Godelier: Begetting extraordinary humans

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Maurice Godelier.

Begetting extraordinary humans*

Maurice Godelier, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales


Incest, cannibalism, right of life and death over others: the dominant are sometimes distinguished from the dominated by what they do (what is forbidden the others to do) and sometimes by what they eat. Power differentiates bodies.

The Kako of Gabon

The Kako of Gabon are a striking example of such differentiation. In this society divided into exogamous patrilineal clans, where a person was forbidden to marry with a member of the clans of his four grandparents as well as anyone from his kindred within a distance of four generations (Omaha-type prohibitions), the basic social unit was the village under the authority of a chief. Hunting, warfare, agriculture and the production of weapons and iron tools were the main activities of this society for which blood was the prime substance, the basis of the human being.

For the Kako (Copet-Rougier 1998), blood makes everything: flesh, blood, bones, breath. Blood is an ingredient of even the soul, and it goes with it back to the village of the dead. But the soul is introduced into the foetal body only toward the end of the pregnancy, and this is done as a gift from the spirits to humans. The soul leaves the body shortly before death and wanders in the bush in the form of an animal. At this point it can be killed and, in this event, turns into a spirit that wanders among the nature spirits for all eternity. If it is not killed, it reaches the village of the death. Two fluids actually coexist in a human body—male or female—and keep it alive; these are: blood, a male fluid, and water, a female fluid that tempers the blood’s heat and strength. The blood and water descend from the head along parallel paths and meet in the man’s testicles or the woman’s lower back. There they mix with fats, which thicken them and make them into male and female sperm.

In order to make a child, the man and woman unite sexually. The “female sperm” facilitates the entry of the male sperm, which makes its way to a place where it encounters menstrual blood. The foetus is formed from these “pieces of blood.” During the pregnancy, the couple makes love in order to nourish the foetus, the man with his sperm and the woman with what she eats. The child’s sex is determined as soon as the man’s and the woman’s blood-sperm meet. If the man’s blood is stronger than the woman’s, the child will be a boy, if the contrary, the child will be a girl. Sex is thus transmitted in two gendered, parallel and exclusive lines. Men always beget men, and women, women. From the first sexual encounter, too, the blood of the father and that of the mother (who themselves result from the mixing of their own father’s and mother’s blood) combine into a single blood, which will give the child its very own substantial identity. As the child is supposed to be made ‘in equal parts’ from its father’s and its mother’s blood, this blood contains the cognatic relations that link each individual to all of his or her ascendants.1

But the bloods that mingle in the child do not have the same weight. Women’s blood is much lighter. Beyond the fourth generation, all traces of uterine blood have disappeared and only the stronger agnatic blood subsists. These representations correspond to the Kako’s patrilineal descent principle. Men keep their clan’s blood forever, women lose it. At the same time, because each person contains the four grandparents’ bloods and since the uterine bloods disappear after four generations, it becomes possible once more to contract marriages with these clans in the fifth generation. These representations of blood thus also correspond to the Omaha character of their kinship system, to the prohibition on marrying in the four clans of the grandparents and in one’s own kindred.

But why is women’s blood of a lighter colour and weight and why does it disappear after a few generations? It is because women do not fight or hunt and are banned from consuming the meat and blood of “cruel animals,” whose blood is like that of men, and they are even more strictly excluded from eating human flesh. Since, for the great hunters and warriors, humans are the game of choice, the “meat” par excellence.

But in order for a man to have the right to eat human flesh, he must have killed many men. Those having fought, killed and eaten human flesh were called “the cruel ones” and they ‘held the village’, whose chief could be nothing other than a great hunter, a great warrior and a great eater of human flesh. Humans, the prime game, are one of the cruel animals, even the cruelest of all. The trail of blood thus traces a continuity between the human and the animal states. Each time an animal or a man was killed and eaten, the same rite, simbo, was performed so as to ward off the victim’s vengeance. His flesh and blood were consumed, while the fat (the female part of the body) was carefully conserved. Only the ‘very great’ men, those who ‘held’ the village, had the right to keep human fat. This fat was used ritually to coat the iron lode from which the smiths extracted the iron they used to make weapons, tools and “dowry money”, the iron objects that formed part of the bridewealth.2

Figure 1

Women and children are excluded from eating the flesh of all cruel animals and of humans. For all other game and domestic animals, additional taboos (mkire, from mkiyo, “blood”) also apply. These taboos concern the heart, head, sexual organs, gizzard, in short everything associated in Kako representations with the organs and substances connected with sex and the reproduction of life.

