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Areas of Specialization
Hunter-gatherers, cultural systems of sharing and exchange, ethnoarchaeology, ethology ecology, warfare, oral history; Highland Papua New Guinea, southern Africa
Research among the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen of Botswana and Namibia
In 1973 I went to the Kalahari desert with the question: "How do foragers with no money in the bank, no grain in the larder, and no meat and milk on the hoof secure themselves in times of social and environmental failure?" Two years of research uncovered vast social security networks throughout the Kalahari. Each Bushman had an average of 15 partners up to 200 km away with whom he or she exchanged gifts. The exchange of gifts called xaro marked an underlying relationship of mutual support. When resources failed, people would pack up and go live with partners until conditions improved at home. I also looked at style in Bushman artifacts asking: "What kind of social information is transmitted via style in artifacts that circulate in far-flung exchange networks?"
Over the past 35 years I have been looking at how Bushmen reconfigure social networks to adjust to the current changes, as people move away from a lifestyle based on foraging wild foods to a mixed subsistence base of farming, wage labor, crafts production, and dependency on famine relief food. I am also following the impact of these altered networks on the social information transmitted via style in artifacts.
In the past, long distance ties were kept alive by stories told at night about faraway partners and their relatives. These stories elicited hilarious laughter, excitement, fear, affection, and sadness. They were told so vividly that they brought distant loved ones right to the hearth in peoples' minds and hearts.In 2011, I began to collect stories about real people and their past exploits to gain further understanding of Bushman perceptions, interactions, reputation building, values, and above all, the qualities that endeared people to others as exchange partners.
Research among the Enga of Papua New Guinea
Some 350 years ago the sweet potato was introduced to highland Papua New Guinea via local trade routes. The new crop released constraints on production and allowed the Enga to produce a surplus for the first time: in the form of pigs on the hoof. Some 300 years later European patrols entered the area. The Enga hold rich historical traditions concerning events from around the time of the introduction of the sweet potato, until first contact with patrols and beyond. They allowed us to ask the question: "What happens to a population when people can produce a substantial surplus for the first time?"
Historical traditions collected between 1986 and 1996 by myself, Akii Tumu and a team of Enga researchers revealed the rise of highly competitive ceremonial exchange networks involving some 40,000 people and thousands of pigs and valuables during this period. Significant developments in ritual and warfare took place simultaneously.
In the last decade, we have gone on to study current cultural change concentrating on two topics. The first is what happens when marriage that forms links between clans and weaves the fabric of Enga society breaks down as a result of a boom in the cash economy, cell phone mediated affairs and high mobility. The second is the transformation of traditional tribal fighting after the adoption of gun and high-powered weapons around 1990. In the past two decades, youths wielding firearms have upset the balance of power between young and old men resulting in over 500 tribal highly destructive wars in a population of some 300,000 Enga. We are currently following the strategies used by elders to regain control through adapting 'customary law' to a changing world in such a way as to settle conflicts before they escalate.
Nutritional self-sufficiency among the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen, Namibia
In the 1970s the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen lost the better part of their original territory to other ethnic groups and to the Kaudum game reserve following government decisions. Water installations were later constructed in former desert areas in the interest of wild life conservation have attracted hundreds of new co-residents: elephants. Elephants compete with hunter-gatherers for tubers, nuts and berries and destroy gardens and water installations. Loss of land, competition with elephants, and permanent settlement in villages make it no longer possible for the Nyae Nyae Ju/'hoansi to survive by foraging; people often experience hunger.
The Tradition and Tradition fund, a non-profit established by Polly Wiessner, together with the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation and the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, are working to help Ju/'hoansi establish nutritional self-sufficiency by protecting village water points from elephants with stone enclosures and establishing gardens in villages. We will also experiment with the cultivation of indigenous foods that thrive in desert conditions.
The Enga Take Anda: Tradition and Transition Centre, Papua New Guinea
After 25 years of research on Enga culture and history, Polly Wiessner and Akii Tumu, realized that scientific publication would not suffice. It was important to return our findings to the 300,000 people of Enga at a time when important cultural knowledge and tradition were being lost. Beginning in 2005 we raised funds to build the Enga Take Anda, house of traditional knowledge.
The Enga Take Anda opened in 2009. Its purpose is to keep Enga culture and identity alive in these rapidly changing times. Long after a cultural practice has disappeared, its underlying attitudes and values remain. To understand the present and chart a course for the future, it is necessary to have a sound knowledge of the past.
The Enga Take Anda currently hosts three programs: cultural education for schools, workshops for groups from civil society to address problems of the present with a sound understanding of the past, and a research program that focuses on warfare, peace initiatives and the role of local village courts in solving conflicts. We have recently reprinted all the exhibits in a portable form for outreach programs in remote schools where entire communities can participate in discussing past traditions and their implications for the present.
