Father's water equals mother's milk:
the conception of parentage in Kaliai, West New Britain

Dorothy Ayers Counts
University of Waterloo

David R. Counts
McMaster University

Counts, Dorothy Ayers and David R. Counts. 1983 Father's water equals mother's milk: the conception of parentage in Kaliai, West New Britain. In Concepts of Conception: Procreation Ideologies in Papua New Guinea. Dan Jorgenson, ed. Special Issue of Mankind 14:46-56. This version differs in minor ways from the published version. For accuracy, and correct page numbers, please cite the published version.


This paper describes the traditional and modern ideology of conception and parenting among the Kaliai of West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. A pervasive set of beliefs hinges on male primacy and includes the assignment of the principal role in conception to the male. Females become kin to the children they bear only secondarily, through nurturance of their infants. Mother's milk and semen, then, are equivalent in their capacity to establish links of kinship. Despite the ideology of male dominance, food giving is so loaded with significance for the establishment of kin ties that adoptive parents, male and female, must feed a nursing mother or risk the lapse of their claim on her infant. A mother's milk is, therefore, truly equal to a father's semen -- his 'water' -- and different aspects of Kaliai ideology are used more to justify past behaviour rather than to constrain it in the present.

Long ago people did not know how to do things properly. They did not know how to chew vua 'areca nut mixture' correctly and they did not know about sexual intercourse. Then one day Titikolo (or Moro, or Namor) went to visit a bigman, but the leader and his followers were away fishing. Finding the bigman's wife at home, Titikolo sat on the veranda and asked her for some areca nut mixture. After giving him the nuts, she took the betel pepper, put it in her vagina, and gave it to him to chew. Horrified, he argued with her that this was no way to chew areca, but she insisted. Reluctantly, Titikolo tried the mixture, but he could see that it was wrong, for the spittle was white. Taking some of his lime powder, he dipped a betel pepper into it and, chewing this with the areca, he showed her that the spittle was red. The woman tried it and agreed that Titikolo's way was much better. Titikolo then asked the woman, "Don't you know the real use of your genitals?" When the woman insisted that her vagina was used only for preparing areca mixture, Titikolo had intercourse with her, and afterwards she began to bleed. When the bigman came home, his wife showed him the better way to chew areca and the new use of her vagina. From that time on people have known about sexual intercourse and women have menstruated and borne children.

This vignette is taken from a myth cycle which recounts how a culture hero (whose name varies with the group to which the story teller belongs) brings to the people of northwest New Britain much of their cultural heritage, their diverse languages, their system of trade, sexual reproduction, and -- because of human stupidity -- the necessity to work hard and, ultimately, to die. This episode appears in the oral literature of the Kilenge, the Kove, and the inhabitatants of coastal and interior Kaliai. In some cases, as in the above version, it is told by one who regards it as a culturally valid account of the origin of human fertility. Others tell it only as a short, amusing folktale. It is, as far as we know, the only mythic account of the origin of the knowledge of human sexuality to be found in northwest New Britain. One group among whom this myth is told is the Lusi, about a thousand of whom live along the Kaliai coast of West New Britain Province in Papua New Guinea.


The Lusi speakers have experienced a series of dramatic changes since the war in the Pacific in the 1940s: the founding in 1949 of the Kaliai Roman Catholic Mission which introduced basic education and health care; the rise and decline of a cargo movement; the introduction of local self-government and national independence; and the establishment and rapid growth of the provincial capital town of Kimbe. The result of the external influences accompanying these changes has been that Lusi ideology, too, has changed. Today there is no consistent body of traditional theory explaining the conception of children and the role of each parent in the physical and social reproduction of the next generation. Instead, there are a host of sometimes inconsistent explanations about human reproduction and development, and patrilineal norms are modified by the existence of bilateral ties of affection, dependence, and responsibility.

The Lusi ideologies that we will describe, then, are a set that have changed even since we began our field research in West New Britain in 1966, and were still changing when we were last there in 1981. These ideologies are fed by notions deriving from a number of sources:

1) ideas held by members of the grandparental generation whose principal orientation is local and traditional.

