Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros156Chroniques de l’actualité scienti...Dialogues et débatsCategorization of wealth items am...

Chroniques de l’actualité scientifique et culturelle
Dialogues et débats

Categorization of wealth items among Rossel Islanders, East New Guinea, and Me, West New Guinea

Anton Ploeg
p. 77-83


  • 1 I have published a comparative paper whose aim is related to the present one (Ploeg, 2022).

In this short paper I compare categorizations of shell wealth items as employed by Rossel Islanders, in the east of the Massim, the archipelago east of New Guinea, and by the Me, in the western highlands of western New Guinea1. Thus, these peoples live far apart, but nevertheless the ways they categorized their wealth items, shells in both cases, showed many resemblances. I am unable to explain these resemblances and merely want to draw attention to them.

There are a number of published ethnographic accounts about these two groups. But the ethnographers I rely on primarily for this comparison are John Liep, who worked among the Rossel Islanders in the 1970s and 1980s, and Sibbele Hylkema, a Franciscan missionary, who carried out extensive ethnographic research among the Me from 1969 to 1994 (Hylkema, 2012: 134). Much earlier, in the mid-1950s, Leopold Pospisil had also worked among a group of Me. He made the people known as the ‘Kapauku’, an exonym used by Papuans living on the south coast for the people living up mountain (Pospisil, 1958: 13; Bijlmer, n.d. [1938]: 13). Hylkema favoured the name Ekagi. But since the people, or at least some of them, insist that they are to be called ‘Me’ (Giay, 1995: xvii-xix; Hylkema, 2002: 244-252), and since it seems to me to be up to the people themselves to choose under which name they want to be known, I have opted for ‘Me’.

Liep published a lengthy ethnography about his work on Rossel, entitled A Papuan Plutocracy. Ranked exchange on Rossel Island (2009a). Most of Hylkema’s data have so far remained unpublished. I edited and published two unfinished texts that he worked on just before his early death, in 1995. The resulting monograph is entitled Cowries among the Me or Ekagi. The Impact of a New Currency Among a Group of New Guinea Highlanders (2012). In this paper I first present Liep’s conclusions and subsequently those of Hylkema. In the presentation I use the ethnographic past. I do so since the Me have discontinued using cowries and, although Rossel Islanders likely still use their shell wealth items (Levinson, 2009), Liep’s main field work took place almost half a century ago. Moreover, he attempts to document how the Islanders changed their use of these items in the course of time. Since I refer below repeatedly to the two ethnographies mentioned, I use in the section dealing with Rossel Islanders page numbers only when quoting from Liep’s book. I do analogously in the section dealing with the Me when quoting from Hylkema’s 2012 book.

This is the second paper in which I use Liep’s ethnography as a basis for comparison. In the earlier paper I had contrasted Rossel Island political organisation, in which men gained power by participating in wealth transactions with their high ranking valuables, with that of the Wanggulam Lani, among whom I did field research in 1960-1962. Among the latter men gained power by warriorhood (Ploeg, 2022).

Categorization of Rossel Islanders wealth items as perceived by John Liep

Rossel Island measures 290 km² (p. 69). During Liep’s research, its population was on the increase, after a long period of decline (p. 57, 87-88). Liep estimates there were 2535 inhabitants in 1972 and 3003 in 1990 (p. 78). Unlike the other New Guinean inhabitants of the Massim, Rossel Islanders speak a non-Austronesian language. They did, however, have intensive contacts with their Austronesian speaking neighbours, in the course of Liep’s research among them, and also, as Liep has concluded, in the past. A recurrent theme in Liep’s account of the Rossel way of life concerns the cultural elements that they have taken over, or adapted from these neighbours. While Rossel Islanders did not take part in the kula, transacting ranked wealth items was, at least until the early years of this century (Levinson, 2009: xix), a crucial element in their social organization. For Liep, these transactions are yet another adapted Austronesian culture element (Liep, 2009: 328-330). Since the Me were also in contact with Austronesian speaking neighbours, it seems apposite to compare the ways in which the two peoples ranked their shell wealth items.

