have belonged to a more or less homogeneous material culture complex, sharing in a common pool of resources, material products, and cultural practices. The analysis proceeded on the basis of presence/absence of generalised categories of material culture items (eg. bows and arrows, spears, spearthrowers, string bags, soft baskets).

The focus of the Chicago team’s analysis is on how trade and inherited friendship networks:

… contributed to the interdependence of people on a far wider scale than one might suppose given the linguistic diversity of these societies . . . our research is confirming that studying borrowing, diffusion, and patterned, structured interactions across large-scale social aggregates or social fields is crucial to understanding culture history, social process, and social change or evolution. (Field Museum WWW#1).

There is nothing particularly provocative about this direction in their research. However, along the way, they have stated (Welsch, Terrell & Nadolski 1992: 587):

We question the value of parsing New Guinea’s people into ‘ethnolinguistic’ groups, as if differences in language automatically translate into differences in culture. Simply knowing that two neighbouring communities speak unrelated languages does not allow us to assume that there are important and meaningful differences in their respective cultures.

Their findings also led them to question (Welsch, Terrell & Nadolski 1992: 592) the widely-held belief that Lapita pottery was part of a ‘single, ethnically unified, cultural complex . . . associated with the dispersal of Austronesian-language speakers’ in the south-west Pacific.

Even broader implications are drawn for contemporary global society (Field Museum WWW#2):

The peoples of the Pacific and their prehistoric past are showing us that isolation is not needed for the evolution of human diversity. Humankind’s cultural diversity, therefore, is not doomed to vanish from our world as we become ever more interconnected.

The wide-ranging significance of their findings has inevitably prompted diverse responses from scholars in the fields of cultural anthropology and archaeology. Moore & Romney (1994) utilised a different statistical method to re-analyse the same data set and arrived at a significantly different conclusion. A further re-analysis (Roberts, Moore & Romney 1995), and comments on this from nine specialists, including Terrell and Welsch, were published along with a reply from Roberts, Moore & Romney. The upshot of the debate is that there are serious questions about the most appropriate statistical method for testing the correlation between language and culture for this data set, but even more pertinent were the questions asked by Peter Bellwood (Comment on Roberts, Moore & Romney 1995: 777):

… what would the Welsch et al. analysis have shown had it been focused not on gross functional categories of items but on fine-tuned stylistic variations (eg. in shape and decoration) within these categories? What would be the patterns with respect to linguistic differentiation if one were to extend this kind of analysis to the whole of Melanesia, including the New Guinea Highlands?

Our ARC Linkage Project will seek answers to Bellwood’s questions using material from the upper Sepik basin and from the highlands of central New Guinea.

Check our ‘News’ and ‘Papers’ pages for notification of publications and postings providing results of our research.