When it comes to children, boys’ bodies are going to be little by little made different from girls’ bodies. A father will perform rites to gradually lift the prohibitions preventing his son from eating certain animals, until one day when he has become a hunter and warrior and has killed many men and animals, the young man receives from the Tumba—the Great Men—the right to eat real “meat,” human flesh. He is now considered to be a complete man, with heavy, thick, hot and powerful blood. The complete man thus possesses power within and by means of his body. His body is the incarnation of power—physical strength; political, military and economic power; and the power to make dowry money and to exchange it for wives. The reproduction of society thus appears to lie entirely in the hands of these cruel men. And blood symbolizes the unity of this society, since the Kako are formally forbidden to eat not only a relative but any member of their tribe. A tribe is the same blood shared.3

And yet the power is not entirely in the men’s hands. In this society, where, owing to the Omaha character of the kinship terminology, sisters are designated by their brothers and regarded as their “daughters,” women have a great deal of spiritual (and therefore social) power, which stems from the brother-sister relationship. For marriage does not separate women from their patriclan, and when they die they are buried beside their brother on their clan lands. And among the sisters, the eldest enjoy an exceptional status. They have pre-eminence over their brothers’ wives. Like the father’s sister in Tonga, the mehekitanga, they ritually ensure the fecundity of their sisters-in-law. But they can also cast an evil spell on them and deprive their brothers of descendants, thus endangering the continuation of their own clan. They dispose of other rites to ensure the fertility of their brothers’ fields. And it is especially they who are called upon when a village is founded. They perform the rite that ensures that the spirits of the place will look favourably on the humans there. This rite must be renewed each year at the start of the dry season, and it is supposed to “bind” people together, to bring harmony and to renew the ties between the living and the dead. Last of all, women also play a role in the two activities that are the source of the men’s strength and their privilege: hunting and warfare.

In the past, when the men set out for war or to go hunting, the eldest sisters would lie across the trail and all the men had to step across them too ensure a successful outcome. Women thus had a real social and spiritual power. And they wielded it from time to time by refusing to perform the rites for the start of the dry season, thus threatening the village with famine. In this event, discord became entrenched, accusations of sorcery flourished, the village chief’s authority was threatened. In short, although their lighter blood fated them to submission to male power, women not only provided another clan with children and ensured its continuity, through their ritual activities and privileged access to the ancestors, they also contributed to ensuring that their own clan would enjoy equilibrium, concord and longevity.4 Women gave their blood to the other clans so that they might reproduce themselves. But they kept their spiritual powers for their own clan, which were enabled to reproduce by the blood of women from other clans. There was one law for all: “You must not cross blood.” You must never eat a member of your own tribe. The Kako example clearly shows how the body, the gendered body differentiated by its sex, is vested with power relations—political, religious but also economic—and witnesses to and implements them.

The Paici of New Caledonia

Comparable to the Kako example, but differing on a crucial point, endocannibalism on the part of chiefs, as in the case of the Paici of New Caledonia, also highlights the social and symbolic importance of differentiating, through kin ties and food, the body of chiefs from the bodies of those who follow and obey them. The Paici are particularly interesting because, as is often the case in New Caledonia, the chief has been brought in from outside, “from the bush,” and he must then be made into a native and, furthermore, must be made into an ancestor in his own lifetime. How to make a native and an ancestor of an outsider so that he may become your legitimate chief: this was the problem facing the Paici each time internal power struggles for the succession to chiefdom drove the clan elders to seek a new chief outside their group.