2) concepts learned by younger villagers, especially those who have been to high school or who have had extensive experience in a town;

3) notions introduced by people who have married in from other linguistic or cultural groups; and

4) teachings of the personnel of the Roman Catholic Mission. In particular, the ideological influence of the mission has become more pronounced through time. Informants who expounded one set of ideas in 1966 denied these notions in 1981 and offered instead a set of explanations that seemed to them more nearly consistent with Church doctrine.

The folk model on which the Lusi base their ordering of relationships is till dominated by the traditional ideas of the older generation. Lusi social organization is oriented toward priority of paternal substance and the norm of male dominance. The ideally conceived social unit is the kambu 'patrikin group' which shares a hamlet and a men's house and owns a named and bounded strip of land, usually running from the coast to interior mountain ridges. Tradition holds that paternal substance is the dominant, if not the sole, component in the creation of a child. First born children are usually claimed by their father's patrikin group before they are ten years old. As evidence of their claim the father and his kin give large sums of wealth to the mother's brother and other uterine kin. The gifts demonstrate the ability of the father's kin group to gather and disburse enough wealth to confirm their claim on the child. The ceremony also formally establishes relations of cooperation and inheritance between the child and its mother's brothers. The dominance of paternal interest is moderated by the fact that, if they wish, the mother's kin can express their continuing interest in a child by contributing to the wealth distributed at the initiation. The mother's kin may even reverse the distribution of goods, giving in their own name to the father's kin. If the child's mother is from a family of aggressive and ambitious men they are quite likely to act on these options and so mitigate the claims of the father's group by putting forth their own.


The normative statement of male dominance is expressed in the saying that a woman spends all her life under the hands of men. As a child she is subject to her father. He may arrange a marriage for her that suits his interests and those of his sons, while her own wishes need be given no consideration. Before a woman marries, her father has the right, as well, to control any wealth that she produced and to supervise the redistribution of any goods -- shell money, pigs, etc. -- that she might receive as ceremonial gifts. After marriage, a woman is said to become a part of her husband's family, and her interests should be subordinate to his. Her property and labour are under his control and she is to be submissive to his authority.

In fact, personal histories, oral tradition, and myth suggest that despite the unambiguous ideology of male dominance, ambitious and determined women have long had great personal autonomy. People speak with admiration of grandmothers who joined the men to feed spirits, an activity usually forbidden to women on pain of death. Women laugh about their own elopments in defiance of fathers' carefully laid plans, and men lament the stubborn determination of daughters who successfully resist distasteful marriage arrangements made without their consent. Throughout this century Lusi women have engaged in love affairs or eloped with young men of their choice without their fathers' permission -- sometimes with the connivance of their mothers. Weddings are sometimes still arranged in the traditional manner, but where such marriages are successful they are almost always initiated by the young couple and follow negotiations between both of the parents of the bride and groom, mothers as well as fathers.

Regardless, too, of the assertion that fathers should and do control the results of their daughters' production, unmarried women own and often control their own property. They make and receive pandanus mats, shell money, pigs, and other wealth items in ceremonial distributions, and they have as their own any cash they earn -- usually from making and selling copra from coconut trees given to them or planted by them. If the relation between a girl and her father is warm, then she may very well redistribute her wealth according to his instructions. If she chooses to spend her money on herself or promote her own desires and interests, her father may threaten or beat her. However, the possibility that she may elope, run away, or even commit suicide if she considers herself to be severely misused inhibits her father's full expression of his wrath (see Counts 1980b for a discussion of suicide by Kaliai women).

The degree of economic independence enjoyed by married women seems to be a matter of individual personality. The gifts that a woman receives in ceremonial distributions and the cash that she earns through the sale of vegetables at market, by cash cropping, or by working outside the village belong to her. In fact, most married women speak of "our pigs", referring to the interest shared jointly by wife and husband. Married couples usually confer and cooperate in deciding how wealth items are to be distributed, for they have a common interest in ceremonial recognition of their children and in keeping peace with both sets of affines. To our knowledge, the only violent quarrels between wife and husband over distribution of wealth items, in the village where we did most of our research, occurred in a polygynous union. Each wife was concerned that no wealth belonging to her be used to benefit the children or kin of the other wife, and neither hesitated to complain loudly or fight with the other woman if she thought her rights had been violated.

