Dani is a somewhat pejorative term used by outsiders to describe groups around the Baliem Valley, the main tourist area of Papua. Also known as the Akhuni, Konda, Ndano and Pesegem, they have traditionally lived in circular thatch-roof huts and subsist primarily on sweet potatoes. The different Dani groups have different languages customs and styles of clothing. Some are former Stone-Age cannibals. There about 100,000 Dani. [Source: Karl Heider, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]
The Dani remained unknown to the outside world until the 1930s. When explorers discovered a Dani tribe in 1938 they had no metal tools. They used wooden spears, bows and arrows and stone tools. The first permanent contacts were not made until the 1950s. Michael Rockefeller had been with the Dani during the last great Dani tribal war. In the 1960s the Dutch government launched a program of pacification that was continued by the Indonesian government. ~
Grand Valley Dani of the upper Baliem River and the Western Dani are the largest Dani groups. The Eastern Dani are known as the Jale. They tend to be small and have traditionally lived in rougher terrain. They average only 4 foot nine in height and have Negroid feature but sometimes have green eyes and reddish blonde hair. The highlands where they live is covered by jungle and sharp rocks. It sometimes can take days just to cover a few miles. ~
The Dani have traditionally been animists who believed in local gods and water spirits. Particular attention was given to the restless ghosts of the recently deceased. A great effort was made to ensure they were placated so they didn’t cause illnesses, troubles or create imbalances, which may or may not be rectified by men with special powers. [Source: Karl Heider, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991)]
In the 1950s a cargo cult swept through the area followed by a wave of Christian missionaries. Many Dani have converted to Christianity. Journalist Thomas O'Neill observed a Sunday sermon attended by several hundred Dani swaying as if in a trance as a Dani deacon in an open-necked shirt shouted out: "On earth your grass may dry out. Your river may dry out. But in heaven it is always good. There is no fighting. You don't have to hunt or garden. Everything good comes to you." [Source: Thomas O'Neill, National Geographic, February, 1996 ☼]
Dani Funerals and Ceremonies
The Dani have traditionally believed that the soul-like edai-egen resides below the sternum and develops about the age of two. Serious illness causes it retreat to the backbone. Curing ceremonies to get it to return to its original position. Death is believed to be caused by magic or witchcraft At death the edai-egen becomes a ghost that must be appeased so it goes into the forest where it can cause no harm. As an expression of grief women often cover themselves in mud or clay.
The dead are usually cremated but sometimes mummified. Some mummies are 200 years and brought for tourist who pay to see them and photograph them. After arriving at a village 12 miles from Wamena, Marvin Howe wrote in the New York Times: "The village elders...brought out their dearest treasure: the smoked mummy of a former paramount chief. It was a hideous hunched figure with huge gaping eyes and mouth and would have done well in a horror film."
Many ceremonies have traditionally been associated with warfare and placating ghosts. Warfare itself has been described as a ceremony to placate ghosts. During times of war there were frequent ceremonies, including cremation ceremonies for people who died in battle. In these ceremonies the fingers of girls were sometimes chopped off as sacrifices to the ghosts of the dead people. Friends of the dead sometimes chopped of the tip their fingers or part of their ear as an expression of grief. The custom of chopping off body parts is now banned. These ceremonies as well as marriage and funeral ceremonies were often capped off by a big pig feast.
The main Dani social units are village compounds and alliances. Each alliance is composed of confederations, which are often associated with areas and have up to a thousand people. The primarily purpose of the confederations is to pool resources for pig feasts and other ceremonies and create a military organization that can be used for defense and to wage war. See Villages, Below. [Source: Karl Heider Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991)]
Compounds and confederation at led by non-hereditary “big men.” They are generally set up in an informal, consensual basis among men of status, often determined by how many pigs and wives they possess. The leaders of the confederation are involved in and preside over ceremonies, organizing pig feasts and waging war. ~
The Dani world is very rough. Describing the Dani, explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison wrote, "There was certainly room for an infusion of the milk of human kindness into heir way of life since of their traditional practices—such as cutting of fingers when anyone died, their methods of abortion, punishment and revenge seemed unnecessarily crude and cruel." Boys go through an initiation ceremony in which their septum is pierced.
The Dani are regarded as friendly but shy, When they greet a foreigner they often uses a long handshake followed by holding the other person’s hand for some period of time.