A Kanak chiefdom is a political-military organization led by a group of older, high-ranking (ukai) men grouped around a central figure, pwi ukai, who wield their authority over a majority of commoners called gens petits’ (small people) or servants (Bensa and Goromido 1998). The high-ranking men who surround the chief—and manifest, in highly coded forms, their respect and support—are called his “fathers” (caa) and “grandfathers” (ao). The chief alone embodies and manifests the might of the territorial group. The chief and the prominent figures are considered as “older brothers,” while the commoners and their lineages are regarded as “younger brothers and sisters.” Certain lineages provide the chief s household with meat and fish, help in the fields, etc. They are called “servants” but also hold rights in the land and customary functions. The divisions are a function of the order in which groups and people arrived on a territory and, for individuals, of birth order in their lineages and clans.

The first occupants of a site are considered to be the “masters of the land,” and all first born of these clans and families are, like them, ukai because they are closer to the ancestors and the origin of the sites. Each patrilineal lineage carries the name of a dwelling site, a “mound” founded by its ancestors, a name that is also a title borne by the descendants. From the standpoint of wealth and exchanges, there is no basic distinction between nobles and commoners. it is the title-names that make the difference. These title-names are ranked. However, while the ranking of the titles is quite stable and shows little variation over time, the same is not true of the title-holders. Title-names are lost and won, and the lineages and clans, long established or newcomers to a territory, are in permanent competition to conserve their status or to acquire a more prestigious one. Even the chief is not considered to automatically inherit his father’s title and position, nor is he supposed to leave them to his son. in all circumstances, the chief must be chosen by the masters of the land, who will lend him their support. As Alban Bensa stresses, the genealogical vocabulary used to speak of the chief can lead one to think that chiefdom is hereditary, but this kinship vocabulary “is only a veneer.”

How do kinship and the representations of how a human is made function in Paici society? Their kinship system is based on clans and lineages organized by a patrilineal descent rule, but in which maternal kin play an extremely important role.

Figure 2

The Paici assimilate sperm to blood, and two coexisting theories ascribe different roles to this male substance and therefore a different role to the father in making the child.5 According to one of these theories, the man’s blood-sperm mixes with the mother’s blood, which plays a preponderant role in making the foetus. According to the other, the man’s blood-sperm stops the menstrual blood from running out of the womb and in this case it becomes a foetus. in the second theory, the mother’s role and the debt to the maternal kin are even greater than in the first. This explains the extreme importance of the mother’s brother in Kanak societies. it is he who, through the medium of his sister and her spiritual powers, transmits their blood, flesh, bones and skin to his nephews and nieces. The maternal uncle also gives the child its soul, which comes from the ancestors who live in a place under the sea. The soul takes up residence in the body of the foetus and gives it breath and life.

It is from its father’s lineage and from its father himself that the child receives a clan name, a lineage name, rights in the land and sites to live on. The child also receives its ancestors’ spiritual force (tee) through the agnatic line. This force is present in certain plants, animals and rocks, which are specific to a clan. Leenhardt called these supports of ancestral power “totems.”

Throughout their life, the child’s maternal uncles will make repeated propitiatory acts and sacrifices to win their nephews and nieces health, strength and success in their endeavours. When a person dies, the paternal kin return the body to the maternal side. The soul remains in the vicinity of the deceased’s home until the end of the mourning period. The uterine kin of the deceased then conduct rites by which they accompany the soul they transmitted to the entrance of the under-sea country of the dead. When the body has decomposed, a second funeral is held, and the deceased’s maternal uncles come and lay the bones of the deceased in the cemetery of the paternal kin. These bones become relics and draw down and concentrate all of the ancestors’ spiritual power, which constantly radiates from funeral sites and mounds. From this time on, the deceased’s maternal kin no longer have access to the resting place of their nieces’ and nephews’ skulls and bones.

How, in a society which lays such emphasis on the ancestors’ power, on the exceptional status of the elder lineages and on the eldest children in all lineages, precisely because they are closer to the ancestors, closer to the relics, to the old mounds, etc., I repeat, how in such a society, when a chief has died or been ousted and the clans are unable to agree on a local successor, will they go about making an ancestor of the outsider they have brought in to be this successor?