Rossel Islanders had been gradually incorporated into the colonial world (pp. 81-91). Liep records that they were visited by patrols since the early decades of the twentieth century. A plantation and ‘trading stations’ existed on the island since 1901 and Islanders were employed elsewhere in the colony. Liep does not state explicitly that they were paid in British or Australian state-backed money, but that seems plausible given that they were employed away from Rossel (pp. 85-90). Alongside, however, they continued using their indigenous wealth items.

They employed a range of them: ceremonial stone axe blades, lime spatulas, various types of shell necklaces, but especially two separate categories of shell valuables, called ndap and (ch.6, 167). Ndap were made of Spondylus, of Chama imbricata. Both shell species are found locally. The axe blades and shell necklaces occur ‘widely’ in the Massim, and the lime spatulas in the Louisiade archipelago, just west of Rossel. In Liep’s view, their use on Rossel resulted from the contacts the Islanders had with their Austronesian neighbours (p. 201). They used them in life-cycle prestations, in compensation for killings and other, less serious offences, and during ‘pig feasts’, occasions during which pork is exchanged for shells.

Rossel Islanders’ shell currency had become well known among anthropologists after Wallace Armstrong published a monograph about his field work on the island in 1928. Armstrong reported on the two species of shells that the people used to make artefacts for their transactions. In his view, Rossel Islanders used these shells as money and he analysed their use employing western economic concepts. The shell money “and other kinds of valuables which are so important in the internal social economy of the island’ are also ‘the central topic” (p. 167) of Liep’s book. However, his analysis draws on more recent anthropological concepts.


The number of ndap circulating on Rossel was hardly increasing at the time of Liep’s research. Although Spondylus could be found locally by diving, the chance that one obtained a valuable one was slight. Moreover, fashioning a Spondylus into a ndap took several hours of work (p. 169-71). The Islanders had subdivided, in Liep’s term ‘ranked’, both ndap and into a number of categories As regards ndap, he first approximates the divisions by presenting a table, showing, firstly, three divisions: very high, high and low (p. 172). He adds later that these three qualifications employ a western metaphor, while Rossel Islanders accorded value by what they called ‘size’, in this case also a metaphor, an emic concept (p. 187) just as, for instance, in the expression ‘big man.’ The “very high” division included four categories, the “high” one five and the “low” division eleven. All of these categories were named. Ndap in the “very high division” were no longer in circulation. They were special-purpose valuables that the Islanders had formerly used ‘in the most important of all exchanges, those concerned with the taking of human life’ (p. 178). After the imposition of the colonial peace, they apparently had become superfluous. Liep was shown what he calls the ‘supreme ndap’, no longer in use. The shell was ‘kept in a decorated receptacle of black wood inside another container of carved coconut shell’ (p. 176).

During Liep’s research on Rossel, ownership of shells in the top ranks of the “high division” and their use in exchanges was the ‘predominant sort of social power’ (p. 84). Ndap in the “high division” were no longer in circulation since their owners held on to them. They almost exclusively changed ownership through inheritance. However, their owners made them available when, for instance, a wedding payment had to be assembled, on the condition that the shell concerned was returned very soon afterwards. Rossel Islanders maintained that this was the case since, several generations ago, a number of high-ranking ndap had been lost in a fire (p. 190).

In Liep’s view, however, the change had been more gradual and reflected the growing impact of colonialism. Due to the imposition of the colonial peace, leaders could no longer resort to violence, and alternative sources of income had become available. In a review of Liep’s book, published in the Journal de la Société des Océanistes, Gilles Bounoure suggests that the Rossel Islanders were not the only islanders to have imposed inalienability on high ranking valuables by pointing fleetingly to similar restrictions reported from New Britain and the Solomon islands (2011: 186). He does not mention whether the colonial situation had been a prompter there too.