1998 Wiessner, P. and A. Tumu. Historical Vines: Enga Networks of Exchange, Ritual and Warfare in Papua New Guinea. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C.
1996 (Edited volume) Food and the Status Quest. Edited by P. Wiessner and Wulf Schiefenhövel. Berghahn Books, Oxford.
1992 From Inside the Women's House: The lives and traditions of Enga women. A. Kyakas and P. Wiessner, Robert Brown, Brisbane.
1989 A View of Enga Culture. A. Tumu, P. Munini, A. Kyangali and P. Wiessner. Kristen Press, Madang.
2011 Hill, K., R. S. Walker, M. Bozicevic, J. Eder, T. Headland, B. Hewlett, A. M. Hurtado, F. Marlowe, P. Wiessner, and B. Wood. Co-residence patterns in hunter-gatherer societies show unique human social structure. Science 331:1286-1289.
2010 Smith, Eric Alden, Kim Hill, Frank W. Marlowe, David Nolin, Polly Wiessner, Michael Gurven, Samuel Bowles, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Tom Hertz, and Adrian Bell. Intergenerational Wealth Transmission and Inequality in Premodern Societies: Wealth Transmission and Inequality among Hunter-Gatherers. Current Anthropology 51(1):49-64.
2010 Wiessner, P. Youths, Elders and the Wages of War in Enga Province, Papua New Guinea. State, Society and Governance in Melanesia. Discussion Paper, Australian National University, Canberra. pdf
2009 Borgerhoff Mulder, Monique, Samuel Bowles, Tom Hertz, Adrian Bell, Jan Beise, Greg Clark, Ila Fazzio, Michael Gurven,, Kim Hill, Paul L. Hooper, William Irons, Hillard Kaplan, Donna Leonetti, Bobbi Low, Frank Marlowe, Suresh Naidu, David Nolin, Patrizio Piraino, Rob Quinlan, Rebecca Sear, Mary Shenk, Eric Alden Smith, Polly Wiessner. The Intergenerational Transmission of Wealth and the Dynamics of Inequality in Premodern Societies. Science. October 2009.
2009 Wiessner, P. The power of one: Big-men revisited. In The Evolution of Leadership, edited by J. Eerkens, J. Kantner and K. Vaughn. Santa Fe: SAR Press. December 2009. pdf
2009 Wiessner, P. Parent-offspring conflict in marriage: Implications for social evolution and material culture among the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen. In Patterns and Process in Cultural Evolution (Origins of Human Behavior and Culture), edited by Stephen Shennan. Berkeley: University of California Press. pdf
2009 Wiessner, P. Experimental games and games of life among the Kalahari Bushmen. Current Anthropology 50(1):133-8. pdf
2008 Swadling. P., P. Wiessner and A. Tumu. Prehistoric stone artifacts from Enga and the implications of links between the highlands, lowlands, and islands for early agriculture in Papua New Guinea. Journal of the Society for Oceanists 126-7:127-48. pdf
2008 Jameson, K., and P. Wiessner. Violent and nonviolent response to state failure: Papua New Guinea and Ecuador. In Values and Violence: Intangible Aspects of Terrorism, edited by I. Karawan, W. McCormack and S. Reynolds, New York: Springer. pdf
2006 Wiessner, P. From spears to M-16s: Testing the imbalance of power hypothesis among the Enga. Journal of Anthropological Research 62:165-191. pdf
2005 Wiessner, P. Social, symbolic, and ritual roles of the sweet potato in Enga, from its introduction until first contact. In The Sweet Potato in the Pacific: A reappraisal, edited by Chris Ballard, Paula Brown, Michael Bourke and Tracy Harwood, pp. 121-130. Sydney: Ethnology Monographs 19, Oceania Monograph 56, University of Sydney. pdf
2005 Wiessner, P. Norm enforcement among the Ju/'hoansi bushmen: A case of strong reciprocity? Human Nature 16 (2):115-145. pdf
2004 Wiessner, P. Of human and spirit women: From the seductress to second wife. In Female Roles in Male Ritual, edited by Pascale Bonnemere. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pdf
2004 Wiessner, P. Owners of the future: Calories, cash and self-sufficiency in the Nyae Nyae area between 1996 and 2003. Visual Anthropology Review 19(1-2):149-159. pdf
2004 Byrne, R., P. Barnard, I. Davidson, V. Janec, A. Miklosi, P. Wiessner. Understanding culture across species. Trends in the Cognitive Sciences 8(8) 341-46. pdf
2002 Wiessner, P. Taking the risk out of risky transactions: A forager's dilemma. In Risky Transactions, edited by F. Salter. Oxford: Berghahn Books. pdf
2002 Wiessner, P. The Vines of Complexity: Egalitarian structures and the institutionalization of inequality among the Enga. Current Anthropology 43:233-269. pdf
