ALTERNATE NAMES: Medlpa; Hageners
LOCATION: Papua New Guinea
LANGUAGE: Melpa; Tok Pisin
RELIGION: Christianity; native Melpa religion
The Melpa (also spelled Medlpa) are some of the first Papuans that tourists and visitors to the island of New Guinea see when they step off planes arriving in Mount Hagen. (The Melpa are often called "Hageners.") The Melpa frequent the airport, offering modern "stone axes," colorful string bags, and other artifacts for sale. Some of them also provide taxi and bus service to the local hotels and guest houses.
The Melpa are a highland group. Until 1933 (when Europeans arrived in the highlands) New Guinea had been unknown to the outside world. Conversely, the highlanders had never before seen people who lived beyond their mountain valleys and plains. The first contact between these two groups was recorded on film. It provides a fascinating record of this monumental time of discovery for both groups.
The Melpa live in the Western Highlands Province of the independent Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea. They are highlands-dwelling people who occupy the areas north and south of the town of Mount Hagen. There are about 60,000 Melpa in total. The climate in the area is relatively mild, especially by tropical standards. The temperature rarely exceeds 86° F (36° C ) in the summer months and rarely falls below freezing in winter. Rainfall is heaviest between October and March, with a dry period from April until September. Mosquitoes are nonexistent in this region of Papua New Guinea and therefore, malaria is not a problem.
The Melpa speak a Papuan language belonging to the East New Guinea Highlands stock. Melpa has over 60,000 speakers, and a portion of that population speaks Tok Pisin (an English-based pidgin language) as a second language. Tok Pisin is one of the official languages of Papua New Guinea. Melpa is not under threat from Tok Pisin, as are some other languages in the country. Most Melpa children still grow up speaking Melpa as their first language.
Myths relating the origins of the clans (group of people with common descent) were and still are told within Melpa society. Sacred objects or living beings associated with these myths and clans are called mi. Extended speeches and epic stories are performed to tell the deeds of clan heroes and ancestors.
Ghosts of dead family and clan members are the focal point of non-Christian religious practice among the Melpa. Pig sacrifices are made to keep these ghosts happy. These sacrifices are made when illness occurs within the village or before any dangerous task begins. The Melpa have religious experts who are responsible for curing the sick and act as intermediaries (go-betweens) between the human world and the spirit world. Women are not allowed to be curers but can be possessed by spirits and can also foretell the future.
Christianity has existed in the Melpa region ever since the founding of Mount Hagen as an administrative, trade, and missionary center in the 1930s. A number of the Melpa are now practicing Christians and attend the local churches on a regular basis.
The Mount Hagen Show is an important local holiday for Hageners. Groups from all over the highlands region attend to perform traditional songs, music, and dance wearing ceremonial clothing. Body decoration reaches it height for this event. National holidays such as Independence Day (September 16) are recognized by the Melpa who live and work in Mount Hagen, but not by rural Melpa.
The most important and well known ceremonial event in traditional Melpa society was an exchange process known as the moka. An individual male gave an gift to another male, who then gave a gift, plus something more, to that individual. Exchange partnerships would continue through the adult lives of men. Before the introduction of European goods into the highlands, the major items of exchange in the moka were pigs, both living and cooked, and pearlshell necklaces. Nowadays, cash, machetes (large knives), and even four-wheel-drive vehicles are exchanged in moka ceremonies. The goal of the exchange is to gain status and prestige in the eyes of the larger society by giving more than one received. Men who are accomplished at achieving this goal are known as "big-men" in the community and are viewed as leaders. True big-men are able to arrange large-scale, multiple moka exchanges involving many pairs of exchange partners. Anthropologists refer to this type of exchange as "redistribution." The goal is not to gather goods or wealth for personal use, but instead to redistribute (share) items among the community.
The Melpa people do not socially recognize or celebrate a girl's first menstruation, as most other highland groups from Papua New Guinea do. However, like other groups in the area, the Melpa do segregate males and females due to the fear of pollution of males by females, especially through menstrual blood.
In the past, the Melpa had elaborate initiation rites for males. Through contact with the outside world, these have been greatly reduced.
In some parts of the highlands, villages are separated by valleys and mountain ridges. Especially in the more rural Melpa region, villages may be widely separated from each other. In these areas, greetings are accomplished long distance via yodeling. Requests, directions, commands, and challenges are often yodeled back and forth by men across a ravine or a ridge, completely out of visual range of each other.
Inheritance is based on patrilineal principles: sons inherit from their fathers. The most important item for inheritance is land. Parcels of a father's land are given to his sons at the time that the sons are married. When daughters are married, their fathers may grant them gardening rights to parcels of land.
