The Institute for Intercultural Studies


IN THE FIELD: The Mundugumor of the Yuat River in East Sepik, Papua NG
Nancy McDowell, Professor of Anthropology
Beloit College

A flute named for the village, given to Mead in 1933 by the Mundugumor, now at the American Museum of Natural History.
Photo courtesy of American Museum of Natural History

In 1932, Margaret Mead and her husband Reo Fortune journeyed up the Yuat River to study the Mundugumor (now generally called Biwat) village of Kinakatem. Although they stayed only a short period, October 4 to December 18, the data they gathered provided important evidence to support the conclusions in Mead's classic text about gender differences and individual variation, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.

What so fascinated Mead about these people was that what she called "temperamental" differences-general attitudes, propensities to behave in characteristic ways, aspects of personality-were not gender-differentiated. She described both women and men with the same terms: assertive, violent, individualistic, volatile, thus contrasting markedly with the Western societies of the 1930s. Although men and women had different social roles, their personality characteristics were the same, largely due to the similarity of socialization. Mead used this evidence to support her conclusion that individual biological differences in temperament were more significant than sex-based ones. Although she wrote little else about the Mundugumor, the materials contained in Sex and Temperament provide other anthropologists with ample data for comparison and analysis.

The Biwat people continue today to live along the rich banks of the Yuat River. Most profess the Catholic faith, although a dispute over the land on which the long-established mission station had built an airstrip has closed the airstrip. Education has long been available, and many people have left the area to attend institutions of higher education such as the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby; some have served the province or nation in significant capacities (the former provincial minister of education was from this area).

Yuat River area of PNG The river itself is still the main route of transportation, and allows the people to take produce to market in Angoram, Wewak, and Madang using motorized canoes and other such transport. Pigs are, of course, still important, but other domestic animals, including cattle, can be found now. Slash and burn gardens continue to provide the bulk of day-to-day food. Tobacco and betel nut remain the main cash crops. Population pressures are beginning to be felt as the villages, already close together in 1932, melt further into one another.

Ethnographic work continues in this area. Nancy McDowell, now a professor of anthropology at Beloit College, did fieldwork in the first village upriver from Biwat, Bun, in 1972-3 and continues to visit that village periodically. Her most recent visit was just this year. She has also visited Kinakatem for short periods and spent considerable time with Margaret Mead's notes in the Library of Congress. These notes were "so thorough, clear and professional" that they allowed her to construct a general ethnography of the Mundugumor from them, something Mead had wanted to do. Although McDowell's interpretations of the kinship system vary somewhat from Mead's, she calls it remarkable that the notes alone provided more than enough information for the creation of a general ethnography. Furthermore, the notes remain in the Library of Congress where scholars of the future will be able to use them and "continue to appreciate the extraordinary fieldwork of Margaret Mead."

-- Nancy McDowell

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