Stone. Sacred and profane uses of stone among the DanI by O. W. “BUD”
It is well known that many Pacific Islanders mistook early whites for their ancestors. It is less well recognised that white people generally made the same mistake (Gosden and Knowles 2001). For white explorers from the nineteenth century onwards places like Papua New Guinea were not just geographical locations but stages in the history of the world. Many books were written with titles like I come from the Stone Age or The technology of a modern Stone Age people (Blackwood 1950). This book is very much in this genre. It is a piece of good old-fashioned ethnography, documenting the activities of groups of stone tool makers, from quarry to use and exchange, in the highlands of Irian Jaya (also known as West Papua) the western half of the larger island of New Guinea, which is presently, and unhappily, a province of Indonesia.
This book is a strange hybrid, by an individual scholar who lived and worked in Irian Jaya, provided painstaking documentation of some of the peoples of the highlands, in rescue ethnography mode, and then found an academic context in which to write up his results. At the core of the book’s explanatory structure is the evolutionary model of bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states. The Dani and their neighbours are classed as tribes on the brink of becoming chiefdoms and there is a brief explanation at the end as to why they have not made it to the next stage of social complexity, which is to do with the nature of their tropical environment, the perishable form of root and tree crops and consequent lack of storable surplus. It is also a piece of ethnoarchaeology, using the present to increase the robustness of inferences that can be made about the past, in good Binfordian mode. But grafted onto this is a recognition of the spiritual world in which the Dani live and the sacred, as well as functional, purposes to which stone tools can be put.
At the core of the book is an excellent set of observations of the making, and to a lesser extent trade and use, of stone tools. From West Papua through to New Guinea runs a mountain chain, with the highest mountains east of the Himalayas. There is a range of habitats, but in the larger river valleys live dense populations of people based on intensive agriculture of taro, yams and sweet potato, bananas, sugar and nuts and fruits. People throughout the region put on large exchange events based around pigs, which have become the subject of countless ethnographies. Hampton carried out a large number of field trips during the 1980s, walking through twelve different language groups, interviewing people usually through the medium of interpreters, observing and participating in quarrying and other activities. The practical and physical difficulties of such work cannot be overestimated and Hampton is obviously a tough, resourceful, observant and articulate fieldworker. He took 20,000 slides, collected specimens and made countless fieldnotes, which must contain more detail than comes through in this already large book.
The central chapters of the book (chapters 5-7) document a series of quarry sites across the region with descriptions of the geology, the manufacturing steps taken, the social and economic organisation of quarrying expeditions and the outcomes of each expedition. Hampton is adept at describing the processes of manufacture and illustrates various steps clearly with photographs and diagrams. These chapters are followed by one on trade, which looks at trade routes, objects exchanged for axes and the sets of social connections. The final chapter contains an odd assortment of topics, ranging from a restatement of thoughts on technology, to an excursus on the sacred use of stones and reflections on the cultural ‘stage’ the Dani and others are at – ie relatively low.
Hampton is only partially read in the literature from the region and could have set his work in a broader comparative context by reading. The major omission is the Pétrequins’ (1993) work in Irian Jaya (their French work is referenced), which has significant overlaps with Hampton’s own. Further east along the mountain chain is, but in Papua New Guinea, is Burton’s (1984) thesis on axe-making in the Wahgi, which has a mass of data on production and trade of axes, specifically looking at the axe as an element of the growth of the wealth economy through the Holocene.
Finally one has to wonder about the political context of Hampton’s work. The Dani and their neighbours are carefully framed as Stone Age tribes, excluding all reference to the present. This might leave the reader unaware that the province of Irian Jaya is engaged in a long term armed struggle to free itself from Indonesia. Many of the most repressive aspects of the Indonesian regime have been witnessed in the province, ranging from successful attempts to flood the province with Javanese migrants (Melanesians are now in a minority) to arrest and execution. The author thanks the Governor of the province and the Heads of Army and Police for their ‘early and continued cooperation’ (p. xxiii). At this point the fiction that the highland peoples of the region are stone age survivals shifts from an academic archaism to a much more conscious political act.
This is a varied book in quality and intent. The observations of stone quarrying and making are acute and well described. We are all aware that there is no such thing as an innocent observer and the framework within which the observations are described allow the author to ignore the very real post-colonial struggle in which the West Papuans are engaged. Here are stone using people at the cutting edge of the contemporary world, fighting for self-determination and independence. The continuity and change in all their activities needs to be understood against this background.
Review Submitted: May 2004
The views expressed in this review are not
necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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