Volume 100 1991 > Volume 100, No. 4 > Echidna and Kuyaam: classification and anomalous animals in Telefolmin, by Dan Jorgensen, p 365 - 380
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In an anthropology that has become accustomed to using categories such as “nature” and “culture”, the late Ralph Bulmer's work reminds us that we have much to learn about the natural world of other peoples. My particular interest in this paper is with problems in animal classification, a topic to which Bulmer has contributed a great deal. However, although there have been several discussions of the classificatory status of the cassowary (Bulmer 1967; Gardner 1984; Gell 1975; Healey 1985; Herdt 1981), anthropological treatments of New Guinea's mammals have been relatively few (but see Bulmer and Menzies 1972; Majnep and Bulmer n.d.; Hyndman 1984). This task is particularly difficult because the fauna of New Guinea is strikingly distinct from assemblages found elsewhere, and in such circumstances many of our intuitions about the classificatory treatment of various animals are likely to lead us astray. For example, despite their unusual classificatory status in other parts of the world, New Guinea marsupials are ubiquitous and unexceptional, and our own sense of the special qualities of pouched mammals is likely to be irrelevant to understanding local perceptions. At the same time, this very difference between the fauna of New Guinea (or Australia) and the rest of the world makes comparisons with other regions problematic. All of these factors suggest that anyone interested in gaining an understanding of how people in this part of the world see their environment must begin with an attempt to characterise local fauna in more detail than is usually required for ethnographic purposes. One of this paper's aims is to flesh out our knowledge of two particular mammals — the echidna and kuyaam (Phalanger gymnotis) of my title — and their place among the Telefolmin of Papua New Guinea. 2 This is part of a more general consideration of variations in the cultural treatment of anomalous animals. As we shall see, detailed knowledge of the animals in question is necessary to our discussions.

One of the problems opened by Douglas' Purity and Danger (1966) is the relation between taboo and classification. The argument, now well known, is that taboo protects the integrity of classificatory schemes by suppressing anomalies. Like dirt or weeds, anomalies are out of place, and in this way they defy deeply held notions of the rightness of things. Thus, in her classic analysis of the abominations of Leviticus, Douglas argues that those animals - 366 which fall outside or astride the boundaries of the ancient Israelite classificatory system (such as the pig, which parts the hoof but does not chew the cud) are anathematised as unclean, and are therefore avoided. By making exceptions to the rule dangerous, taboo is on the side of cultural order.

In the same book, however, Douglas also puts forth a different argument concerning the place of the pangolin among the Lele of Zaire. The pangolin, or scaly anteater, manages to confound most of the boundaries in the Lele classification of animals: an arboreal creature with fish-like scales, it is about as close to a fish out of water as it is possible to get. The Lele, however, revere the pangolin and make it the centre of a cult. Here the exceptional is auspicious rather than abhorrent, and the problem this poses for Douglas' theory is how to account for the differential status of pigs and pangolins as classificatory anomalies.

Douglas is well aware of this difficulty and has addressed it in her essay on self-evidence (1975:276-318). 3 Reconsidering her earlier work and drawing upon Bulmer's studies of Kalam animal categories (1967), she suggests that societies are likely to differ in the extent to which they reject or embrace anomalies. The ancient Israelites, she argues, were faced with the problem of maintaining their distinctiveness under severe external pressures. Rejecting alien gods, they also avoided intermarriage with their neighbours, preferring endogamy to the risks of out-marriage. Purity became a central value in both theological and sociological terms, and from this perspective it makes good sense to suppose that the premium on purity was reflected in dietary rules which at once distinguished the Israelites from their neighbours and endorsed the cosmological principle that discreteness is a measure of goodness. The Lele, on the other hand, display more openness in their attitude towards outsiders. Lele enjoin marriage between the children of cross-cousins, encouraging links between parties who are neither close kin nor wholly strangers to one another; such marriages are often crucial in alliances between otherwise self-contained political units. The result, according to Douglas, is that the Lele experience of mediation in social relations gives them reason to be optimistic about the prospects of symbolic mediation; hence, the revered status of the pangolin in Lele cosmology: far from being despised, it is analogous to the affine who bridges gaps between distant kin.

