What is meant by the term culture, which is used so frequently by so many different writers and speakers, especially those extolling the tourist industry in places like Papua New Guinea?
The culture of a society, or even of a small group of people within a society, is the combination of ideas, behaviours and beliefs which give meaning to the identity and history of the group. In the traditional cultures of PNG these are embodied in the dress, dances, ceremonies, stories, songs, dramatic performances, and magic practices of a group. They are also in the taboos relating to status, gender, genealogy and the spirit world.
Unfortunately there is a tendency for powerful western ideas and technologies to wipe out any beliefs or techniques that do not seem to be as immediately effective or efficient as the western ones.
The confusion of modern western ways with long-standing local traditions is not helped by commentators who refer to the diverse and complicated technologies, and the arcane spiritual beliefs of societies in PNG as ‘stone age’. The term ‘stone age’ refers to a stage of human technology which, in the Middle East and Europe, took place over a period from 50,000 to 2,000 years ago, after which metal became available. It tends to be a somewhat derogatory term applied to groups living now just because they did not happen to use metal tools until recently.
There is an accurate position to take on these matters in the late twentieth century. It is that all human societies are much more alike than they are different and every scrap of diversity should be prized.
This is why the cultures of Papua New Guinea are so important.
There are more separate tribal cultures with their associated art forms in Papua New Guinea than anywhere else in the world. From the spirit masks worn in initiation ceremonies and dance rituals and the big, basketweave shrouds donned by elders at that time, to the huge, supernatural representations on the gable ends of houses and the ancestral boards which ward off evil spirits, arts in PNG are evidence of the powerful beliefs of each different group. Tribal fighting occasionally takes place today in some areas of the Highlands and weapons such as bows and arrows, together with spears, axes and shields, are still made with their original purpose in mind. There is a whole range of domestic items, different in each area, from string bags (bilums) to woven baskets, food hooks, knives, spoons and scrapers, all the tools required for hunting, fishing and agriculture, and all the means of making music and sounds, from flutes and bull-roarers to beaters, whistles and drums.
Art of people in traditional societies is not something to hang on the wall and look at because it is beautiful. It is an essential tool required for the carrying out of ritual, something necessary to wear or carry while dancing, for example, or to use in divination or sorcery or when communicating with spirits. The fact that many of these artefacts are still made today is either because they are still needed for some version of those purposes or because both tourists and local people value them for a whole variety of quite different reasons – for the quality of the workmanship involved, for example, or the startling and unique designs, or the way they will contribute to the decor of a house in another part of the world. Some people, but a minority, can perhaps imagine what kind of experience the original ritual was for the persons involved. Most foreigners, however well-informed, would not be able to do this, and for many local people also, especially young or educated city dwellers, this increasingly appears to be an impossibility.
New kinds of tourism, which count on tourists being willing to learn and to be sensitive to local ways, can go some way to minimizing the impact of foreign life-styles on local cultures. It is a difficult process to manage. It is somewhat naive to hope that all tourists will turn themselves into anthropologists and art historians, especially as the trend within PNG itself , officially encouraged and promoted by government, churches, the education process, development agencies and the world of international business and industry, is towards Westernization. So it is within that framework that the traditional practices of ancient cultures must find their place.