Identification and Location. The Sambia, a congeries of historically and socially integrated phratries that speak the Sambia language, live in the fringe areas of the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. They are tribal, animistic, and primarily pagan. The name Sambia derives from the Sambia clan, an original pioneer people that settled the central Sambia region in the Puruya River Valley, and is mainly used by Westerners. The term “Kukukuku” (derogatory) was generically applied to Sambia and their neighbors until the 1970s; “Anga” (which means “house”) is now more frequently used as an ethnic term to embrace Sambia and related societies.
The Sambia are located in the rugged Kratke Mountains bounded by the Lamari River, the alluvial Papuan lowlands, and adjacent river valleys of the Eastern Highland Province, Marawaka District. Virgin rain forest covers approximately two-thirds of their territory. Settlements and gardens are located at elevations of 1,000 to 2,000 meters, and hunting territories extend up to elevations of 3,000 meters.
Demography. In 1989 the population of Sambia was estimated at 2,700, including absentee coastal workers. The population density averages 1.5 persons per square kilometer, though settlement areas are much higher. The population growth rate is about 5 percent per year. Sambia-speaking people constitute 95 percent of its resident population. Scattered, in-marrying speakers of the Fore and Baruya languages are present, and about 3 percent Tok Pisin speakers of other New Guinea languages reside there, mainly in government or mission jobs.
Linguistic Affiliation. Sambia is considered one of several languages belonging to the Non-Austronesian Angan Language Family of the Papuan Gulf. Sambia and the neighboring Baruya tribe share 60 percent of their cognate terms, for example, although a majority of speakers from both groups cannot speak the other group's language. There are at least two dialects of Sambia, represented in the northern and southern parts of central Sambia. They are mutually intelligible, with minor lexical and vocabulary variations and tonal differences.
History and Culture
The precise derivation of Sambia and related Angan peoples is unknown, but they are believed to have migrated south to the Papuan Gulf and later, perhaps as recently as A.D. 1700, to their present territory. Their mythological place of origin is located near the area of Menyamya. Legend and recent historical material suggests endemic warfare and raiding between Sambia and neighboring tribes, especially the Fore and Baruya. Initial contact with Europeans, at first Australian government patrols, began about 1956. The Australian colonial regime, operating under a mandate from the United Nations, entered and gradually enforced pacification around 1963. Warfare was halted in 1967, and in 1968 the Sambia area was “derestricted” and opened to Western missionaries and traders. Coffee was introduced as a cash crop about 1970. An abortive head-man system (modeled after African colonial regimes) was replaced in 1973, with komiti and kaunsal (councillors) being freely elected to a government council in the district. Papua New Guinea achieved independence in 1975; modernization efforts have followed rapidly.
Villages range in size from approximately 40 to 250 persons. All villages are spatially distinct. There are two village types: pioneering and consolidated. The pioneering type is built on a steep mountain ridge, fortified by palisades and fences to prevent attack. A pioneer village contains a great clan and component clans, with surrounding gardens, and a common hunting and gathering territory. The consolidated type is the result of two previously distinct villages uniting into a larger, somewhat less clustered settlement. Houses are built in a neat line pattern atop the ridges. Footpaths connect houses with gardens above and streams and rivers below. Each nuclear family lives in a hut, though other extended family members may at times sleep there. The house is gabled, thatched, and small, with a hearth and no windows. There are two other types of dwellings. One is a menstrual hut built slightly below the village, wherein birth and menstrual events occur and women's ceremonies are held. The other is a men's house, where all males dwell after initiation (at age 7-10) until marriage (in the late teens to early 20s), when a separate residence is built. Military and secret male ritual activities occur in that clubhouse. The menstrual and men's houses are taboo to the opposite sex. Casual shelters are placed in gardens as necessary. Pig-herding and hunting lodges of more permanent construction are built in distant gardens and the forest, and certain nuclear families or extended clan families reside in them, sometimes for several months.