Most married women spend the cash that they earn without consultation with their husbands, but the money usually goes for food or clothing for the children or for the maintenance of the entire household. One affluent and well educated woman who spent the money she earned as a teacher on food, clothing and luxuries for herself alone -- announcing to her husband that if and his children wanted to eat meat, he could buy it -- was roundly criticized by both women and men. The thing about her behaviour that seemed to upset people the most was her violation of the first and primary responsibility of motherhood: to feed her children. This responsibility, which defines the role of the Lusi mother, is grounded in the traditional theory of conception to which we will now turn.


As is clear from the narrative describing the origin of human fertility, the Lusi recognize that conception occurs as the result of copulation. There is disagreement about how many sexual acts are required for a successful pregnancy. Educated young people assert that only one copulation is required, while most older people say that multiple acts are required for the proper growth of a fetus. The traditional hypothesis of fetal development is that children are built bit by bit, starting with the pelvic region and working up the back to the head. The soft spot at the front of the skull is evidence that the face and forehead are the last parts to be finished. While the soft spot is open the fetus is unable to open its eyes or mouth. It closes and the eyes and mouth open shortly before labour begins. The notion that the fetus grows as a result of multiple acts of intercourse seems to prevail, for the Lusi -- even the young people who assert that only one act is required -- generally agree that it is possible for a person to have more than one father. Where paternity is uncertain, the father can be identified by the time the child reaches puberty because, as he matures, a person increasingly exhibits the characteristics of his father, particularly his carriage, his walk, and to a lesser extent his facial features. It is even possible to identify the two fathers of a child, but where three or more men are involved the paternal substances are so mixed as to make positive identification impossible.

There is disagreement about the contribution that each parent makes to fetal development just as there is about the number of copulations that are required for successful pregnancy. Younger informants argue that a person inherits bone, blood, and spirit bilaterally and that a child may resemble either of his parents. They cite as an example a child residing in Kilenge who is the product of the marriage of a Kilenge father and a Buka mother. The child is said to have skin that is spotted: red after his father and black after his mother. When they are speaking of the children of particular parents, older people agree. But they, women as well as men, also claim the validity of the generalization that an infant is composed entirely of aitama aisuru 'his father's water'. Like the Bena Bena (Langness 1974: 202), many Lusi do not believe that a man can be sterile. The term opon 'sterile' is applied only to females, and men have indignantly rejected the possibility of male sterility when it has been suggested to them by the Kaliai clinic nurse. The semen is channeled through the umbilical cord, which is itself composed of coagulated seminal fluid, to the growing fetus. In this scheme, the mother is essentially an incubator who contributes nothing substantial to the developing infant.

In spite of the connection made in the story of Titikolo, our consultants did not maintain that female sexual maturity and fertility must be initiated by penetration as a result of sexual intercourse. However, there seems today to be a greater time spread between a girl's first menstruation and her marriage than there was forty or fifty years ago, and people's ideas about this may have changed. Todays grandmothers say that they did not begin to menstruate until their breasts had fallen, and point to girls of about eighteen as examples. Some of these women married in their early or mid-teens, before they had their first menstrual period. However, women who were prepubescent at marriage say that they became as daughters in their husband's parents' homes and did not begin married life until after their first menstruation. Today's village girls become pubescent when they are between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. Thereafter they appear to have an active but discreetly managed sexual life, although most do not marry until they are in their late teens or early twenties. Whatever the precise connection between intercourse and female maturation, other associations implied in the Titikolo myth are part of the Lusi idea system.

