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Panel 6: Collecting human-environment relations in the Pacific


Stefanie Belharte, Christin Kocher Schmid

Session presentation

The conference organisers ask: “How are Pacific life-worlds created and experienced through interactions between human and other-than-human entities?” We interpret this challenge ecologically, exploring material culture as an embodiment of human-environment relations. We thereby address the “concrete empirical realities” in the subsistence contexts that continue to support local livelihoods in large parts of the Pacific. We are interested in resource use and use strategies; appropriation and transformation of environments; experience of natural history and the role of environmental knowledge; and the patterning of relations on broader temporal and spatial scales. We invite contributions from such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, ecology, human ecology, ethnobotany, environmental history, and material culture studies. Possible foci are: resources (properties, identification, ecology); artefacts (type, design, craftsmanship, function, significance); collections (focus, documentation, context); experience & expertise (knowledge, perception, affect); time & space (environmental/ subsistence change; migration of people/ cultural traits/ use strategies).

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Representing the Pacific environment at Kew Gardens

Mark Nesbitt (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Andrew Mills (University of Glasgow)

The Museum of Economic Botany was established at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1847. Its scope was the ‘useful and curious’ products of all countries, both to educate the public, and to faciliate trade in raw materials. The museum grew to fill four buildings with botanical and ethnographic specimens by 1910. However, from the 1930s much of Kew’s work moved away from useful plants, and in the 1980s the collections were moved from public display to a research store. In 1959-61 some ethnographic items were given to other museums, but nearly 1000 specimens remain from Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. In this paper we use these to explore how selected collectors, such as the Rev. Richard Comins, H.B. Guppy, Captain Home, William Grant Milne and the Rev T. Powell represented Pacific environments and culture through their choice of specimens. Letters held in Kew’s Archives give insights into how what came to be a systematic collection grew through highly individual agency.

Lines in a landscape: what networks of bamboo water conduits tell us about how Nuaulu conceptualise their environment

Roy Frank Ellen (University of Kent)

A feature of the uplands of parts of island southeast Asia are bamboo water conduits. These provide an affordance permitting rapid and flexible engineering in places where there are few alternatives, while the distribution of suitable species of bamboo is a factor explaining a distinctive pattern of material culture. This paper describes the cultural role of bamboo conduits in the social life of Nuaulu people in south Seram, eastern Indonesia. Ecologically, such conduits are adaptive because at certain times of the year the lower reaches of watercourses dry up, but they are also an arresting visual feature in an otherwise non-linear landscape, dominated by a regime of changeable and patchy swiddens, fallows and lowland forest. People moving through the forest encounter conduits on the outskirts of settlements from which they radiate. A collective responsibility, and one signifying the collaborative effort of a community to control a vital resource, they have a distinct social profile, while being compliant with a major organising trope of Nuaulu life and ritual practice - the flow of water from mountain to sea. I suggest that networks of bamboo conduits domesticate the environment, by creating lines in an otherwise continuous landscape, and by providing a symbolic artefactual bridge between forest and village, that not only contrasts conceptual opposites but is part of an organic process through which bamboo grows, is harvested, physically transformed and finally decays.

Resource and muse: how stringband musicians in Vanuatu make use of their environment

Sebastian T. Ellerich (University of Cologne)

Most instruments of a stringband are made by the musicians themselves or by people in their environs, using raw materials and objects from their surroundings. For the construction they gather wood, bamboo and husks from the natural environment, employ discarded containers like tea chests and tins, take necessities like fishing line, nails and flip-flops or use garbage like crown cabs and bottles. Musicians in Vanuatu also relate to their surroundings as a source of inspiration for their lyrics. Many song texts are concerned with the realities of village life and some notably relate to the production of copra, kava and other garden produce. One category of awareness-raising stringband songs is composed of pieces about the environment in which issues of pollution, natural disasters and nuclear tests are addressed. While concern about natural resources speaks from these songs, others have different perspectives on the environment. Songs of praise about the islands are motivated either by local patriotism when the group’s home island is celebrated or by means of courtesy resulting from a tour of the band to the place in question. They also aim at an audience of tourists when describing waterfalls, volcanoes and beautiful beaches, thus portraying Vanuatu as a "paradise destination".

