Dani - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. About 90 percent of the Dani diet is sweet potatoes. They are grown in the complex, ditched field systems surrounding the compounds. The men prepare the fields with fire-hardened digging sticks, and women do most of the planting, weeding, and harvesting. The ditch systems capture streams and run the water through the garden beds. In wet periods, the ditches drain off excess water. These gardens usually go through a fallow cycle, and when they are again cleared, the rich ditch mud is plastered on the garden beds. Dani living near the edges of the Grand Valley may also practice slash and burn horticulture on the flanking slopes. Because of the absence of marked growing seasons, the sweet potatoes are harvested daily throughout the year. In addition to sweet potatoes, Grand Valley Dani grow small amounts of taro, yams, sugar cane, bananas, cucumbers, a thick succulent grass, ginger, and tobacco. Pandanus, both the kind with brown nuts and the kind with red fruit, is harvested in the high forests, and now the trees are increasingly planted around the valley floor compounds. Although the Western Dani had adopted many Western fruits and vegetables, especially maize, before actual contact, the Grand Valley Dani are more conservative and even by the 1980s only minor amounts of a few Western foods were grown there. Domestic pigs are an important part of the Dani diet, as well as being major items in the exchanges at every ceremony. The pigs live on household garbage, and forage in forests and fallow gardens. Pigs are tempting targets for theft and so are a major cause of serious social conflict. The Grand Valley itself is so densely populated that little significant wildlife is available for hunting. A few men who live on the edge of the Valley keep dogs and hunt for tree kangaroos and the like in the flanking high forests. In the Grand Valley, there were no fish until the Dutch began to introduce them in the 1960s. The only water creatures which the Dani ate were crayfish from the larger streams.

Industrial Arts. Until the 1960s, when metal tools were introduced by outsiders, the Grand Valley Dani tools were of stone, bone, pig tusk, wood, and bamboo. Ground ax and adz stones were traded in from quarries in the Western Dani region, and the Jale, or Eastern Dani, got their stones from even further east. Other tools were made locally. They made no pottery or bark cloth. Gourds were used for water containers and also for penis covers. String rolled from the inner bark of local bushes was used extensively to make carrying nets, women's skirts, and ornaments. Rattan torso armor for protection against arrows was made by Western Dani but the Grand Valley Dani neither made it nor traded for it. Spears and bows and arrows were the weapons of war. The arrows were unfletched, with notched, barbed, and dirtied (but not poisoned) tips. By the 1980s, cloth, metal axes, knives, and shovels, as well as the detritus of modern life—cast-off tin cans and plastic bottles—had partially replaced traditional Dani crafts.

Trade. Even before contact, various seashell types had been traded up from the coasts of the island into the entire Dani area. Ax stones and flat slate ceremonial stones, bird of paradise feathers, cassowary-feather whisks, and spear woods were traded into the Grand Valley in exchange for pigs and salt produced from local brine pools.

Division of Labor. Gender and age are the major bases for division of labor. There are no full-time specialists; but there is some spare-time specialization. A few people are known as expert arrow makers or curers. Generally, men do the heavy work like tilling gardens or building houses, while women do the tedious work like planting, weeding, harvesting, and carrying thatch grass. Men weave the tight shell bands used in ceremonies, women make carrying nets, and both make string. Because of the very relaxed atmosphere between men and women, there is little activity totally hidden from either sex.

Land Tenure. Quite informal usage rights are the rule. Although there is little or no population pressure in the Grand Valley, the extensively ditched sweet potato gardens on the broad valley floor do represent quite a considerable labor investment, but even so, rights are casually and informally transferred. Large garden areas are usually farmed by men of a single sib or a single neighborhood. Fields are controlled by men, not women.

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