Dani Revenge Wars and Cannibalism
Traditional Dani revenge wars were conducted to seek retribution and to appease the ancestors and earn good luck.Karl Heider wrote in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania: “Until the 1960s, inter-alliance was endemic in the Grand Valley. Each alliance was at war with one or more of its neighbors. Wars broke out when the accumulation of unresolved disputes became too great. A war cold last for a decade. Then, as the original grievance began to be forgotten, fighting would slack off. At that point an alliance that had built up in resolved inter-confederation grievances could split apart, resulting in re-formation of ties and alliances. The confederation itself remained relatively stable, but alliance groupings shifted.” [Source: Karl Heider Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991)]
“It was the ritual phase of the war that lasted so long. Once begun, it was fueled by the belief that ghost of the killed demanded revenge. Since both sides were Dani. with virtually the same culture, and the same ghost beliefs, the killing went on back and forth. In the ritual phase of the war formal battles alternated between surprise raids and ambushes at the rate of about one incident every couple of weeks. Battles might bring a 1,000 armed men together for a few hours on a battleground. A raid might be carried out by a handful of men, slipping across no-man’s land hoping to kill an unsuspecting enemy.” ~
“A war would begin with a brief, secular outburst that had no connection with unplacated ghosts. Some confederations of alliance would turn against their supposed allies and make a surprise attack on villages, killing men, women and children indiscriminately. The alliance would be broke apart, and both sides withdraw from a kilometer-wide area, which would become a fallow no-man’s land on which periodic battles of the ritual phase of the war would be fought. By the 1960s, the Dutch and then the Indonesians were able to abolish formal battles of the ritual phase of the war but sporadic raids and skirmished continue in isolated parts of the Grand Valley.” ~
Most battles had few casualties. But Dani sneak attacks sometimes resulted in the destruction of entire villages and deaths of hundreds of people at a time. The Dani also have "Nothing fighting" The Indonesian government carried a largely successful campaign to eradicate the revenge war and substitute them with mock battles during festivals. Fighting is believed to still occur from time to time. A clash between the Wollesi and Hitigima districts in 1998 left 15 people dead. The were other reports of tribal fighting in 1990s.
Cannibalism has also been reported among the Dani. Jale believed that by eating an enemy his soul was swallowed and annihilated and his vital energy passed on to the man that ate him. The liver and heart were the most sought after pieces from a courageous hunter, the brains of wise men were praised and the legs of fast runners were believed to pass on their attribute to the person eating them. part. Some scientist believe that in the absence of many game animals, human flesh was also eaten as a source of protein. [Source: "Endangered People" by Art Davidson]
Dani Marriage, Men and Women
Dani men traditionally cleared the land and maintained the irrigation systems that drains off water in the wet season and supplies it in the dry season. Women plant, harvest and sell the sweet potato crop and transport items such as firewood, water and vegetables on building planks on their heads. Among the Jale, both sexes farmed while , males hunted bird and game while females trapped insects, lizards and frogs. [Source: Karl Heider Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991)]
Men and women have traditionally lived apart. The Dani have special huts for women and children and larger huts for men. Both are generally void of furniture with residents sleeping tightly packed together. Often times the most comfortable and spacious part of the compound is the rectangular pig barn. Children are allowed to run free within reason. Toilet training is casual. Disciplining, even scolding, is rare. Children learn through participation not formal instruction.
Dani marriages can be both arranged or love matches and are generally between neighbors. Weddings have traditionally only been held during times of great feasts which are every four to six years. They initiate or continue an alliance between families that involves periodic exchanges of goods such as pigs, shell bands and sacred slate stones. A man must generally give the family of the girl he plans to marry four or five pigs. [Source: Karl Heider Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991)]
Newlywed couples generally live initially with the groom’s parents but are expected to establish their own household reasonably soon after marriage. After a child is born, sex is taboo for two to five years, apparently to allow a child the exclusive use of he mother’s milk. Divorce is easy to obtain but many prefer long term separation
In the 1990s about half of Dani men practiced polygamy. Some had several wives. The Grand Valley Dani appear to have remarkably little interest in sex. Married couples often abstain from sex for many years after having a child. This is not necessarily the case with other Dani groups.
