Volume 74 1965 > Volume 74, No. 1 > A remarkable stone figure from the New Guinea Highlands, p 78 - 79
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- 78

The frontispiece of this issue is a photograph of a most unusual stone figure in the possession of Mr. Philip Goldman who has kindly permitted the JPS to publish the photograph and information which he has provided.

The figure was collected in 1962 from a cave in Yambu clan-territory in the Ambum (or Ambumu) Valley of the Western Highlands District of the Territory of New Guinea. The Ambum Valley is occupied by clans of the Mae Enga people, and the altitude of Yambu lies between approximately 6,000 and 8,000 ft. The collector was a non-anthropologist who did not obtain any information from local people as to the stone's use or as to their beliefs concerning its origin.

The height of the figure is 20 cm., greatest width 7.5 cm., and thickness 14 cm. It weighs 4lb. 6oz. Mr. Goldman believes that the material is probably medium grain greywacke.

Mr. Goldman suggests that the figure may possibly represent the embryonic stage of a Long-beaked Echidna (Zaglossus sp.), sometimes known as the ‘New Guinea Anteater’. The elongated snout and the representation of the lower limbs lend plausibility to this suggestion. Unfortunately we have so far been - 79 unable to locate any photograph or drawing of recently hatched Zaglossus. However, we are unable to suggest any other New Guinea creature which looks in any way like the carving.

Long-beaked Echidnas have been reported from a number of localities in New Guinea mountain ranges, in some cases at very high altitudes, well above the limit of human settlement. They are absent or very rare in those areas where there is any substantial human population. However there is no reason to suppose that they were not formerly well distributed in the Highlands, when human populations were smaller and their impact on the natural environment was less intense.

Prehistoric stone figures recovered from New Guinea include over twenty representations of birds and several anthropomorphic pieces 1, but only, so far as we know, one other which has been interpreted as a mammal. This is a figure from the Giriwo River headwaters, Eastern Papua, described by Etheridge (1908) and interpreted by him as a cuscus or other marsupial. The Yambu stone is thus unique as a representation and is also clearly of quite remarkable aesthetic quality. However it does appear to share certain stylistic features (ridge-division running down whole length of face; protuberant belly; representation of limbs and genitalia) with some other figures from the Highlands 2.

Dr. M. J. Meggitt, in a forthcoming publication on Mae Enga religion, refers to the use of natural stones and prehistoric stone artefacts in fertility cults which propitiate the ancestral dead.

Mr. Goldman, whose address is Apt. 6, 36 West Heath Road, London N.W.3, would welcome information from any reader who can throw further light on the figure.

  • BULMER, R. and S., 1962. “Figurines and other stones of Power among the Kyaka of Central New Guinea”. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 71:192-208.
  • BULMER, S. and R., 1964. “The Prehistory of the Australian New Guinea Highlands”. American Anthropologist, 66, No. 4, Part 2:39-76.
  • ETHERIDGE, J. R. 1908. “Ancient stone implements from the Yodda Valley Goldfield”. Records of the Australian Museum, 7:24-8.
  • MEGGITT, M. J., (in press). “The Mae Enga”, in Meggitt, M. J. and P. Lawrence (eds.), Gods, Ghosts and Men in Melanesia. Melbourne, Oxford.
  • PRETTY, G. L. 1964. “A Stone Figure of a Crested Cockatoo from Melanesia”. Man, 54:183-4.
1   Bulmer 1962:204-7, 1964:67-72; Pretty 1964.
2   Bulmer 1962:205-7, pl. 2-3.