The Kalam of Papua New Guinea fall somewhere between these two extremes in their attitude towards the cassowary. A huge flightless bird, the cassowary is patently anomalous and is for the Kalam a focus of ambivalence: it is hedged about by various taboos separating it from hamlet and garden, but it must be respected in the same way as affines and cross-cousins. Although not subject to an absolute prohibition, is it not the object of a positive cult. Douglas, following Bulmer, traces this to features of the Kalam social system. - 367 Kalam kinship is cognatic, and territorial groups are small and fluid in composition. Whereas Lele are concerned to link otherwise discrete groups through marriage, Kalam are more preoccupied with the possibility that encroaching affines may merge so thoroughly with one's kin that they usurp one's land. This accounts for the circumspection with which the Kalam approach the cassowary, who, like one's cross-cousin, should be respected but is best kept out of one's gardens.

Douglas answers the question of why Israelites avoided pigs, why the Lele pay cult to the pangolin, or why the Kalam are guarded in their dealings with the cassowary by directing our attention to differences in the degree to which traffic across social boundaries is welcomed. This solution takes it for granted that the difference between rejecting or embracing classificatory anomalies registers a difference between whole societies. Such an approach, however, can tell us little about differences in the treatment of anomalous animals within one and the same society. In what follows I am concerned to understand why the Telefolmin of Papua New Guinea avoid the echidna with a thoroughness worthy of the Israelites while treating another anomalous animal — the kuyaam — as a symbolic mediator in a way the Lele would readily understand. To anticipate my conclusions, there is good reason to believe that there are substantially different ways of deviating from a classificatory scheme, and it is likely that the acceptance or rejection of anomalies has a lot to do with the kind of deviation at issue.


Telefolmin belong to the Mountain Ok family of cultures (Barth 1987; Craig and Hyndman 1990) and live in the valleys of the upper Sepik and Elip rivers of Papua New Guinea's Sandaun Province. Numbering about 4000, the population is distributed in a score of villages spread throughout the two valley systems. These villages have, on the average, 200 inhabitants and are permanent settlements organised around men's cult houses (yolam), where the spirits of former villagers reside to look after the living. 4 Kinship is reckoned cognatically, and there are no descent groups. There are, however, named descent categories, known as tenum miit (‘man base’); these have overlapping membership and lack corporate functions. Far more significant are moieties, known as Iman Ilo (“Taro Side’) and Un Ilo (‘Arrow Side’), which organise a ritual division of labour in terms of nurturing and killing, respectively. Men are allocated to these moieties in the course of their first initiations, a process that takes place without reference to kinship.

There is a strong preference for village endogamy, a practice which produces an intricate network of cognation and affinity within the villages while inhibiting kinship links between them. Despite this, Telefolmin have - 368 a strong sense of collective identity, fostered largely by a centralised male initiation system focused on the village of Telefolip, the ancestral home of all Telefolmin: Telefolip's cult house (the Telefolip) is the venue for the most senior initiations for men from throughout Telefolmin (Jorgensen 1990).

Telefolmin make their living by combining horticulture, pig-rearing, and hunting. Taro is the staple crop, and is grown in forest swiddens at elevations ranging from 1100 m to 2100 m above sea-level. Production is normally a household affair, and each family maintains up to a dozen gardens in widely scattered locations, often at considerable distances from the village. Partly for this reason and partly to escape the pressures of village life, people live in isolated bush houses for much of the time. Telefolmin are, thus, at home in the forest, and bush houses serve as convenient bases for hunting as well as providing easy access to far-flung gardens.

Like the Kalam, Telefolmin have a number of taboos restricting the edibility of certain animals. 5 For the most part, these rules restrict particular foods to various categories of person on the basis of age, gender, or ritual status. Only fully initiated men, for example, may eat wild pigs; on the other hand, many pythons and frogs are reserved for women and children. People of child-bearing age may not eat kayaal (a bandicoot), while mountain cassowaries 6 (kumsop) may be eaten by males of any age, but never by girls or women.

These rules have a number of consequences which Telefolmin readily recognise. Many of the foods forbidden to women are relatively large game animals, such as wild pigs or cassowaries. These must be shared among men, and this generally means that they must be brought back to the village for this to be done; cult spirits are thought to punish men who fail to bring wild pig back to the men's house, where it is shared among those present. On the other hand, many items reserved for women and children are relatively small but much more frequently available foods, such as frogs and a number of marsupials. These are shielded from the demands of male sociality and are normally eaten by women and children within the confines of the household.