"Masawa - bogeokwa si tuta!" - Cultural and cognitive implications of Trobriand Islanders' losing their knowledge of how to make a "masawa"-canoe

Gunter Senft (MPI for Psycholinguistics)

In this talk I describe how the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea used to construct their large seagoing masawa-canoes and how they used to make their sails, what different forms of knowledge and expertise they needed in order to do so during various stages of the construction processes, how this knowledge was socially distributed, and what the social implications were of all the joint communal activities necessary before a new canoe could be launched. I then try to answer the question of why the complex distributed knowledge of how to make a masawa has been gradually getting lost in most of the village communities on the Trobriand Islands. Lastly, I outline and discuss the implications of this loss for the culture of the Trobriand Islanders, their social construction of reality, and their indigenous cognitive capacities.

Masks, money, and the power of being seen among the Baining of Papua New Guinea

Inna Yaneva-Toraman (University of Edinburgh)

The Baining people of Papua New Guinea have become somewhat infamous over the years for the “lack of meaning” of their masks and fire dances. For many years, numerous anthropologists, art scholars, and missionaries have tried to understanding the stories behind these masks and why people make them, but little beyond “it’s our custom (kastom)” and/or “it’s play” (see Fajans 1995) was uncovered. This paper starts from the position that Baining masks and dances can tell us a lot about Baining personhood and sociality. By examining the ways in which masks are made, and the values attached to them (aesthetic, socio-cultural, and economic) I argue that they are fundamentally about becoming visible, as a group (Strathern 1988), and to the state (Scott 1998). Hence, I examine how they (re)configure social relationships within the kin group and/or clan, as well as with ‘outsiders’, which are usually enacted through hiding, avoidance, or covering. Furthermore, I examine how masks are understood from two points of view: by kastom performers and fundamental Pentecostals, and suggest that Baining masks confer the boundaries and relations between humans and other-than-human others, through visibility and invisibility, and can tell us about peoples’ perception of the environment and notions about domination and conservation. In this way it offers insight into what material culture can embody and _do_ for the clan, and in turn how people create and transform relations with the environment.

The art of plants: the ethnobotany of Sulka ritual art

Rowena Hill (Durham University (alumni))

The Sulka, non-Austronesian speakers, dwell along the Wide Bay coast of East New Britain; behind, densely forested, rugged terrain rises steeply from the shoreline. Sulka people feel strongly connected to plants, half their clan totems being botanical. Embracing every aspect of material culture and ritual plants play an aesthetic role, fulfil social obligations and control spirits. They are multisensory, with qualities recognised as colour, shape, sheen, aroma, size, even sound (a swishing leaf skirt delights the ear). The Sulka’s concept of beauty is strong: gardens, festival arrays and dance ornaments must be beautiful to evoke meaning and succeed. Beautiful plants orchestrate the growth of crops - large white flowers encourage the ripening of bananas. A shield not exquisitely painted would fail to deflect enemy spears. The epiphany of Sulka ritual life is the spirit mask, performing at marriages, funerals and mourning ceremonies. A mask can comprise up to 30 plants, from inner frame to outer paintwork and leaf tassels. Multi-layered creations, they represent different ecozones from primary forest to shore. Their hidden interiors derive from the dark forest, a male domain, unknown to women. Conversely they are synonymous with the vagina: this duality endorsed in their role to invoke spirits. In the mask, plants are metaphoric, embodied in the outward form (taro) and the painted designs (betelnut fronds); the desired outcome to promote health in people and fertile gardens.

