Cultural Overview

The staples of Mountain Arapesh subsistence were yam and taro, cultivated separately by slash-and-burn horticulture, and sago. These were supplemented with bananas, greens, sugarcane, bamboo sprouts, breadfruit, coconuts, and a variety of game, including pigs, cassowaries, other smaller mammals, birds, grubs, and fish. Pigs and dogs were the main domestic animals.

At contact, the Mountain Arapesh were distributed across the mountains at a density of around 15-25 per square kilometer and loosely organized into localities of 200 or so people. Intralocality relations were rather tenuous and joint action relatively infrequent, but under the coordination of its senior men a locality occasionally prosecuted war against other localities, mounted rituals such as initiations, feasted other districts, and participated in interlocality meetings (possibly a postcontact innovation). Localities were also linked to others by an intensive trade conducted through long-established trade links that spanned the mountains from the southern foothills to the sea. Through these links passed tools, weapons, shells and other valuables, musical instruments, magic, songs, and dance complexes.

Internally, localities were divided into moieties, with clans of one moiety generally living within easy distance of one another but almost out of shouting range, across deep valleys or high ridges, from clans of the other moiety. Some tension existed between the moieties of a locality. Occasionally, they battled and even killed one another, but more usually they "fought with food," with the senior men of one moiety competitively exchanging root crops and game with hereditary exchange partners in the other.

The clans of a moiety were divided into one or more ceremonial communities; the exact composition of these communities depend on circumstances of geography, history, and kinship. Each ceremonial community took its name from a large central ridge-top settlement that served as the locus of its social and ceremonial life and, in times of heightened conflict, as a nucleated defensive position. These centers also provided some community members with their primary home and many others with secondary homes. For most people, though, the main residence was asho'ubeli wabul, a "little place," that ranged in size from a gardening, hunting, or pig-herding camp of one or two houses to a hamlet of perhaps half a dozen buildings. Reflecting the mobility of mountain life, few of these "little places" were permanent; the larger ones shifted site from one generation to another, and the smaller camps were even more mobile.

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