Beyond such considerations, however, it is also clear that Telefol food rules have a classificatory dimension that is not so easily accounted for in this way. The taboos predicate incompatibilities between certain properties of persons and of animals, and many prohibitions can be understood in terms of a few underlying principles. One of these is that women are to avoid contact with animals connoting blood or bloodshed. Otherwise, it is feared, women's childbearing, gardening, and pig-rearing capacities would be jeopardised. This is the reason why women may not eat birds of prey or those with red markings. Women are also forbidden to eat kutinim, the carnivorous marsupial ‘cat’ (Satanellus albopunctatus) for related reasons. On the other hand, - 369 men must avoid a number of marsupials and rodents (particularly those which feed on the ground), claiming that such animals would make them weak or ungainly.

Nuk — the generic class of small mammals including marsupials and rodents — is the most frequently bagged category of game. Generally speaking, nuk are thought of as women's food, and this is reflected in the system of food taboos: 14 of the 20 common varieties subject to food taboos are prohibited to men. 7 There are, however, two striking exceptions to this rule: the echidna and kuyaam, the terrestrial cuscus.


The echidna or igil 8 is confined mainly to the mist-forests of the upper reaches of Telefol territory. There is no doubt that Telefolmin view the echidna in a special light, and reasons for this are not hard to find. Unlike all other animals with which Telefolmin are familiar, the echidna is covered with spines; its four limbs end in long curving claws; instead of a mouth it has a beak-like snout with which it sucks up the worms (bem) which Telefolmin find particularly disgusting. What also attracts the Telefol eye is the echidna's characteristic reaction when discovered: with a few rapid motions of its powerful claws it sinks quickly — and vertically — into the earth. 9

A monotreme, the echidna is, like the duck-billed platypus, a taxonomic oddity: an egg-laying mammal. Although Telefolmin seem unaware of this aspect of monotreme physiology (which, in any event, eluded Western notice for some time), they say that its genitals are unlike those of other nuk. 10 In fact, echidnas have no external genitalia in the usual sense: like other monotremes, their reproductive and alimentary tracts are combined in a cloaca (such as found among birds and reptiles), with excretory and reproductive products passing through a single sphincter (Dwyer 1980; Griffiths 1978). Finally, it is one of the largest members of the nuk category, weighing a hefty 10 kg or so, or more than twice the weight of most larger marsupials such as the kuyaam (discussed below; see Flannery 1989a; Flannery and Groves 1983:380; Hyndman 1984:306; Morren 1989:122-3). The echidna qualifies superbly as a classificatory anomaly, and we should not be surprised to learn that Telefolmin avoid it like the plague: it is neither women's food nor men's food, being forbidden to all Telefolmin.

The kuyaam, or terrestrial cuscus (Phalanger gymnotis), is a nuk of another sort. It is not, like the echidna, proscribed for Telefolmin as a whole, but it also fails to conform to the general tendency to reserve nuk for consumption by women and children. Instead, kuyaam is set aside as a special food reserved for senior men. Before considering why this may be so, however, it is necessary to say more about just what sort of animal the kuyaam is.

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Kuyaam, like other cuscuses, is a thick-furred member of the family Phalangeridae. Equipped with hands, binocular vision and prehensile tails, the larger species of the family tend to be arboreal, nocturnal and herbivorous and are generally analogous to smaller arboreal primates (such as monkeys) found in other parts of the world (Ziegler 1977). Kuyaam is found in all elevation ranges (Van Deusen 1972b) and is one of the larger marsupials found in Telefolmin, a fact that men never fail to mention. Hyndman (1984:306) reports a kill-weight of 4.1 kg for a kuyaam bagged in Wopkaimin, which accords well with Flannery's figures (1989a). Referring to the same species among the Kalam, where it is known as madaw, Bulmer and Menzies note that:

It is said to be the largest game mammal normally present in the local forest, and to be distinguished from the other local cuscuses (atwak, maygot) and ring-tail possums (ymdng, wcm, skoyd) by its greater size, its particularly large head (“like a pussy-cat” said one informant) and its mosb (dark grey) fur, which is said in old animals to become streaked with light grey or even almost white, like the hair of an old man. Madaw is also said to contrast in its habits with maygot and with the ring-tail possums. In particular, its lair is said to be in rock-clefts or under the roots of forest trees, whereas, with the partial exception of ymdng, the largest ring-tail possum, the other local Phalangeridae are all said to have arboreal lairs or nests, or to rest in the branches of trees. Madaw is also said to spend more time on the ground than these other creatures (1972:494-5).

