Volume 83 1974 > Volume 83, No. 1 > Incest and its punishment in Jale society, by Klaus-Friedrich Koch, p 84-91
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Ethnographers have all too frequently confused rules relating to incest, exogamy and adultery by their common failure to understand norms of sexual intercourse in a way that reflects native concepts. This confusion seriously impedes comparative research. A general ethnological theory of incest requires analytical distinctions, at least, between (a) rules prohibiting marriage (“exogamy”), (b) rules prohibiting sexual intercourse with a married person (“adultery”), (c) rules prohibiting sexual intercourse with potential spouses, and (d) rules prohibiting both intercourse and marriage (“incest”).

Obviously, in a particular society these rules need not be exclusive, but it must not be assumed that the prohibition of marriage between certain categories of relatives also forbids them to have sexual intercourse. Similarly, in a particular case, an adulterous offence may also constitute the breach of an incest tabu. What matters in these situations is the cultural evaluation of the offence, which may subject the offenders to different demands for compensation or for their punishment by the different kin groups involved. 2 This paper describes the treatment of incest among the Jalé people of West New Guinea and suggests a testable hypothesis that relates liability and punishment for this offence to the organisation of kin groups.

The Jalé people, speakers of a language belonging to the Dani family, have settled in compact villages along the valleys of the Jalémó in the Central Mountains of West New Guinea, an area roughly delineated by the geographical coordinates of 138° 15′ and 139° 30′ E longitude and 4° and 4° 20′ S latitude. Their subsistence depends on pig raising and cultivating the sweet potato as the basic staple crop plus taro, yams and a variety of greens commonly found in the New Guinea Highlands. They supplement this diet mainly by gathering forest products and hunting marsupials.

Most villages are divided into two or more wards. These residential compounds consist of a cluster of domiciles (round with a conical roof), the largest of - 85 which is invariably the men's house. The men's house, which is known as “sacred house”, is the domicile of all initiated males of the ward. As the locus of much ritual activity, the entry into this house and passage through its courtyard are prohibited for females and uninitiated boys. A family hut is primarily the home of a married woman and her unitiated sons and unmarried daughters. In a polygynous marriage, co-wives with their children may maintain a joint household, but more frequently they live in separate huts.

The Jalé divide their population into named exogamous moieties, each of which comprises a number of named sibs whose members are widely dispersed over several regions of the Jalémó. One men's house may be the home of several lineages belonging to different sibs. Agnatic descent defines membership to both moiety and sib and rights of residence at a ward. There is substantial evidence from Jalé folk-history that the sibs were originally localised clans which became scattered over wider areas as a result of emigration caused by defeat in war, epidemics, and crop failures—catastrophes that still beset the people. Furthermore, the Jalé, in acknowledging a common affiliation with members of their sib, always refer to a place of origin rather than to an ancestor.

In the absence of political offices and of a formal system of third-party adjudication, few peaceful procedures exist to manage conflict. Consequently, an aggrieved party tends to resort to violence in the pursuit of his interests to obtain redress. 3 Rank relations are structured by prestige gained through the acquisition of ritualistic knowledge, age, and successful transactional management of pig resources to the benefit of junior agnates and non-consanguineal co-residents, especially in the form of marriage considerations and contributions to obligatory compensatory payments to be made in connection with warfare activities. The solidarity of the corporate agnatic lineage, and, by extension, that of the group of co-resident male members of a ward, the men's house group, is ritually reinforced through the initiation of its “sons”. 4 Moieties and sibs do not form corporate units having joint responsibilities in any organisational aspect of the society.

An Omaha type of kin classification and the prohibition of marriage with a member of one's mother's patrilineage produces a fourfold categorisation of a person's relatives outside his family. 5 The first category comprises Ego's own agnatic relatives; the second contains his mother's agnates; the third his sister's children; and the fourth consists of two sets of affines, one comprising a man's wife's agnates, and the other his sister's husband and his lineal kinsmen. Diverse jural relationships attach to the different roles a person maintains in this quadrifocal kinship web. Marriage, then, establishes a distinct set of affinal relationships with the agnatic descent group of the linking spouse. A woman's postnuptial home is normally in the ward of her husband's men's house. Thus, viri-patrilocal residence separates a married woman from her natal ward except in rare instances of ward endogamy or uxori-patrilocal residence.