Areca nuts, which are central to the story, are associated by the Lusi with masculinity. This is frequently alluded to in oral literature. In one myth, a boy's destruction of his grandfather's areca palm results in the extinction of the entire patriline (Counts 1980a). In another narrative areca nuts transform themselves into aulu 'masked figures' representing patrilineal ancestors. Areca nuts are also explicitly associated with promiscuity and seduction. A person wishing to have a love affair will offer areca nuts, sometimes laced with love magic, to his desired lover. For this reason, parents try to prevent their nubile unmarried daughters from chewing areca. In the old days, people told us (contradicting the myth), no woman chewed areca nuts. The reason usually given for female abstinence was that women "didn't like them", the same explanation given today for Lusi women's abstinence from alcohol. When we observed to one elderly friend that modern Lusi women obviously enjoy betel, he told us the Titikolo story by way of additional explanation. The association between areca nuts and male sexuality is also illustrated in the saying that a woman whose husband gives her half of a double areca nut will bear twins, and in the taboo prohibiting a woman who has recently given birth from chewing areca mixture. Women who violate this prohibition are said to regain their strength slowly. There may be a metaphorical relationship between postpartum restrictions on areca chewing and postpartum sex taboos.


Restrictions on postpartum sexual activity are justified, in part, by the belief that semen is potentially dangerous to a fetus or to a nursing child. Older women maintain that sexual intercourse should be discontinued after the fetus quickens, for it is then well enough established to continue development on its own, and further additions of semen might harm it. The embarrassment and reticence of young women prevented us from questioning them about their own personal lives, but generally they agreed that sexual activity is governed by the woman's preference rather than by abstract theory. Some women apparently discontinue sexual activity when they feel their baby's movements; others continue as long as they feel comfortable, perhaps until shortly before delivery.

Ideally a married couple is not supposed to resume intercourse until their youngest child is three or four years old: old enough to tell his parents of his dreams; to try to spear fish in the shallows; to be more interested in his friends and his play than in his mother's breast. Early resumption of sexual activity that results in pregnancy is harmful to both mother and child. The mother is weakened by too frequent pregnancy and the child suffers for he must be weaned early. Children weaned before the age of two are said to be sickly and slow to develop, and the earlier this occurs the more serious is the handicap. Even if a mother does not become pregnant, an infant is likely to become ill if its mother is sexually active. Semen enters the breast milk by tubes that connect the woman's womb and breast, and the baby becomes ill when it ingests semen with its milk. This is particularly true if the semen belongs to a man other than the child's father. For this reason, some young mothers do not leave their infants in the care of other lactating women, for they say they cannot be sure how careful others are and whether their milk is "good". Clearly the Kaliai, like the Kafe, consider semen to be polluting, or contaminating (Faithorn 1975). A child who is ingesting it, especially if the semen is not from the child's own father, is characteristically thin, sickly, and fretful. If a woman's faithfulness to her husband is suspect, and her child is often ill and fretful, the infant's behaviour may be cited as evidence of her adulterous activity.

Although the Lusi do not share the extreme fear of contamination that is reported for some people of the New Guinea Highlands and for the Sengseng and Kaulong of New Britain (Chowning and Goodale 1971; Chowning 1980; Goodale 1980 and 1981), they do consider the fluids and odors of sexuality to be dangerous to certain categories of liminal and vulnerable persons. The odors of menstrual blood and of people who have recently had sexual intercourse may be fatal to seriously ill people, to new-born infants, and to newly planted taro. These odors and fluids may cause infection in children who have recently had ritual incisions and whose ceremonially cut ear lobes and penes are still raw and sore. Children who have their ear lobes cut without ceremony and people with ordinary fresh cuts or wounds are not vulnerable. The Lusi are scrupulous about personal cleanliness and usually wash immediately after sexual activity. Unwashed persons and menstruating women should avoid new gardens and vulnerable people.