Telefol accounts of kuyaam agree with this in virtually every regard. Its grey fur is given as one reason why kuyaam is restricted to old men, for this connotes the grey hair of old age. Kuyaam's habit of nesting underground or in the limestone caves which honeycomb the local mountains also attracts attention (cf. Bulmer and Menzies, pp.494-5); this is all the more striking since kuyaam is equally at home feeding in the trees (Barth 1975:186; Dwyer 1990:82; Hyndman 1984:304; Van Deusen 1972b).

Men also say that kuyaam is difficult to kill (cf. Majnep and Bulmer n.d.; Ellen 1972:229). This is partly because of its great size and also because of its cleverness and ferocity. Nowadays, when men hunt with electric torches at night, they say kuyaam is still hard to kill because it will turn its head away and disappear into the undergrowth instead of remaining paralysed in the torch beam like other marsupials. Men also claim that a cornered kuyaam can sometimes hold a dog at bay. 11 Kuyaam may, in fact, be more ferocious than supposed since P. gymnotis is a predator in addition to being a herbivore: Flannery (1989) provides examples in which captive individuals ate lizards and rats (see also Van Deusen 1972b:713; Ziegler 1977:129), and also notes that they often fight among themselves. Interestingly, they adopt a bipedal stance when doing so (Flannery: personal communication), a fact which - 371 becomes suggestive in the light of other ways in which kuyaam resembles humans (see below).

Alongside all of these characteristics is yet another which is as significant as any of them: kuyaam is a garden raider. This is attested in an account of one kuyaam which was bagged while I was in the field, an account which incidentally offers evidence of kuyaam's toughness:

Delibal came back to the village early one morning complaining that he had shot a kuyaam as it was making off from one of his gardens the previous night, but it escaped even though pierced with his arrow. Later that day we heard of a man from a neighbouring village who had shot a kuyaam that had been dragging an arrow lodged in its body. This was a considerable distance from where Delibal had shot it, indicating that the kuyaam had travelled far after having been hit. When the man retrieved the animal, he found in its pouch taro which it had taken from Delibal's garden.

Although I was initially skeptical about this account, other men repeatedly confirmed that kuyaam was a garden thief who would steal people's taro. Bulmer records Kalam accounts in which P. gymnotis is claimed to have carried off garden produce in its pouch and is also inclined to credit them despite a certain prima facie implausibility (Bulmer 1968:636; Bulmer and Menzies 1972:495; Majnep and Bulmer n.d.:3, 12-13). 12 Writing of the northern neighbours of the Telefolmin, the Miyanmin, Morren reports that the same animal (known locally as kwiyam) is a garden raider, and he goes on to say that it prefers second-growth 13 to primary forest and tends to become more abundant as a result of gardening activity (1986:107, 151). 14

Kuyaam's predeliction for garden produce is the theme of a myth Telefolmin tell about him:

Afek the Ancestress 15 felt sorry for her children, who had nothing to eat, so she bore two daughters, the taros Kwiinbuson (‘Vegetables at Dusk’) and her younger sister Danbuson (‘Vegetables at Dawn’). Danbuson used to complain because people scraped her skin, put her in the fire, and ate her. She said to Kwiinbuson, “they hurt us so — let's run away and leave them.” But Kwiinbuson said, “no — if we leave them they will die — what else could they eat?” But Danbuson ran away anyway. Afek wanted to bring her back and asked all the animals to help, but none of them could find her. Then she asked Kuyaam to bring her back. He agreed, and found her hiding in the bush. But he didn't bring her back, he was a thief. He carried her down into his cave at Nangalamtem below Telefolip and kept her there to himself. Afek knew what he had done and asked all the animals to go after him and bring Danbuson back. One after the other, they all went down into Nangalamtem, but Kuyaam was too fierce for them. He was big and many animals were afraid of him. Finally, Dog (Kayaam) - 372 16 said he would return Danbuson to Telefolip. When he got to the cave he spoke to Kuyaam soothingly. He didn't try to get Danbuson back right away, but said, “Let's be friends — I didn't come down here to cause you trouble, I just came to visit you.” He lied like this, and smiled and showed his teeth. When Kuyaam was off guard, Dog seized him in his jaws and grabbed Danbuson. Then he carried the two of them back to Telefolip. To Kuyaam Afek said: “Women will stay away from you.” 17 Later, when she scattered the wild animals to the bush, Afek let Dog peek so he could find them in the forest. 18


Kuyaam is undoubtedly a remarkable animal: P. gymnotis has been singled out for special attention by a number of Mountain Ok peoples in addition to the Telefolmin (Barth 1975:83f; Gardner 1988:146-7; Nicole Polier: personal communication), and it is the most ritually significant game mammal among the Kalam as well (Bulmer 1968:636; Majnep and Bulmer n.d.). This is no more than what Douglas' theory would lead us to expect. But the theory does not prepare us to deal with the question of why the echidna and kuyaam should be treated differently, for Telefolmin avoid the echidna completely, while kuyaam, as we shall see, is held to be powerful in positive ways.

