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  • Cited by 14
  • Print publication year: 1982
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - Witchcraft, greed, cannibalism and death: some related themes from the New Guinea Highlands



New Guinea Highlands and Fringe Highlands societies show a range of variation in terms of ideas about witchcraft, on the one hand, and cannibalism on the other. Can we make a sense of this variation? In what follows, I propose to discuss this problem by drawing attention to further patterns of ideas which run across several of the Highlands societies.

At the outset, I must make it clear that in concentrating on ideas I do not mean to suggest that these are in themselves determinant. To the contrary, if we look at the Highlands area in geographical terms, it is evident that the practice of cannibalism is (according to reports) associated most clearly with sparsely-populated fringe regions where large herds of domestic pigs are absent. Although we cannot argue from this that protein-hungry people become anthropophagous, there is obviously a material correlation of some interest here. The reasons why the argument cannot be made in a simple manner are that, first, the fringe peoples have alternative sources of protein in wild game, including feral pigs themselves, so that they are not necessarily or universally protein-hungry at all; and second, cannibalism as an approved practice has been reported from the Gimi and Fore Areas of the Eastern Highlands, where herds of domestic pigs are certainly kept. Overall, however, there is sufficient evidence to enable us to speculate that in the areas where agricultural intensification has proceeded to its greatest lengths, cannibalism is absent, and a classic complex of symbolic associations between witchcraft, greed, incest and cannibalism emerges.