2002 Wiessner, P. Hunting, Healing, and Hxaro Exchange: A long term perspective on !Kung (Ju/'hoansi) large-game hunting. Evolution and Human Behavior 23:1-30. pdf
2001 Wiessner, P. Brewing Change: Enga Feasts in a Historical Perspective (Papua New Guinea). In The Archaeological Importance of Feasting, edited by B. Hayden and M. Dietler. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. pdf
2001 Wiessner, P., and A. Tumu. Averting the bush fire day: Ain's cult revisited. In Festschrift for Roy Rappaport, edited by E. Messer and M. Lambek. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pdf
1999 Wiessner, P., and A. Tumu. A Collage of Cults. In Blurred Boundaries and Transformed Identities. Canberra Anthropology 22(1):34-65. pdf
1998 Wiessner, P., and A. Tumu. The capacity and constraints of kinship in the development of the Enga Tee ceremonial exchange network. In Kinship, Networks, and Exchange. Edited by D. White and T. Schweizer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pdf
1998 Wiessner, P. Indoctrinability and the evolution of socially defined kinship. In Warfare, Ideology and Indoctrinability, edited by F. Salter and I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt. Oxford: Berghahn Books. pdf
1997 Wiessner, P. Seeking guidelines through an evolutionary approach: Style revisited among the!Kung San (Ju/'hoansi) of the 1990s. In Rediscovering Darwin: Evolutionary Theory and Archaeological Explanation, edited by M. Barton and G. Clark. Washington D.C.: Archaeological Publications of the AAA Monograph Series. pdf
1996 Wiessner, P. Leveling the Hunter: Constraints on the status quest in foraging societies. In Food and the Status Quest, edited by P. Wiessner and Wulf Schiefenhövel. Berghahn Books, Oxford. pdf
1994 Wiessner, P. Pathways of the past: !Kung San Hxaro exchange and history. In Überlebensstrategien in Afrika, edited by M. Bollig and Frank Klees. Colloquium Africanum 1. Heinrich-Barth Institut, Köln 1994. pdf
1993 Wiessner, P. Die Buschleute. In Im Spiegel der Anderen. Edited by W. Scheifenhövel, J. Uher and R. Krell. München: Realis, pp. 16-25.
1993 Wiessner, P. Hxaro. In Im Spiegel der Anderen. Edited by W.Scheifenhövel, J. Uher and R. Krell. München: Realis, pp. 174-9.
1990 Wiessner, P. Is there a unity to style? In The Uses of Style in Archaeology, edited by M. Conkey and C. Hastorf. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 105-112. pdf
1988 Wiessner, P. Style and changing relations between the individual and society. In The Meaning of Things: Material culture and symbolic expression, edited by Ian Hodder. London:Harper Collins.
1986 Wiessner, P. !Kung San networks in a generational perspective. In The Past and Future of !Kung Ethnography, edited by M. Biesele, R. Gordon and R. Lee. Helmut Buske Verlag, Hamburg, pp. 103-136. pdf
1986 Nga. N and P. Breast-feeding and young child Nutrition in Uong Bi, Quang Ninh Province, Vietnam. Journal of Tropical Pediatrics 32:137-9.
1984 Wiessner, P. Reconsidering the behavioral basis for style: A case study among the Kalahari San. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 3:190-234. pdf
1984 Wiessner, P. Style or isochrestic variation? A reply to Sackett. American Antiquity 50(1):160-66.
1983 Wiessner, P. Style and social information in Kalahari San projectile points. American Antiquity 48:253-276. pdf
1983 Wiessner, P. Social and ceremonial aspects of death among the !Kung San. Botswana Notes and Records, 15:1-5. pdf
1982 Wiessner, P. Risk, reciprocity and social influences on !Kung San economics. In Politics and History in Band Societies, edited by E. Leacock and R. Lee. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 61-84. pdf
1982 Wiessner, P. Beyond willow smoke and dog's tails: A comment on Binford's analysis of hunter-gatherer settlement systems. American Antiquity 57(1) 171-178. pdf
1981 Wiessner, P. Measuring the impact of social ties on nutritional status among the !Kung San. Social Science Information 20, pp. 641-678. pdf
1981 Wiessner, P. "Mother! Sing loudly for me! The annotated dialogue of a Basarwa healer in trance. Botswana Notes and Records 11:25-31. pdf
1977 Wiessner, P. Hxaro: A Regional system of Reciprocity for Reducing Risk among the !Kung San. University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
1972 Wiessner, P. A functional estimator of population from floor area. American Antiquity 39:343-9. pdf