National Geographic : 1949 Dec
842 Ned Iloold from Camera Clix A Patriarch Lies Dead. Circling Mourners Shatter the Air with Anguished Wails When a Wahgi Valley man dies, his body is laid on a leafy litter, his head is pillowed on a banana stalk, and his arms are folded across the chest. His shell ornaments and plumed headdress are placed at his side. As relatives gather, women in an inner circle, men in the background, they make known their grief with sobs and shrieks. All day and far into the night they howl. Mourners from distant villages, arriving with gifts of food, amplify the sad chorus. A crescendo of moans rises when the body, flexed into a sitting position, is lowered into earth. Now the shell ornaments are broken and tossed into the pit, and a pig-proof platform is erected above the mound. Mourners then adjourn to the widow's home for a round of feasting. Some survivors, to indicate their abiding sorrow, may cut off a finger and wrap the stump in a banana-leaf bandage. Before steel knives appeared, such operations were performed with stone tomahawks. One old woman, four times bereft, retained only the thumb on her right hand. Such pre-Christian customs linger despite the influence of missionaries. A cult of the dead exists across New Guinea. Wahgi Valley's first white explorers were mistaken for returned ghosts seeking homes and relatives. Some were "recognized" and bade to tarry. Others were waved on to distant villages. Women here wear the string bag suspended from heads as well as from waists. They fashion fabric from shredded bark. Fibers they spin by hand against the naked thigh, using a chalky powder to prevent chafing. Threads they knit laboriously, with a single needle of polished bamboo or cassowary bone sharpened at one end and carved with an eye at the other. Every oddment of cloth is prized. Women pick it to pieces, spin the threads anew, and make another net bag. At times they mix fur of the tree-climbing kangaroo with bark threads. Net bags carry not only food and possessions but babies as well. Quilted only with pandanus leaves, infants journey with their mothers in all kinds of weather; consequently their death rate is high. Pneumonia is a common killer. The introduction of warm woolen garments is designed to save many lives needlessly lost. Woman's lot in Wahgi Valley is dull. She does the housework, weeds and plants the garden, feeds pigs and poultry. When traveling, the wife carries not only her latest born but a net bag of food weighing up to 60 pounds. Her lord and master, adorned in feathers and war paint, walks in front, burdened only with his drum or fur-decked spear. Man is the hunter, or was, for with the approach of civilization hunting is fast disappearing. Wahgi children are not unlike their kind all over the world. They have their games, including top-spinning. Boys catch fish with lines, or, banded together, chase their prey into shallows, where they seize them barehanded. With miniature bows and arrows they shoot small birds. Girls are taught to weave fabrics, care for babies, and help mothers with kitchen and garden chores.