Papua New Guinea
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How we get things may help us thinking again


As a backdrop to our conversation on culture and mindsets, today we put a different spin on how we do things by going back to basics.

It could be a case of the other side of the same coin. Love is said to develop in the dark but the neck, in many cultures plays an endearing role so let’s investigate how we get our tribal jewelry first.

Then we’ll consider food; well without food, love cannot escape. Then we bring the two together for a bit of feasting and celebration. So here we go.

The earring that women along the coast wear comes from the Hawksbill turtle and not just any other sea turtle because of its durability and strength. Unfortunately Hawksbill turtles are on the decline, having been hunted for their meat and the skill using its shell is slowly disappearing. Traditional tools used for the craft have long been lost.

The red necklace (and the gold) loosely referred to as bagi are fashioned from a shell called the spondylus. Spondylus craft and jewelry are common in many other places where beautiful seashells are found. They are usually associated with reefs. In PNG the bagi is popular in Milne Bay where its production is most prolific.

The spondylus makes its home at the drop of a reef. The ‘drop’ of the reef is where the reef wall ends and deep sea bottom begins. Why the spondylus makes its home at the reef drop is not clear but they are usually in deep water and requires a lot of effort to find them.

Red (and gold) lips of the spondylus are pried off perhaps using pliers nowadays and polished on stone file. A hand operated fly wheel is then used to drill the delicate holes needed for wiring. In the bagi manufacture, the bit used in the hole drilling process is black palm.

Black palm is a giant tree that almost resembles sago but is closely related to betelnut and palm used for flooring. When the black palm is maturing, it withers away. Inside, the pith is cleared to reveal a solid core that is used for making weapons such as fighting/hunting spears, axe handles and so on. The fly wheel is rarely found and it is used by craftsmen who keep up with tribal jewelry such as the wiring of bagi chain and soulava.
In between the bagi chain, there are black seeds. These come from a wild inedible banana. The seeds are found on the forest floor.

This unique wild banana can be domesticated but our people don’t consider things like that. With climate change, they may disappear altogether. The habitat though may be important. In related jewelry one might also notice small seeds, sometimes white or gold in texture. These are called Job’s tears.

They are colourful when putting out and could make excellent ornamental plants near the home. They rustle in the wind which is peaceful around the home. Job’s tears will also disappear with climate change. But they can be domesticated if you have the right habitat which is near a creek or a stream.

In the Northern Province, the base of giant red clam was cut and polished for the figure eight ornament. This practice has basically been lost and the only figure eight ornaments still in use are those from very long time ago; perhaps dating back to the 19th Century. Why the savages came up with the figure eight is curious indeed because of the significance of this shape in other societies.

The most prized jewelry in my culture is the headband and the figure eight. The headband is made using the colourful lips of mitre shells.
The ocean is a source of fantasy and it seems to collaborate with the forest to provide a taste of paradise like no other. The picture of mother and daughter sporting the figure eight ornament, the signature head band, the lorikeet head dress and the phalanx of sea shells around their neck would be considered a family heirloom in the land of Orokaiva.

The method used in sago production varies throughout PNG in sago eating places. But the use of water to extract the goodness of the sago is the common method or desired outcome. Here is the method that your writer is familiar with.

The mature sago palm is felled and the juicy section marked off. Using sharpened sticks, half of the trunk is pried open and allowed to fall flat to form the work bench. The base of the midrib are cut and placed as seats for the workers to sit on and hack away the exposed pith.

Dried base of the midrib in the same shape as the seats are used to transport the crushed pith to the washing station. The washing station consists of a longer version of the midrib removed from the felled palm at the base so the wide section acts as the washing bowl.

The midrib is suspended on posts leading to a collecting trough which nowadays consists of a corrugated iron shaped like a boat. There’s a primary filter to stop large fragments of sago particles escaping and a finer secondary filter at the head of the collecting trough to spread the sago residue evenly.

The crushed pith is placed at the head of the washing apparatus, mixed with water and hand-washed. The pail is flat pieces of the base of the midrib held together by string and fastened to a dry midrib for handle. This is used to scoop the water. After three hand washes, the pith is thrown out and the finer particles pressed against a coconut fibre primary filter to send the milky water running into the collecting trough.

