The Kopon: life and death on the fringes of the New Guinea Highlands

by Jackson, Graham

Abstract (Summary)
Restricted Item. Print thesis available in the University of Auckland Library or available through Inter-Library Loan. This thesis describes the Kopon of the lower Kaironk Valley, between the Bismarck and Schrader Ranges in Papua New Guinea. I compare the lower Kopon in certain respects with the upper Kopon, living further up the Kaironk Valley, and with the Kalam, living further up still. There are predominantly ethnographic chapters on the economy; groups; kinship; marriage, vital statistics, and migration; social control; supernaturalism; ritual; and taboo. The penultimate chapter discusses ritual, supernaturalism, and taboo, concentrating heavily on the latter, and the final chapter interrelates important aspects of material covered in the body of the thesis. The Kopon garden for the bulk of their food, but hunting and gathering contribute essential protein to the diet. The pig and the dog are domesticated. Settlement is dispersed, with houses handy to garden sites. Households are the largest moderately stable groups, but show some overlapping, and a degree of flux greater than would result from the demands of life cycle changes alone. Gardening groups, which range in size up to the equivalent of three or four households, show a high degree of overlapping and flux. The lower Kopon have a lower population density and a lower incidence of homicide than the upper Kopon or the Kalam, and there is a considerable down valley migration from upper to lower Kopon. Social control is on the basis of equivalence, self interest, and self help, and the only specialist role is that of curer. A higher mortality rate and richer natural resources in the lower than the upper Kaironk Valley plausibly explain much of the above. The high mortality keeps the population density relatively low, and encourages flux and overlapping of groups, both to guard against isolation should death occur, and to adjust to death when it does occur. This militates against the relatively clear-cut boundaries and undivided allegiance which would be to some extent necessary conditions for the existence of larger corporate groups. Superimposed on local flux in the lower Kopon is the down valley migration from the upper Kopon. This is a movement to an area of lower population density, richer resources, and attributable to these, lower rates of killing. Moving down valley to die may be a feature of populations on the fringes of the Highlands. Riebe (1974) has independently related the frequency of Kalam killings to population growth, these having increased in parallel from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. In the relative absence of other indices of discrimination, the use of taboo as a marker has been developed to a high degree. Beliefs in the supernatural account for the processes of life, growth, healing, illness, and death, and the choice of a supernatural to which to attribute a natural death justifies either repaying the death with a killing, or letting it pass.
Bibliographical Information:


School:The University of Auckland / Te Whare Wananga o Tamaki Makaurau

School Location:New Zealand

Source Type:Master's Thesis



Date of Publication:01/01/1975

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