Subsistence. Sedentary gardening dominates the Sambia economy, supplemented by modest pig herding, and, traditionally, extensive hunting for game by men. Sweet potatoes are the main staple. Taro is also significant. Yams are a seasonal and largely ceremonial crop. All planting and harvesting is done by hand, predominantly by women. Men, however, slash-and-burn the land first and participate in harvesting. Additional indigenous crops include sugarcane, pandanus fruit and nuts, wild taro and yams, and a variety of local greens, palms, and bamboo hearts. European kitchen vegetables are today plentiful, especially green beans, corn, and tapioca, supplemented by potatoes, tomatoes, and peanuts. Traditional hunting was mainly for opossums and native marsupials, birds, and cassowaries. Fishing for freshwater carp and eels was traditional but sporadic. All meats were on occasion smoked for preservation and eventual consumption or trade. In addition to pigs, domestic animals include dogs and chickens.
Commercial. Commercial crops include coffee, which is now predominant, as well as chilies.
Industrial. There are specialists in a few native crafts, but not industrial arts, in villages. Weaving of grass skirts and string bags is done by women; armbands, headbands, arrows, bows, and all military gear are made by men. Sacred art is rare, and masks and carvings are not made.
Trade. Vegetable salt bars, bark capes, feather head-dresses, and dried meats and fish were all traded traditionally with the neighboring Wantukiu and Usurumpia tribes and as far south as the Purari Delta. Women today bring home-grown produce to local markets.
Division of Labor. The sexual division of labor is striking and rigid among the Sambia. Women do most of the gardening, weaving, cooking, and child care. Men hunt, fish, and are responsible for war and public affairs. Most household chores, except house construction itself, are female activities. Men and women share the harvesting of feast crops and nowadays of coffee gardens.
Land Tenure. All land and watercourses are owned by individuals and clans as corporate groups. Fishing, hunting, gardening, and foraging rights are inviolable, and use rights may be extended to distant kin, in-laws, or trade partners. Landlessness is nonexistent.
Kin Groups and Descent. Three levels of kin grouping are found. The clan, linked by patrilineal descent, is exogamous. The “great clan” is formed from two or more clans that trace descent to a real ancestor. The phratry is constituted of many clans and great clans, whose putative ancestors are regarded as “brothers,” making inclusive members related. They also share adjacent territories, certain identity markers such as dress, and ritual customs. They intermarry. In times of war they usually support each other, and for ritual initiation, they conduct joint ceremonies for their sons.
Kinship Terminology. Sambia kin terms are essentially of the Omaha type, with marked generational skewing. Age grading in the initiation system also creates putative kin relations for males (brothers) and females (sisters).
Marriage and Family
Marriage. There are four types of marriage: infant betrothal (delayed exchange), sister exchange (direct exchange), and bride-service (delayed exchange), which are traditional; and bride-wealth marriage, which has been introduced since 1973. Marriage is primarily arranged by parents and clan elders. Because of exogamy, intravillage marriage in pioneer villages is absent, but it does occur in consolidated villages. Infant betrothal and sister-exchange marriage accounted for 90 percent of all marriage transactions traditionally. Father's sister's daughter marriage is approved. Newly-weds establish patrilocal residence soon after marriage in a new hut household. Divorce is rare. Polygyny is ideally preferred but is infrequent.
Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the minimal domestic unit. They eat and sleep together. Sons remain domiciled there until initiation, and daughters ideally remain as well until marriage. The extended family of familiarity includes grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, and cousins, usually within the same village. All active adults contribute to domestic labor and children also help. Cowives may reside together, but typically they have separate residences.
Inheritance. Property is inherited mainly by males, although daughters have use rights to certain garden land. Status and offices are not inherited but achieved, except for mystical powers of shamans.
Socialization. Early infant care is exclusively done by women. Older children are cared for by both parents and older siblings. Independence and autonomy are stressed, but more for males than females. Gender and sexual socialization are accomplished mainly through rituals.
Social Organization. Sambia was traditionally an acephalous tribe. Today it is an encapsulated semiautonomous tribal group within the bureaucratic administration of a parliamentary democracy, with the English monarch as its putative head of state.
The tribe is hierarchically organized on the basis of age and sex. Older people are higher than younger people. Clan elders, warriors, and ritual specialists hold the highest status. Men are higher than women. Social class is absent. However, modernization and mobility based upon wealth and education are currently introducing class status differences.