Liep emphasizes that leaders, while holding on to their high-ranking ndap, nevertheless insisted that their use in exchanges was indispensable (pp. 275, 332). Other Rossel Islanders who did not own such highly valuable ndap, “resent[ed] the withdrawals and [we]re disappointed at being unable to keep the big shells’ (Liep, 2009c: 110). Liep’s comment appears to imply that, at the same time, they seemed to agree that their circulation was necessary. While Australian and, later, Papua New Guinean money was in circulation on the island, only the shells ‘at the lower end of the low division were used 'interchangeably with coins at pig feasts’ (p. 182). In contrast, high-quality ndap had individual names and people believed they had been made, and provided with a name, by the gods, the pagan gods.

Liep’s list of three divisions and twenty named ranks, along a single line, appears to be a simplification as he also mentions that he left out a few ranks ‘because they are rare and only occasionally used’ (p. 172n). Moreover, he writes that the higher echelon of the low division ‘seems to mingle together two parallel series of ndap’, a feature that ‘seems to represent a sediment of earlier systems of ndap’ (p. 183). This statement implies that he has also concluded that the ranking of ndap was shifting in the course of time.

A further complication is that ndap were individuated. The ranks held up ideal types of shells to which actual shells did or did not completely conform. There is a notion of a ‘typical or "true" representative surrounded by others that differ in the direction of inferior or superior aesthetic or social value’ (p. 183). The addition ‘social’ is pertinent since Liep also writes that shells may gain value via prolonged use (ibidem). Hence, the rank that a shell attains does not depend solely on its physical properties. A third way in which the value of a shell may be elevated was by claims of powerful men who wanted to ‘launch’ their shells ‘into the high echelons of the system’ (p. 186). Discussions about a shell’s value were often heated (p. 226).

When presenting a payment, lower ranking ndap were often arranged in ndaptii, sets of ten shells of increasing value, although, it seems, always allocated to the low division. The picture on the front cover of Liep’s book shows how, during a transfer of ndap, shells were laid out in rows of ten (also p. 278). After the transfer, the shells belonging to a single ndaptii were tied together with a string (pp. 187-188), so it seems people regarded them as a unit. That a ndaptii consisted of ten shells does not seem coincidental to me, since Liep relates elsewhere in his book that, in his earlier ethnography, Armstrong had noticed that the Rossel Islanders had a decimal system of counting and that the number ten had a ‘peculiar significance’ (p. 68; Armstrong, 1928: 77-79). Moreover, many of the numerals they employed were of proto-Oceanic origin. Liep also suggests that this counting system had an Austronesian origin.

Dy:âm:andîî, the ndap assigned to the top rank in the high division, were in high demand since they were required as part of the bridewealth and in what Liep calls pig feasts. Once he realised the importance of this category of shells in financial transactions, he attempted to ascertain how many dy:âm:andîî were on the island. He counted 21 and concluded: ‘This is, I believe, the complete number of this category’ (p. 182). Pig feasts, as practised on Rossel, resulted from a challenge: one man, the ‘pig eater’, challenged another, the ‘pig owner’, to raise and fatten a pig and make the pork available, in exchange for shells. The pig eater had to provide a dy:âm:andîî to get his share, a prime share, of the pork. Such feasts were frequent during Liep's research. He reconstructed that in his place of residence over 30 pig feasts took place from 1972 to 1980, as against 12 transfers of bridewealth instalments (p. 293). In that same period, the number of inhabitants increased from 140 to 206.

Liep states that looked ‘completely different’ from ndap. They were sets of ten perforated shells fixed on a banana leaf fibre string (p. 191). Yet, although Liep does not comment on it, the number of shells in a set was strikingly similar to the number in a ndaptii. When a ceremonial payment was transferred, were strung together to form a rope (p. 195). There were fewer around than ndap. To characterize , Liep uses the German term Wucherform, an excrescence, ‘of the shell necklaces […] common in the Pacific’ (ibidem). Rossel Islanders had also ranked. Liep distinguishes a high and a low division, with altogether fourteen named ranks (p. 196). In his view the classification was ‘auxiliary’ to the ndap one. Furthermore the names of the ranks were derived from the ndap ranks. As in the case of ndap, classification was not straightforward. Liep concludes:

"In any case, the problem of variation in quality of considerably complicates their evaluation and exchange. Again, this gives much scope for the skilled expertise and negotiating power of big men." (p. 197)

But in contrast to high-ranking ndap, almost all high-ranking had remained alienable. Yet, Liep noticed that previous owners of of high rank endeavoured to get them back (p. 198).

