Keraki - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Keraki are subsistence farmers who practice swidden or slash-and-burn horticulture. Their staple crop is the lesser yam ( Dioscorea esculenta ) . Gardens are prepared at the end of the dry season and completed by October or November, when the first sounds of thunder signal the beginning of the planting season. Several families usually cooperate in clearing a tract of land, which is subsequently divided into individually owned plots of about 45 meters square, separated from one another by timber markers laid along the ground. The entire area is customarily fenced against wild pigs, wallabies, etc. By June the yam vines, attached to 2-meter-long poles, have begun to turn yellow, and the harvest begins—desultorily at first, then more seriously as the vines wither. Yams are levered up or dug out with heavy spatulate digging sticks, then picked out by hand, and later sorted into piles for cooking, replanting, or for feasts. Other important root crops are taro, manioc, and sweet potatoes. Sugarcane, coconuts, and bananas are also grown, and various other fruits, especially papayas, complement the Keraki diet. Sago is rare and highly prized, thriving only in the few sago swamps that exist in Keraki territory. Garden produce is supplemented by hunting, mainly for wallabies. These animals are taken either individually or collectively, by means of a drive, which is sometimes aided by grass burning. Cassowaries and wild pigs are hunted too, although pigs are also raised in small enclosures. Fishing is employed using a variety of techniques including stationary traps, hook and line, shooting with bow and arrow, and stupefying with poison root, but fish contribute relatively little to the Keraki diet.

Industrial Arts. Keraki have few manufactures beyond the simple utilitarian objects used in their daily lives. Personal ornaments are few. The only particularly well-finished pieces of woodwork are the drum, about 1 meter long, tapering to a longish waist in the middle, with a handle of one piece; the spatula, used for scooping out the pulpy interior of yams; and a boomerang-shaped hair ornament. Formerly, Keraki headhunters lavished considerable care on the making of carved, painted or barbed arrows for use in raids, and they also carved delicate wands or clubs called parasi, which were shattered over the heads of victims. Perhaps their most finely made objects are textiles, including mats, embroidered carrying bags, plaited belts and armlets, and finely worked women's mourning dresses.

Trade. Keraki engage in such considerable barter of all sorts of objects with neighboring peoples that it is difficult for the ethnographer to identify truly indigenous manufactures. However, since the Morehead area lacks appropriate natural stone, their most important trade was for stone axes and club heads, which, together with painted arrows, they obtained from the Wiram people in exchange for melo shells, used as a men's pubic covering. Other stone was obtained from Buji, on the coast near the mouth of the Mai Kussa River.

Division of Labor. As in most tribal societies, Keraki division of labor is based on age and sex. Women clean the houses and grounds, cook day-to-day meals, make textiles, and take primary responsibility for the children. Men hunt, build houses and shelters, conduct ritual matters, and do much of the cooking for feasts. Garden work is done by both sexes, although the sexes do perform slightly different tasks, with men doing most of the heavy felling, clearing, fencing, planting, and harvesting and women doing most of the daily weeding, cleaning, and harvesting.

Land Tenure. While the population density of the Morehead area is only about 0.2 person to the square kilometer, and the land is vast in proportion to the people, there are nevertheless rules of ownership, control, and inheritance of land. These rules are more closely observed for good land close to the semipermanent villages than for relatively useless land far from habitation sites. The whole territory is divided into large, named areas of about 13 to 15.5 square kilometers each, separated by natural boundaries and nominally owned by one of the nine Keraki tribes, but actually belonging to one of the villages of the tribe. Each of these major tracts is Divided into a number of individually owned minor tracts. The yure, or owner of the land, gives formal permission to garden on the land, although this is commonly given to all who ask. Succession to yure-ownership is from father, through younger brother, and back to son; land may also be partitioned among sons and brothers.

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