Occasionally a bigman will isolate his first-born daughter on the occasion of her first menstruation until he can present her, together with wealth and pigs, at a ceremony honouring her womanhood. (The Lusi's lack of preoccupation with female contamination is clear from the fact that the structure in which a menstruating girl is isolated is placed high in the air in the centre of the hamlet, above the heads of men.) Otherwise, menstruating women are not isolated, nor do they refrain from cooking, general gardening, or other normal activities. All fertile women should take care not to step over consumables -- tobacco, areca nuts, food -- for these things would be rendered inedible for everyone, including the offending woman herself. A menstruating woman must also take care not to allow her blood to enter any food or water, for one who ingests things contaminated in this way will contract lung disease. Everyone is susceptible to this type of contamination, called mali. Mali is the only potentially lethal poisin 'poison' or used by Lusi women. It is not 'sorcery', the other gloss for the Tok Pisin word poisin, and it is not classed with other forms of sorcery in the Lusi language. It differs from sorcery in that it is an inherent quality shared by all women of child-bearing age rather than being an acquired skill; it requires no spells, secret knowledge, or paraphernalia; and it may be inflicted unwittingly by a careless woman on those she loves or even on herself.

The Lusi share with other New Guinea people (for example the Etoro, Kelly 1976; the Umed, Gell 1975; the Kaulong, Goodale 1980 and 1981; and the Sengseng of New Britain, Chowning 1980) the notion that parents reproduce the next generation only by engaging in acts that lead to their deterioration, decline, and eventual death. Elderly men assert that in their youth men feared that sexual activity would cause them to be weak, sickly, dessicated, and prematurely aged. A man who married before he was mature enough to grow a full beard would never achieve his full potential of growth and ability because his sexual acts would drain his strength into his children. In order to avoid premature deterioration, all initiated males slept in men's houses and ideally had sexual relations only with their wives and only at carefully spaced intervals. Older Lusi men would likely agree with Lindenbaum that "Fear of pollution is a form of ideological birth control. Fear of female contamination thus declines with the introduction of new technologies and food sources" (1972: 248). These men, perhaps remembering the "paleoterrific" good old days, assert that these practices together with a high infant mortality rate kept the population low so that there was always an abundance of land and resources. Today, they complain, young men think that the care offered by the Kaliai medical sub-centre will protect them from female contamination and so they sleep in women's houses and do not restrain their desire. The results of this uninhibited sexuality, together with the decline in the infant mortality rate as a result of medical treatment, are too- frequent pregnancies which threaten the health of both mothers and children, and a population growth that the elderly fear will lead to land scarcity and hunger. These same old men, facing the possibility ten years ago that the government might decide to institute a resettlement scheme in the Kaliai region, were exhorting young people to have many children and 'fill up the land' lest it be lost to foreigners.

The Lusi who declare that fetuses are composed entirely of their father's 'water' or 'essence' also say that a mother becomes related to her child by the act of feeding it. The baby-talk name for 'mother' is tutu, a short form of turuturu 'breast'. The single most important act that defines the role of a Lusi woman is the act of giving food. Daughters are expected to feed their elderly dependent fathers; wives and sisters feed their husbands, brothers, and important guests; mothers are responsible for feeding their children. The theme of the daughter, wife, or mother who gardens and cooks food is one that runs throughout Kaliai oral literature, and it is the ultimate measure of the proper behaviour of a woman. No statement more damning can be made about a woman than to say that she allows her dependents to go hungry.

Men's kinship to their children is established by their giving father's water, women's by giving food. But the importance of food in creating parental relations is emphasized by the fact that men who have not given of their essence, their 'water' may become fathers by giving food. The creation of fatherhood by nurturance is one of the responsibilities of adopting males, and is the subject of several Kaliai folktales. Adoption is very common in Kaliai and anyone, including an unmarried person, may adopt a child, usually the son or daughter of a sibling. An adopting parent of either sex has two responsibilities: to give the child a name and to provide food. While an infant is still nursing, the adoptive parent indirectly feeds it by providing food to the lactating mother. Meat and fish are especially appropriate gifts, for these foods are considered to be strengthening and the Lusi say that food given to the lactating mother is also consumed by the nursing child in its mother's milk. Failure to carry out either of these obligations will nullify the adoption.