The strict residential segregation of the sexes not only results in very different processes of socialisation for boys and girls but also correlates with the rigid separation of men and women in political and jural affairs and in ritual life. A nucleated household group is a purely domestic unit of production and consumption with no activities to share with other households except those based on personal ties of kinship and friendship and which are largely limited to occasional gathering outings.

The residents of a men's house constitute a political as well as a ritual com- - 86 munity. In fact, the wards are the most inclusive political segment in Jalé society and form the principal war-making unit in both intra-village and inter-village warfare.


The punishment of incest among the Jalé cannot be understood without knowing how the these people establish a person's liability for harm caused to others.

Jalé jural ideology deduces liability from the doctrine of “effective action.” This means that the Jalé do not distinguish between intent, negligence, inadvertence, and accident as aggravating or extenuating circumstances. In evaluating only the consequences of the injurious act, they do not question a person's guilt or innocence—his psychological state—when they establish his formal liability, i.e., his obligation to provide restitution or indemnity to the injured party. The recognition of personal responsibility influences merely the procedure by which the injured party seeks to obtain redress. 6 Particularly, kin and residential relationships between the parties determine if and how a person's responsibility for causing harm is translated into liability to provide indemnification. For example, the man who invited a neighbour to accompany him on a trading trip on which the latter fell from a cliff or the husband whose wife died in childbirth are as liable to pay indemnification in the form of “guilt pigs” as the man who kills somebody in a fight. In the first situation, the Jalé reason that the fatal fall would not have occurred if the victim had not been induced to make the trip. The unhappy husband caused the woman's death “by his penis”, for had he not copulated with his wife, she would not have become pregnant and thus would not have died.

However, while all three men are liable to provide the same compensation, the way the Jalé handle this problem varies according to the social relationships involved. The kinsmen of the victim will be most lenient with the husband and allow him more time to provide the required pig, especially if they are interested in continuing the exchange relationship that the marriage had established. They will insist on immediate indemnification from the neighbour with whom they share less tangible interests. And they may not even accept a “wergild pig” from the slayer—if, indeed, such an offer is made—and instead contemplate blood revenge.

In Jalé law, liability is not only absolute, but it is also corporate; i.e., it is shared by the agnatic kin group of the party whose action caused the injury. Both concepts appear to correlate with the necessity of settling disputes by coercive self-help. If, in the absence of jural authorities, abscondence of the offender and alleged or actual accidents were to confer immunity, the maintenance of regulated social life would become precarious.


Regardless of the nature of the initial wrong and no matter how complex, extensive, overlapping, and cross-cutting enmity lines may become when vengeance has exacerbated the conflict, all resultant jural relationships connect individuals, particular lineages, or occasionally whole men's houses as the widest “territorial” segment: one always incurs liability toward a specific person or a defined group. However, the Jalé distinguish one type of offence from all other forms of injurious behaviour: sexual intercourse between a man and a - 87 woman who belong to the same moiety. They view incestuous copulation between “siblings” as an idious infamy and believe that the evil consequences endanger the very survival of the people. The offenders are responsible for a catastrophic crop failure and the deterioration or death of humans and pigs. 7 Their liability thus extends to everybody.

Ideally, both culprits should be put to death—because their lives constitute the only kind of restitution that can avert the disaster—and their own agnates should execute them. Case histories show, however, that other men may kill the offenders and that one of them may even escape death by submitting to a coprophagous rite. The few cases that I recorded lack detail to understand the acceptable variations in the treatment of an incestuous couple. I think that the very heinousness of the act contributes—as the first case suggests—to any easy fusion of fact and imagination in reports of behaviour that so horrifies every Jalé.

