Mangrove Man and Pre-contact New Guinea

As the author of The Forbidden Man, the second novel in the Legends of Ḷainjin historical literary fiction series, I used Dr. David Lipset’s 1997 book Mangrove Man: Dialogics of Culture in the Sepik Estuary as background for part of my novel. An anthropologist, Dr. Lipset[1] began his research into the people of the Murik Lakes and their culture in 1981. (Secondary sources for the book go back to 1913.) This area is a 135-square-mile intertidal, saltwater swamp just west of the Sepik estuary in Papua New Guinea.

Kathleen Barlow, now Professor Emeritus at Central Washington University, went with him, and they were at once adopted by two separate, welcoming families in Darapap village. Thus, their extensive instructions in “proper behavior,” with respect to “Murik personhood,” began. Lipset and Barlow’s stay lasted for several years and through the births of two boys.

Fourteen years earlier, and seventeen hundred miles east-northeast, I received a similar welcome upon my arrival at Namorik, in the Marshall Islands. As I am not an anthropologist and, therefore, not qualified to write a professional critique of David Lipset’s work, I will limit my comments on his book to my more prosaic background.

Gigantic mangrove swamps

The book begins with a brief physical description of the Murik Lakes, which consist of shallow lagoons of various depths, and their place in East Sepik geography and culture. These lakes formed from a once vast prehistoric inland sea. Now filled with thick forests of Rhizophora mangrove, these lagoons have become interspersed with both broad and narrow channels.

The landless people who live there call themselves Bar Nor, which means “Mangrove Man.” They build their homes (iran) on spindly mangrove stilts with floors six feet or so above the water.

Their East Sepik language has become mixed with the many languages of the offshore islanders with whom they still trade. These languages are non-Sepik-Austronesian dialects related to most other languages throughout seaboard Melanesia and the rest of the Pacific.

The Bar Nor adopted the use of outrigger canoes (proas), which were culturally indigenous to these offshore islanders and enabled trade. In acquiring more advanced sailing technologies, they differentiated themselves from the non-Austronesian peoples of the inland Sepik area, with whom they kept a thriving beach-to-bush trade.

These offshore “trade brothers,” as the Bar Nor referred to them, lived in dozens of coastal settlements and on offshore islands (with names such as Bam, Blup and Vokeo) for hundreds of miles up and down the coast from the Sepik estuary. Even during their head-hunting days prior to 1913 (elaborated on below), the Bar Nor never referred to these offshore peoples as anything other than brothers. During that time, they directed their semiannual war parties at the adjacent inland Sepik peoples referred to as the “Bush Murik.” The purpose of these hostilities was neither hegemonic nor political. They were related to the consecration of cult houses and outrigger canoes and, more importantly, the initiation of novices into their men’s cult, as I explain later.

The story of the two brothers

Early in Lipset’s book, he tells the celebrated story of two brothers that reflects much of the Sepik culture embedded in this broader Bar Nor trade area. The elder brother is Andena. When his younger brother, Arena, and his age group are ready for initiation into the men’s cult, Andena sails to these offshore islands to trade for the necessary number of pigs, leaving his woman, Mwed, in Arena’s care. One day, Mwed goes fishing and paddles down a channel off the great river, where Arena is pounding sago pith.

When Arena gets tired of pounding, he picks up a piece of white sago bark and begins to engrave a design onto it. After a while, he discards it in the water, and it floats down to where Mwed is fishing. She covets the design and asks Arena to tattoo it on her. “Where?” he asks. She tries to fit the piece of bark in several places on her body and decides the best place for it is between her legs, so she opens them to him. When Andena returns and sees the tattoo, he’s jealous of Arena but starts building the men’s house for his brother’s age group. Andena allows each young man to carve a design into the center post.

When Arena’s design matches that between Mwed’s legs, the elder brother has his proof and decides what he must do. While his men ready the hole for the center post, Andena gives his younger brother the honor of entering the hole and guiding the post into place, but in anticipation of what was to come, Arena has already dug a wide side tunnel for his survival. He feigns injury by spitting betel juice at the base of the pole. Once it has set, the older brother accuses the younger of raping his woman and orders the hole filled in on top of him. That night, Arena climbs out and sets to work, making himself a proa in which to leave the island.