Rossel Islanders told Liep that had formerly exclusively been handled by women. Annette Weiner’s reports on female wealth in the Massim persuaded him that this may have been the case in the past. But, during his fieldwork, both men and women owned and exchanged both ndap and . During transactions that required a large amount of wealth, were tied together into a rope, with the most valuable at one end and the least valuable at the other, analogous to the composition of individual .

Having discussed the main categories of shell wealth items among the Rossel Islanders, I now turn to the consequences of the unequal distribution of this wealth among them.


In his book Liep focuses on valuables, especially shell valuables, and how they are transacted. He emphasizes the unequal distribution of shells among Rossel Islanders, with the owners of valuable, highly ranked shells in a position of power, and with others complaining of how they used, or rather, in the view of these others, abused that power. Notwithstanding these complaints, Liep’s analysis propounds that they accepted that some shells were indeed highly ranked and that such shells were indispensable in the conduct of social life. Resultingly, they had to accommodate to the whims of their owners, or, in Liep’s term, the Rossel Island plutocrats. With regard to bridewealth payments, he comments that ‘they may turn into a “site of struggle”, where the reputation and self-esteem of actors is at stake’, since ‘what one receives is an index of how others estimate one’ (p. 230; 2009c: 110).

Liep’s data date back to the 1970s and ‘80s. However, the linguistic anthropologist Stephen Levinson has more recently done research on the island and appears to underwrite Liep’s analysis. About ‘the current situation in 2006’ (Levinson, 2009: xix) he writes in his foreword to Liep’s book ‘the gerontocracy of shell-money plutocrats still perdures, marriages and mortuary feasts are still conducted in just the way […] described’ in Liep’s text (ibidemxxi). Hence it appears that, also more recently, the Rossel Islanders accepted the ranking of shells and their role in social life, and that those who did not own highly ranked ones had to turn to the plutocrats, with their whims, to get access to them.

Categorization of wealth items by the Me, as perceived by Sibbele Hylkema

The Me are a large ethnic group, living on the western tip of the central Highlands, around the Paniai lakes, and farther west. They speak a Papuan language. After a Dutch pilot had spotted the lakes and the surrounding dense population from the air, in late 1936, the Dutch colonial administration established its first patrol post in the highlands, near the largest Paniai lake, in 1938. At the time, the Me were ethnically subdivided. Hylkema (2002) noticed three sections among the people, with the westernmost one, in the Mapia, then attempting to establish itself as a separate ethnic entity. A reliable census was supervised by the medical officer Boelen in the early 1950s (1954). He estimated that the number of Me then stood at 44,700.

From the start of colonial penetration, the new arrivals, both administrative personnel and missionaries, noticed the prominence of cowry shells, Maldive cowries, in the social interaction of the local Me. Moreover, as was the case among the Rossel Islanders, ownership of high ranking shells, and their use in exchanges was the predominant source of social power.

The cowries that the Me used had been imported from the coast, or farther afield. The early ethnographer Pospisil worked in the Kamu valley, west of the Paniai lakes, and separated from the lakes by a watershed. At the time, there was no permanent government presence in the valley. Pospisil writes (1963: 337‑339) that a chain of traders brought coastal goods to the Me, and beyond, from the south coast via the western Mapia area where the coastal plain is much narrower than farther east. Among the goods traded were bailer shell and ‘a tiny species of cowry-like shell’ (ibidem: 337), I suppose dog whelk (nassa). Pospisil appears to imply, but he does not state it explicitly, that cowries were also traded via this route.

