Until Hela Becomes a City: The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity

Event details

PhD Seminar

Date & time

Friday 01 March 2019


Basham Room (Baldessin Precinct Building)


Michael Main


Michael Main

This thesis is an investigation into materialism as a crucial component of Huli thought. Previous ethnographic research undertaken among Huli since the 1950s has touched upon materialist aspects of Huli in various ways, but the ethnographic fieldwork that I undertook in 2016 convinced me that the existence of a distinct Huli materialist ontology presented a gap in our understandings of Huli culture and history. This thesis examines several different aspects of contemporary Huli life, and links them via a theory of Huli materialism. This thesis posits the theory that Huli materialism has been influenced by radical material changes that have occurred over several centuries of Huli history. Huli inhabit a landscape that is subject to sudden and dramatic change due to climate variations causing drought and frost, floods and famine, earthquakes, and sudden changes in the behaviour of rivers and lakes. Two major events that have received much attention in the literature include the introduction of sweet potato, and the eruption of the Long Island volcano that produced the “time of darkness” event that was widespread across the PNG highlands. These phenomena have influenced Huli understandings of nature that embrace the experience of material change.

Crucially, Huli understandings of material change are embracive of doubt, speculation, and personal opinion as to the nature of cause and effect. Previous research has revealed a Huli historicity that conceives a “modern” version of Huli human that emerged after the introduction of sweet potato. This thesis argues that a pre-contact Huli modern is not only characterised by Huli historical understandings of themselves, but also by a materialist ontology that is recognisable to a Western audience. Huli encountered Western modernity from the 1950s by embracing a form of material change to which they believed they were entitled. Modernity intersected with pre-existing desires for material change and a cultural flexibility that was readily able to interpret an ancestral prophetic wisdom that had foretold of all that was new.

This thesis examines Huli society from a broad perspective that incorporates the many and varied components that go into the composition of Huli identity. Constructions of nature and the use of the natural world in expressions of sentiment, love, performance, and spells are all viewed through the lens of a Huli materialism. Huli historicity is viewed as being materialist for its embrace of contingency and change, and this thesis argues strongly for so called “tribal warfare” to be understood as an undesired, historically-placed, and contingent phenomenon. The vast PNG LNG project that extracts gas from Huli territory has intersected with an historicised set of expectations for radical material renewal that has resulted in an extraordinary reworking of Huli cosmological and mythological understandings. Responses to the stark development decline of recent years, and frustrations at the PNG LNG project’s failure to live up to its promises in many ways mirror the failure to bring about renewal of the earth’s fertility through ritual that had been practised since the eruption of the Long Island volcano during the second half of the seventeenth century.

Finally, this thesis argues for more consideration to be given more broadly to materialist aspects of human thought across cultures. Modernity has never been anything other than a pluralist phenomenon, and change itself, in all its contingent and multiple guises, is not easily partitioned across cultures in ways that ignore a shared human experience of the material world.

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