Growing Up in New Guinea (Manus)

This book was published in 1930 and dedicated to Reo Fortune, Mead’s second husband. In many ways, it portrays a Melanesian culture that contrasts sharply with the harmonious, carefree Polynesian societies of Samoa, the topic of her first book. Surprisingly, this book — about a small group of people living off the coast of a faraway, never-heard-of island called Manus — became quite popular as well. On her title, Mead would later remark, “Americans were so little interested in that part of the world that I had to call my book Growing Up in New Guinea (using the name for the Territory), and then include a bit of Australia in the map so that those Americans who thought New Guinea was in either Africa or South America could orient themselves.”1

The “landless” Manus

The Manus claimed possession of thirty-two sand spits and tiny islets along the south coast of what they now call the island of Manus. The people called their village on the reef “Peri” and had clan members who likewise lived off the coast of other Admiralty Islands. They lived in stilt pole houses built over lagoons between the barrier reefs and their sago palm swamps, which bordered the shore in places. These pole houses, made of thatch, had slat floors made of the slender trunks of split betel palms.

Trading was not only a central endeavor of their daily lives. It formed the very basis of their cultural identity. The Manus traded fish and other marine resources for the bananas, taro, coconuts — and even precious betel nut — they needed. Their main trading partners were the Usiai, who populated the hills and valleys of the adjacent island. By the 1930s, the Manus no longer sailed hundreds of miles to Rabaul or to mainland New Guinea to trade. Such long voyages were no longer condoned by their territorial administrators. However, they still had their sailing canoes, and they traded locally within their local Admiralty archipelago.


Trade was the most important activity of a Manus man. He would trade with men in the next village, with his in-laws and with his other relatives too. When speaking of his wife, he was likely to mention his betrothal payment. And when speaking of his father, he would perchance mention the huge burial payment he had made for him. He thought of life events such as pregnancy, birth, puberty, betrothal, marriage and death in terms of the dog-tooth necklaces, shell money, pigs, coconut oil and sago needed to pay for them. He would use these items, the fruits of his trade, to make reciprocal payments to other society members on most of these occasions. The larger these payments were, the more prestige he would garner.


Puberty, for instance, was an event requiring a series of festivals that demanded food distributions and reciprocal payments. Mead found that most girls were betrothed long before puberty, so a future wife’s first menstruation became an occasion for reciprocal payments between the families of the betrothed. Upon its occurrence, the girl’s eldest male relative, who would finance her family’s marriage obligations, would initiate the series by throwing bunches of coconuts into the sea. All the neighboring children in the village would leap in after them. The girl would then sit on mats in the middle of her father’s house for five days. That night and for the next four nights, all the village girls would sleep by her side. Each day her family members would sail or paddle tall pots of bulukol, a coconut soup, to the future husband’s village, and his family would bring fish to hers.

The men of his family would ask every inland trade partner to make sago. They would also work their coastal sago plantations, limited in number, by day and fish by night to pay these partners for the sago. At the end of five days, male relatives would hold the first of several feasts. That evening the men would light great quantities of bamboo torches and deliver large lumps of raw sago to the other houses of the village.

Seven days later, the women of the village would hold a second feast. Taro, sago cakes, coconut, and puddings of taro and grated coconut would be prepared and placed in wooden bowls. These women, expecting a bead belt as return payment for each bowl of food, would then take them to the house of the future mother-in-law. Five days later, they would hold a third feast. This one was just for fun — with no reciprocal payments — and just for women. This festival would be attended by the girl and all her sisters-in-law, as well as her mother and her mother’s sisters-in-law.

Strict monogamy

Unlike the Polynesians of Samoa that Mead had studied, these Melanesians were strictly monogamistic. They not only prohibited sex before marriage but also prevented a betrothed couple from even looking upon one another or saying each other’s names.

Once married to this woman — whom the husband had neither chosen nor even seen before their marriage — he would have to work for years for those who had paid for his wedding. He would move his wife into the back of his marriage backer’s home and would fish incessantly to support his backer’s family.