Arena’s trick

A few days later, Andena is out hunting for pigs when he comes across Arena constructing his proa. Thinking his younger brother dead, Andena disregards the resemblance and asks him to make a second proa for him. Arena responds, “Okay, but you pound plenty of sago so we can go to the offshore islands and trade for pigs.” Andena agrees and plants all the sago in the swamps of the lower Sepik River. When the proas are ready, the two men load them with sago and sail out into the ocean, but Arena has tricked his brother. He has used a weaker vine for the lashings of his brother’s proa, and it breaks up in the waves. When Andena calls for help, the younger brother refuses, announces to his brother who he is and sails away, never to return.

Andena eventually makes it to shore, constructs another proa and sets after Arena, distributing gifts wherever he goes. He gives the coastal peoples the tools and trading skills they need to become wealthy. He teaches them to treat the visiting off-island traders as their long-lost brothers, and so the Bar Nor treat all trade brothers with extreme dignity and respect to this day.

The same narrative, told far away

Oddly enough, I heard this same ending attached to a different story told in the Marshall Islands, hundreds of miles to the east and centuries later. This was the story of Jibke and his chief, Jebrọ, who fancied Jibke’s woman. He commanded Jibke to set the corner post for his house. In doing so, and not trusting his chief, Jibke likewise carved out a similar route for his escape. Having survived this ordeal, his chief commands Jibke to catch the wind. Jibke sails westward, is killed by a whirlwind and drifts up on the island of “the chief of the west.” The storied inhabitants of this island bake and eat his soul, and he disappears forever.

These two almost identical passages in otherwise dissimilar stories both show an interesting reverence for traditional authority yet a rebellious undercurrent to the status quo. Younger brother transgresses older brother’s traditional authority over his woman. Jibke brings to light the arbitrary nature of his chief’s rule. Jibke travels backward in time to his ancestral homeland, where the story began hundreds of years prior. I doubt we can adequately explain this narrative as a coincidence.

Despite the added stratification of the chieftain system in the Marshall Islands, this narrative joins a long list of attributes that point to eastern Melanesia as the ancestral homeland of the Marshall Islands. This list includes but is not limited to the predominance of “big man” feasting, the idealization of the outrigger canoe, the special nature of the matrilineal nephew-uncle relationship, the ceremonial welcoming of foreign visitors and the construction of stilt-based pole housing even when homes are not built over lagoons.

Division of labor

Lipset describes a distinct division of labor between the sexes. Bar Nor women attend to childcare, household maintenance, substance fishing, shellfish gathering, fish cleaning, cooking and other food preparation. In addition, they trade their much-coveted handbaskets for sago with their inland Bush Murik suppliers. The women do this trading on their own, leaving their husbands to look after their children while they are away.

The men dive for clams, mussels and oysters. They fence fish and spear fish at night by torchlight. They carve ornaments for overseas trade and spend a great deal of time working on the construction and repair of men’s cult houses. Perhaps they spend the most time building and then repairing their dugout canoes and the oceangoing proas that they refer to affectionately as “sea eagles.”

A broader and perhaps more culturally significant gap between the sexes is the male aversion to female genital secretions: “birth pollution is feared by Murik men as the most virulent form of female impurity.[2] “That men are especially fearful “when they eat dishes of food they suspect to have been prepared or touched by menstruating women” creates a quandary because “to be a Mangrove Man is to be a lover, but to be a lover is to defile the body.”[3]

Except during special ceremonies, men do not allow women in the men’s cult houses, and they do not allow women in their own houses when birthing. They must withdraw to their parents’ houses during pregnancy and give birth in special outbuildings on the periphery of the community.

Sexuality, aggression and trade

Lipset wrote that the Murik believe everyone is highly sexual in motivation and action. Like the elder brother’s wife, Mwed, all women are sexually aggressive, and no man can refuse a woman’s advances.

The Bar Nor divide their sexuality into two worlds. One is their chaste everyday life with the daily village routines outlined above. The other is the offshore life in the trade-brother exchange, which requires women to travel to offshore islands, or their offshore trade partners to visit their Murik lagoons. In this latter world, promiscuity and adultery reign, and all genders engage in extramarital liaisons. As soon as men climb down from their proas, women attack them with sharp clam shells, a common Murik symbol of female genitalia. Should a woman draw blood, the community expects her to supply sexual services in recompense.

