What is the cost of living in the Papua New Guinea highlands? An answer is sought using a time and energy accounting approach. The subsistence regime of Wola-speaking highlanders, the subjects of this investigation, comprises three components. The principal one is horticulture: people clearing gardens from forest and grassland, with tuberous crops predominating, notably sweet potato. The second component comprises animal rearing, notably of domestic pigs. The third, and least important, is hunting and gathering for food in the forest. The calculated returns on investments in these subsistence domains vary considerably. Gardens return in their crops between ten and fifteen times the energy expended in cultivation. Pigs may also give a good return, of four to five times the energy invested in rearing them, if slaughtered when adult, but people regularly keep animals for years and may incur negative energy returns on their labour investments. This relates to the high cultural premium put on pigs. Foraging for food is also energetically costly, the Wola expending four times more energy on these activities than they gain in return from the food they secure. This analysis of energy gains and losses challenges the relative notion of affluence as applied to foragers, by reviewing it in the comparative context of subsistence horticulture.
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