House boards of the Mountain Ok of central New Guinea House boards of the Mountain Ok of central New Guinea Barry Craig The Mountain Ok (ok means water/river), speaking several closely related languages, live in villages located on the headwaters of the Fly and Sepik rivers of central New Guinea. The main Papua New Guinea administrative centre is at Telefomin in the territory of the Telefolmin. Among the Mountain Ok, carved and painted boards were fastened to the small entrance of houses, and/or several narrow carved and painted boards were fastened on each side of the entrance. House boards were large thick boards about three metres long by 50 cm wide, pointed at the top end, rounded at the bottom, with a hole about 70 x 40 cm at the lower end corresponding to the small entrance of the house. The boards were carved and painted above the entrance hole (Fig.1). Nimisep in front of his family house at Telefomin. Photo: 1983 C13:28. The carved designs on these boards were geometric – straight lines, zigzags, triangles, large chevrons, rhomboids, spirals (angular and curved) – painted with red ochre, white lime and black soot. Individual design elements could be assigned referents in the natural world, including man. A pair of parallel straight lines was called ‘path’; the zig-zag was often referred to as ‘snake’; the small triangle at the top of a design as the conus shell ornament worn around the neck; a larger triangle in the same position as ‘hornbill’s beak’; a central rhomb or circle as the belly, solar plexus or heart of man or animals; the spiral as the spiral tail of the King Bird of Paradise, or the limbs of various creatures, depending upon individual informants. The designs were regarded by the Mountain Ok of the Sepik headwaters as merely decorative, having no total meaning. The Mountain Ok of the Fly headwaters said their house boards promoted the well-being of the taro crop and that the lowland peoples to the south did not have house boards ‘because they have no enemies’. From a survey of 220 house boards during 1964 and 1967 of the Telefolmin, and their neighbours the Falamin and Ulapmin, considering the central motifs and ignoring the framing elements at the sides, top and bottom, 195 could be allocated to three design types (the remaining 25 were idiosyncratic). Starting with a basic motif and altering or adding a maximum of two design elements, 87 designs were attributed to Type One, 64 to Type Two and 44 to Type Three (Fig.2). The opposed sets of chevrons could be angular or curved. Similarly, spirals could be angular or curved. All these designs were symmetrical about the vertical and horizontal axes. Three design types of 195 house boards of the Mountain Ok. The date of manufacture of these boards was estimated by reference to various historical events (such as first contact in 1914 by Richard Thurnwald, the passage through the area by Karius and Champion in 1927, the first building of an airstrip at Telefomin in 1936, and so on) and by estimates of the age of informants and how old they or their fathers were when the boards were made. Of the 195 house boards assigned to the three design types, 161 could be dated within eight time periods. It is probable that some house boards from late 19th to early 20th centuries may not have survived the exigencies of weather, fire and warfare but it is clear that there has been a rise and fall of popularity of certain designs over time. Reference to the house boards of the Falamin, eastern neighbours of the Telefolmin, serves to illustrate the usefulness of this analysis. The surveys of 1964 and 1967 recorded 38 house boards in six Falamin villages. Ten were of Type I, four of Type II, 18 of Type III, four belonged to a type of design unique to Falamin, and two were idiosyncratic. For Photo identification numbers, see Appendix. Type I left: made with stone tools before 1914; right: made about 1939 with steel tools. The early 20th century board uses the zigzags as the long sides of the ‘wings’. In the pre-WW2 design, the ‘wings’ have detached from the zigzags and a rhomboid shape is inserted in the middle of the long sides of the ‘wings’. Only three of this particular design were found among the Telefolmin, but 43 were found with spirals attached to the top and bottom of the ‘wings. Type II left: made with steel tools about 1966. There were two others of the same design and made at the same time. This design was extremely common (30 of 92) among the Telefolmin from the 1950s into the 1960s and continued into the early 1980s (eg. Fig.1). right: carved with stone tools before 1914; this is not a Falamin design. This board was made by Telefolmin men during a period of peaceful relationships between Falamin and Telefolmin. There were thirteen of this design among the Telefolmin in 1964-67, all made before 1914 except one said to have been carved with steel tools about 1948. Type III left and right: both made with stone tools before 1907. On the board at right, the horizontally opposed chevrons are less curved and stacked vertically. There were nine of each kind, all pre-1914. Unique to Falamin left and right: both made with stone tools before 1914. A significant proportion of the house boards among the Falamin (27 of the 38) were estimated to pre-date 1914; three were pre-WW2 and 8 post-WW2. This probably represents a relatively static number of households whereas the Telefolmin were actively expanding into the Elip valley to the north from about 1870 and the population quickly exceeded that of the original Telefolmin territory. Eleven of the 77 Elip valley boards were said to be pre-1914 ̶ five were variations of the ‘wing’ design (Type 1) and four of the stacked chevrons design (Type 3). Most of the designs since 1914 were of the ‘wing’ design with attached spirals and most of these were made post-WW2. This may represent the availability of steel tools for the making of house boards for the expanding number of households. What kinds of houses had house boards? House boards, and/or narrow carved and painted boards, were attached to different kinds of houses in the Mountain Ok region. The Telefolmin made a primary distinction of house types on the basis of the persons using them: unang-am (woman's or family house) and tenum-am (man's house). These were distinguished by their place in the arrangement of houses in the village - men's houses must always be higher (ie. "upstream", by reference to the closest water course) and higher off the ground than women’s houses, and the external walls of women's houses were built of