This outsider is henceforth cut off from his natal group and is no longer surrounded by his agnatic or his uterine kin. The clans that receive him will give him a clan name and affiliation. This affiliation will link him with the oldest mound-name in their territory. They will also provide him, like maternal kin, with a new body full of health and force. In short, the body of the chief will be re-made both ritually and physically, so that he may be inserted into the lineage of the chiefdom’s most prestigious ancestors. The “prominent” families who will be his support-system and his advisors will become his “fathers and grandfathers” (coo ao), and one of the terms used to address him, “older big brother” is the same as the one used to designate the paternal great-grandfather. The chief thus becomes at the same time their son, their grandson, their older brother and their greatgrandfather; he becomes both an ascendant and a descendant of those who chose him.

In order to provide the chief with a new body produced on site this time, he is fed with special food. He is served yams considered as very “old.” Periodically he is served the flesh of a high-ranking man from his adoptive lineage. Before the sacrifice, a mourning ceremony had already been held for the victim, in which the person making the sacrifice had asked the future victim’s maternal uncles to reclaim their share, namely: his soul. Only the chief could eat this meat designed to make him strong. The sacrificial victim’s heart and liver, the seats of life in Paici culture, were offered to the “war stone,” inhabited by the spirit of an ancestor who had been a great warrior and a great eater of human flesh, to which was regularly served up pieces of slain enemies.

It therefore goes without saying that the lineage providing the chief with a victim had considerable political weight. No decision could be taken without it. The chief’s flesh was also their flesh. They acted in a way as maternal relatives of the chief, while he played the role of container and them of contained. Because of this, the victims became ancestors in his body and in turn made him an ancestor. But the chief was also allowed (and even obliged) to eat the flesh of one of his “father’s sisters”—sisters of his real father or those of his “fathers” in the sense of political backers. His fathers, therefore, instead of exchanging their sisters for wives and widening their network of alliances, devoted certain sisters to making the most important man of the chiefdom, its chief, even more powerful.

Having become an autochthon through endocannibalism, the chief could then perform his tasks to the full measure: destroy enemies, put them to flight or massacre them, take their women and children for adoption or exchange, eat the bodies of enemy warriors in order to annihilate them by depriving them of the means of becoming protecting ancestors for their own group and hiding their bones so that they might not be used as relics and draw down the strength of their ancestors.

Ultimately, the chief, made by others and raised by them above themselves, was nothing without his caa ma ao, his support-system. When this chief died, the problem of his succession arose again, and his formers supporters, as masters of the land and local elders, could recover the title to bestow on one of their own. But the internecine conflicts could be such that, even before his death, a chief’s legitimacy could be contested by some of those who had supported him. In this event, instead of waiting to be exiled or killed, he could offer himself in sacrifice in order to force the warring factions to put an end to their conflicts and oblige them to go on living together: in short, sacrifice himself in order to save the chiefdom.

The day of the sacrifice, the chief walks to the ceremonial hut decked in his costume and his weapons, which he hands over to the man who is to carry out the sacrifice. The latter smashes his skull with a blow of his club. Before burying the body in the clan cemetery, the man charged with the sacrifice removes the liver, which is then cooked. Part is then symbolically shared out and eaten, and the rest is offered to the ancestors whose blessing is sought. This offering was designated by the same name as the gifts (pwd) made to the maternal uncles, who were present when the chief was killed and were given a gift, as was the sacrificer.