In contrast, Hylkema concluded (p. 30), decades later, that cowries had reached the Me from the north, via Cenderawasih Bay, in exchange for bird of paradise feathers, or for help in hunting these birds. In his view the point of entry of cowries had become the area north of Paniai lake. He points out that Me living in the Mapia area were far less interested in cowries than the Me living farther east (2002). Pospisil acknowledges that the Me had, or had had, contacts with people on the north coast, from whom they had obtained their sexagesimal counting system. He too specifically refers to Cenderawasih Bay (1989: 201) as the point of contact. As was the case on Rossel, the Me counting system, and also several numerals, were of Austronesian derivation (ibid.).

Given the Me demand for cowries, the colonial arrivals, administrators, missionaries and researchers, started paying Me for their services with cowries they brought along. Since cowries were not available locally, these payments were, for the Me, a new source of imports. The people attempted to counter inflation, by making the new imports a category separate from the shells they had acquired earlier (Dubbeldam, 1964: 300-302).

Me ranking of cowries

The colonial newcomers soon realized that the Me had categorized their cowries into ranks with widely varying value. It is this aspect that I want to compare in this paper with the way the Rossel Islanders had ranked their ndap and. For Pospisil such ranking was one of the signs that Me used their cowries as money. In his view the ranks were the denominations of a monetary system (1963: 302-305). In due course Victor de Bruijn, Officer in Charge of the local, colonial administration from 1939 to 1943, and Leo Dubbeldam, a patrol officer based in Paniai in the 1950s (Schoorl, 1996: 634), published lists of cowry ranks. It struck Hylkema that the lists contained differences, including with the list he had compiled himself. These differences made him conclude that, in the course of time, the Me had changed their ranking of cowries. Moreover, while Me ranked cowries to start with on account of their physical properties, in the different geographical sections of the Me population, people appeared to have selected different physical properties as the basis for ranking (62-63; 87). Accordingly, he inferred that cowry use had augmented the cultural differences between these regions (p. 68). Rossel Island is far smaller than the area inhabited by the Me. Ranking of ndap and appears to have been similar across the island. But, like Hylkema, Liep noticed how the evaluations changed over time.

Furthermore, as was the case among the Rossel Islanders, the Me individuated cowries more than the term ‘rank’ suggests. Hylkema lists a series of qualifications by means of which they appraised cowries within a single rank. I mention: dry versus wet, large versus small, right versus left, light versus dark, and substantial versus void. Hylkema points out that these terms were metaphors and referred to relative quality (2012: 434). Another common trait was that both Rossel Islanders and Me further individuated high quality shells by naming them. Me did so ‘sporadically’ (ibid.: 28); Rossel Islanders, it seems, more often (Liep, 2009a: 184). The terms qualifying the value of individual shells were indefinite and left room for diverging interpretations. Hence, assessing the value of shells was a complex skill that Me youngsters were eager to somehow acquire. There were also experts who advised people about the value of their shells. Hylkema mentions two blind, or almost blind, appraisers who gauged the value of shells by rubbing them in their hands (pp. 88-90). As a result of ageing, with the attendant change of appearance, shells could be elevated to a higher rank (p. 88).

Both among the Rossel Islanders and the Me, the failure of a deal resulted, it seems to me, from disagreement over the value of the shell, hence of the means of payment, that was offered (pp. 66-67). However, for the Me the value of a shell became more definite once it had been exchanged for pork (ibid.: 40). I suppose the value assessed was proportionate to the amount of pork offered in exchange, but Hylkema is silent on this matter.

Another point of resemblance between the ways the Me and the Rossel Islanders handled their shells was, first, that they both stringed them and, second, how they did so. As mentioned above, on Rossel existed only in strings of ten shells and also some of the ndap were exchanged in strings, the ndaptii which consisted of ‘ten ndap shells of decreasing value’ (Liep, 2009a: 187). With regards to the Me, to make a string, a muto, they stringed 60 cowries on a single thread, with the most valuable at what the Me called ‘the base’ and the least valuable at ‘the top’. The shells in between had to be in descending order of value. All the shells included had to be valuable ones, however, shells of the top rank were not included in a string, but were exchanged individually (Ch. 4).