His wife’s place, much more so than in Samoa, was in the home. In Manus this home would be isolated. It would be surrounded by water and cut off from the company of others, prohibiting any chance of nightly trysts beneath the coconut palms. His wife, betrothed at such an early age, would never have seen him before their marriage either. If she did not conceive quickly, she could possibly ask a visiting relative to paddle her back to her village down the reef — the ultimate embarrassment at this stage of the man’s marriage.

Pregnancy and birth

When the wife became pregnant, custom forbade her from telling her husband. Such intimacy between the two would take years to develop. Might he hear word of the economic preparations his brothers-in-law were making in her home village? If not, he would be surprised by the first conception feast, when canoes laden with sago came to his door.

As the months passed, there would be other periodic feasts for which he must make repayment. He would have to beg for bead strings at his sisters’ houses. He would be constantly worried that his repayments were less than enough. From the moment his wife’s labor began, by custom he would have to leave the house. He could only bring fish to the home’s landing platform. For a whole month after birth, he would have to wander about, sleeping at one sister’s and then another’s.

The festival marking her husband’s return would give the wife little pleasure. She was only a pawn in the elaborate game being played. Her family would prepare much food and deliver it to all houses in the husband’s village.

The role of fathers

Margaret Mead

Mead also discussed the differences between the Manus and the Samoans in terms of growing up. The family man in Samoa would rarely interact with his young children. The Samoan household consisted of a number of children, each child dependent upon the next older. In the Manus family, each child would center their attention on the father and only secondarily on the mother. It was easy for the father to woo his baby away from his wife. He would return to the house after having gone fishing before the dawn, pole-punted his canoe across the shallow lagoon to the market and traded his fish — for perhaps taro, betel nut and taro leaves. Then he would be free for the better part of the day, to play with the baby as the mother cooked, cleaned and went about her daily chores.

Children would learn to take advantage of this situation. Obviously the most important person in the home, the father was also more indulgent than the mother. The baby would run to the mother to nurse, but then it was back to the father, who was still the center of interest. He was never too busy to play, unlike the mother, who was always busy and stayed in the smoky interior of the house. The father would stay outside on the more exciting veranda over the water, often in the middle of village activity. Thus, among the Manus, the father had an opportunity to impress his personality upon his children and absorb nearly all their love and respect.

The role of spirits

What drove the Manus father’s materialism? Events in his family would demand economic obligations, for one. Unlike the Polynesians, there were no chiefs among the Melanesians but only “big men.” They attracted followers, successfully and repeatedly fulfilled their obligations, and proved themselves to be astute traders. This success was what brought men respect and prestige.

Their fishing skills would prove to be useful, but more than this, the spirits would begin to play a role in the lives of young men soon after they married. They believed that the spirits of their dead fathers caused all sickness of whatever kind as punishment for laxity in their economic affairs. The Manus believed that the strongest spirits were those of the most recently dead males of the family. These spirits became not only the family’s guardians and protectors but also its censors, punishing the family for any economic procrastination.

From the house rafters, the Manus would suspend a carved bowl containing the skull and finger bones of the most recently deceased male. They believed that actions or inactions — such as the failure to pay debts, the careless manipulation of family property or the unfair allotment of funds among the needs of several relatives — would bring sickness to a man’s family. For instance, if he used all his wealth to make spectacular payments for his wife but did not make betrothal payments for his younger brothers, someone in the family would be sure to fall ill.

Women and girls had no personal guardians and were, therefore, spiritually unequipped to venture into dangerous places. But little boys, from the time they were four or five, had guardian spirits who accompanied them everywhere.

The sad thing was that, amid all this give and take, miscalculations would inevitably take place. The result was constant bickering between families, often to the point of expressing rage over debt repayments. For Mead, Manus society did not seem happy. In contrast, strife and jealousy, if it existed, seldom breached the surface of Samoan culture.

  • Note:
  • 1. Mead, Margaret, New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation—Manus, 1928–1953 (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001).

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