By Arnold Wentholt
The Markham Valley is a little-known area and home to the Azera and the Lae Womba people, the latter group naming the former as “those living upstream,” the literal translation of Azera.
The 180-kilometer-long but shallow Markham River could be navigated for only a short distance, and for the Neuendettelsau Mission it took ten years after building a station near Lae on the river’s mouth in 1910 to push up the valley to the headwaters, the habitat of the Azera, the much-feared cannibals of the valley.1
Markham Valley on the Huon Peninsula is situated in the Morobe Province where the Azera inhabit the upper reaches of the Markham River, between the Leron River and the Ramu Valley. The Finisterre Mountains in the northeast and the Kratke Range in the southwest fringe the vale that runs in a northwest direction along the Ramu River riverbed. Nowadays, the Azera number about 18,000 people, and they raise cattle and grow cash crops such as peanuts and coffee beans along with traditional food crops like taro, yam, sweet potato and non-sweet banana species, among others.
Traditionally, the Azera lived in villages consisting of hamlets, and several neighboring villages with a common origin and genealogy formed a unit, a district with its own name. The families lived in beehive-shaped houses made of young trees and thatched-grass roofs standing side by side and opposite each other, leaving no room for a central square. The men’s house was both an alternate sleeping space as well as a meeting place. The hamlet was fenced off from the outside world. The area is covered with long kunai grass, the result of infertile sandy soil on a clay base. Once a year, the kunai of the plains is burned in a coordinated ceremonial undertaking that includes all of the villages of the district. The kunai plains abound with small game, a natural source of meat, and is referred to as the “storehouse.”
The staple foods of yam and taro grow in gardens on the lower slopes of the surrounding hills, which consist of rich, black soil. As primarily agriculturalists, the surrounding ecology determines the placement of settlements. Villages are surrounded by banana plantations and the yam gardens are within a short walking distance.
The Azera language belongs to the Austronesian language group, which in Papua New Guinea is found mainly along the north coast. We do not know when the Azera moved to this area, but fairly recent research on potshards found in graves has revealed that they lived here at least 900 years BPT.
Although almost nothing was recorded of the local Azera mythologies, we can get an idea through comparative anthropological research of the neighboring areas.
Myths as the origin of sacred cults
The practice of cannibalism, which predates headhunting, can be traced to their mythology. In the primeval age before the great flood took place, in which the old world came to an end and the world of mankind started, there was a heaven and an earth that, contrary to what is nowadays the case, were situated very close to each other. In the heavenly pantheon lived a male godhead, lord of the pigs and a man-eater. On earth lived the primeval mother, who by her footprints shaped the earth’s physical appearance. Opposite mother earth is the male godhead, who owns the animals and treats primeval mankind as he pleases, which made them flee from him. Only when this male godhead is vanquished can new life arise. This happens when mother earth gives birth to the male twin originating from her blood. These twins are actually one person, the one being right-handed, the other left-handed, which could metaphorically be translated into male and female halves, respectively. Together, after a long struggle, they overcome the godhead. In another myth, the body parts are cut into pieces, especially the extreme parts such as the arms, the head, the legs and the feet, and gave rise to garden crops, through which the life of mankind was made possible. But these plants could grow only with proper care and here, once again, mother earth plays a fundamental role by imparting to man the tools for gardening and the hunt. The knowledge of how to build homes and the men’s houses was also revealed by her. So the male side provided the food crops and meat (pigs), but it was the female side that made subsistence possible. The earth mother is remembered in myths as the one who gave birth to the twins from which mankind eventually originated. By killing the heavenly male godhead, the oppressive primordial world came to an end and, subsequently, the sky receded to the distance we know today.
Prowess was needed when risking one’s life to attempt raids on villages in enemy territories, and there was always the threat of retribution. Even villages which were connected through strategic alliances could, after some time, be prone to attack. Alliances came into being through the exchange of women between neighboring hostile villages, creating connections through kinship ties, which would last only as long as a village thought it opportune. Once a village had regained its strength and the women were returned to their villages, the old hostilities could resume. In practice, this meant that a son could kill the relatives of his mother and even be proud of it. Alliances meant that only the villages concerned were subject to this affiliation, and other villages in the district were outside of this alliance.
Art and cannibalism
It has been argued that cannibalism, unknown as a culture element in other Austronesian cultures in Melanesia, found its origin in this primeval struggle with the godhead. The raid for a human corpse(s) thus is no whimsical phenomenon, as the offering of a victim is the ritual enactment of the mythological struggle. In principle, the raid took place after the harvest cycle came full circle and provided the occasion to celebrate new life. The victim(s) always came from areas designated by the Azera as enemy territory. The relative isolation in the mountain ranges, cut off from the coastal areas, may be the reason why an old, obsolete culture element such as cannibalism could persist in an early Austronesian settlement.
Headrests were among the finest examples of woodcarving found in the Azera districts. These 33- to 72-cm-long headrests, with heights varying between 11 cm and 15 cm, are rare in the way they are executed—with an anthropomorphic head on one end and an elongated torso standing on three or four limbs using the natural shape of the branch or root. On the upper side, the headrest is rounded, flattened or supplied with a diamond-shaped “cushion” to support the neck. The heads with rounded headdresses and expressive features resemble the faces of anthropomorphic figures found on certain islands of Central Polynesia. This is certainly the case with the older collected pieces where mouth and eyes extend toward and around the perimeter. A jutting tongue may be visible between the opened lips. Generally the headdress is rendered conically, sometimes with a small tubular extension. The headdress resembles the painted barkcloth cap embellished with feathers worn by successful warriors of the Lae Womba. In that case, the tubular extensions are probably a rudimentary rendering of a feather.