There are two types of traditional Melpa houses: men's and women's. Men's houses are round with cone-shaped roofs. This is where men live and where preteenage boys live once they have been separated from their mothers (around the age of eight). Women and their unmarried daughters live in the rectangular-shaped women's house. The women's house also contains pig stalls to keep the pigs from wandering off at night or being stolen. A village consists of at least one men's house and one women's house. Members of a clan traditionally resided in the same area, which was linked by paths to nearby gardening areas. Missionaries encouraged the building of family homes where a husband, a wife, and their children would sleep together. Some Melpa have adopted this new form of residence while others have chosen not to.
Marriage involves the exchange of valuables by both families. The majority of the goods are given by the groom's family to the bride's family. They constitute what anthropologists refer to as "bride wealth" or "bride price." Traditionally, the groom's family and kinfolk would provide a number of pigs and shells to the father of the bride in compensation for the loss of his daughter. Nowadays, cash payments are included in the transaction. The bride's family provides the new couple with a number of breeding pigs. The negotiation of a bride price is a significant part of the marriage transaction and can cause a potential marriage to be canceled.
The Melpa trace their genealogies through the male line. Clans are created through common descent from a shared male ancestor. Individuals choose their spouses from clans outside their own. After marriage, the couple moves into the groom's father's village. Later, they will build a new women's house for the bride near the groom's men's house. Divorce consists of repayment of part of the bride price, especially if the woman is seen to have been at fault.
The Melpa who live or work in Mount Hagen wear Western-style clothing. Men usually wear shorts, T-shirts, shoes if they own them, and a knitted cap, and they carry a string bag. Women wear A-line dresses often made of a floral print fabric. They also carry string bags, but much larger than those of the men. Women also wear shoes if they own them; however, men are more likely than women to own shoes. The concept of owning a wardrobe of clothing does not exist for the majority of Melpa. Most people own only one change of clothing. It is still possible to see Melpa dressed in traditional clothing, including the wig made from human hair that adult Melpa men wear on important occasions. In some cases, Melpa from rural villages will travel by plane to visit other highland communities. During these travels, the rural Melpa may dress in their traditional clothing and carry the tools of traditional life, such as stone axes and digging sticks. The airport at Mount Hagen is truly a meeting place of the jet age and the stone age.
Like other Highland cultures in Papua New Guinea, the Melpa's traditional staple foods were sweet potatoes and pork. Sweet potatoes are still an important staple. Western-style foodstuffs have gained in importance now that they are available in trade stores and since eating this type of food increases a person's status in the eyes of the community.
Traditional education consisted of socializing young boys and girls to become competent members of adult Melpa society. Although this is still true today, public and parochial schools (church-run, private schools) are also open to Hageners. In the highlands region, Western-style education has been integrated with traditional ways of life to produce individuals who seem to exist in two very different worlds at the same time.
Vocal music is especially important in Melpa society. Courtship songs are common in many highland cultures in New Guinea. Men woo their mates by composing and performing songs that have double-entendre lyrics (words with two sets of meanings, one often sexual in nature). When men go to sing to women in other villages, they paint and decorate themselves very elaborately.
The traditional division of labor was between the sexes. Men were responsible for creating gardens and building fences to keep out the pigs. Women tended the pigs, planted the staple crop of sweet potatoes and other foodstuffs such as greens and taro (a starch), and weeded and harvested the garden plot.
Modern Melpa work in a variety of jobs in the town of Mount Hagen. Driving taxis and buses, porting baggage at the airport, and working in shops are among the types of employment that the Hageners pursue.
As in other parts of Papua New Guinea, rugby is an important sport in the area around Mount Hagen. Mount Hagen is the venue (location) for many rugby games involving Hageners and other Papuans from throughout the island.
Town-dwelling Melpa have access to electricity and many of them enjoy watching television. There are very few locally produced television shows in the country. Most programs are bought from Australian broadcasting, which in turn purchases shows from the United States. Therefore, Hageners are exposed to American society in the form of situation comedies.
Body decoration is the major art form in the Hagen region. Moka (exchanges) and ceremonial events have historically been important times for elaborate decoration to take place. Body paint is produced from local dyes mixed with pig fat. Traditional materials such as feathers and shells are used to decorate elaborate headdresses. Today, traditional headdresses are decorated with modern items, such as labels of various products and the tops of tin cans. The American product Liquid Paper (white correction fluid) has also become a favorite substitute for traditional white paint. The intensity of whiteness is cited as the reason for the switch.
Revenge was the basis for many violent actions taken by the Melpa in the time before pacification (when they were forced by European missionaries to become more peaceful). Revenge murders often pitted the male members of one clan against those of another. This mentality has not completely disappeared from the Melpa. Hundreds of men wearing full war dress can occasionally be seen running along the Highlands Highway toward a neighboring village. Their intent is to exact revenge for a death or wrongdoing that took place in the past. Events like these alarm tourists and government officials. As a result, warnings are sometimes issued regarding travel in the region.
Strathern, Andrew. The Rope of Moka: Big-Men and Ceremonial Exchange in Mount Hagen, New Guinea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.