By sacrificing himself, by offering his life and his flesh to be consumed, the chief was supposed to restore peace to the chiefdom. Thereafter it was impossible for those who had been fighting and wanting to separate to do so. The chief’s sacrifice had sealed a new social covenant. But it had also made his sons outsiders once again. His family was therefore forced into exile, together with those of the chief’s most ardent supporters who had attached themselves to him. The title reverted to the masters of the land, who had originally conferred it on the sacrificed chief. The cycle could now begin all over. There was, then, nothing hereditary about this power, which nevertheless could be established only in the name of the ancestors and was compelled to make an ancestor during his lifetime of someone who had no former descent ties with the living and the dead whom he governed.6

The Tu’i Tonga, a living man-god

Let us come back from the ancestor-man living among humans that is the Kanak chief to the living man-god that is the Tu’i Tonga. According to mythology, his divine essence comes from the fact that his ancestor was twice begotten: once when a human woman united with a god and once when his divine father brought him back to life after the other gods, his brothers, jealous of his looks, had killed and devoured him. The myth tells that one of the great gods fell in love with a chief’s daughter and got her with child. The god went back up into the sky and sent down to the mother a piece of land and a yam to feed the child, whom he named Aho’eitu (the dawn god, the ‘new’ god). When he grew up, Aho’eitu asked his mother who his father was, and having been told he was a god who lived in the sky, he decided to join him. When he got there, the father presented him to his other sons, his divine brothers. The brothers, jealous of his looks, killed him and threw his head into a bush and ate his body. The father discovered the infamy and ordered his sons to find the head of Aho’eitu, which he placed in a wooden bowl, and then to vomit up the remains of their brother into the bowl. Then he restored Aho’eitu to life and sent him back down to earth, giving him the office and title of Tu’i Tonga, and he ordered his other sons to help their brother govern without ever laying claim to his office (Douaire-Marsaudon 1998: 152-7).

Let us review the steps in this double birth, which changed Aho’eitu into Tu’i Tonga, a unique individual at the same time human and divine, who became the paramount chief and god after a series of initiatic ordeals. First, his birth, the result of copulation between a human woman and a god who fertilized her by his power, his mana. Then his growth, facilitated by a twofold food, divine through the yam and the land that his father sent, and earthly through his mother, who nourished him. Moreover his good looks are a sign of the mana that inhabits him, and it is this beauty that provokes the jealousy of the gods, his brothers. The brothers devour him, which fits with the fate of mortals who, in Polynesia, were always in danger of being devoured by the gods or by the chiefs. The father obliges his sons to vomit their brother’s remains into a kava bowl. in Tonga, saliva and vomit are life-restoring substances. His human body thus becomes a divine body since it now possesses his divine brothers’ life-force, their saliva. Then Aho’eitu returns to earth, having undergone a double birth, one on earth, the other in the sky. The myth ends by presenting as a divine decree that the Tu’i Tonga, last-born of the Great God’s sons, will reign over the earth and that none of his brothers must ever attempt to govern in his stead or to take away his title.

Now this is exactly the policy followed by the line of the Tu’i Tonga, when it broke with the adelphic mode of succession that had been the rule in the royal lines and brought in a patrilineal mode of transmission, from father to son, thus creating a “dynasty.” It is understandable, in this case, that, born directly from the fertilization of his distant mythic ancestor by a god, the Tu’i Tonga claimed to be the great, the unique fertilizer not only of all of the women in his kingdom, but of the land and its crops, as a result of the land and the yam given by a god to the woman he had fertilized so that she might nourish their child. Invented in the context of the Tu’i Tonga’s court, the myth had all of the qualities ascribed to the discourse of dominant castes or classes. It aggrandized and divinized in the imaginary the members of this caste, which legitimized in their own eyes and in the eyes of those under them the forms of domination they wielded over the rest of the population.

After the example of the Kanak twice-born ancestor-man, born the first time in the same way as other humans and the second time in a mystical and symbolic way through endocannibalism, and the example of the man-god, also twice born, but both times in a “spiritual” manner, the first on earth and the second in the sky, being eaten and reborn through the mana of a god, his father, we find ourselves in the presence of two cases where some “men” set themselves apart from and raise themselves above humans by having been conceived several times. Ultimately the others exist only as fragments of themselves, fragments to which the gods give life and from which they can take it back.