We should begin by asking just what kind of anomalies these animals are. In the case of the echidna, some clues are available if we compare it to the lowland cassowary (C. unappendiculatus). Men say that at night a giant lowland cassowary stalks the precincts of the men's cult houses at Telefolip. There she is accompanied by echidnas which emerge from under the ground, and, if men hear nocturnal stirrings outside the cult houses, they must be careful, for to look upon this cassowary or her retinue of echidnas is said to bring instant death. The lowland cassowary and echidna are associated in Telefol thought, and the echidna's lack of mammalian genitalia and unusual size may help to explain why this is so. Much more massive than its mountain cousin, the lowland cassowary is the largest member of the class of birds (uun) and is bigger than any other local animal apart from the wild pig. Telefolmin call the lowland cassowary uunok, meaning ‘mother of birds’; in the same way, the echidna carries the secret name of nukok, ‘mother of nuk’. 19 Just as the echidna is prohibited to all Telefolmin, so too is the lowland cassowary completely forbidden (cf. Gardner 1988:167). 20

In both cases we are dealing with animals that represent (along several dimensions) the extremes of the classes of which they are members (cf. Bulmer 1978). This is mirrored by their habitats, for lowland cassowaries are found only in the hot country below the valleys which Telefolmin inhabit, whereas the echidna is found mainly on mountain-tops well above the normal zone of human occupation and cultivation. Taken together, these animals define the outer limits of the Telefol world. This is the source of their danger, - 373 and it is little wonder that their nocturnal appearance together at Telefolip — the centre of the Telefol cosmos — is a lethal sight.

Kuyaam, by contrast, occupies a conceptual space nearer the centre of things. As Ellen (1972) has pointed out, cuscuses are generally anthropomorphic in appearance, and this is pronounced in the case of P. gymnotis, whose behavioural characteristics intensify the resemblance. According to Morren, kuyaam are often taken in pairs (1986:151; cf. Majnep and Bulmer n.d.:3), and on the one occasion when I was present when kuyaam were brought in, the hunter had indeed bagged a pair, which he referred to as ‘husband and wife’. 21 While such pairing is unusual among forest animals in Telefolmin, it underlines similarities between kuyaam and humans, as do kuyaam's occasional bipedalism (see above), its omnivorous habits and its fondness for garden produce.

Kuyaam should be eaten only by men who have grey hair and whose fathers and elder brothers are no longer living; a man would age prematurely and hasten his elders' death by eating kuyaam while those elders were still alive. The sense of this seems to be that kuyaam accelerates temporal processes, and this is oddly consistent with a notion Telefolmin have about hunting kuyaam: men say that it is best to find Kuyaam at the end of a night's hunt since everyone knows that you will find no other game once you have bagged kuyaam. These ideas bear an interesting relationship to an exception to the general rule restricting kuyaam to senior men: a man may give kuyaam to a child if the child is stunted, in which case kuyaam is said to help the child grow. Finally, men normally avoid kuyaam if they have freshly planted taro gardens, 22 but this rule may be relaxed if their taro is doing poorly, in which case eating kuyaam stimulates taro growth.

This conjunction of ideas is familiar from other contexts. For example, in most ritual settings the colour white (nemaal) connotes taro and growth (Jorgensen 1983), but it is also associated with aging. Thus, at the close of the initiation sequence devoted to taro fertility (iman ban), initiands are showered with white ash. At the time, they are told that this will enhance their taro-planting capacities, but they will later be told that this comes at the price of their youth, the ash providing a foretaste of the white hair of old age. Here we see that promoting growth (in this case, of gardens) speeds up aging, and this is reminiscent of kuyaam's power to hasten the death of seniors while fostering the growth of the young.

