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Boas was on to something, and Millerís ideas strike me as complimentary and mutually reinforcing. While Boas only mentions the personal creative satisfaction of the artisan him or herself, the idea that creative virtuosity could serve as an appeal to prospective mates, seems like a fairly reasonable extension of his conclusions on art motives? and one that could reinforce the artisans own pleasure in the aesthetically creative act.

A final comment or two on head hunting? for the majority of us who will read this discussion, I think it is safe to say that if this phenomenon is of interest at all, then at most we may possibly gain an intellectual understanding of why various societies might indulge in headhunting, but our own deeply ingrained cultural praxis will prevent us from ever looking at headhunting the way someone who is an autochthonous member of a headhunting society might.

Suffice to say that headhunting was a robust tradition here. In 2001, on the centenary of Rev. Chalmers' demise, the BBC aired a documentary in which Charlotte Sainsbury, a direct descendant of Rev. Chalmers visited Goaribari.

While the Chalmer incident left a powerful impression on the mind of missionaries, the Rockefeller incident is the one that tends to linger most in the thoughts of those of us who are interested in the art and culture of this area. This latter event happened in the Asmat region, which is West through the Torres Straight and up along the coast of West Papua (Indonesian side) in relation to Goaribari Island where the Gope board that started this thread originated.

Of course, people from outside headhunting cultures, that become the victims of headhunting will always have a degree of sensational interest attached to their stories just because of the relative novelty of the event.
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The cultural context is fascinating as well, and some of you will be aware that the Goaribari Islanders were notorious warriors. It is reported that Authorities were still confiscating skull trophies in the late 1950. Other infamous incidents have become very well known indeed. For instance the events of April, 1901 are legendary.

It was then that the famous missionary Rev. James Chalmers and a party of 12 lost their heads and were eaten by Goaribari headhunters. Another missionary reported witnessing over 10,000 skulls in the long houses of Goaribari.

Human behavior, it seems to me, has obviously innate components. We are certainly hard-wired not to try to fly off buildings, and the fear of stepping off a cliff when we can see that there's no place near to land arises pretty early.

But most cultural activities and ethical consciousness are learned behavior (in my judgment). Children learn to not be cruel, they aren't born empathetic.

So I am very sorry for that, but I will go away with very very happy memories of Papua, New Guinea." Conversely, I should also note that in this same documentary the local headman expresses great reverence and esteem for the Rev. Chalmers and went so far as to say, because of his coming we are civilized."

In any case, one can see that Goaribari is a place with a colorful history, no matter what one interpretation of some of those events might be.

As for the Gope boards, they are displayed in the long houses and are the representation of ancestral spirits. They may be understood to represent what are essentially tutelary entities whose power and wisdom guide successive generations.

Art can not be learned. Actually, art techniques can be learned. Art talent can not. People can only learn techniques and knowledge in art school. They can not learn art talent there. Without talent, one can not become a great artist.

It is rather just to point out what I see as the striking malleability and cultural specificity of moral boundaries and how in cases like the one just mentioned, a few moments can totally change the acceptability of certain actions. While listening to military briefings in the news, often it is explicitly stated that an objective of some operations will be to "capture or kill" the enemy.


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Last modified: Tuesday October 18, 2005.