De-conception of the Mekeo chiefs of Papua New Guinea

With our final example, that of the Mekeo chiefs, we have the opposite case. Instead of being twice-conceived, in order to attain their divine essence and manifest it to one and all, the Mekeo chiefs must be twice-de-conceived (Mosko 1983a, 1983b, 1992). The Mekeo are an Austronesian-speaking group that live along the Biaru river, which empties into the sea in the middle of the Gulf of Papua. Their society was divided into two exogamous moieties, which were in turn split into two patricians. Each person was supposed to marry within the tribe but into the other moiety. Furthermore, a man could not marry a woman from his mother’s clan. He could not repeat his father’s marriage. He would therefore marry a woman from the alternate clan in the other moiety, thus marrying a second-degree cross cousin (see diagram).

Figure 3

In the Mekeo society, the political-ritual functions belong to the hereditary chiefs of the four clans and are distributed according to the rule of both opposing and complementary moieties (Mosko 2005).7

Figure 4

There were thus four chiefs: one for war, one for peace, as well as a “war sorcerer” and a “peace sorcerer.” The war chief led the warriors into battle and carried out all the rites that had to do with killing. He was assisted by the “war sorcerer,” who possessed the powers to magically sap the enemy’s strength. in intertribal fights, the death of a Mekeo warrior was repaid by the death of an enemy warrior. There was also a reciprocal “exchange” of male blood between the groups. Men made ready for war by “closing” their body through fasting and sexual abstinence, to make them strong, swift and impenetrable to enemy war magic. War and sex were incompatible.

The peace chief had an equally fundamental role within the tribe. He presided over the de-conception ceremonies for the deceased during funeral rites and festivities. He was aided by the “peace sorcerer,” who ensured that the Mekeo rules of marriage and clan exogamy were respected. He also saw to it that everyone cooperated with the “peace chief” to carry out correctly the reciprocal exchanges of special-food gifts between the deceased’s paternal and maternal kin.

Before trying to analyze what it means to de-conceive someone for the Mekeo, we need first to know how the person was conceived. Every person belongs to a moiety and to a specific clan, and people from different clans, and from different moieties, are therefore from different “bloods,” agnatic bloods, since Mekeo descent reckoning is patrilineal. For two people to marry, they must be from “different” bloods. They conceive a child when they unite sexually and their sexual “bloods”—the man’s sperm and the woman’s womb blood—mix in equal proportions in the woman’s uterus.8 The mixing of the father’s and the mother’s blood inaugurates the life of the foetus, its conception.9 At the same time as this act mingles the two bloods and makes them one, it transmits this blood to the child.

The man’s sperm-blood is believed to coagulate and solidify the woman’s liquid, shapeless menstrual blood. It shapes the foetus and then nourishes it. For this to happen, the couple increases their rate of sexual intercourse for the first three months of the pregnancy. During this time, the future mother is fed with huge quantities of boiled plants in order to increase the amount of ‘blood’ in her womb and make the foetus grow. From this moment on, the woman ceases to work in order not to cause the blood to leave her womb. After the first three months of the pregnancy, the man refrains from all sexual relations, so as to “close” his body back up and again be ready for war. The abstinence will last until the child is weaned, around a year and a half after its birth.

For the Mekeo, parents and children are thought to share the same blood, and this blood stems in particular from the fact that they have shared the same cooked foods, for they believe that cooked food makes blood and raw food separates bloods. since marriages are repeated from one generation to the next, alternating between the two clans of the other moiety, the Mekeo see themselves, with regard to the other tribes, as having “a single blood.” But when it comes to their representations of themselves within the tribe, they see each other as being of different bloods, and it is on this condition, they say, that they can marry each other. When the men of one clan marry, they receive the blood of other clans, whereas their sisters and daughters give the other clans part of their blood. The Mekeo say that the clans “open themselves” to others by exchanging their women, and the tribe thus reproduces itself through the reciprocal exchange of female blood between the two moieties and the four clans. The women are a clan’s “skin,” the part of its body turned toward the outside. When a couple marries, the representatives of the four clans are present, and the ceremony begins with the de-conception of the bodies of the future spouses, which rids them of two of the four bloods they carry in them.

