Social, symbolic, and ritual roles of the sweet potato in Enga, from its introduction until first contact

Bibliographic Collection: 
Publication Type: Book Chapter
Authors: Polly Wiessner
Year of Publication: 2005
Book Title: The Sweet Potato in Oceania: A Reappraisal
Volume: Volume 19 of Ethnology monographs
Chapter: 12
Edition: Oceania monograph
Pagination: 121-130
Publisher: University of Sydney
Publication Language: eng
ISBN: 0945428138, 9780945428138

Since James Watson first pointed out the impact of the sweet potato on New Guinea highland societies, much research has been conducted on its introduction and its impact on agricultural systems, economy, and society. However, comparatively little is understood about how the new crop found a place in the ritual repertoire of highland New Guinea societies. Here I briefly summarise the oral evidence for the introduction of the sweet potato. Then I will look at the social, symbolic and ritual roles of the sweet potato during its two waves of influence in Enga history. The first was as a crop that provided a reliable staple for humans and thereby opened many new opportunities; the second was a fodder for pigs that were used to fuel growing networks of exchange. I will argue that symbolic meanings and non-nutritional goals pursued through a food such as the sweet potato were not static, but kept well abreast of the social and political dynamics of the time.