As did the Rossel Islanders, the Me ascribed supernatural origins to especially valuable shells. Hylkema presents a number of stories he was told about reptiles bringing forth cowries, and also about other supernatural sources of these shells (Ch. 25). He writes that for the Me cowries were sacred (Ch. 22.2), that they regarded them as religious relics. The analogy with the decorated receptacle, the ‘reliquary’, in which Rossel Islanders kept the supreme ndap is notable.

A difference between the Rossel and Me shell valuable arrangements was that among the Me the top ranking shells had remained alienable. To assemble a bridewealth, the groom’s sponsor, usually his father, most often needed one or more yoo, the name of the cowries of the highest rank, just as among the Rossel Islanders a dy:âm:andîî was required. Hylkema writes that in case of need he could obtain such shells in what he calls the ‘shell market’, against for instance a pig (p. 50, 65). I suppose that he refers to a diffuse, informal market, but this is not specified. His statement implies that it was not necessary to turn to a rich man, in contrast to what obtained on Rossel. Hylkema has not attempted to assess the number of yoo in circulation. My impression is that among the Me there were more yoo around than the 21 dy:âm:andîî that Liep counted during his research on Rossel.

Accumulating cowries, preferably valuable cowries, was a major endeavour of the Me. It was an important criterion of leadership. Pospisil emphasizes (1958: 79; 1963: 44, 387-392) that leadership was intimately linked with the number of cowries held. Men who were able to accumulate a large amount of cowries, especially highly valuable cowries, achieved prominence in Me society. Pospisil recognizes (1963: 391-392) that the sons of rich men were at an advantage. But their success depended also on acumen and good luck, especially in pig breeding. By contrast, among the Rossel Islanders the wealth that mattered was oligopolized by a small number of owners of top ranking shells, almost all men. They especially left their wealth to sons (Liep, 2009a: 173).

Moreover, compared with Rossel Island leaders, their counterparts among the Me were, it seems, under greater pressure to alienate precious shells in their possession. Among colonials, Me became known for their “demand sharing”, as coined by Nicolas Peterson (1993). With this concept he refers to pressured generosity, in other words gifts that have been demanded for, if need be insistently. He identified the phenomenon among foragers, but it appears to occur among agriculturalists as well. Me practiced it among themselves (Hylkema, p. 81). Pospisil writes that leaders had to be what he calls ‘generous’ with their shells and were ‘ostracised’ when lesser people considered they were not. He presents a case of a leader who was killed on account of his stinginess (1958: 80). His text gives the impression that he employs the term on his own accord and he does not show an awareness of Marcel Mauss’ conceptualization of ‘the gift’ and of gift giving. Underscoring Pospisil’s argument, Hylkema adds:

“Hoarding was harmful both to the man and his shells: the condition of both would deteriorate as a result. […] After they had been kept captive, the shells wanted to be released as quickly as possible.” (p. 81)
“However, in their turn, Me leaders were wont to exert pressure on borrowers, urging repayment.” (p. 33)

Pospisil emphasizes the multitude of cowry transactions in Me social life. He writes: ‘Most of the goods and services are not distributed through barter or gifts, […] [but] by means of the sale contract’ (1963: 300-301). This element in their social life was further emphasized when the colonial newcomers started using cowries to pay the Me for their services. When they introduced a state-backed currency, and for what purposes, is not clear. But in due course, state-backed money started competing with cowries. Hylkema has surveyed the composition of the bride price from about the mid-1930s. In the series of bride prices that he presents, the first one to contain rupiah occurred around 1970 (p. 143). When it became clear, ‘towards the end of the 1980s’, that shop keepers did not accept cowries as a payment, ‘the curtain fell for the cowry’ (p. 150).