This process continues until all the sago from the pith has been crushed and washed. The residue builds in the meantime until the water thins out and the cake residue is ready to be scooped out.

The waste pile is leveled to form a bed of banana leaves where sago cakes are removed from the collecting trough and placed. The processor takes chunks of sago from this pile to the washing station and using the same washing compartment packs the sago into cylindrical shapes weighing around 10kg.

These are placed back on the waste pile and when all done a bon fire of dried sago leaves and midribs is built and lit. A duster of bundled sago leaves is used to dust off revealing golden brown cylinders of hardened sago that are portable for the journey home.

Sago leaves are used to package the sago, held together with strings ending at the neck with a loop to put the carrying stick through. The strings are not just any odd string even though the bush is full of strings. The sago packing string comes from a particular tree in the secondary forest or an old garden site. The bark is peeled and the softer inner peel extracted and that is used as the string for the job.

Bird – of-Paradise plumes were traded in the 18th Century and became famous with the spice trade, finding their way into the official regalia of some royalties; for instance in Burma. This was well before some of our people learned song and dance which gave value to beautiful feathers as a trade item.

There are many Birds- of- Paradise but the one we will focus on is the regiana (couple pictured at top). The male is brown and the female is stunningly yellow. Throughout PNG they were hunted by various methods but in the Northern Province where bows and arrows were not popular, the chief method was trapping.

Hunting for Bird-of-Paradise was carried out during the dry season. First, the trapper located the watering hole of the Birds-of-Paradise. There was usually a muster tree by a creek where they assembled and took turns to drink and bath.

Dry season was the best time. What the trapper did was to chop down the brush around the creek which had thinned to a trickle covering most of it but leaving an opening along which he ran a single log bridge. On the log, the trapper set his snares with the loop concealed on the underside.

The trapper then led the end of the snares to his observation post, a leafy hut some distance away settling down to wait for the birds to arrive. When they arrived the birds noisily used the mustering tree to take turns to bath, drink and return to the tree until everyone was done and they flew off together. That is until the next bath time.

Peering through his leafy hideout the trapper watched intently. As the unsuspecting birds got on the log and stepped on the snare, the trapper tugged at his end of the string and the hidden loop sprung and trapped the bird’s feet. The trapper did this until all his snares had birds on them and he emerged to remove them. The rest of the birds would fly away but they would be back the next day.

The Bird-of-Paradise is a small bird, around three times bigger than the wily wagtail. It was gutted before the trapper headed home. It was someone else’s job to make the headdress, but for the trapper, he was just happy to trade the feathers.

The method of headdress-making also vary. In the Northern Province the headdress structure is:
Cassowary at the base of the head then hornbill, followed by giant parrots (GP). White cockatoo, bird of paradise, other parrots and lorikeets at the front, finished off with head band. The headdress style of Northern Province draws interesting contrast with that of American Indians.

Hornbill feathers were obtained in much the same way except the trap was set high in the forest canopy and the trapper’s end of the snare dropped hundreds of feet below to the observation post. To set the trap and to claim his trophy, the trapper built scaffolds to the tree canopy. In the tallest canopy was a clearing in the branches that the hornbill landed frequently to rest.

The trapper knew this and that’s where he placed his snare. Imagine dropping the snare lines hundreds of feet to the ground and tugging it when the hornbill stepped on it. As in the case of BOP, you’re seeing remote control here except it is not at the press of a button.
Hornbills are noisy birds. They have a distinct call and their big wing spans beat out a rushing sound.

Their beaks were prized ornaments but you were only allowed to adorn it if you were a chief or someone who had killed a person in battle. The markings on their beak are status symbols.

Pictures: Clockwise: Women from Wauwela, Kiriwina Island, Milne Bay, inedible wild banana whose black seeds are used in jewelry, red clam used in the making of the figure 8 jewelry by ancient people, Orokaiva woman and daughter, rich in heirloom, Job’s Tear–seeds commonly used in jewelry, mitre shell – en, used in making head band, spondylus shell used in the making of neck chains- Force of Change, Smithsonian Institute; Kitava Island woman, the Trobriand Islands, and a flywheel used in drilling holes – Soulava maker; Grass Island, Milne Bay – Picture: JUTTA MALNIC. Wauwela women, Orokaiva mother and daughter, wild banana pictures BY BARNEY ORERE.