Case 1 (ca. 1940). Pinte, a man from the ward Longkopini in the village of Savilivi, copulated with his moiety sister, Ampolavie, a woman from the village of Waléi who was married in Savilivi. Several men observed the pair flagrante delicto. Pinte's kinsmen refused to kill the offender themselves, but urged members of their moiety in other Savilivi men's houses to execute him.
The next morning, the residents of all men's houses except Longkopini stayed inside with doorways closed to make it appear that they had already gone to their gardens. When Pinte left the village, two men followed him, attacked him at a suitable place and felled him with a series of arrows. The two assassins had almost reached the village when the saw Pinte walking behind them. The sight of a “dead” man coming after them terrified the men. They ran back as fast as they could and informed the people in the village, who observed Pinte's return through apertures in the walls of their houses.
Although some men now expressed doubts about the truth of the incest accusation, a large group followed Pinte when he left the village after a while and killed him “again” with numerous arrows. They tied his body to a pole and carried it down to the Jaxólé River to be cremated there the following day.
However, during the night, a ghost revived Pinte, who then removed the vines which tied his hands and feet to the pole and followed the river in a southern direction. At a place called Tiap he slept near the path leading across the Central Range. Next morning he drank water from a stream and collapsed on the path shortly afterwards. All the water he drank ran out of his body through the wounds. Some hours later, several men who had followed Pinte's footprints from the place where he had been left “dead” the day before found his body and cremated it on the spot.
In the meantime, Ampolavie, anticipating her fate, had fled from Savilivi. A search party found and killed her the same day. Her body was also cremated by the river.
The following day, a purification ceremony took place. The medicine men ordered all the females and uninitiated boys to stay inside their huts and proceeded to dispose of the offenders' excised genitals which had been wrapped in leaves and deposited in a shrub near the village. After sticking the penis through the vaginal orifice, they tied the pieces together with “sacred” vine. Then they wrapped layer after layer of bark around the construct until a huge ball had formed which was tied to the end of a pole. Esoteric sayings - 88 accompanied these preparations. Uttering the special howl that belongs to any procession connected with the disposal of malefic matter, a group of men finally carried the contrivance to the Jaxolé and threw it into the river.
Many pigs were slaughtered that day. All villagers ate from the meat after medicine men had treated it to safeguard the continued welfare of the people.

Informants remembered only one other case where both culprits, a father and his married daughter, lost their lives. A more recent case had a different outcome.

Case 2 (1962). Ampentak, a man from the village of Waléi, committed incest with a sib sister. When people demanded the pair's execution, Ampentak's father, Omaxak, intervened to save the life of his only son. Since according to folk history an ancestor of his lineage had founded the settlement, Omaxak publicly swore that famine and disease would befall the village if Ampentak, “the man holding the stem of the Cordyline” 8 were put to death. Therefore, while the woman was killed, Ampentak was subjected to the “faeces cooking” ritual. After a length of intestine from a pig supplied by Omaxak had been stuffed with human faeces, pig excrements and other ingredients consisting of meat, fat, and leafy vegetables, a medicine man treated the thing with remedial spells and bade Ampentak to eat. However, he did not have to consume the full dose of this medicament, because several relatives helped him “as they felt sorry for him.”
After this rite, the purification ceremony including the disposal of the woman's vulva—together with pubic hair and blood from Ampentak substituting for his penis—proceeded in a way similar to the performance already described.

The outrageous nature of the offence and the potential death penalty demands that the evidence for the transgression be irrefutable and that in the absence of eye witness reports rumorous but persistent accusations be investigated. Informants remembered only one case that forced a man to undergo the “sago cooking” ordeal, a test designed to establish guilt or innocence of the suspect.

Case 3 (1956). When a rumour incriminated Wérék, a man from the village of Tengkeléi, with a woman from Wanjok who belonged to his moiety, his kinsmen decided to find out whether the accusation was true. They made a trip to Tangkeam, the southernmost village in Jalémó where the sago palm grows, to procure the needed substance. The ordeal took place at a stream near Tengkeléi. With Wérék as the suspect holding the bark bowl, his kinsmen made the dough and cooked it with hot stones immersed in the mash. The success of the cake proved Wérék innocent, and his kinsmen announced that people had slandered him. On their way back to the village the men broke up their demonstrative single file at several intervals to howl and rush about in a trampling pace with their arrows at the ready—a theatrical show of extreme anger.
In the meantime, some men from his men's house cooked the pig that Wérék had decided to share with his kinsmen and the others who attended the ordeal. Wérék wanted to avoid that people who had defamed him would eat any part of his pig—which he could not prevent if the animal would later be slaughtered in different circumstances.

