In March 1938, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson steamed through the Torres Strait, en route from Bali to the Sepik River of New Guinea and a comparative project that still stands as one the most remarkable yet, ironically, largely unknown periods of research in the history of anthropology and social science. They were no strangers to the Sepik. Mead previously worked among the Mundugumor and Tchambuli, and Bateson did likewise among the Iatmul, an exuberant fishing-horticultural people spread across some 25 large, prosperous middle Sepik villages.
A half-century after Mead and Bateson studied in Tambunum, a Iatmul village in the middle Sepik River, I began my own ongoing fieldwork in the same community (1988-1990, 1994). Tambunum today remains a beautiful, vibrant, and prosperous village of 1000 people residing in 120 enormous and elaborately embellished houses.
But changes are myriad. Dugout canoes are fitted with outboard motors. The diet of river fish, tubers, and sago is supplemented by tradestore goods: canned mackerel, sacks of rice, biscuits, coffee, powdered milk, warm beer, and other necessities such as flashlight batteries, lantern kerosene, aspirin, and laundry detergent. Children attend school.
The all-male ceremonial house that once towered above the palms was destroyed during WWII, suspending male initiation. There is steady traffic between the village and urban centers where Iatmul work as teachers, store clerks, policemen, lawyers, soldiers, hotel waitresses, and civil servants. Yet modernity has not eclipsed tradition. Small male sanctuaries exist for ceremonial preparations, relaxation, and political debates. (Women have no such spaces.) Commercial recordings of "string band" music that blare from cassette players are silenced during sacred bamboo flute performances. Young people sing about "Mama Mary" but eagerly learn magic, myth, and totemic chants. And Tambunum, once a regional trade nexus, is now the leading tourist emporium of the Sepik, complete with a guesthouse.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bateson studied the Iatmul, but mainly in other villages. He wrote a now-classic book about a rite called naven that raucously celebrates achievement by reversing and caricaturing gender roles. In 1938, after leaving Bali, Mead and Bateson together investigated the link between child-raising and adulthood in Tambunum Village to provide comparative material.
My own Tambunum fieldwork seeks to complement their researches. I recently completed a book about the relationship between masculinity and motherhood that provides new data on the famous naven rite which I interpret as a mockery of mothering and manhood. Honored feats now include the purchase of an outboard motor and airplane travel. During the two naven rites I myself received for spearing a fish and paddling a dugout, mothers enthusiastically insulted me with ribald jests, thrashed me with branches, pelted me with handfuls of mud, and spit red betel-nut juice in my face. These were my proudest moments as an anthropologist!
I am also studying tourism, something unknown in 1938, and only just beginning when Rhoda Metraux investigated music and leadership in Tambunum in the 1960s and 1970s. (Mead, Bateson, Metraux, and myself are the four anthropologists who have intensively studied the community.) Tambunum is the most prolific "tourist art" village in the Sepik. The impetus for this art is the desire for cash but the artworks themselves expresses visually how men and women now construct their personal and ethnic identities. Combining traditional themes and conventions with modern symbols and materials, tourist art represents the contemporary era as a juxtaposition of the local and global.
Tambunum villagers are proud of their architectural skill, artistic renown, enduring ritual repertoire, and guesthouse. But villagers also voice frustrations. While finishing a crocodile-shaped coffee table, one man commented "we carve because we do not have real development here." Still, Tambunum is relatively wealthy. Other Sepik people constantly arrive by canoe and foot to peddle vegetables, pottery, betel-nut, and sago, and to "win" Tambunum's touristic money through all-night card games. Ensorcelled with magical spells and floral charms, local folks are happy to oblige.
My future projects will include studies of funerary ritual, which perseveres relatively unchanged since the 1930s, and fatherhood. I also want to complete, in a sense, Mead and Bateson's 1938 study, which because of the War, remains largely unpublished. With the exception of a few paragraphs here and there, and a couple of short films, Mead and Bateson's splendid 1938 material remains, mostly unread, in the Library of Congress archives--an unjust fate I seek to correct. Recently, I have been studying these voluminous notes -- marveling, really -- and updating them through my own fieldwork in Tambunum. My goal is to write the book that Mead and Bateson never did, a book they might have titled "Iatmul Character," which will trace continuities, to invoke another of Mead's projects, in the Sepik cultural evolution of childcare, gender, emotion, personality, and social interaction. I plan also to draw on the fieldwork of Rhoda Metraux. By annotating and updating their notes, I will explore continuities in daily village life from 1938 until the present.
Mead and Bateson's 1938 study sought to correlate the conventions of infancy and childhood with adult patterns of behavior. Particularly striking is their keen awareness of the emotional nuances of gesture, posture, and glance. Indeed, Mead was at her best in perceiving the significant meanings that people silently convey through fleeting bodily expressions. For her, the truly distinctive humanism of a community was particularly evident in how it performs the everyday things that unite us all into a common humanity. In Tambunum, the mundane triumphs and tragedies of daily life that captivated Mead and Bateson included an infant's first bath, children playing with new toys, frustration at the rain, the tears of unexpected death.
The 1938 Iatmul study refined the many innovations of the earlier Balinese project. Gregory shot an astonishing 25,000 photos and 22,000 feet of film, while Margaret wrote detailed, often poetic notes about the "inexpressingly touching" qualities of human life and the almost-ineffable tones of Iatmul culture. The resulting dialogue between his scientific lens and her humanistic pen was a metaphor for the multi-dimensionality of human experience. Upon a brief visit to Tambunum in 1967, Mead realized the importance of what she dubbed cultural "intimacy" in small-scale societies, a sense of identity and 'belonging' that arises from the ongoing telling of old, familiar tales and memories. This "intimacy" united present to past, and to future.
Comparing Iatmul to Bali, Tchambuli, Mundugumor, Arapesh, Manus, and Samoa, this village-based study was situated in grand vision of human diversity and universals that also encompassed the great ideas of the day. They discussed Anna Freud and Erik Erikson, and deliberated the underlying logic to all localized, cultural manifestations of gender, emotion, temperament, personality, and socialization. They performed, to echo Mead, a lifetime of work in six months, and departed Tambunum eager "to work on new theoretical advances at home." But due to the War and the vicissitudes of human emotion, the anthropological marriage of Bateson and Mead was not to endure. Tambunum was the final, culminating stage in their collaboration.
A recent, bittersweet letter from Tambunum fills me with optimism. Sadly, one of my closest teachers, a man named Dmoiawan who also worked with Rhoda Metraux and whose father was a village official when Mead and Bateson were there, has died. The future of tradition in Tambunum is rapidly passing into the hands of a new, modern generation. Yet I also learned that the village is quickly rebuilding the monumental ceremonial house. The site of the old structure has long-ago eroded into the river.
Today, Margaret and Gregory are no longer remembered by people in Tambunum merely as outsiders who recorded tradition. They are now a part of the tradition itself. Their house, with its famous screened-in "mosquito room," has long-ago vanished into the swirling eddies of the river. But Margaret and Gregory remain a constant presence in the village. And the culture itself, like so many coconut trees, seems capable of standing tall amid the flow of time.
-- Eric Kline Silverman
All rights reserved. Mead/Bateson photo ©Fred Roll.