Leopold Pospisil, the leading authority on the Kapauku, labels their economy as "primitive capitalism" characterized by the pursuit of wealth in the form of cowrie shell money, status distinctions based on such wealth, and an ethic of individualism.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Kapauku Subsistence is based on the sweet potato, to which about 90 percent of cultivated land is devoted, and pig husbandry. Sweet potatoes are grown both for human consumption and to feed the pigs that, through sales, are a basic source of income and wealth. Commonly grown, but constituting a far smaller portion of the diet, are a spinach-like green ( idaja), bananas, and taro. In the densely populated Kamu Valley, hunting is of small importance due to a paucity of large game animals, but it is indulged in by men as sport. Edible fish are absent from the lakes, but crayfish, dragonfly larvae, certain types of beetles, and frogs augment the diet, as do rats and bats. Farming is done both on the mountain slopes and in the valleys. Upland gardens are given over to the extensive cultivation of sweet potatoes, with long fallow periods between plantings. In the valleys a more intensive method is followed, using both mixed cropping and crop rotation. Households will generally cultivate at least one of each type of garden.
Industrial Arts. Kapauku manufacture is limited and, for the most part, not specialized. Net bags, for utilitarian and for decorative purposes, are made from woven tree bark, as are the armbands and necklaces worn by both men and women. Also made from this bark are women's aprons. Kapauku also manufacture stone axes and knives, flint chips, and grinding stones. From bamboo they make knives for the carving of pork and for surgical use. Other carving tools are fashioned from rat teeth and bird claws, and agricultural tools include weeding, planting, and harvesting sticks. Weaponry consists of bows and arrows, the latter of which may be tipped with long blades of bamboo.
Trade. Trade is carried out intra- and interregionally and intertribally, with trade links extending to the Mimika people of the coast. The two most important trade commodities are pigs and salt. Trade is generally conducted in shell currency, pigs, or extensions of credit, and the bulk of trading occurs during pig feasts and at the pig markets. Barter is a relatively unimportant means by which goods may be transferred. All distributions of food incur a debt on the part of each recipient to repay in kind to the giver. Pospisil notes that the Kapauku are lively participants in the selling of pigs and pork. Shell money (and sometimes an obligation to provide pork) is required in payment to a shaman for the performance of magic.
Division of Labor. There is a sexual division of labor. Tasks held to be the exclusive province of men include the planning of agricultural production, digging ditches, making garden beds, felling trees, building fences, planting and harvesting bananas, tobacco, chili peppers, and apuu (a particular variety of yam), while the burning of gardens, planting sugarcane, manioc, squash, and maize, as well as the harvesting of sugarcane, manioc, and ginger, are preferentially but not necessarily done by males. Exclusively female tasks include the planting of sweet potatoes and jatu (an edible grass, Setaria palmifolia ) and weeding. Other tasks, such as planting and weeding taro and harvesting sweet potatoes, are usually done by women. All other tasks relating to agriculture are carried out by members of both sexes. The gathering of crayfish, water beetles, tadpoles, dragonfly larvae, and hogs is largely the task of women; the hunting of large game is an infrequent enterprise and is done only by men. Small game is hunted by young men and boys. Pigs and chickens, while usually owned by males, are tended by women or adolescent children, but only males are allowed to kill and butcher them. The weaving of utilitarian net bags is a woman's job, while the production of the more ornate and colorful decorative bags is the Province of males.
Land Tenure. A particular piece of land is the property of the house owner, always male, with use rights accorded to members of his household. Sons inherit land from their Fathers. Ownership implies rights of alienation of the land as well as usufruct rights.