The fact that the people in Pasikni, where I lived, knew of only one other incest case supports their assertion that sexual intercourse between moiety siblings very seldom occurs. That is probably true, but one must remember that - 89 the nefarious nature of the offence enforces its concealment, especially because the Jalé think that the consequences affect land, people, and pigs indiscriminately and regardless of the offenders' membership to a particular group. Informants actually knew of one instance where a Savilivi woman admitted to an incestuous encounter that she had kept secret until events in Case 1 scared her so much that she revealed her transgression in order to partake in the purification rite. She collected some blood from an incision in her leg in a leaf, added pubic hair, wrapped up the preparation with more leaves and gave the package to her husband, a medicine man who helped with the ceremony and thus could enclose it in the bundle containing the genitals of the executed offenders.

Since none of the recorded cases occurred in Pasikni, my data cannot explain the conditions under which an offender's kinsmen want to save his life and succeed in their plan. As far as the scatological aspect of the rite is concerned, I think that its psychoanalytic interpretation would consider the coprophagous act a symbolic repetition of the “unnatural” intercourse. For the Jalé—and for everybody else, I assume—eating excrement reverses the order of nature as incest defies the no less natural order of their society. Anthropologists have discovered this identification of incest with perverted natural phenomena in many different cultures. Schapera, for example, reports the same belief for the Tswana of Botswana, where “In the old days it was held that the misfortune threatened by any form of botlhodi [including incest] could be averted only by destroying the source of pollution.” 9


Why incest is the only delict the Jalé consider an offence “against society” appears obvious. Other wrongs may impair or even permanently severe relationships between kinsmen and local groups, but incest alone undermines and negates the foundation of the social order. Consequently, the principle of joint liability of the agnatic group has special jural consequences in incest cases. Unless the kinsmen of the offender succeed in persuading the community at large to accept the coprophagous rite in lieu of the culprit's death, they must either kill him themselves or solicit, or at least publicly approve, his execution by other members of the community. Informants recognised the function of this rule themselves and explained that, if non-agnates killed the perpetrator, they would have put their own lives in jeopardy should the victim's kinsmen one day doubt the truth of the allegations that preceded the execution. Indeed, in a society where all disputes over life and death are commonly settled by violent confrontation, and blood revenge is both virtuous and just, this rule eliminates a potential cause for further killings.

I realise that only extensive cross-cultural research could give my interpretation of incest and its punishment in Jalé society wider theoretical meaning. Regrettably, a survey of the literature dealing specifically with incest—as a problem of group organisation rather than bio-social evolution—yielded few usable data. 10 A study by Schneider, however, on the relationship between political organisation and the punishment of incest on the Micronesian island of Yap offers evidence that supports my explanation why a Jalé risks his life if he breaks the incest law. According to Schneider, incest among the Yap people is an intra-kin group offence although

the Yaps see it as an offense against the ancestral ghosts and treat it as if it were of the same order as any other extra-lineage offense, namely, that - 90 the offended unit has the right to retaliate unless placating gifts and apologies are promptly made. Retaliation is in the form of injury or death 11

which any member of the offender's kin group may suffer. Punishment for incest is delegated to the ancestral ghosts of the offenders' patrilineage—in case of incest between agnatic siblings, and to the ancestral ghosts of the offenders' matrilineal clan—in case of incest between matrilineal clan siblings. These ghosts act on behalf of the “spirits who, long ago, established the social and moral regulations which govern Yap life”. 12 The islanders express public disapproval in whispered condemnation and shunning, but only the offenders' kin group, identified by Schneider as a politically autonomous and self-regulating unit, “has the right to punish intra-kin group offenses”. 13 Although anyone in the offenders' kin group may be victimised if efforts to placate the ghosts fail, the Yap people leave the punishment for incest to “supernatural” agents. Schneider, therefore, concludes that “the delegation of responsibility for applying sanctions to the patrilineage ghosts seems congruent with the value of maintaining lineage solidarity at any cost”. 14

By comparison, the Jalé believe that the evil consequences of incest are automatic and not caused by the punitive intervention of ancestral ghosts from the offender's lineage. This difference concurs with their notion that the offence endangers the welfare of the whole society and the people who will suffer are not only those liable for the disaster, the descent groups of the perpetrators. Hence, the Jalé must regard incest as an attack on innocent people that demands retaliation as any other form of wanton aggression. The essential difference between punishement of incest on Yap and in Jalémo suggests a general hypothesis: In societies where incest—or, perhaps, any forbidden behaviour—is believed to victimise people outside and within the kin group which is held liable for its consequences, punitive sanctions will not be relegated to chance occurrences; instead, the offenders' kinsmen will be expected to punish them or consent to their punishment by others.

