Abelam - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Abelam are horticulturalists living mainly on yams, taro, and sweet potatoes. The soils in the area, as well as the Abelams' skills in gardening, yield considerable harvests of different varieties of yam and taro. In the north they are cultivated mostly in hillside gardens. In the south, in the Sepik Plains, vegetation is sparse and consists mostly of imperata grasslands. There yields are much smaller. The Abelam depend also on sago palms, which they exploit only seasonally, and on coconuts, bananas, and a large variety of vegetables and fruits. The Abelam practice slash-and-burn cultivation, allowing fallow periods of only a few years compared to as many as twenty years in the past. Today coffee and cocoa are grown as cash crops and are a major cause of the shorter fallow periods. Apart from asakua yams which grow in the poorly drained soils in the plains, there are dozens of other varieties of yam. In special ritual gardens men cultivate long yams that may grow up to 2 meters long. These are not grown for immediate consumption but for ritual yam exchange. After being harvested, they are decorated with plaited or wooden masks and with various ornaments for display at yam festivals where competition between the yam growers is important. These yam exchanges are held either between hamlets of the same village whose residents are members of different moieties or—in a much more dramatic form—between enemy villages. The growing and exchanging of yams has pervaded almost all aspects of Abelam life, and all male initiations are closely linked with it. Everything connected with women is inimical to long yams. Sexual intercourse during the planting season is avoided. This seems to have resulted in seasonal births in such villages. The production of a long tuber is, in a symbolic way, equated with the procreation of a child but with the emphasis that the long tuber is a creation of men only. The relation between men and women has been described as that of complementary opposition. Whereas yams and taro are grown primarily for daily consumption, the raising of pigs is done for exchange only. At each major yam exchange pigs must be contributed, too. Pigs, like long yams, may not be eaten by their owners.

Industrial Arts. All art objects such as elaborately patterned plaits for the ceremonial house, carvings, and paintings, as well as decorated pots and bone daggers, are made by men for their ceremonial life. The Abelam artist, though esteemed as a gifted specialist, is a yam grower like every other adult male. Meshwork used as boar-tusk ornaments and worn by men during fights and ceremonies, featherwork, and rious body ornaments are produced by men who otherwise are not artists. Today the most important personal items of both men and women are net bags. (In former times both sexes were almost completely naked in everyday life.) The Wosera are among the most prolific makers of net bags. The production of net bags is known and performed by all women, though the knowledge of dyeing is limited to a few. Some women are renowned for their artistic skill.

Division of Labor. In subsistence activities there exists a more or less strict division of labor. Men fell the trees and clear the land for new gardens. Then they fence it off, sometimes assisted by women. Men plant all varieties of yams; later women plant taro between the yam mounds. Weeding the gardens as many as six times before harvest—is done exclusively by women. Men put up sticks for the yam vines and later they dig out the tubers, which women then clean of dirt and excessive roots. During all male communal affairs (with few exceptions during initiations) they are provided with food by women.

Trade. Piglets are reared only by women, who invest much labor in the production of pigs. In former times this was the only means to obtain wealth in the form of shell rings received from the Arapesh in exchange for pigs. Occasionally men from northern villages made trading expeditions not only to Arapesh settlements in the mountains (for shell rings, yellow paint, and magical substances) but sometimes even to the north coast. There they filled long bamboo tubes with salt water and carried them back to their villages. They used carvings and net bags—as trading goods and as gifts for their partners who provided them with shelter and food along the track. The large and beautifully patterned net bags (which are used also as marriage payments) were much more important as trading goods in the Wosera than they were in the north. Ceremonial earthen bowls, decorated elaborately, were mostly produced in southern villages and traded to northern villages. In general, however, each community was self-sufficient. Nevertheless, there were networks of cooperation between villages concerning the promotion of fertility, tubers, fruits, and men. Sometimes fertility was not promoted but Instead inhibited—often by illness and death, believed to be caused by the witchcraft and sorcery for which some villages were well known.

Land Tenure. All land is owned by lineages and clans ( kim). The wealthiest clans, if they have enough members, are the most powerful within a settlement as they will own, at least in part, the historically and thus ritually most important ceremonial grounds. A lineage's claim on land is demonstrated by their regularly using land for gardens. The individual plots owned by different lineages are marked by perennial plants; these are often overgrown by shrubs but are quickly rediscovered by old men when disputes over land arise. If a man clears land for a new garden or plants trees on ground not used by him before and nobody protests against it, he is regarded as the rightful owner.


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