In contrast, the Rossel Islanders kept using both indigenous shells and state-backed currency simultaneously until at least the early years of this century, although their incorporation into a colony started much earlier than among the Me. In Liep’s perception, Rossel leaders have somehow been able to insist on the inclusion of especially the high-ranking ndap that they owned in life-cycle payments and for pork during traditionally organized pig feasts. For these leaders, shells have remained an ‘instrument of dominance’ (Liep, 2009a: 343).

An Austronesian origin?

My aim in this paper is, first, to document the many resemblances between the ways in which the Rossel Islanders and the Me conceptualised their shell wealth items. These resemblances present an ethnographic problem: Rossel Island and the western tip of the central highlands are geographically far apart. Also influencing via intermediary ethnic groups appears unlikely. It is equally unlikely that one or both of the ethnographers influenced the other. Liep and Hylkema appear to have been ignorant of each other’s work. Hylkema’s ethnographic reading was very limited and Liep’s ‘A Papuan Plutocracy’ appeared in 2009, several years before Hylkema’s ‘Cowries among the Me or Ekagi’ (2012). Liep does not quote or mention Hylkema.

Hence there appear to be similarities in the ways in which these two Melanesian ways of life changed as a result of either endogenous and/or regional initiatives. For me, this is the main point I make in this paper. I am unable to offer an explanation for these similarities. And I doubt whether Liep is correct when he argues that ‘the ranked system of exchange on Rossel is a legacy from the time when the island was in articulation with Austronesian hierarchical formations to the west’ (2009b: 66). He does not, however, present evidence that such a cultural transfer has occurred. But, given that he noticed that the people effected changes in the ranking system, I conclude that, if the Rossel Islanders adopted it, they did not adopt it ready-made. Liep’s view raises the question whether the ranked system of exchange among the Me resulted also from their contacts with Austronesian speakers. While it is clear that the Me also kept adjusting and refining their rankings of shells, they may, sometime in the past, have taken the idea that shells have different values, and so can be ranked, from their Austronesian contacts.

This latter possibility is plausible, but it need not have taken place. I base this last stricture on my own research among a group of Lani whom I have called the Wanggulam. They lived north of the Grand Valley of the Baliem river and south of the sparsely populated Meervlakte, the Lake Plain. Like the Me, they were speakers of a Papuan language. A major wealth item among Wanggulam and among other Lani were oblong, polished stones, derived from quarries on the northern edge of the central highlands (Pétrequin, 2006: 348-357). The Wanggulam employed them in life-cycle payments and compensation. Apart from the fact that they distinguished between male and female stones, they ranked them, on the basis of criteria that have remained unclear to me, and named the most valuable individually. They were widely separated from Austronesian speakers and it seems most unlikely that this condition was different in the past. It is equally unlikely, therefore, that the Wanggulam had adopted the idea of ranking wealth items from Austronesians. It seems more likely that the idea occurred –or: occurred also– among numbers of Papuan speakers.

In Conclusion

To conclude this paper, I point out first that among Rossel Islanders the circulation of especially high-value shells was far more restricted than among the Me. On Rossel the number of these shells was smaller than among the Me, and they were and remained in the hands of a small group of, mostly, men and their heirs. In Liep’s perception they formed a plutocracy. Among the Me, owners of such shells, apparently exclusively men, were pressured to part with them. Young men aspired to become owners of such shells and gain the attending status (Pospisil, 1958: 79), so competition for leadership occurred.

However, the ways of appreciating shells show a number of intriguing similarities. Both Rossel Islanders and Me ranked their shells, while they defined each rank by means of a set of physical characteristics to which an individual shell more or less conformed. Accordingly, shells were individualized, and those with the highest values were given names. Values were ordinal rather than cardinal, so in case a high-ranking shell was required for a payment or prestation, it could not be substituted by handing over a number of shells of lower rank. Especially when a large payment of shells had to be made, both Rossel Islanders and Me stringed numbers of them together. That procedure, however, was not applied to precious shells. The precise value of a shell was open to debate. In addition, appreciation of shells changed over time by defining and scaling in new ranks. Rossel Islanders regarded especially precious shells as divine creations, and Me also ascribed supernatural origins to them.