Further comparison of Yap and Jalé incest indicates that a belief in supernatural sanctions can have a deterrent effect only if there exists a specific relationship between the offence and the vulnerable segment of the society. Since members of the offenders' kin groups die with some statistical regularity, the Yap people can always attribute the event to the violation of an incest tabu. As Schneider noted:

The events which can be counted on to occur in the natural world are the events which must be used as supernatural punishments where the crime is committed with any frequency sufficient to put the matter to test. 15

The Jalé believe that incest causes rare events such as an epidemic or a pest ruining a potato crop. Significantly, these events affect all people of a valley haphazardly and indiscriminately. The different severity of actual punishment in both societies—and some of Schneider's statements 16—indicate that incest on Yap happens far more often than in Jalémó. Consequently, the frequency of a natural event believed to be a “supernatural” retribution appears congruent - 91 with the probability that a violation occurs. This would explain the choice of a catastrophic disaster in Jalémó and ubiquitous and perennial death or illness in the offenders' kin groups on Yap.

  • CARROLL, Vern (ed.), 1974. Incest Prohibitions in Polynesia and Micronesia. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.
  • HART, H. L. A., 1968. Punishment and Responsibility: Essays in the Philosophy of Law. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
  • KOCH, Klaus-Friedrich, 1970. “Structure and Variability in the Jalé Kinship Terminology: A Formal Analysis.” Ethnology, 9(3) 263-301.
  • —— 1974. War and Peace in Jalémó: The Management of Conflict in Highland New Guinea. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
  • MEAD, Margaret, 1968. “Incest.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 7:115-22.
  • SCHAPERA, I., 1949. “The Tswana Conception of Incest,” in Meyer Fortes (ed.), Social Structure: Studies Presented to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Oxford, Clarendon Press, pp. 104-20.
  • SCHNEIDER, David M., 1957. “Political Organization, Supernatural Sanctions and the Punishment for Incest on Yap.” American Anthropologist, 59(5): 791-800.
  • WAGNER, Roy, 1972. “Incest and Identity: A Critique and Theory on the Subject of Exogamy and Incest Prohibition.” Man 7(4): 601-13.
1   I did field work among the Jalé between October 1964 and July 1966. Research grants were provided by the Social Science Research Council and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.
2   The Jalé, for example, would not denote a man's sexual intercourse with his own mother—unthinkable as it may be to them—as “incest” proper. However they use this term metaphorically to connote a particularly objectionable offence like a man's adultery with the wife of his elder brother or the wife of his father's brother, both women being classificatory “mothers.” Concerning the problem of linking behavioural rules to kinship terms in this context, see Wagner 1972.
3   Koch 1974.
4   Quotation marks denote categories of classificatory relatives.
5   Koch 1970.
6   I distinguish between “liability” as a jural obligation and “responsibility” as moral fault or mental disposition. For a useful semantic analysis of the legal implications of the term “responsibility”, see Hart 1968: Chapter 9.
7   The Jalé use several cryptonymic expressions for incest such as “to walk between [the four central poles around the fireplace]” and “to drink from a waterfall.”
8   The Jalé plant Cordyline to solidify the soil of their gardens and, thus, to prevent land slides. The expression marks Ampentak's status as the descendent of the original cultivator of the soil.
9   Schapera 1949:112.
10   For a review of incest research see Mead 1968. A collection of recent studies on incest will appear in Carroll 1974.
11   Schneider 1957:797.
12   ibid.
13   ibid.
14   Schneider 1957:800.
15   Schneider 1957:799.
16   Schneider writes, for example: “In the cases which I observed, as well as in reports of other cases, no one seemed severely embarrassed or emotionally upset, and in a few of these cases the relationship was sustained over a long period” (1957:791, emphasis added).