Besides headrests, the ceremonial stool was also fashioned the same way, and one may at times find the anthropomorphic figure at the top of a lime spatula. Before we go into the iconography, it is necessary to consider what purposes these stools and headrests served.
Every adult male Azera possessed such a headrest to be slept upon on the night of a raid and when the subsequent cannibalistic rituals took place. As such, it is a warrior’s property that is most closely linked to cannibalism. It is this background that shines a light on the iconography. In the creation myths, there is, after all, mention of the two twins that competed against the godhead, lord of the pigs and man-eater. After successful combat, they sat on him as a symbol of their victory. It is through this victory that creation could come to completion. The godhead is a source of power and as such he is reproduced in the ceremonial stool, one of which each clan owned. The stool and the headrests together manifest this power, a power that was passed onto the warrior who slept on it. Only the most successful warrior who had taken the corpse had the privilege of sitting on the stool and, contrary to his fellow warriors, did not partake in eating the flesh, but instead was offered pig meat.
Whereas the stool is always executed with an anthropomorphic figure, some headrests are carved in the shape of a pig that can be interpreted as most probably being the guise of the godhead who could transform into a swine.
A lesser-known Azera object is the lime spatula, which is also often embellished with an anthropomorphic figure. Whether this figure is a rendering of the godhead is not known. Five of the six spatulas in this catalogue are figurative, with conical headdresses that share the same appearance as the ones found on the headrests. The shaft may be adorned with horizontal carved rings and the flattened spatula itself is rounded on the corners.2 Besides being a warrior’s emblem, spatulas were applied as rhythm devices used to accompany dances and songs—with the carved rings above the blade scraping the edges of the lime container producing a rasping sound. The spatulas were prestige objects: only initiated young males belonging to the Lae Womba who had killed an enemy were allowed to carry a lime container.
Markham Valley may be best known for its pottery, especially that produced by certain villages in the Azera settlements, which show elegant shapes and are produced in various sizes featuring zoomorphic and anthropomorphic molded ears (no. 98 in this volume). Another object that is often seen on the market are banana or plantain scrapers.3 Similar scrapers were applied by the Bariai living on the southwest coast of New Britain, where they were used as taro and coconut scrapers, see: Stephan 1907, PL. V, nr. 1.
Scrapers facilitate the peeling of the sticky non-sweet banana, a plantain, from its yellowish-green skin. As bananas are a staple food, the scrapers are fairly common, carved from bone (probably pig) and in most cases showing the head of a flying fox. There are five illustrated in this catalogue with no. 109 having a delicately rendered face, which seems to catch the essence of the animal’s head with its low-set nostrils and tiny mouth. In rare cases an anthropomorphic head replaces the animal’s head (no. 107 in this volume), which has the signature Azera head and archaic-style arms issuing from the eyes and framing the face.
The Azera’s most important ritual is the Mugus festival, in which the yam harvest is brought to the village. One particular clan decides when the festival will take place and, after much feedback from elders of sub-clans and eventually with the cooperation of other village clans, the whole affair comes about. After six to ten days the produce of the yam gardens is brought into the village with great ceremony. All the tubers are gathered together near the house of the village host, the one who owns the bulk of the pigs for the ritual. The yams receive libations of blood and warm water, for these yams are no mere tubers, but are endowed with male or female characteristics, and they are looked upon as personifications of the spirits and the supernatural world.4 Similar scrapers were applied by the Bariai living on the southwest coast of New Britain, where they were used as taro and coconut scrapers, see: Stephan 1907, PL. V, nr. 1.
Finally, the mugus post is erected near the house of the host and a cane structure is built around it where all the yams in crates and bundles are tied to scaffolding. Owning a mugus post bestowed prestige on its owner. Luckily, there is one image of two tall mugus posts attributed to the Markham Valley (Fig. 1). Figure no. 72 in this catalogue painted red and black with a pale green face could have been a mugus figure. It is a true relic of a forgotten culture.
Bergdolt, Friedrich (1986), Kultur aus Holz und Stein, Kunstgegenstände aus Papua-Neuguinea, Neuendettelsau: Freimund Verlag.
Holzknecht, K. (1957), “Über Töpferei und Tontrommeln der Azera in Ost-Neuguinea.” In Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 82, 97–111.
Read, K. E. (1946), “Social Organization in the Markham Valley, New Guinea.” In Oceania XVII, nr. 2, 93–118.
Read, K. E. (1950), “The Political System of the Ngarawapum.” In Oceania XX, 185–223.
Schmitz, Carl A. (1959), “Die Nackenstützen und Zeremonialstühle der Azera.” In Baessler Archiv N.F. 7, 149–163.
Schmitz, Carl A. (1960), Historische Probleme in Nordost-Neuguinea, Huon Halbinsel. Studien zur Kulturkunde 16, Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH.
Sotheby’s London (1992), The Peter Hallinan Collection of Melanesian Art.
Stephan, Emil (1907), Südseekunst. Beiträge zur Kunst des Bismarck-Archipels und zur Urgeschichte der Kunst überhaupt, Berlin: Diettrich Reimer.
1 The Lutheran Neuendettelsauer Missionsgesellschaft, founded in 1849 in Bavaria, was one of the three missionary societies active in Papua New Guinea and continued until well after WW1.
2 Sotheby’s London 12/1992, lot 110; the Hallinan piece shows a full standing figure of half the height and whose quite naturalistically carved details ought to be considered a later example.
3 Similar scrapers were applied by the Bariai living on the southwest coast of New Britain, where they were used as taro and coconut scrapers, see: Stephan 1907, PL. V, nr. 1.
4 Read 1950, 206.