Cultural Overview

Owing in part to ecological variation, there are some minor differences among Abelam subgroups. This article concentrates on the foothills-dwelling Samukundi (or Manjekundi) Abelam. The ethnographic present is the early 1970s.

The Samukundi are primarily swidden horticultural-ists, growing yams, taro, and sweet potatoes as staples. Sago, coconuts, bananas, and breadfruit are other popular foodstuffs. Women do a large part of the gardening. Agricultural products are supplemented by keeping pigs and hunting, the latter activity being almost entirely the purview of men. Men net, spear, or shoot large game (pig, cassowary), while boys snare smaller game (small birds, wallabies, bandicoots, and opossums). Villages are self-sufficient in subsistence production.

Much of Samukundi Abelam life is structured by an elaborate ritual complex involving the growth and display of huge ceremonial yams (Dioscorea alata), which may attain lengths of 3 m or more. Ceremonial yams are grown only by men. The best tubers are given to ritual exchange partners in a competitive exchange process linking neighboring villages. To a large extent, male status, prestige, and power are dependent on the size and quality of the ceremonial yams grown. This yam-growing ritual complex, including its accompanying taboos during the growing season, acts to structure and synchronize many aspects of Abelam society, including the timing of births, the expression of conflict and violence, and the organization of trade, visiting, courtship, and marriage.

Village leaders are the well-known Melanesian "big men," who have no formal authority but achieve influence through ceremonial yam-growing and success in ritual activity, warfare, and oratory. Social organization is based on kinship and residence. Descent is nominally patrilin-eal and residence nominally patrilocal, but there is much variation. Extended families of about a dozen persons live in small hamlets. Nearby hamlets share a kurambu or spirit house, and together constitute a ceremonial group of about a hundred persons. Villages consist of loose confederations of ceremonial groups.

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