Living With the Natives of Melanesia

How Ethnological Work Is Carried on by Representatives of the American Museum among Primitive People of the South Seas


The Entrepreneur of the Village: Paleao had been a German police boy and learned the value of some of the white men’s ways. Back in his native village he was quick to take advantage of the trade possibilities which a white man offered. He was “shoot boy” for the expedition and managed the convoys which brought out its stores.

We set about having a native house built, and the clan of Pere proper courteously accorded us the privilege of building our house abutting on one of the two small bits of land which are used as village greens and dancing grounds. But obtaining a house site was not obtaining a house. The thatch had to be bought in lots of ten shingles each, from the land people. Payment had to be made in advance, then runners sent out to collect. It took two months before a large thatched structure on piles was almost ready to receive us. Before it was finished I came down with malaria, and within two days three of our boys were down also. In Manus, all sickness is due to the spirits, and an elder of the other end of the village, who was anxious to hasten our removal to his section, divined the cause of the illness as the malicious work of a dead police boy, appropriately domiciled in the “House Kiap.” Very solemn, he sat on the floor and explained that neither the boys nor I would recover until we moved into the new and uncompleted house. I balked for twenty-four hours, as the prospect of moving with half the household sick was not enticing; then a fourth boy came down with the fever, and we moved to a doorless, stepless dwelling, where the cook house had no floor. Such intimate participation in the religious and social life of the community is inconvenient and wearing, but it is the only way in which the necessary knowledge of native society can be obtained. And the way is full of pitfalls. I shall never forget the panic caused among a group of visitors, early in our stay, when my husband complied with one person’s tentative request that he pronounce my name. Several people almost fell into the sea in their horrified retreat from such blasphemous behavior.

The endless tabus upon mentioning the names of any relative-in-law in a person’s presence make it necessary to know the social organization of the village by heart, all the past marriages, the present marriages, the contemplated marriages. In addition it is necessary to know each person’s three or four names. Even then one is continually trespassing, as when I inadvertently sneezed in the presence of a woman whose daughter was engaged to a youth named “Sneeze.” There are relatives-in-law who may not look at each other, and it was necessary to construct a house with several exits, so that mothers-in-law could depart as sons-in-law entered, for it is always the women who have to do the running away. On one occasion, when I was alone in the village, and had added to my household of six small boys and two girls, a man and his wife, there were so many complicated relationships that the only place where Ngaoli my seventeen-year-old-girl could eat, without transgressing, was huddled in a corner behind the bed. And the linguistic confusion which resulted from getting a new cook boy who was the brother-in-law of three of the other boys, was terrifying. One could not say his name in front of them, but must refer to him grandiloquently as “the husband of Pondramet” (their sister); if he were also in the room, even this would not serve, as his wife’s name could not be mentioned in his presence.

A large part of one’s time in these remote villages is taken up with doctoring, as there is no doctor within a day’s journey and often not one as near. Here again there are many dangers. To give medicine to someone who may die, is to risk crippling one’s field work, as the natives may blame one for the resulting death. The children were continually fainting from malaria; a fact which was advertised to the entire village by the wails of the mother. The prescribed method of bringing the child around was for a hundred people to collect in the house, all the female relatives of the child gathering close about it, wailing, for which expression of affection they were subsequently paid, while some important man, or possibly two, stirred bowls of water with long sticks and invoked their guardian ghosts’ aid in returning the child’s purloined soul stuff. It was a simple matter to thrust a bottle of aromatic spirits of ammonia under the children’s noses, but the natives never admitted that this brought them to, insisting that the spitting and coughing were signs that the spirits disliked the horrid medicine.

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