Summary | Environment | Ethnographic background | Archaeological context | Ethnography and stone tools

2.2 Ethnographic background

Plate 2 2 Plate 3 3
View onto hamlet surrounded by casuarinas, pandanus and garden (2), Men's house (enza) fronting onto a ceremonial clearing (3)

The Wola region is divided into many territories identified with small kin-constituted communities – average population c. 300 persons. They live in squat houses scattered along the valley sides, largely in areas of secondary regrowth (Plate 2). Homesteads can be of variable size and composition, comprising diversely made up family groups; men customarily occupy houses separate from women (Plate 3). A marked separation of the sexes characterises their lives, men observing a number of conventions that keep them apart from women. Families are identified by their senior male member's name, one of several manifestations of the public dominance of men. Local social organisation also features territorial groups of kin which structure access to land. People claim rights to cultivable land through a wide range of connections with a place (both kin and situational factors play a part); the constitution of these groups and the associated land rights are widely accepted. These larger, permanent social groups come about through the aggregation of several variably related families (Ryan 1959; Sillitoe 1979a; Lederman 1986).

The Wola first had contact with Europeans in the mid 1930s when some Highlands exploratory patrols entered their region. The region was brought under administrative control in the 1960s with the establishment of patrol posts in the Nembi valley at Nipa, Poroma and Margarima, though the period of central government control lasted barely twenty years.

The soils are youthful, having experienced several rejuvenating falls of volcanic ash, and are fairly productive with appropriate management (Sillitoe 1996). The Wola cultivate gardens in both grassland and forest, following a sedentary version of swidden cultivation and the neat gardens of the Wola are dotted about the valleys. The sweet potato is the staple crop supplemented by a variety of other crops such as taro, banana, sugar cane and a variety of green vegetables (Bourke et al. 1995). Choice of new garden sites is linked to those areas where people have land rights, traceable through family ties. Other considerations concern the nature of the site, slope and aspect (north-east facing sites are preferred), the distance from the homestead, and the potential workload of enclosure. Work involved in the preparation and maintenance of swiddens is divided between men and women, with men doing the initial clearing and fencing and women preparing the soil, planting, tending and harvesting most of the crops. The Wola do not depend on hunting and gathering to supply them with food to any extent, and today make considerably less use of local raw materials to produce things.

Plate 4 4
A man called Waenil cutting a branch in two in clearing a garden

Once a man has chosen a site, his first task is to clear it. Vegetation to be cleared will be either secondary regrowth, of trees and Miscanthus cane grass, or primary montane forest, with its associated tangle of understorey vegetation. Today this work is done with machetes, using axes on the larger material (up to the 1950/1960s polished stone axes were used) (Plate 4). Once the area is cleared, men construct an enclosing fence to keep pigs out. The site is then prepared for planting. This involves firstly pollarding any trees left standing and pulling up as many roots as possible. Men and women work together to burn the cut vegetation when it has dried sufficiently in the sun. This firing is important, releasing nutrients and returning them to the soil for crop uptake.

Plate 5 5
A woman called Twaen cultivating a garden. She is using a digging stick to heap up soil into a mound, into which she will plant sweet potato

Once the burning off is complete, the garden is ready for planting. This is largely women's work; they plant sweet potato, taro, bananas, beans, cucurbits, and various greens and shoots (Sillitoe 1983) (Plate 5). Gardens resemble a classic swidden, having a wide variety of crops, planted in scarcely tilled soil, intercropped amongst a jumble of partially fired tree stumps, roots and logs. The duration of the mixed cropping period depends on yields, but rarely exceeds two or three crops per garden per year. There are two broad classes of garden: those cleared and planted once with a wide variety of crops (the classic shifting regime), and those planted two or more times, sometimes over and over again for many years, with brief fallow spells, and supporting a narrower range of crops. Gardens range in size from small plots adjacent to homesteads (av. 90m²), through taro gardens (av. 495m²), to large cultivations of mainly sweet potato (av. 1150m²). Women tend gardens (except those of taro) and harvest crops.

The Wola keep sizeable pig herds. They hand these creatures, together with other items of wealth such as seashells and cosmetic oil and, increasingly, cash, around to one another in unending series of exchanges, which mark all important social events, like deaths and marriages. The exchange of wealth, elaborated into a complex institution, is a significant force for order in the markedly egalitarian acephalous, and occasionally violent, society which is characteristic of highland New Guinea (Sillitoe 1979a). The Wola value exchange highly, according high status to those who excel; called big-men in the New Guinea literature. It is even possible, by virtue of their success, for these men to exert a marginal degree of influence over others when they unite to pursue some collective action, but success does not earn them the status of leader, as it does in some Melanesian societies – they cannot tell others what to do. If anyone attempted to exert obvious control, however subtle, over the actions of others, this would offend against the pervading ethos of equality.

The supernatural conceptions of the Wola centre on beliefs in the ability of their ancestors' spirits to cause sickness and death, in various other forest spirit forces, and in others' powers of sorcery and poison. They believe that ancestor ghosts lead a nomadic existence, reside temporarily at a number of defined locales (like the skulls of ancestors), and have malevolent powers, visiting sickness, even death, on their descendants. Sorcery and poison (comprising various concoctions of believed toxic substances such as menstrual blood) are employed to take revenge on enemies. Many Wola today subscribe to Christianity, while continuing to believe these traditional spirit forces inhabit their homeland.


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Last updated: Wed Oct 8 2003