Cultural Overview

The Mundugumor were a horticultural people with a population of about 1,000 who lived along the rich and fertile banks of the Yuat River (the time period referred to here is the early 1930s unless stated otherwise). Their main staple was sago, but it was supplemented by significant garden products (taro, bananas, yams, coconuts), fish, domestic pigs, game (pigs, cassowaries, marsupials), and gathered items such as eggs and greens. Tobacco and betel nuts, consumed as well as traded, were important crops.

Although there were six villages, or more accurately "hamlet-clusters" (Mead, 1935/1963, p. 169), the two away from the river had begun to differentiate from the four along the river proper. Villages were not clearly demarcated settlements, but conceptually grouped hamlets, and it was the hamlet that was the main settlement. Each, ideally distant from all others, was inhabited by one or more households, which were the basic residential units. Although actual composition was variable, each household comprised the male head, his wife or wives, their children, and attached others such as unimportant unmarried men and elderly relatives.

Political organization was the type anthropologists label "big man." Individual men achieved powerful positions due to their personal initiative, the manipulation of exchange transactions, the accumulation of wives, control over substantial garden produce and trade items as well as domestic pigs, demonstrated leadership in warfare, magical knowledge and ritual sponsorship, and oratorical abilities. Conflict within hamlets and villages as well as between villages was common, and warfare, including raiding and cannibalism, involved shifting alliances with a variety of neighboring groups. They were known by their neighbors to be fierce, and there was an unoccupied strip of land 20 miles long down river from their settlements because others feared to encroach upon them. From their rich riverbank location they participated in trade networks to which they contributed coconuts, tobacco, and betel nut; they served a mediating role in several networks as well. From these associations they obtained pottery, shells, stone, and a variety of manufactured goods as well as art styles, songs, and dances.

Most interpersonal relationships were based on kinship; individuals were related to others in one way or another. A person's kin were divided into three types, based on the nature of the tie and the behavior appropriate: (1) people with whom one demonstrated some intimacy (e.g., a man's mother), (2) people who elicited shame and should be avoided (e.g., affines), and (3) people with whom joking was obligatory (e.g., distant cross cousins).

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