Dani tools have traditionally been made of stone, bone, pig tusk, wood and bamboo. Stone used to make axes and adze was often obtained from other groups through trading. Jale men use bows, arrows and hatchets for weapons. Hatchet also doubled as gardening tools. The Dani traditionally had no pottery or cloth, even bark cloth. Sting and material for skirts and nets was obtained from the bark of trees. Container were made from gourds. Body armor was made from rattan. Arrows were unfletched, with notched and barbed (but not poisoned) tips. By the 1980s, cloth, metal axes, knives and shovels were widely used and thrown-away plastic bottles were used instead of gourds. [Source: Karl Heider Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]
Food has traditionally been cooked underneath rocks in "pots" fashioned from folded grass. Women and uninitiated boys are forbidden from eating a wild variety a fast-growing sugar cane which is believed t have magical powers. Salt is collected from saltwater wells by using dried banana skins to absorb the salt from the water and burning them and using the ashes as salt. ~
The Dani were remarkably healthy until malaria and venereal disease were introduced to their homelands. Still they had an average life span of 60 years in the 1980s which was high among tribal people in New Guinea. The treatment for headaches is rubbing leaves on the forehead. To treat serious battle wounds, blood was drawn from the chest and arms. ~
Dani Villages and Homes
Many Dani still live in their traditional kampungs, or compounds, set up around a men’s houses, usually on the floor the Grand Valley on the upper Baliem river. Other important buildings include woman’s houses and common cook houses and pig sties. Structures are linked by fences and open onto a common courtyard. The compounds vary greatly in size. Small ones contain a single nuclear family. Large ones may house thirty or more family members. A typical one is home to four men and 20 people. [Source: Karl Heider Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]
Compounds usually have less than 100 people and often serve as social units that are often more important that even nuclear families or extended families. Even so the composition is often unstable with people coming and going. The larger a compound is the less likely it is to be a stable social unit. ~
Traditional Dani dome-roofed houses are built of wood and thatched with grass. Describing a typical Dani house, Marvin Howe wrote in the New York Times, the "thatched hut was about 12 feet in diameter, and made in the usual fashion with posts planted in a circle and planks tied to them with strips of rattan, and covered by a hive of pandanus thatch. There was no furniture, only the bare mud floor, where a fire was built at night to heat the place. A hole in the ceiling led to the dark windowless attic where the women and younger children slept." The Jale have traditionally live in huts and the men meet it long houses.
Dani men go around naked except for a koteka (penis gourd), and occasionally some bird of paradise feathers, cowry shells or pig tusks or a hair net as a an ornament. The penis gourds are kept erect with thread that is attached to the top and looped around the waist. Jale men wear long penis sheaths and rattan skirts that look like a bunch of skinny hula hoops piled on top of one another. In the 1970s, the Indonesian government tried to eradicate the penis gourds but the effort was largely a failure. [Source: Karl Heider, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991)]
Unmarried women have traditionally worn grass skirts while married women wore a skirt made of fiber coils or seeds strung together and hung below the abdomen to cover the buttocks. Older Dani women often go topless. Younger women began to cover their breasts several decades ago. Women of all ages are often seen carrying bark string backpacks with their heads in which they carry children, piglets, sweet potatoes or other items.
To keep themselves warm on cold nights, Dani have traditionally rubbed pig fat on their bodies instead of wearing clothes. In an efforts to get the Dani to cover their naked bodies aid workers for the Indonesian government air-dropped dresses and trousers.
The Dani have no real art other than their clothes and body adornments made with fruits, feathers and shells. Story telling and making arrow points are admired skills. Dani crafts include kapak (stone blade axes), with the best ones made from blue stone; sekan (intricately-woven rattan bracelets; milak (arm and head bands); mikak (necklaces made from cowry shells, feathers and bone); jaga and thal (grass skirts); suale (head decorations often made with pig tusks); and noken (bark string bags). The latter are colored with vegetable dyes and made from the inner bark of certain kinds of trees and shrubs.
Dani Agriculture, Food and Pigs
Sweet potatoes make up about 90 percent of the Dani diet. The Dani recognize 70 different types, some of which can only be eaten by certain group members such as elderly men and pregnant women. Ancestors are traditionally given the first sweet potatoes produced from a field. [Source: Karl Heider, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]
Sweet potatoes are raised in ditched fields with the preparation of the fields done by men with fire-hardened digging sticks and the planting, weeding and harvesting done by women. Ditches are used to divert water to the fields and get rid of excess water during heavy rains. There is no regular season and the sweet potatoes can be harvested throughout the year. Fields are periodically left fallow. ~
Other crops include taro, yams, sugar cane, bananas, edible grass, ginger and tobacco. Pandanus and fruits and other items are gathered from the forest. The area where the Dani live is densely populated and there are few opportunities for hunting. The Dani generally don’t fish but sometimes eat crayfish they collect from streams. ~
Pig are a symbol of wealth and major source of protein They live on household garbage and forage in forests and fallow fields. Pigs were worth about $125 a piece in the 1990s and were often the targets of thefts and the source of conflicts.
Traditional trade items among the Dani include various kinds of seashells, bird of paradise feathers, cassowary feathers, wood for spears and stones for axes. These items have often been exchanged for pigs and salt produced from local brine pools. Even though the population density is high, land has traditionally not been highly valued because sweet potatoes can be grown pretty much anywhere and not a great deal of time and energy is put into preparing the land. [Source: Karl Heider, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991)]
Some Dani are trying to enter the market economy by growing and selling rice and leading treks into the highland forests. In the Baliem Valley, Indonesian immigrants hold most of the good government positions and own most of the private businesses. Most Dani labor at menial jobs or stick to subsistence farming. Some Dani make a relatively good living by posing in penis gourds and grass skirts for tourist photos (for about 10 cents a photo in the 1980s), showing visitors their revered mummies and performing mock battles in front of tourist groups.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015