Cultural Overview

Some 25 Iatmul-speaking villages line the middle Sepik River. For Melanesia, these villages are large—upwards of 1,200 people. They are also prosperous, with fertile gardens, access to jungle and grasslands, and a continuous source of water for drinking, bathing, and food.1 The river, which recedes and floods in an annual rain cycle, provides fish, prawns, and mayflies. Extended families tend small horticultural gardens of taro, yam, sweet potato, and fruit trees (e.g., coconut, banana).

Colonial administrations, beginning in the 1880s, introduced beans, cucumber, pineapple, watermelon, and other crops. Iatmul may also eat chicken, wild bird, turtle, crocodile, snake, frog, sago grubs, lotus seeds, bandicoot, cassowary, and, during ritual, pig, and sometimes dog. Iatmul attribute bodily strength and cultural vitality to sago, a starch produced from the Metroxylum sagu palm, which is associated with maternal nurture and, say some men, breast-milk.

Today, trade stores stock rice, canned fish and meat, biscuits, flour, beer, cooking oil, tea, coffee, powdered milk, cookies, and biscuits. Additionally, Iatmul—mainly women—regularly schedule markets with bush-dwelling Sawos-speaking hamlets to obtain sago and sometimes meat (Hauser-Schaublin, 1977). Formerly, Iatmul exchanged fish; now, they mainly pay cash.

Iatmul villages are organized into a nested hierarchy of patrilineal descent groups, sometimes forming totemic moieties. Each patrilineal group justifies its existence on the basis of an exclusive corpus of totemic names that refer to mythic-historic migrations. Men tend to have custodianship over these names.

Yet matrifiliation and maternal sentiment are profound and, in some contexts such as disputes, eclipse the androcentric social structure. Villages are acephalous. Political leadership is male and extends only to the limits of the descent group. Residence is normally patrilocal; marriage generally takes place within the village. Warfare, once endemic, is extinct. But men and women still manifest an assertive, often aggressive, ethos that nonetheless coexists with the high moral value of mothering.

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