Regarding overseas trade, the offshore islanders and the Bar Nor “exchange personal names and overwhelm each other with hospitality.…In return, when the islanders come to visit Murik, they are treated identically.”[4]

Trade was a key aspect of Murik life. According to Thomas Harding in “Precolonial New Guinea Trade,”[5] Murik was one of New Guinea’s ten major trading centers, with thirty-one items imported, eighteen exported and eleven re-traded. Because of the nature of their environment, the Bar Nor’s access to groundwater was extremely limited, so pottery — especially to hold fresh water — was a necessity. Much of their pottery came from the Manus, who re-traded it to them from neighboring islands in the Bismarck Archipelago. The Manus also re-traded items from as far away as Sio and even Mailu. In return, the Murik traded their famous handbaskets, which were both unique and much desired by their trading partners.

The Kakar head-hunting cult

Pre-contact, one of the greatest achievements of a male Bar Nor was probably to become a member of the Kakar head-hunting cult. Becoming a cult member required the cooperative effort of a man and his wife. A man could enter the cult only through the initiation of another, usually an uncle. The man must have been able to sacrifice everything — even his wife.

Throughout the initiation, which might have lasted a week, the initiate’s wife was to sleep with the man who introduced the initiate into the sacred circle. The Bar Nor believed that when a man is born, he is weak. He would be afraid of dying and losing his wife, but in giving away his woman, he would give away his fear of death. The Kakar spirits required training in emotional disengagement and dependency. If the man became angry with his initiator or with his wife during this period, he would fail the test and be unable to enter the cult. Afterward, the woman would prepare a meal for her husband and, in doing so, would heal their relationship. The man would feel grateful for her unfaithfulness to him in the service of his cult status.

The order in which the men assembled in the cult house showed the rank of respective Kakar cult members. In order to “protect” the ceremonial spears, those members with the status of “elder brother” would sit around the fire pit located beneath the shelf on which the spears were stored.

The Kakar spears

The spirits of the Kakar cult live in the Kakar spears themselves. The spears are ornate, carved with extreme care and decorated with feathers. Death would come to an uninitiated man who touched a Kakar spear. If the initiate passed the preliminary stage, he would get to taste pudding that the cult members had mixed with a few shreds from the spear. After this, the cult would expect him to take the head of an enemy. Murik warriors would typically ambush a lone Bush Murik with whom no one had kept trade relations. Then they would heat up a big pot of water at the beach and boil loose the flesh of the head. Afterwards, cult leaders would hang the skull in the cult house.

The Catholic Church Head-hunting discouraged head-hunting. In 1913, a German Catholic missionary, Father Joseph Schmidt, SVD, personally broke the Kakar spears over his knee and stored them in the attic of his house until 1936, when he surrendered them to the American ethnographer Louis Pierre Ledoux, who was doing research in the Murik Lakes.

Michael Somare

Somare, widely referred to as the “father of the nation,” was raised in the Murik Lakes. He stressed his Sepik identity and portrayed his time as a child in Murik villages as decisive in forming his identity. Somare was instrumental in the establishment of a ministerial parliamentary system modeled on that of Great Britain as opposed to a presidential system. He claimed this was a better reflection of Papua New Guinea’s more fragmented and decentralized way of life.

Somare was the first Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea after independence from Australia in 1975 and held the position on and off for seventeen of the next thirty-seven years. He was known as being “particularly adept at steering a clear way among various conflicting forces.”[6]

Back in time

The Forbidden Man is a story whose origin, like most of the history of the Pacific, is oral. It is about a man’s voyage across the ocean in search of the mother he can hardly remember. Her fleet had been forced off-course by a typhoon, and he follows in her wake — through the memories of her companions — to a place from which his ancestors must have migrated hundreds of years prior. There, he communicates with these headhunters through trade. He determines what is valuable to them and provides it. Although he learns to cope with these people, he comes to understand that revenge in the face of ignorance is futile. After many years, he returns home a wiser man, having both discovered the roots of his own chauvinism and developed a unique Kakar sense of honor.

1 Currently Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.

2 Lipset, p. 56.

3 Ibid p. 57.

4 Ibid pp. 47-48.

5 Harding, p. 2, Table 1.

6 Wikipedia.

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