The embodiment of human-environment relations in a Sepik society

Borut Telban (Research Centre of Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts)

Temporal and spatial plurality of identities exists for the Karawari people of the East Sepik Province in every single being. Identification of one being with another is therefore a move towards one of the many identifying possibilities, which are already present in those particular beings. Such a perspective resembles polysemy and metonymy of Karawari expressions, pointing towards a specific kind of relatedness between people and their environment. When people recognize certain characteristics in different beings and parts of their environment as those belonging to them as well they can in specific contexts claim that they are those beings as well as environment at large. Situational relationship between different beings then determines those common features, which come to the fore, and those, which stay in the background. In my contribution, I will explore a variety of present day identification strategies leading towards desired modification of people’s social and physical environment.

Characteristic animals: bats and flying foxes in Papua New Guinea

Christian COIFFIER

Giant bats continue to haunt the human imagination even today, as can be seen in the character of Batman popularised throughout the world by American cinema. In New Guinea, flying foxes and bats have long held a very special status. We shall here examine the representations of these flying animals in the Sepik river region because they occupy a position in their relations with humans which is completely remarkable and too often ignored. Numerous myths evoke the origins of humanity as coming from flying fox ancestors. Thus in the Sepik region there is an intimate relation between bats and flying foxes with food, but also with human procreation. The groups of chiropters were seen as the “doubles” of the human communities living in the same ecological zone. If bats and flying foxes are indispensible intermediaries in local ecosystems, the one through its capacity to destroy enormous numbers of insect pests of man and his crops, the other through its role as polliniser and disseminator of certain plants that are useful for humans, recent scientific studies have also shown them to be vectors in the transmission of various viruses.

Materials matter: timber and cultural continuity

Christin Kocher Schmid

In the pre-contact northern lowlands of New Guinea durable artefacts and constructions constituted the only visually manifest and touchable bridge to the deceased and thus the past. Hardwoods with densities between 0.70 and 0.80 g/cm3 are – when freshly cut – just about workable using Neolithic techniques. When they contain secondary compounds artefacts made from them are very durable, i.e. they outlast the human life-span. Thus – in the absence of metallurgy and with an often limited access to shell and stone – these materials were crucial for the continuity and identity of the distinct cultural-linguistic groups. There is a limited range of trees which yield timber with the required characteristics. Consequently these trees are a managed resource and their frequency of occurrence in the forest is due to manipulations of the species distribution by people. This paper will show that in the northern lowlands of New Guinea forest management techniques and the uses of specific timber for durable artefacts are not only tightly interlinked but are interdependent. In a next step I trace use and management of the most prominent of these trees, merbau (Intsia bijuga), beyond the New Guinea mainland into the Pacific where finally in different floral regions, its place is taken by other tree species of similar significance.

Collecting human-environment relations – an outline

Stefanie Belharte

Material culture provides a stunning view of human–environment relations: artefacts literally embody the materiality of resources, besides materialising environmental knowledge, sentiment, and skill; they operationalise environmental transformation and human subsistence; they symbolise conceptions of the natural order, relations between humans and other-than-human entities, life worlds, and experiences of dwelling; and they mediate communication about any of these. Studying artefacts and artefact collections can therefore supply important methodological leverage in the fields of human ecology and environmental anthropology. Yet the potential of such study has been poorly appreciated and much less theorised. In my presentation, I will sketch out a systematic to frame the topic and to indicate how this potential can be tapped more generally. I will take my clues from my own research in Papua New Guinea and from my co-speakers’ contributions, to illustrate the spectrum and the facets of human–environment relationships which artefacts can reveal. These examples are to be less exhaustive than illustrative of the wealth of aspects that can be studied and approaches that can be taken towards an ecological understanding of material culture. The presentation, like the panel at large, is thereby to provide an impulse to stimulate debate and further exploration of the subject.

Concluding discussion

Stefanie Belharte

Christin Kocher Schmid