split timber, whereas the external walls of men’s houses were built entirely of round poles. The next level of classification of houses discriminated amongst the various kinds of men's houses, according to the ritual status of the men who used them, and their place in the tribal-wide hierarchy of cult houses. Thus most villages had a kabelam (‘hornbill house’) for the younger men, a yolam for the older, fully initiated men, and the larger villages had a katibam (‘little house’) for old men who were usually ritual specialists. Smaller villages combined all three functions in the one house and called it the yolam. Finally, at the top of the hierarchy, was the amdolol, the most sacred building of the Telefolmin, located in the village of Telefolip. It was reputed to have been established by Afek, the creator-ancestress of the Telefolmin and their neighbours. This house also was distinguished by its external wall cladding; its vertical round poles and blank house board were sheathed with hundreds of thousands of short hardwood slats (called dolol) arranged in vertical series of chevron-patterns, appearing like trimmed vertical palm fronds. In 1963, I counted around 6000 domestic pig jawbones in racks on all the internal walls of the amdolol, preserved from pigs slaughtered at initiation rites. There were also sacred ancestral skulls kept in feathered string bags, a war shield and other paraphernalia. Left: The amdolol at the Telefolmin village, Telefolip. Photo 1964 C23:29. Right: Interior rear wall of the amdolol. Photo 1962 C9:16. Among the Telefolmin and their Falamin and Ulapmin neighbours at the headwaters of the Sepik River, all houses of any kind were candidates for the attachment of house boards. Among the Angeiakmin, Faiwolmin and Wopkeimin along the southern slopes of the central range, on the headwaters of the Fly River, family houses were not permitted to have house boards and the men’s houses and cult houses had narrow carved and painted boards on each side of the central house board. The cult house (yolam) of the Faiwolmin at Golgulbip. Photo: 1972 BK1:34. Uniquely, the cult house (futmanam) in the Wopkeimin cult centre at Bultemabip also had an array of narrow boards on the rear of the house. Left: Front of futmanam, Bultemabip, Wopkeimin. Photo 1967 C:58. Right: Rear of futmanam, Photo 1967 C:55 Mountain Ok rituals and men’s initiations involved veneration of the ancestors, whose skulls and other bones were kept in string bags on the rear interior walls of houses. Ritual knowledge was kept secret by the fully initiated men and this knowledge was gradually imparted during the several stages of male initiation. Interior rear wall of a Telefolmin family house, showing ancestral relics in string bags on rear interior wall. Photo 1983 C11:27 A Telefolmin cult house (yolam) and interior rear wall showing ancestral relics and array of domestic and wild pig jawbones. Photo 1983 C12:3, 4. Archaeologists excavating at Telefolip in 1983, where Afek was believed to have built the first cult house and family house, came to the following conclusions: Pollen core results indicate that people were present in Ifitaman as much as 17,000 years ago, and clearing larger areas of forest 3500 years ago. Our findings indicate that this important village site was founded about 300 – 400 years ago (Swadling et al. 1990:113). This suggest that the original inhabitants of the headwaters of the Sepik River were hunter-gatherers who gradually developed swidden horticulture of taro, bananas, yams and pandanus with taro becoming the primary staple. This would account for the significant clearing of forest around 3500 years ago. With the probable arrival of pigs to this area of central New Guinea about 3500 years ago, there would have been intensification of gardening to produce food for pigs, leading to increased clearing of forest, reducing the availability of wild animals, and further increasing the need for domesticated pigs. But taro cannot be fed to pigs uncooked, thus limiting the size of domesticated pig herds. However, when sweet potato arrived around 300-400 years ago, domesticated pig herds could be increased as the fast-growing sweet potato can be fed to pigs uncooked; indeed, pigs can be allowed into sweet potato gardens to forage for themselves. While men did most of the heavy work of clearing forest for gardening, building fences and initial planting of the taro, it was the women who did most of the weeding and maintenance. While the men were responsible through the initiation and associated rituals and horticultural knowledge for the success of the taro plantations, among the Mountain Ok of the Sepik headwaters the women became responsible for the success of pig husbandry, to the extent that some women’s skulls, as well as the skulls and relics of the male ancestors, were kept in the family houses. Skulls of women renown for pig husbandry on a platform beside the hearth of a family house. Photo B. Craig 1981 M1:5 Mountain Ok on the headwaters of the Fly River continued to rely upon horticulture and hunting of wild animals, supplemented with domestication of captured wild piglets. The role of women was not deemed sufficiently significant to allow the keeping of ancestral relics in family houses. The kinds of houses eligible for house boards were those in which ancestral relics were kept. Telefolmin, Falamin and Ulapmin family houses on the Sepik headwaters had house boards because they contained ancestral relics as did their various men’s houses. The Angkeiakmin, Faiwolmin and Wopkeimin of the Fly headwaters did not allow ancestral relics in family houses, only in their men’s houses, so only the men’s houses had house boards. One might say that the intensive domestication of pigs by the women among the Sepik headwater Mountain Ok led to the domestication of their ancestors, and house boards on family houses signalled that. Appendix All photos by and © B. Craig. Falamin house board photo identifications. Figure 4. left: 1964 M9:43; right: 1967 M8:29. Figure 5. left: 1967 M8:37; right: 1964 C25:9. Figure 6. left: 1967 M9:12; right: 1967 M9:8. Figure 7. left: 1964 M9:31; right: 1964 M9:37. Bibliography Craig, B. 1970. Houseboards and Warshields of the Mountain Ok, Central New Guinea. MA thesis, University of Sydney. Craig B. 1988. Art and Decoration of Central New Guinea. Shire Ethnography Nr 5. Aylesbury, Bucks. Swadling, P., T. Mawe and W. Tomo. 1990. Archaeology of Telefolip. Pp. 109-114 in B. Craig & D. Hyndman (eds) Children of Afek. Oceania Monograph 40, University of Sydney.