About Yali

We have read with interest your responses to Jared Diamond’s book and TV series about Yali’s question and we thought in this first posting we could add to the conversation by telling you something about who Yali actually was and by beginning to tell you why we think Diamond got Yali’s question wrong. Although we never knew Yali ourselves, we worked in a part of coastal Papua New Guinea where he was politically active and, as well, read a lot about him in the anthropological literature (as he has long been a very famous man).

Some of what we have to say is inspired by Marilyn Strathern’s discussion of how Australian prospectors misunderstood the PNGuineans they met when they first entered the interior Highlands during the 1930’s. The Australians assumed that these PNGuineans were impressed with their complex technology — for example, their guns and steel. However, in Strathern’s view, possession of this novel technology initially marked these explorers as spirits, and from the perspectives of PNG Highlanders, the appearance of spirits among the living was extraordinary but ultimately not very important. Spirits, after all, would likely disappear without affecting social life very much. Only when Highlanders discovered that these Australians not only had large quantities of pearl shells but wished to transact with them did the Australians become plausibly human. Pearl shells, traded up from the coast, were for a long time central in the Highland exchanges through which marriages were contracted, compensation for death or injury was paid, and alliances were established. In other words, only when the Australians showed that they apparently valued what the Highlanders already valued and desired did the Highlanders regard them as interesting and socially significant. Only then could the Highlanders fit these otherwise strange and peripheral beings into their own ideas about full human beings: only then did they become persons with whom they could, and would want to, engage.

Of course, Yali’s, and other coastal groups, had a much longer history of European contact (often dating from the latter part of the nineteenth century). Yali, himself, had especially extensive contact with Europeans. He served as a policeman in New Guinea’s colonial administration before World War Two and as a member of the Allied Intelligence Service during the war. In fact, there is a photograph taken in 1944 in the Australian War Memorial archives commemorating his military service. In it, Yali is inside the Dace, an American submarine, together with other members of his company of intelligence-gathering “Coastwatchers.” In advance of a major Allied landing, Yali’s group of twelve — seven Europeans, one Indonesian translator, and four PNGuineans — was sent to Hollandia, then Dutch New Guinea, on a hazardous mission to gather strategic information. After the war, as a distinguished veteran, Yali embarked on a controversial political career, one which kept him in extensive contact with Europeans. Indeed, he was sent to Australia to learn European ways.

Yet, like for the Highlanders Strathern describes, Yali’s life and aspirations remained largely PNGuinean. He remained concerned less about the material attributes of things themselves than about the social uses to which things were put. For him and many other PNGuineans both then and now, things have value because they can be used in transactions to establish relationships of recognition and respect. They are more like gifts than commodities. They are exchanged to establish relationships of obligation, alliance, and friendship rather than to get “good deals.” Therefore, when Highlanders desired pearl shells, and they did desire them with a passionate intensity, it was not for the sake of the shells alone. Indeed, men acquired the coveted shells so as to be able to give them away at a later time.

Because the Highlanders were relatively inexperienced in European ways, they apparently thought that the prospectors were generous in offering them the coveted pearl shells that affirmed their fundamental worth — their shared humanity. In contrast, Yali’s coastal peoples had long before learned that the colonists were stingy, offering them only meager wages (often for plantation labor) that denied a common humanity. More than lots of stuff, they wanted (just a little) respect.

More later – about “cargo” and “cults.”

9 thoughts on “About Yali

  1. Pingback: Easily Distracted
  2. Thanks. Yali is dead. He died, if we recall, just before PNG achieved indepepndence, in 1975. His son, James Yali, is now Governor of the Madang Province, where Yali was himself most active.

  3. Is it a bad thing if Diamond misunderstood Yali’s question? I mean, we’re not talking about a situation like Diamond misunderstanding Yali’s instructions about which mushrooms are safe to eat and which are poisonous.

    Yali may have gotten a different answer than he was expecting, but it was an interesting and provocative answer and personally I always find it interesting to discover a new way of looking on the world that I hadn’t thought of before – I don’t see any reason to assume that Yali would have suffered by encountering a new one himself. Of course he might feel a bit frustrated, but that’s not the end of the world. He can always ask his question again and try to explain himself more clearly.

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