These sturdy, warlike people are subsistence farmers, growing their sweet potatoes, taro and sugar cane in the fine fenced gardens that flank their scattered garden hamlets. They have many notable characteristics, perhaps the most striking being the great flower-decked wigs of human hair worn by the adult males, a custom shared by their neighbours and close cultural relatives, the Duna, and by certain groups in the Western Highlands and Enga Provinces.
There are some 38,000 of the Huli, and the total area of their territory exceeds 2,500 square kilometres.
It is a country isolated by geography and by history, guarded by the massive bulk of the Muller and Karius Ranges to the south and the Central Range system to the north, this country is in the very centre of the mainland New Guinea. The Southern Highlands was the last of the Highlands provinces to be explored. The first patrol, in 1935, approaching from the south, took months to break through to the Tari Basin and lost three of its number from sickness and exhaustion. The discoverer of the Huli country called it the "Papuan Wonderland".
The initial explorers found no steel in this land. The shells that the people wore as ornaments were generally of poor quality: undersized cowrie and tambu shell and cleaned gold lipped mother of pearl/kina shells cut into large crescents. The isolated country of these wigmen was at the very end of the great traditional trade routes from the coast, and only the least desirable shell found its way through the avaricious hands of the intervening trading communities to the country of the Huli.
The first patrol soon found proof of the warlike nature of the wigmen. Attacked by arrow-firing warriors, the officers and police were compelled to use their rifles in self-defence. The wigmen pressed home their attacks with great determination, for warfare was the dominant interest of this society,
From the day of his birth, the Huli boy was taught that his finest destiny was to become a warrior, to defend and extend the interest of his family and his clan by armed forced. To achieve this object, clans would commonly enter into temporary alliances with neighbouring groups,. the allies of today could well be the enemies of tomorrow. Such temporary alliances were often openly mercenary; there was no chivalry in this warrior society. Pay-back, the savage custom found throughout the Highlands, was also present there. If an injury was done to a clan, then that injury must be repaid, either by property settlement or by retaliation. This custom, of course, produced a history of involved, interlocking feuds. It ensured that at any given time a number of unresolved feuds would keep a given district in a state of armed tension.
The Huli people did not scorn the use of poison and magic, with appropriate ritual and preparation, to even their scores. In any serious dispute such as unrequited deaths, women, land or pig troubles, open warfare involving pitched battle between opposing armed groups, was usual. Huli wars were fearsome. A major war could involve a thousand of fifteen hundred screaming bowmen, marshalled into squads by recognised fight leaders. Such a war could last for months and result in scores of deaths. The Huli fought to destroy. He showed no mercy to his enemies. Women and children, the sick and the aged were alike slaughtered when caught. He showed no mercy towards the property and lands of his enemies. Whenever he could, he burned houses, killed pigs, slashed down food trees, destroyed gardens. The Huli was an enthusiastic proponent of the scorched earth policy long before Western nations.
Deaths and injuries suffered in wars had to be paid for, if future outbreaks were to be avoided. And here the pig, as prized by these wigmen as by all the peoples of the Highlands, played its vital part in stabilising social relationships. Among the Huli, it was usual for the opposing sides to exchange a number of sides of slaughtered pigs as a token that hostilities were concluded.
Payments of pig-sides were made for death and injury. As many as a hundred pigs might be required to compensate for the death of a senior warrior, ten to fifteen for a serious arrow wound. So many pigs could be required to settle all payments resulting from a major war that it could be many months before the affair was conducted.
The bow and arrow was the principal weapon. Arrow heads used in normal warfare were smooth, tapering pencils of blackpalm bound into shafts of pitpit cane. The bows, short and heavy, were made of blackpalm with strings of scraped bamboo. Men invariably carried bone knives, made from the leg bone of the cassowary, and adazes of stone set into angled wooden hafts, but these were more tool than weapon.
Another characteristic of the Huli common to many other Highlands cultures was their general distrust and suspicion of women. Male-dominated, this society was concerned with maintaining the strength and status of the male. Undue contact with women was considered to be the source of sickness and debility, so this led to separation of men and women, even to the maintenance of separate households. Men would never enter the women's houses and vice versa; marital relations usually took place in the gardens. Menstruating women were considered to be dangerous. Sexual intercourse with such a women would be fatal to the male. Even to be sighted by a menstruating woman could lead to premature senility. No man would touch food prepared by such a woman; indeed men normally prepared and cooked their own food to ensure that it was not woman-contaminated. Young bachelors made and tilled their own gardens without the assistance of women. Menstrual blood was considered by the Huli to be the most deadly of poisons. Even the normal act of intercourse with one's wife was not to be lightly undertaken.
