The Dani

Dani Watchtower
Dani Watchtower, PM 2006.

When the Harvard-Peabody New Guinea Expedition arrived in the Baliem Valley in 1961, the Dani were still conducting tribal warfare. About 50,000 Dani lived in the Grand Valley, farming and raising pigs, in villages belonging to about a dozen alliances. Opposing groups were separated by a no-man's land lined with watchtowers. Frequent combat with bows and arrows and spears took place on designated battlegrounds.

Indeed, warfare dominated much of life. Its causes were complex and varied, including the ritual pacification of ghosts and revenge for previous deaths incurred in battle. Men fought and did the heavy work in construction and the sweet potato gardens. Women did the lighter, more tedious work of weeding, harvesting, and cooking. A death, by enemy action in ambush or battle, was considered particularly dangerous for the community, and elaborate funerals were staged to placate the ghosts of an alliance's dead.

The relative isolation of these Dani ended soon after the expedition departed. In fact, missionaries were already present in some parts of the region. Dutch police pacified the area, and a patrol post was established near the Harvard's team camp shortly after the expedition left. Despite Papuan efforts toward indepedence, Indonesia annexed West New Guinea in 1963. Recent separatist movements have also been squelched. Ecological, economic, and cultural transformations have occurred side by side with political ones. In 1961, none of these Dani knew what cameras were, but by 1989, when Robert Gardner made a return visit, the Dani were charging fees to photographers for taking their pictures.