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IN THE FIELD: Return to Alitoa
Paul Roscoe
Professor of Anthropology
The University of Maine

(1) Alitoa ceremonial center, 1991. Mead and Fortune's field house was located in the area of white bloom to the right of the palm at center of the photograph." Photo credit: Paul Roscoe.

Thanks to Margaret Mead’s ethnographic work in 1931-32, the Mountain Arapesh of the East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea, have become one of the standard exemplars of human culture. In particular, thanks to Mead’s book, Sex and Temperament (reprinted numerous times since its appearance in 1935), they are perhaps better known to a western lay audience than almost any other Melanesian people. But what happened to the Mountain Arapesh after Mead and her husband, Reo Fortune, left their field settlement of Alitoa, high in the Prince Alexander Mountains, almost 60 years ago?

In 1991, I decided to visit the Mountain Arapesh. My purpose was ethnographic, to clear up some ambiguities and omissions in Mead’s descriptions of Arapesh settlement patterns (Roscoe 1994). Yet I was also curious to learn what had happened to them in the interim. From old Australian patrol reports and from Mead's later remarks, I knew that, in the wake of the Second World War, many of the Arapesh had left their homes in the mountains. When I arrived at their new home, Woginara village, I discovered they were in the process of returning to Alitoa.

In the latter years of World War II, the Prince Alexander Mountains became the last refuge of the Japanese 18th Army. As they slowly starved, Japanese soldiers decimated the forest's game and plundered villagers' pigs and gardens. To add to local troubles, the American and Australian airforces bombed the mountain settlements, trying to dislodge the Japanese billeted there. Alitoa itself took a direct hit: in 1991, scorch marks were still visible on some of the older coconut palms.

In the postwar years, unsettled by these ravages, the Mountain Arapesh gradually abandoned the peaklands. Those in the south migrated to villages in the high southern foothills above Yangoru and Maprik government stations. Central and northern villagers moved to coastal settlements around Dagua, attracted by the “development” movement sponsored by Pita Simogun, a native police officer. The people of Alitoa themselves moved down to Woginara village, a few miles inland from Dagua, from where a number migrated to Cape Hoskins in New Britain. By the early 1960s, only two old men were still living in Alitoa, looking after a few pigs, and by the 1970s the place was apparently deserted.

Down on the coast, the Alitoans subsisted by the generosity of Maguer village, which allowed them use of rights to their lands. By the 1990s, however, this had become a point of contention, and Maguer village had started court proceedings to evict them. Thus, in 1991, when I arrived in Woginara, it was at a poignant moment in the Alitoans' history: They had just begun plans to return to their ancestral village. A couple of new houses had been built in Alitoa, and a large clearing had been made to land a helicopter.

TOP (2): Nyelehai and his son, Nyalamidju, Willy Hiatup's father. (Source, M. Mead, The Mountain Arapesh III, 1947, Socio-Economic Life. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. BOTTOM (3): Nyalamidju's son, Willy Hiatup, sitting at the same spot as his father in 1991.

In 1992, I subsequently learned by letter, the Alitoans hired a helicopter to transport the corrugated iron roofs of their Woginara houses up into the mountains for their new houses. Further letters related, however, that the move had temporarily halted, and when I returned briefly in 1997, the move was still on hold, with most of the Alitoans remaining in Woginara on the coastal plain.

The principal problem, I was told, was the government's failure to fulfill what the Alitoans believe was a promise to start work on a road that would link the mountain settlements to the coast. In 1991, the track from Woginara up to Alitoa was a nightmare, a steep 2,000-foot climb up the mountain face looming over the coast, followed by a six km trudge along the mountain spine. In Mead’s day, this track had been newly cut: It was a firm bridle path, open to the sun, along which missionaries occasionally rode their horses into the interior. By 1991, it had become a gloomy, overgrown, leech-infested quagmire: the trip from Woginara to Alitoa took me about nine hours. If they are to return to their homelands, the Alitoans want better communications than this, a vehicle road to ease the journey and to provide readier access to health care and schooling for their children.

Nevertheless, by 1997 there was a greater presence in the peaklands than when I visited in 1991. Many families have built houses in Alitoa, they cultivate gardens there, and a number of people have planted coffee groves. Though still based in Woginara, they visit their restored homes for a few weeks at a time before returning to the coast. Other Mountain Arapesh villages are also moving back up into their homelands, including Jogwun, Kumip, Liwo, Numolia, Sowabre,Wihun, and Yeminep.

Though she visited Alitoan people in Cape Hoskins in her later years, Margaret Mead was never able to return to the mountain village that was for almost eight months her home. The site of the house she shared with Fortune is now overgrown with brush (Photo 1, above), but the older Alitoans remember her vividly, and their sons and daughters have a fund of stories about “Margaret” and “Master Poison” (their unfortunate corruption of Fortune’s name). They are genuinely delighted by the photographs in her books of the older generation and of their old village as it once was, and they assiduously track down the spots on which these pictures were taken (Photos 2 and 3, above). Once they are established again in the mountain homes, they told me in 1991, they plan to build a small cement monument and embed a photograph of Mead on it. If they do, then Margaret Mead, too, will have returned to Alitoa.

- Paul Roscoe

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