Generally, the Huli man would not consider marrying any women to whom he could trace a genealogical connection. A brideprice was always paid, usually fifteen pigs plus an assortment of lesser items.
Although the Huli had no village settlements, and lived in homestead groups and family units throughout their garden lands, their society was organised along complex lines. As always in Melanesian societies, land and rights in lands were of overriding importance. In an account of this nature, one cannot avoid generalising, for the subject is tremendously complex. For our purposes it can be assumed that among the Huli a man had land rights wherever he could trace an ancestor. The typical Huli male had not one, but several households, in the land of his father's clan, his mother's clan, the clan of any known ancestor. Given the relatively dense population distribution of the Huli, the result was a complicated network of rights and obligations, often cut across by feud and warfare. These people had of course, no written language but genealogies could usually be traced for four or five generations back: sometimes considerably further. This was the basic factor regulating land rights.
The Huli boy was removed from the household of his mother to that of his father at a very early age. His progress to full manhood was marked by elaborate ceremonies, culminating in the bachelor's ritual in his late teens. During this period of his life the young Hull was expected to avoid all association with women, particularly sexual association. For eighteen months or so, the young initiates of the age group received instruction and training from well skilled elders, and then were entitled to wear the elaborate, beautifully made red wig of the young bachelor. Their faces carefully painted in identical patterns with red and yellow ochre, their bodies a shiny red with applications of tigaso tree oil, groups of the young bachelors would stalk silently throughout the land, their crescent shaped wigs trimmed with strips or cuscus fur and the iridescent blue breast shield of the Superb Bird-of-Paradise, and with the plumes of the cassowary - objects of admiration to all. The young bachelors would parade, at regular intervals over periods of twelve months.
The Tege rites were also of great significance to the young men. These rites, often extending over a period of years, involved the sacrifice of pigs to the deities Ne (regarded by the Huli as the creator), to Korimogolo and others. They culminated in a week-long ceremony called Tege, involving hundreds of participants, climaxing in a spectacular ordeal of fire walking, where young men ran, bare footed, through a lane of red-hot embers while on either side the elders struck at them with switches.
All of this ritual emphasised the superiority of the male over the female, but women had a definite and important place in the society of the Huli. The women had the major responsibility for the daily care of the most precious asset of the household, the pig. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the pig to the Huli people. Greatly desired as food, the pig had a far wider value: all social and political transactions depended upon the pig as a unit of currency. A man's ultimate status in his community depended upon the size of his pig wealth. During the daylight hours, the pigs were grazed on household land and abandoned gardens, but at night they were penned in the women's house.
The people were subsistence gardeners, completely dependant upon what they grew to sustain life: hunting and food gathering in the mountains flanking their country, contributed very little indeed to daily diet.
Men and women shared the labour of establishing the garden. They followed the shifting cultivation method common in New Guinea. Men performed the heavy tasks of initial clearing and fencing of the garden, while the women completed the clearing and prepared the ground for planting, which was undertaken by both. The staple food was the sweet potato, of many recognised varieties, but other foods were grown: bananas, taro, sugarcane, yams and greens. Skilful gardeners, they used primitive tools-to good effect. The sweet potatoes were planted in mounds, enriched with ashes, and the yield in good soils was high the potatoes mature in three to six months.
Magical rites were associated with every stage of the preparation of gardens and the harvesting of the crop: the Huli believed that malign influences would spoil their crops if the appropriate ghosts and spirits were not propitiated in accordance with tribal customs. Indeed, a belief in ghosts and spirits governed ever aspect of their lives. All deaths from natural causes were to be the result of magical or supernatural influences. There were appropriate rituals and courses of action for every contingency. Not uncommonly, individual Huli would be seized by a strange disorder characterised by uncontrolled body tremors, violent and unpredictable behaviour and mental delusions. Such a state was known as lulu, and persons suffering from lulu often brought about inter-clan warfare, for a lulu-man frequently would destroy gardens and attack and killed innocent passers-by when in the grip of his affliction. Normally, fellow-clansmen would restrain their deranged fellow forcibly, until the attack had passed. Both men and women were subject to the curse of lulu, which was held to be caused by supernatural influences. These must then be wooed by the ceremonial slaughter of pigs.
The people believed in the existence of a soul, or life spirit. A sleeper should never be abruptly awakened, lest his soul wandering from the sleeping body, take flight. There was no equivalent to the Christian's belief in an afterlife, but the ghosts of the departed were believed to influence the affairs of the living. The Duna of the Lake Kopiago area, held that upon death the souls of the dead turned into round black stones, called Auwi, about ten centimetres in diameter. These were venerated and were often found in their territory.