Political Organization. Political control by the state operates from the provincial district levels. Sambia is divided into census divisions with a head tax for adult men. The village operates as the most powerful political unit in daily public affairs. However, administrative and dispute settlement tasks are overseen by local councillors. Warfare was organized primarily at the village level. The dance ground confederacy is of special importance. Villages that initiate together on the same dance ground usually defend each other's territory and intermarry. Confederacies are usually constituted by one phratry; however, interphratry confederacies exist in central Sambia. The Papua New Guinea government provides school, court, and health services.
Social Control. Most features of social control devolve from clan hamlet elders. War leaders are crucial. Ritual initiation instills values of conformity and loyalty in individuals. Dance ground confederacies exert control in intertribal relations.
Conflict. Minor disputes in villages are handled through moots. Traditional warfare between villages usually occurred over adultery, sorcery accusations, ritual violations or theft of ritual customs, and destruction of gardens by pigs. Councillors and district courts handle conflicts today.
Religion and Expressive
Religious Beliefs. Ritual and the men's secret society are the key cultural forces in Sambia. Initiations occur on a grand scale every three or four years and are mandatory for all males. Female initiations occur later, at marriage, menarche, and first birth. Initiation for males also involved military training in the warriorhood.
Sambia are animistic and believe that all forces and events have life. Men are superior and women inferior. Female menstrual and birth pollution are abhorred. Male maturation requires homoerotic insemination to attain biological competence. Initiation rituals thus involve complex homosexual contact from late childhood until marriage, when it stops. Female homosexual activity is believed to be absent. Men's ritual cult ceremonies centrally involve flute spirits (female). Other forms of supernatural entities include ghosts, forest spirits (male), and nature sprites. Bogs, for example, are inhabited by ghosts and sprites. Contemporary mission activities center primarily on the local Seventh-Day Adventist church. Daily and Saturday services are held. Baptisms and marriages are performed. Missionized Sambia are largely nominal converts.
Religious Practitioners. Each village has at least one senior ritual specialist who officiates at initiation. Shamans are the main religious specialists, however; they may be male or female, though traditionally males were more frequent and critical. They divine, exorcise, and sorcerize. They are believed to retrieve souls of the sick through magical flight. There are strong and weak shamans. Shamans organize events in ritual and funeral ceremonies.
Ceremonies. The seasonal calendar is based on a cyclical sense of time, with ritual events and feast gardens synergistic with dry season and early monsoon periods (May-September).
Arts. The greatest decorative architecture is the ritual cult house, which is not maintained following initiation. Carving is limited to daily utensils and weapons. Body painting is elaborate in ritual and warfare. Feather headdresses are especially admired. Traditional musical instruments include ritual flutes and bullroarers and the Jew's harp. Dancing is extensive but simple and is part of all initiations.
Medicine. Illness is attributed to ghosts and sorcery. Possession is usually believed to be by ghosts or forest spirits. Local healing and spells are common. Herbal medicines are widely used, especially ginger and local salt. Shamans are the main healers.
Death and Afterlife. Funerals were traditionally shallow ceremonial
events. The corpse was placed on a platform until its bones were exposed.
The bones were retained by close kin for their sorcery power. The soul
is believed to survive death and is seen in dreams. The widow observes
a year or two of mourning. Today the corpse is buried. A name taboo is
still observed for the dead for several years.
Godelier, Maurice (1986). The Making of Great Men. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Herdt, Gilbert (1981). Guardians of the Flutes. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Herdt, Gilbert (1987). The Sambia: Ritual and Gender in New Guinea. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Herdt, Gilbert (1989). “Spirit Familiars in the Religious Imagination of Sambia.” In The Religious Imagination in New Guinea, edited by G. Herdt and M. Stephen, 99-121. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Lloyd, Richard G. (1973). “The Angan Language Family.” In The Linguistic Situation in the Gulf District and Adjacent Areas, Papua New Guinea, edited by K. Franklin, 31-111. Pacific Linguistics, Series C. no. 26. Canberra: Australian National University.
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