Kuyaam, thus, operates as a central term mediating growth and decline, a reading also suggested by its grey (= nemaal ‘white’) pelage and the metonymical link it provides between taro gardens and the underworld associated with ghosts (cf. Barth 1975:83, 186; Bulmer 1968:636; Bulmer and Menzies 1972:495). Kuyaam's aptness as a food for old men turns not - 374 only upon its colour associations, but also upon the fact that, like old men, kuyaam stands in an intermediary relationship between the living and the dead. Because old men stand on the divide between the living and the dead (both temporally and through men's cult sacrifices), kuyaam is particularly well suited to them: its ability to combine and mediate a wide range of associations is crucial to its symbolic effect, which is to confer life-promoting powers upon senior men while carrying the back-implication that such powers are themselves ultimately debilitating. Here we touch upon a leitmotif of Mountain Ok religions, the human struggle with entropy (cf. Barth 1987:48ff; Jones 1980; Jorgensen 1985).


Clearly, a case can be made for Douglas' initial theory on the basis of the Telefol material, but I prefer to remain agnostic about her subsequent elaboration. Echidna and kuyaam are, on the face of it, unusual enough in their own right to be counted as anomalous, but it is not so easy to say what this has to do with Telefol social structure or attitudes towards dealings with outsiders. A bit of ingenuity could cook up arguments to show how taboos on eating echidna correspond to a Telefol aversion to interethnic exchange whereas kuyaam's mediating capacities reflect the fact that senior men (by virtue of their ritual status) link different communities through the men's cult. But these arguments seem contrived, and it is easy to imagine objections to them. I have, instead, concentrated here on trying to understand what it was about each animal that suited it for the different place accorded each in the Telefol scheme of things. The difference between the echidna and kuyaam, I argue, corresponds to a difference between two kinds of anomaly.

Crossing boundaries comes easily to kuyaam: ranging freely throughout Telefol territory, kuyaam is equally at home in low and high altitudes, frequents gardens as well as forests, moves readily between subterranean and arboreal realms (cf. Bulmer 1968:636) and straddles the boundary between animals and humans. In this sense, kuyaam is a ready-made mediator, and we should not be surprised that kuyaam's powers are themselves ambiguous, combining notions of growth and decline. 23 The echidna, on the other hand, is a downright oddity, being as unlike the rest of the members of the class nuk as it is possible to be; it is a limiting instance, in the same sense that the lowland cassowary is a limiting instance of the category of birds. The echidna only barely qualifies as a member of the class nuk, but there is no doubt about kuyaam's status as nuk: what counts is not so much that kuyaam is simply unlike other nuk as the fact that the habits and characteristics that set it apart from other nuk simultaneously link it to the world of gardens, old men, and the dead. Whereas the echidna is weird in a more or less straightforward way, - 375 kuyaam is ambiguous in ways that seem bound to engage human interests. This helps to explain why kuyaam is not so much dangerous as powerful.

In the end, pace Douglas, differences in the treatment of anomalous animals are not readily reducible to variations in social structure. That Telefolmin give the echidna a wide berth says more about the nature of the beast and the inherent difficulties of accommodating it to any conceivable taxonomic scheme than it does about similarities between Telefol and ancient Israelite societies. And if kuyaam operates as a sort of Papuan pangolin, this still tells us relatively little about the ways in which Telefol or Lele societies resemble one another. As Bulmer remarked over 20 years ago,

I am impressed by Dr Douglas's general theory of pollution, that this is associated with things that are out of place in terms of the order which a society seeks to impose upon itself and on the universe it occupies. But the trouble is that things can be out of place in so many different ways, in terms of so many different, even if linked, dimensions (Bulmer 1967:22).