Just as a mother or adoptive father creates a relationship to the child by feeding it, other relatives -- especially mother's brothers -- establish their ties of kinship by providing food for the child. The prefered food gift from mother's brother to sister's child is the drinking coconut. Men bring these coconuts to their sister starting soon after she has given birth: women say that the production of breast milk is stimulated by drinking a lot of liquid, especially fish soup and coconut 'water'. Indeed the equivalence of mother's milk, father's 'water' or essence, and coconut 'water' is more than analogy, for all are referred to by a single term in Lusi: -suru, as in aitama aisuru 'father's water' or semen, .turu aisuru 'breast milk', and niu aisuru 'coconut liquid' or 'water'. Apart from a physical resemblance, what these three substances share is their ability to create ties of kinship. They are, in fact, the stuff of shared substance, and father's 'water' does truly equal mother's milk.

Relatives frequently plant a coconut palm in a child's name at its birth so that it will drink and eat many coconuts and grow strong, and coconut liquid is used as a substitute for milk in feeding children whose mothers are unable to nurse them because of illness or pregnancy. Coconuts also seem to stand for uterine relationships and the female principle. There are a number of narratives in which coconuts are transformed into women or in which women explicitly claim a close physical relationship with coconuts (see Counts 1980a for analysis of one such story), and a man's coconuts are inherited after his death by his sister's children. When a woman dies her coconut palms are inherited by her own children. Clearly the kin-creating essence of breast and coconut pass through the same channels to establish maternal and uxorial relationships. In contrast, the rights to use and dispose of tracts of land owned by the patrikin group are inherited patrilineally, and a man's own children inherit his garden produce -- particularly his taro gardens. Recall that the odors of sexuality blight young taro and young, newly initiated children who belong to their father's kin group.


So far in this discussion of Lusi ideas about conception and reproduction we have emphasized the traditional notions held by the grandparental generation of Lusi speakers. These are not rigidly held doctrines, nor do they constitute part of a tightly structured, internally consistent ideology. Traditional ideas are being modified and restructured by young Lusi who have been taught radically different notions by church and school. What is more, the traditional set of ideas contains internal inconsistencies that would seem to prevent its elevation to the status of rigid dogma. As we will show, when the chips are down and hard decisions must be made, ideological considerations may be considerably less significant in influencing behaviour than are practicalities and the personal histories of the individuals involved.

In the first place, the asserted dominance of paternal substance in the formation of the child is diluted by other influences. It may, for example, be overridden by the effect of iriao 'bush spirits' on the fetus. If parents have sexual intercourse on the territory belonging to a bush spirit, and the spirit witnesses the act, it is likely to enter the woman's womb and imprint itself on the fetus. Such children are deformed. Older Lusi attributed congenital deformity to two possible causes: the influence of bush spirits, or the effect on the developing fetus of its father's ownership of sorcery. A sorcerer keeps his paraphernalia in his house or personal hand basket. The evil power emanating from this material may cause very young children to sicken and die, pregnant women and very old people to become ill, and fetuses to be congenitally deformed. The power damages the fetus, both by contaminating the semen which goes into its makeup and by being absorbed through the mother's abdominal walls. In this case, male sorcery is like female menstrual contamination: the malevolence and contamination of both may injure others without the intent of the agent.

Lusi of all ages say that life begins after the second missed menstrual period when it is certain that pregnancy is established. For them, the fetus has the spiritual components that are definitive of and restricted to human beings: -tautau 'essence' or 'self', and -anunu 'shadow' or 'dream'. This is true even of those subsequently aborted or born deformed. Before the establishment of the Kaliai mission, which forbade the practice, Lusi buried deformed babies at birth. At that time they may well have had another opinion about the humanity of such children.

Another set of ideas which suggests that the contributions of each parent to the substance of a developing fetus and child are not as separate and pure as statements of the ideal aver, is the set of rules prohibiting certain foods to both parents during pregnancy and lactation. The list of these foods is extensive, with some being named by only one or two persons and with people disagreeing as to the effects on the child should the parents ignore the taboos. Two examples of prohibitions that people widely agree on are that neither parent should eat wallaby while the mother is pregnant (the child will either have convulsions or underdeveloped legs if the creature is eaten), and neither parent should eat flying fox (the giant fruit bat) while the child is nursing. While it is possible that it is the anomalous nature of this animal -- it acts like a bird but is not -- that concerns people, Kaliai fear that the nursing child of parents who consume it will be mentally defective, asthmatic, have tremors as the bat does, and be unable to sit erect.