I regret that I cannot explain these similarities. In this paper I merely mention their occurrence.


Armstrong Wallace, 1928. Rossel Island: an Ethnographic Study, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Bijlmer H.J.T., no date [1938]. Naar de Achterhoek der Aarde. De Mimika-Expeditie naar Nederlandsch Nieuw Guinee, Amsterdam, Scheltens & Giltay.

Boelen K.W.J., 1954. Rapport Dienst Gezondheidszorg, unpublished administrative document.

Bounoure Gilles, 2011. À propos de A Papuan Plutocracy. Ranked Exchange on Rossel Island de John Liep, Journal de la Société des Océanistes 132, pp. 183-187 (

Dubbeldam Leo F.B., 1964. The devaluation of the Kapauku-cowrie as a factor of social disintegration, in J. B. Watson (ed.), New Guinea. The Central Highlands. Special Publication of American Anthropologist 66 (4, part 2), pp. 293-303.

Giay Benny, 1995. Zakheus Pakage and his Communities. Indigenous Religious Discourse, Socio-Political Resistance, and Ethno-History of the Me of Irian Jaya, Amsterdam, Department of Cultural Anthropology / Sociology of Development, Free University.

Hylkema ofm Sibbele, 2002. Paniyai, Kamu-Tigi and Mapiya, Paniai District, Papua, introduced and translated by Anton Ploeg, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 158, pp. 225-252.

Hylkema ofm Sibbele, 2012. Cowries among the Me or Ekagi. The Impact of a New Currency on a Highlands People, Papua, Indonesia. Edited and introduced by Anton Ploeg, Berlin, Lit Verlag.

Levinson Stephen C., 2009. Foreword, in J. Liep, A Papuan Plutocracy. Ranked Exchange on Rossel Island, Aarhus, Aarhus University Press, pp. xix-xxiii.

Liep John, 2009a. A Papuan Plutocracy. Ranked Exchange on Rossel Island, Aarhus, Aarhus University Press.

Liep John, 2009b. An overview of Rossel Island exchange, Suomen Antropologi 34 (4), pp. 65-70.

Liep John, 2009c. Response to comments on A Papuan Plutocracy: Ranked Exchange on Rossel Island, Suomen Antropologi 34 (4), pp. 99-112.

Peterson Nicolas, 1993. Demand sharing: reciprocity and the pressure for generosity among foragers, American Anthropologist 95 (4), pp. 860-874.

Pétrequin Anne-Marie & Pierre, 2006. Objets de pouvoir en Nouvelle-Guinée. Approche ethnoarchéologique d’un système de signes sociaux, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux.

Ploeg Anton, 2012. Introduction, in S. Hylkema, Cowries among the Me or Ekagi. The Impact of a New Currency on a Highlands People, Papua, Indonesia. Berlin, Lit Verlag, pp. 1-20.

Ploeg Anton, 2022. Rossel Islanders and Wanggulam Lani; Contrasting forms of social inequality, Paideuma 68, pp. 167-186.

Pospisil Leopold J., 1958. Kapauku Papuans and their Law, New Haven, Department of Anthropology, Yale University Publications in Anthropology, no 54.

Pospisil Leopold J., 1963. Kapauku Papuan Economy., New Haven, Department of Anthropology, Yale University Publications in Anthropology, no. 67.

Pospisil Leopold J., 1989. Traditional egalitarian society, its loose structure, emerging inequality and other widely held myths, in Paul Haenen & Jan Pouwer (eds), Peoples on the Move. Current Themes of Anthropological Research, Nijmegen, Centre for Australian and Oceanic Studies, pp. 18‑30.

Schoorl Pim [J.W.] (ed.), 1996. Besturen in Nederlands-Nieuw-Guinea 1945-62. Ontwikkelingswerk in een periode van politieke onrust, Leiden, KITLV Uitgeverij.

Haut de page


1 I have published a comparative paper whose aim is related to the present one (Ploeg, 2022).

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search