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- 377 Page of endnotes

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  • ——1968. Worms that Croak and Other Mysteries of Karam Natural History. Mankind, 6:621-39.
  • —— 1978. Totems and Taxonomy, in L. R. Hiatt (ed.), Australian Aboriginal Concepts. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. pp.1-19.
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  • —— 1975. Implicit Meanings. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
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  • —— 1988. Mianmin Women in Myth and Reality, in D. Gewertz,(ed.), Myths of Matriarchy Reconsidered. Oceania Monograph No. 33. Sydney: Oceania Publications. pp.144-69.
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  • —— 1983. Mirroring Nature? Men's and Women's Models of Conception in Telefolmin. Mankind, 14:57-65.
  • —— 1985. Femsep's Last Garden: a Telefol Response to Mortality, in D. A. Counts and D. R. Counts (eds), Aging and its Transformations. London and Lanham (NY): University Press of America. pp.203-21.
  • —— 1988. Nurturing, Killing, and the Flow of Life: the Logic of Telefol Food Taboos. Paper presented at the meetings of the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania, Savannah (Georgia.)
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1   I should like to thank Imke Swart Jorgensen, Don Gardner, Chris Healey, Nicole Polier and Ann Chowning for stimulation and suggestions on the present paper. Jim Urry drew my attention to a number of the late Ralph Bulmer's works, and Andrew Pawley made available copies of Majnep and Bulmer's work which was in progress at the time of the latter's death. Tim Flannery sparked my interest in the mammals of New Guinea when he made faunal collections in Telefolmin in the mid-1980s. I have him to thank for many identifications of animals that would otherwise have remained taxonomic mysteries to me. The research on which this paper is based was carried out over three field trips between 1974 and 1984, all of which were supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
2   In what follows I rely on the vernacular term (kuyaam) for Phalanger gymnotis (or, in the most recent terminology, Strigocuscus gymnotis) in order to specify that it is the terrestrial cuscus to which I refer. There are five different Phalanger species found in the region; to refer simply to “cuscus” is too vague, while the phrase “terrestrial cuscus” (or: grey cuscus or ground cuscus, all of which are also used for P. gymnotis) is too unwieldy to bear repetition. One of the difficulties in discussing the fauna of New Guinea is that the vocabulary of standard English is inadequate to deal with the variety of marsupials encountered: the terms are at once too general and too fuzzy to mean much to most English-speakers. The result is bound to be confusion. For example, in his account of the Baktaman, Barth refers to kwemnok (clearly a cognate of Telefol kuyaam, Miyanmin/Mianmin kwiyam and Wopkaimin kwiam) alternately as a cuscus and as a ringtail possum (1975:183, 194). In her otherwise excellent book on Hua food rules, Meigs (1984) is content to gloss the entire category of marsupials under the generic heading of ‘possum’, an expedient adopted by a whole host of ethnographers at one time or another, myself included (Jorgensen 1981b; see also Herdt 1981, McDonald 1988).
3   In a more recent essay (1990), Douglas takes up the problem of the pangolin again and restates her essentially Durkheimian reflectionist position in the following terms: “animals are brought into human social categories by a simple extension to them of the principles that serve for ordering human relationships” (p.36). Although I do not want to pursue this latest variant of her argument here, I think that the appealing simplicity of this view is anything but straightforward and should be regarded with a healthy scepticism
4   This was true at the time of my initial fieldwork in 1974-5, but most of the men's cult houses were destroyed when an evangelistic movement (Rebaibal) swept the area in 1978-9 (Jorgensen 1981b), though the paramount cult house at Telefolip remained intact. At the present time (1990) there are signs of a men's cult revival, and the situation remains fluid.
5   Although I do not discuss the matter here, it is important to note that Telefol food taboos also govern the consumption of a variety of garden products (Jorgensen 1988). For an account of food taboos among the neighbouring Baktaman, see Barth 1975.
6   Casuarius bennetti, also known as the dwarf cassowary. This is distinguished from the larger lowland cassowary, C. unappendiculatus. See Majnep and Bulmer 1977:148ff.
7   In all, 42 named taxa of nuk are recognised. Although gender is one important principle governing Telefol food taboos, it is important to note that other factors also play a role. Thus, for example, there are some nuk which are prohibited to everybody of reproductive age, regardless of gender, while others are prohibited to certain ritual classes based on the men's initiation system. On the general association between women and marsupials, see Meigs (1984:59-61). Telefolmin recognise a generic category of women's marsupials (unang nuk), and these are particularly appropriate as a prestation from men to women at feasts made for the birth of a child.