As we have already observed, Lusi stress that food eaten by a lactating mother also nourishes her infant. The placing of food prohibitions on both parents during gestation and lactation strongly implies that the Lusi at least suspect that (1) substance passes from a pregnant mother to her child, in contradiction to the statement that the baby is composed entirely of paternal stuff, and (2) that paternal substance continues to affect the child after birth, probably in the form of semen which is ingested by the child with its mother's milk. This suggests that the ideal of postpartum abstinence is not, and never has been reality. The food prohibitions are a tacit acknowledgement of this fact.

Older informants insist that food taboos were once taken seriously. Today they are ignored by most people. One male elder stated that when they were pregnant (that's right, they were pregnant: "mipela laik karim pikinini) with their first child they decided to test the prohibitions and experimentally ate the tabooed foods. When the child suffered no ill effects, they decided the rules had no basis in fact and thereafter they ignored them.

The leaks in the Lusi's ideological explanation of conception do not seem to be of great concern to the people themselves. One reason for their indifference is their pragmatism, for when decisions must be made ideology is cited to support a person's intended or accomplished action or to provide corroborating evidence for assumptions about an individual's probable behaviour. Ideology may also precipitate behaviour. The young mother who refused to allow other women to nurse her baby because she feared that their milk might be spoiled was predicating her behaviour on her beliefs regarding the effect of semen on breast milk and, therefore, on nursing infants. Nonetheless, as far as we are able to ascertain, ideas about conception and reproduction are more often cited after the fact to justify or prove behaviour than before the fact to determine it. We have also noted that if a woman is suspected of having an adulterous affair, the chronic illness and fretfulness of her nursing child will be cited as evidence justifying suspicions about her activities. Similarly, the notion that multiple acts of sexual intercourse are required for successful pregnancy is not relevant unless there is a question of paternity or of adulterous behaviour, and then the woman's personal history and reputation are likely to be weighed as heavily as is ideology. For example, one young woman whose behaviour was above reproach had missed only one menstrual period when her husband was killed. She eventually delivered a normal infant, and although Lusi women do not consider pregnancy to be definitely established until after the second menses has been missed, there was no suggestion that the infant was composed of paternal substance belonging to anyone but her husband or that she had engaged in sexual relations with other men after her husband's death. In contrast, the presence of two children borne by a young widow (allegedly) to a married neighbour was evidence to scandalized villagers that the couple was conducting an ongoing torrid affair.

The Lusi are not the only West New Britain people who subordinate ideology to practical concerns and interests. Ann Chowning notes that the Kove, who are the Kaliai's eastern neighbours, also think that more than one copulation is required for pregnancy (Chowning n.d.: 5). However, Chowning also reports that one Kove woman whose husband left her when she was newly pregnant claimed to have "grown" the child herself by substituting food for semen, while another woman whose husband had deserted her early in her pregnancy used her greater contribution to the composition of the fetus to counter successfully her husband's claims and retain custody of the child.


The Lusi-Kaliai norm of paternal and male dominance is reflected in their ideology regarding conception and fetal development and in their social organization. La Fontaine has observed that (1978: 7-8):

The features of human biology which are essential to sexual differentiation are physiological differences. The opposition rests on a perception of the specialized reproductive functions of the sexes and their essential complementarity. . . . However, the 'biological' facts are a selection from the natural process and their formulation into a cultural concept ignores others which are significant. There is no biological demonstration of the physical link between father and child; paternity is thus a purely social construct. Further, the attachment of women to their children is related to the physiology of suckling, a fact which often receives cultural recognition. No such attachment necessarily binds men to their children, or indeed to women beyond their period of sexual attraction. From this we must conclude that the joint care of offspring and social responsibility for them is social in nature and must be more firmly imposed on the male than on the female.

