Chapter 31 elders big men chiefs and kings
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Chapter 31: Elders, “Big Men,” Chiefs, and Kings. By: Cheryl & Eleanor. The Islands of Oceania. Oceania, also known as the South Pacific island group, has four major regions: Melanesia – “islands of the blacks” Micronesia – “small islands” Polynesia – “many islands”

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Chapter 31 elders big men chiefs and kings l.jpg

Chapter 31:Elders, “Big Men,” Chiefs, and Kings


Cheryl & Eleanor

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The Islands of Oceania

  • Oceania, also known as the South Pacific island group, has four major regions:

    • Melanesia – “islands of the blacks”

    • Micronesia – “small islands”

    • Polynesia – “many islands”

    • Australia – “land to the south”

  • Archeologists have studied that the islands have been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. Researchers have found that early habitation dates of forty or more thousand years ago to the sites on the island continent of Australia. Sites on the island of New Guinea and some nearby islands of the Bismarck Archipelago were populated more than thirty thousand years ago. The Melanesian islands and Micronesia were populated two to three thousand years ago. The last islands of Oceania humans colonized were those of Polynesia.

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  • Includes New Guinea, the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuata, and the Fijian Islands

  • Art forms of Melanesia seem to have a variety of historical overlays of styles and symbolism

  • Their cults and art forms address a host of legendary ancestral and nature spirits

  • Even though masks are shown rarely in Polynesia, they are central to many Melanesian spirit cults

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  • Today, New Guinea is a part of two countries, West Papua and East Papua

  • When the two land masses were connected during the ice ages, people settled on the island and on the nearby continent of Australia for tends of thousands of years

  • The ecosystems had highlands with snow-capped mountains and a variety of tropical and subtropical forest regions, and also low-lying tropical river systems

  • Since these ecosystems were various, they gave numerous adaptations for survival, such as intense agriculture and husbandry

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  • The descendants of the early settlers in New Guinea spoke non-Austronesian languages (aka Old Papuan)

  • These descendants tend to organize in egalitarian social units with political power vested in groups of older men and in some areas older women

  • Later, seagoing migrants to New Guinea and the other Melanesian islands spoke Austronesian languages (aka Malayo-Polynesian)

  • These languages are related in areas of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia

  • These cultures frequently had chiefs at the top of the social system, with various people under their power socially, politically, and economically

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Asmat Art (West New Guinea)

  • Revolve around mythological ancestral beliefs associated with competition, warfare, and head-hunting

  • They filled their art with symbols of ancestors, as well as animals and insects associated with head-hunting (fruit-eating bat, hornbill, heron, cockatoo, and praying mantis)

  • The Asmat headhunt was a way of maintaining a balance of spirit power: when a person dies, either by natural causes or murder, it was attributed to the loss of the person to a taking away of ancestral power

  • In order to restore a balance, an enemy’s head must be taken to avenge one’s relative’s death and to add to one’s communal spirit power

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Ancestor Poles to Honor the Dead

  • The Asmat erect ancestor poles mark the death of their men, often due to head-hunting, warfare, or sorcery

  • The lifelike standing figures on the poles’ vertical axis represent individuals who have died

  • After ceremonies, the Asmat discard the poles in the nearby swamp to begin a symbolic death-rebirth cycle

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War Shields to Protect the Living

  • War shields were very important because warfare was very common; however, today the Asmat simply sell war shields, but they are still an important part of the culture

  • The war shields are kept in the men’s house where initiated men sleep separately from the women and children – they are placed near each man’s section for ready access in time of need

  • The Asmat believed the images on the war shields had the power to help protect the warrior behind the shield

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Abelam Art (East New Guinea)

  • The Abelam people are agriculturalists living in the hilly regions north of the Sepik River

  • They painted the façade of their decorated men’s houses with representations of ancestral spirits connected to the fertility of the gardens

  • By itself, the house represents male and female generative and fertility notions

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Iatmul Art (East New Guinea)