8   This is the long-beaked echidna (or spiny anteater), Zaglossus bruijni, which is mainly confined to the higher-altitude forests of the island of New Guinea (cf. Dwyer 1990:81). It is distinguished from the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus found in lower elevations on New Guinea (Dwyer 1990:79) and in Australia. Zaglossus differs from its cousin in that it prefers worms to ants or termites and is from two to four times heavier than Tachyglossus (see Flannery 1989, Van Deusen and George 1969, Van Deusen 1972a:298).
9   This was something I myself witnessed on the one occasion when I saw an echidna; the echidna's disappearing act elicited a reaction from me which my companions found very satisfying. According to Griffiths (1978), Zaglossus can also roll itself into a ball.
10   It seems that the echidna also lacks a true marsupial pouch, having a pair of parallel abdominal folds instead. See Griffiths 1978. Dwyer (1980) reports that the Etolo (Etoro) believe that echidnas do not reproduce at all, and he traces this to the anomalous nature of their reproductive physiology.
11   The antagonism between kuyaam and dog in Telefolmin is legendary and is taken up in a myth discussed below. Note that dog is kayaam, and the phonological resemblance of the two names facilitates word-play. Bulmer and Menzies also report some forms of magic among the Kalam that turn on the relation between these two antagonists (1972:495). Majnep says that P.gymnotis is extremely strong, often bigger than the local dogs, and may round on the latter when cornered (Majnep and Bulmer n.d.:2,5-6).
12   Flannery (personal communication) also reports numerous cases in which kuyaam is said to carry off wild fruits in its pouch.
13   Flannery (personal communication), however, denies that this is the case; it is perhaps closer to the truth to suggest that kuyaam is merely less sensitive to human disturbance than other forest animals. In this respect it contrasts strongly with the echidna.
14   Morren prefers “Miyanmin” as an ethnic designation, while Gardner prefers “Mianmin”. I preserve these orthographic differences to clarify reference, since Gardner refers to the western and low-altitude branch (administratively known as the West Mianmin), while Morren refers to the eastern and mid-altitude branch (administratively known as the East Mianmin) (see Morren 1986, Gardner 1988).
15   Afek (Fitiilkan) is the Telefol counterpart of the Mianmin ancestress Paatikanib (Gardner 1988) and the Bimin-Kuskusmin ancestress known as Afek (and Fiitiir) (Poole 1976:944, 1982). She is identified with the lowland cassowary, a fact which I do not intend to discuss at this juncture.
16   This dog goes by the secret name of Wisii, and is invoked in certain rituals promoting taro fertility.
17   This is the mythical precedent for prohibiting kuyaam to women, the rationale here being the identification between women and taro (cf. Danbuson) and the representation of the loss of taro as kuyaam's abduction of Afek's daughter.
18   For other Mountain Ok myths involving kuyaam, see Barth 1975:83f and Gardner 1988.
19   Once again, a Kalam parallel proves interesting, for the Kalam refer to the cassowary as ‘mother of game mammals’ (wngbek nmey) in the semisecret ‘pandanus language’ used by hunters (Bulmer 1967:23). Bulmer notes that this designation should be taken as figurative rather than literal, since there are other instances in which Kalam call one kind of creature the ‘mother’ of similar but much smaller ones. It should be noted that Zaglossus is apparently absent from Kalam territory (Bulmer and Menzies 1972:478-9). Gardner, who has already written about the cassowary's androgynous qualities (1984), informs me that the Mianmin call the echidna (yakeil) ‘mother of pigs’ (personal communication). A connection between all these usages seems implicit in the Telefol material, a view which is apparently confirmed by the Bimin-Kuskusmin, who hold that both cassowary and echidna are androgynous: “Yomnok, the spiny anteater [echidna], is much like Afek, the cassowary, in androgynous nature; but through a ‘penisclitoris’ that also serves as a vagina, he (the more male of the pair) gave birth to the nonhuman, totemic clan ancestors” (Poole 1982:129). I am indebted to Gardner for reminding me of the Bimin-Kuskusmin case.
20   The Bimin-Kuskusmin single out both cassowary and echidna for special ritual treatment in the ais-am initiation, where they are identified with the ancestors Afek (the Old Woman) and her younger brother Yomnok (Poole 1982). This may be part of an older and more widespread pattern among the Mountain Ok, since Telefolmin (along with their neighbours) identify the Ancestress Afek with the lowland cassowary. The echidna, however, has no such place among Telefolmin, although it is said to have been the ancestor of the Nukokmin, whom the Telefolmin displaced from the upper Sepik valley some generations ago.
21   This may account in part for the fact that kuyaam is notorious among the (West) Mianmin for its concupiscence (Gardner 1988).
22   Polier (personal communication) says that Faiwolmin avoid kwiam if they have recently planted taro, and that it is normally eaten only by old people or young children; Saem Majnep (n.d.) reports that Kalam avoid madaw if planting gardens, and that hunters in such circumstances often pass it along to old people or children.
23   Cf. Hyndman 1990:13: “Phalanger gymnotis crosses major biotope boundaries more than any other cuscus.” Dwyer (1990:82) remarks on the fact that the same animal (which he designates as Strigocuscus gymnotis) differs from other marsupials in being generally available throughout the year, and Flannery (personal communication) reports that the same animal appears to breed continuously throughout the year (like humans). These facts suggest that kuyaam may straddle temporal boundaries as well.