Genetic and sociological fieldwork along the Arafundi River (East Sepik, Papua New Guinea)

“Singsing” dancers in Awim village, with the Esamkanja cliff in the background (Photo: F.-X. Ricaut).

From the 17th to the 24th of June 2019, a team of six people undertook the 3rd fieldwork of the Papuan Past Project in the Arafundi region. The team was composed of three researchers (Matthew Leavesley, François-Xavier Ricaut, and Sébastien Plutniak), one student from the University of Papua New Guinea (Reubenson Gegeu Hou) and two filmmakers (Guy Beauché and Christophe Joly). To complete the data collected during the 2017 and 2018 fieldworks, the team went back to the village of Awim. During this visit the filmmakers shot a film documentary about the arrival, 50-70 thousand years ago, of the first settlers to the Sahul (the landmass composed of New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania).

Activities in the field

The scientific team pursued three research activities:

  • Concerning rock art, we returned to the Kundumbu rockshelter to record more details on a specific type of hand stencil motif which has attracted the interest of rock art specialists collaborating with the Papuan Past Project.
  • Related to the investigation of local knowledge of rockshelters, we finalised the data collection by interviewing the inhabitants of Awim. Toponyms, ownership of rockshelters and kinship relationships were some of the information recorded.
  • About the genetic history of the Arafundi population we collected DNA samples in Awim and Imboin villages to cover the main clan lineages.
Presentation of the project results to the Imboin village community (Photo: S. Plutniak).

During these three research activities the documentary crew followed the team and recorded images and sounds. Interestingly, they also interviewed the Awim people about their understanding of our work after three visits in their community.

Some news from Awim village

The Papuan Past Project is not the only scientific research undertaken in Awim: we arrived in Awim about ten days after the ethnographer Tomi Bertole – who has undertaken research in Awim for many years – left the village after his fieldwork. During our stay we witnessed changes in Awim since our last visit in 2018. A new guest house was built (our informant estimated that a wooden house lasts around fifteen years), the church collapsed and was transferred in the next building, and a patch of forest was cleared in order to build a new school. Although our fieldwork was planned during the dry season, we encountered daily rain which made our moves on land more difficult, but facilitated our journeys by boat.

Afternoon rain in Awim village (Photo: S. Plutniak).

A notable consequence of our repeated visits to Awim was the renewal of some cultural practices, including songs and dances for our arrival, and the painting of bark on the front of the new guest house. These cultural activities are also considered by the local community as a means of economic benefit. The singsing (welcome or farewell ceremony) is usually responded by gifts from the visitors. However, the relationships among the Arafundi villages are not always peaceful. We witnessed this during the journey back on the Arafundi river: the Yimas and Imanmeri villages started an armed conflict – involving the use of fire weapons – over trade issues, which made our journey down the Arafundi rather stressful.

Awim people making bark paintings on the front of the new guest house (Photo: S. Plutniak).

Future perspectives

The three years of research in this region of the Sepik has taken the Papuan Past Project to its first milestone. The data collected and the preliminary results will lead to series of scientific outcomes. In addition, after R. Tsang’s participation in the 2018 fieldwork she has started a PhD at Brisbane University (Australia), which includes a focus on the rock art of the Arafundi region. The project’s results in the Sepik lowland region are conclusive and so the project can advance into its second phase: focus on the Waghi valley to address lowland-highland cultural and biological interactions over the last fifty thousand years.

F.-X. Ricaut, Reubenson Gegeu and Awim people during a survey in the bush.

Credits

Redaction: Ricaut & Plutniak.
English correction: R. Coles.
Publishing and photo editing: Plutniak.