  • The Iatmul live along the middle Sepik River in Papua New Guinea in their big saddle-shaped men’s ceremonial houses

  • The house represents a monstrous female ancestor

  • They placed carved images of clan ancestors on the five central ridge-support posts and on the twelve roof-support posts on both sides of the house

  • The house’s interior is subdivided into three parts (a front, middle, and end) representing the three major clans who built the house

  • The Iatmul house and its female ancestral figures symbolize a reenacted death and rebirth when a clan member enters and exits the second story of the house

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Sulka Art (East New Britain)

  • The non-Austronesian-speaking Sulka people are mostly known for elaborate surreal masks used in ceremonies of birth, initiation, men’s house dedications, and mortuary rites

  • They make two basic types of masks:

    • Hemlaut, which has a large umbrella-like form on top of the mask

    • Susu, appears in several distinct forms, including an anthropomorphized cone-shaped form called a Gitvung-Susu

  • The Sulka associate the Gitvung-Susa mask with the initiation of youth into adulthood

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Malanggan Art (Northern New Ireland)

  • To honor the dead, the Austronesian-speaking peoples of the island of northern New Ireland in Papua New Guinea use elaborately carved polychrome sculptures called malanggan

  • The rituals both honor ancestors and initiate youths in adulthood

  • After the malanggan rites conclude, the community disposes the sculptures and leaves them out to decay

  • Artists carve new malanggan sculptures for each commemorative rite

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The malanggan rites include a dramatic taboo-lifting mask called Matua

The mask is made from wood, feathers, vegetal materials and paints

There is a tongue-like shape inside the mouth representing the Matua eating a human liver, showing its cannibal-like attributes

The spirit’s ears are made of large carved and painted planks set into the sides of the mask

Malanggan mask for lifting taboos

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Micronesia called Matua

  • Areas considered Micronesian have mostly cheifmanship governments

  • All micronesian cultures are centered around fishing, trading, and long distance boating to trade with other societies

  • Made many crafts, carved canoes

  • Tended to abstract natural forms

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Belau Art called Matua

  • Put much effort into creating men’s ceremonial houses (previously mentioned)

  • Women were warned to stay away from men’s houses, houses were decorated with ocean themes, protected by dieties

  • Men’s houses called “bai”

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Polynesia called Matua

  • Polynesia was one of the last settled areas on earth

  • Polynesian societies are typically aristocratic

  • Made art forms for spiritual purposes mana

  • The counterpart to mana was tapu

  • Like good and bad, godly and taboo

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Polynesia called Matua

  • Polynesian artists excelled in carving wood, stone, and ivory

  • Were usually full monochromatic human figures

  • Made a backcloth called tapa which played a CRUCIAL role in clothing, bedding, cloth in general

  • The art of tatooing was also very developed

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Rarotungan Art called Matua

  • Rarotungans were moderately isolated, which allowed distinct reigonal styles

  • Carvings from R are feature bodies with many bodies attached, perhaps to symbolize ancestors

  • Rarotungans used carved dieties up into the 1800s, included fisherman’s gods, with tapa etc.

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Kukailimoku (war god) called Matua

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Hawaiian and Marquesean art called Matua

  • The hawaiian art very different from rarutunguan, much more fierce looking, larger, nearly 6 feet tall

  • In the Marquesean islands tatooing was a sign of social status

  • Tattoos increased their MANA

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Maori Art called Matua

  • Maori people of new zealand cherished decorative embellishment and curvilinear human figures

  • The maori peoples decorated their own bodies all over with tattoos

  • Created sculptures which feautured same tattoo patterns

  • Meeting houses played an important role in maori life, were community centers and a symbol of cultural identity

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Australia called Matua

  • The Aboriginal people spread throughout Australia

  • Had a special relationship with the land they lived on

  • Mainly hunter-gatherers

  • Developed complicated aboriginal myths

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Hunter and kangaroo called Matua

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Aboriginal Art called Matua

  • Created batiqued bark paintings

  • Very detailed design oriented