The Institute for Intercultural Studies


IN THE FIELD: The Chambri
Deborah Gewertz & Frederick Errington

In 1932-33, Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune, did field work in three different New Guinea societies, the Arapesh, the Mundugomor, and the Tchambuli (whose name has now been standardized as Chambri, which we will use here). Still in the tradition of "salvage anthropology," which emphasized the urgent need to record as much as possible of the cultures of groups still relatively uninfluenced by Europeans, their stays in each place were short and frenetic, trying to get as much on paper as possible.

But what Mead wrote about Chambri became almost as famous as what she wrote about Samoa, for she described it as a society in which familiar male and female roles were partially reversed.

Research on the Chambri was resumed in 1974-75 by Deborah Gewertz, who was able to show that the pattern of relationships between men and women described by Mead had been produced by political events that preceded Mead and Fortune's arrival: following a bitter war with their neighbors, the Chambri had been driven into exile, and were only able to return to the shores of Chambri Lake, their traditional fishing ground, after the Pax Britannica ended intertribal warfare. In 1932, they had not yet been able to resume their traditional way of life in full.

In effect, the pattern of relationships Mead observed was a systemic adaptation rather than a long-term cultural pattern. As Gewertz points out, Mead's insistence on human flexibility is sustained, but in this case we have an example of flexibility over a period of decades. Mead designated Gewertz as the person to have primary access to her Chambri field notes.

Gewertz has returned repeatedly to Chambri with her husband and colleague, Frederick Errington, but it is no longer her principle field site, as the couple has become increasingly interested in processes of change and urbanization and the emergence of a class system.

During the 80s, Chambri Lake was nearly suffocated by the invasion of a water plant, Salvinia molesta, that threatened to clog it entirely, but the invasion was brought under control by a carefully selected and introduced weevil. At present, fishing in the lake is once again under threat from water hyacinths, and nearly half of the population has moved away to squatter settlements near the provincial capital. The two anthropologists still visit and keep in touch. They returned last year to join the village in mourning ceremonies for Alexis Gewertz, whom the villagers had known as a child.

- Mary Catherine Bateson

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