The Lusi recognize a different kind of biological tie between a child and each of its parents. Each parent shares essence with the child, and the essence of each differs substantially and metaphorically. The social construction of biological fact is reflected in the complementarity of social ties that link each parent and the child. For instance, unborn children are composed of their father's 'water' or paternal essence. They also share membership in the father's patri-kin group, wealth, and disposal rights in land owned by the kin group. Socially, fathers dominate their children, wives are subjected to husbands, and ideally men have authority over women. We should, however, heed La Fontaine's caution that "... the 'power of men' is a myth for men do not exercise power collectively over women; some men exercise power over women and some over other men. Masculine identity is of itself no guarantee of power" (La Fontaine 1978: 14).

The biological essence shared by mother and child is of a different order that complements and balances the paternal contribution. A woman and her relatives share maternal essence or breast milk with her child and establish kinship to it by suckling or by the act of nurturance in which the child is given coconut liquid, another form of maternal essence which is inherited through the mother's line. A child also inherits from its mother's kin usufruct (that is, nurturant) rights in land belonging to the maternal patri-kin group.

We caution that the biological analogy should not be pushed too far because a man, for instance an adopting father, can establish paternity by the act of nurturance, and the mother's relatives can participate in the wealth-sharing and ceremonial distributions usually reserved to the paternal group. There is a biosocial model of conception and reproduction in which biological essence and social ties are specialized, complementary, and interdependent: mother's milk and coconut liquid added to father's water combine at different stages in human development to create a viable fetus, a healthy child, and an ongoing society.

However, this model can be, and is, manipulated. The system leaks. Ideology explains and justifies accomplished fact more frequently than it precipitates behaviour. There are inconsistencies in the philosophical system, and a gap exists between theory and practice. These systemic leaks, together with the Lusi's pragmatic lack of concern with doctrinal purity, give them the flexibility to adapt to and accommodate the new ideas introduced from outside, and to balance the norm of male dominance with the fact of considerable female autonomy.


Chowning, Ann. n.d. Family Fertility Decisions: The Kove. Mimeo

Chowning, Ann. 1980 Culture and Biology Among the Sengseng of New Britain. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 89: 7-31.

Chowning, Ann and Jane C. Goodale. 1971 The Contaminating Women. Paper presented at American Anthropological Association meetings, Washington, D.C.

Counts, Dorothy Ayers. 1980a Akro and Gagandewa: A Melanesian Myth. Journal of the Polynesian Society 89: 33-65.

Counts, Dorothy Ayers. 1980b Fighting Back is Not the Way: Suicide and the Women of Kaliai. American Ethnologist 7: 332-351.

Faithorn, Elizabeth. 1975 The Concept of Pollution Among the Kafe of the Papua New Guinea Highlands. Pp. 127-140 in R. Reiter (ed.) Toward an Anthropology of Women, New York and London: Monthly Review Press.

Gell, Alfred. 1975 Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries: Umeda Society, Language and Ritual. University of London: The Athlone Press and New Jersey: Humanities Press Inc.

Goodale, Jane. 1980. Gender, Sexuality and Marriage: A Kaulong Model of Nature and Culture. Pp. 119-142 in C. MacCormack and M. Strathern (eds.) Nature, Culture and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 119-142.

Goodale, Jane. 1981 Siblings as Spouses: The Reproduction and Replacement of Kaulong Society. Pp. 275-306 in M. Marshall (ed.) Siblingship in Oceania: Studies in the Meaning of Kin Relations. A.S.A.O. Monograph 8. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kelly, Raymond C. 1976 Witchcraft and Sexual Relations: An Exploration in the Social and Semantic Implications of the Structure of Belief. Pp. 36-53 in P. Brown and G. Buchbinder (eds.) Man and Woman in the New Guinea Highlands, Special Publication of the American Anthropological Association, Volume 8: 36-53.

La Fontaine, J.S. 1978 Introduction. Pp. 1-20 in J.S. La Fontaine (ed.) Sex and Age as Principles of Social Differentiation. A.S.A. Monograph 17, London, New York, San Francisco: Academic Press.

Langness, L. L 1974 Ritual, Power and Male Dominance in the New Guinea Highlands Ethos 2: 181-212.

Lindenbaum, Shirley. 1972 Sorcerers, Ghosts, and Polluting Women: An Analysis of Religious Belief and Population Control. Ethnology 11: 241-253.

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