Figure 5

The de-conception rite is celebrated by the “peace chief” and his assistant, the “peace sorcerer.” It consists in exchanges of valuables—lengths of cowry shells, necklaces of dogs’ teeth, bird-of-paradise feathers, raw pork from domestic pigs. The clan of the groom’s father (A1) gives a certain number of valuables and an amount of raw pork to the clan of the bride’s father (B1), and the groom’s mother’s clan (B2) gives the same amount of valuables to the bride’s mother’s clan (A2). The two clans (Bi and A2) that receive these gifts in turn present their givers with raw pork. To give raw rather than cooked meat is to deny or reject the existence of kin relations between givers and receivers that go through the married couple. This exchange is called ifa kekapaisa (to manipulate the blood). By “manipulating” their bloods, the relatives affirm symbolically and fictively that they are not relatives.

Thus, in the reciprocal exchange of raw pork, the clan of the groom’s father (A1) de-conceives the former of the blood of his father’s mother (B1), which is precisely the blood of the bride’s father’s clan (B1). Alternatively, the bride’s clan (B1) de-conceives her of the blood of her father’s mother (A1), which is precisely the clan of the groom’s father. When clans A2 (the groom’s mother’s clan) and B2 (the bride’s mother’s clan) exchange pork, they thereby de-conceive the future spouses of the blood of their mothers’ mothers (A2, B2). At the close of these de-conceptions, each spouse has only the blood of their two grandfathers. They are rid of the blood of their future spouse’s clan, which they also carried, and are now free to marry. Through these “manipulations” of their blood, they are reborn as new social persons. This transformation is indicated by the word used to designate the de-conception of the newlyweds: engama, which also means “conception.” Nevertheless, these manipulations, which simultaneously de-conceive and ‘re-conceive’ the people involved, are considered by all parties as a “fiction.” And the newlyweds often behave toward their new affines as though they were still “a single blood.” For, in the Mekeo’s thinking, a person’s “true” “de-conception” occurs when they die.

The funeral rites and festivities are the most important social institution in Mekeo culture, and their performance is extremely complex. The “peace chief of the deceased’s clan gives, on behalf of the mourning clan, a quantity of various raw foods to the chiefs of the two clans in the other moiety”. Those who helped collect these foods are: members of the deceased’s clan, but also all of the children that the women of these clans have given to the two clans of the other moiety. The clan chiefs who receive these gifts redistribute them to those clansmen whose mothers are not from the deceased’s clan and to the children of the clanswomen married into the clan of the other moiety which is not that of the deceased.

The mourners give three categories of food: tubers from the deceased’s garden, which provided part of his blood; meat of game and wild pig; and pork from domestic pigs. These two kinds of meat—bush meat and village meat—represent the deceased’s flesh and blood, and his fellow clansmen may not eat of this meat at any cost: it would be tantamount to autocannibalism. The wild meat has been smoked. It is dry and represents “male” blood; while the domestic pork is “female” blood. These meats represent the bloods of the deceased’s two grandmothers: his father’s mother and his mother’s mother, two bloods that the feast givers “return” to the clans that have given them women. The clans that give these meats are thus rid of the foreign bloods that entered into the process of conceiving their members. By the same token, the clans that receive and eat these meats reappropriate the bloods they have lost over the previous generations by giving their women to the other clans so that they might provide them with descendants.

What had been partially or fictitiously done at the time of the marriage is brought to fulfilment at the time of death. In the end, all clan members are once again connected by a single, “strictly” male blood. The clans that had “opened themselves” to others in order to conceive, “close back upon themselves” by de-conceiving their members. New alliance ties can be created, non-relatives can once again become relatives. The (apparent) contradiction between clan exogamy and tribe exogamy is resolved. All Mekeo are a single blood, which is divided into four different bloods, and so on.

But this “ordinary” de-conception of commoners, which happens only when they die, is not the same as the “extraordinary” de-conception practised among the chiefs during their lifetime. They perform this de-conception at each installation of new “sons of Akaisa,” the god that gave the Mekeo ancestors everything: fire, domestic plants, game, their own daughters, and who vested the ancestors of the hereditary chiefs with the political-ritual offices that their descendants still hold. But they also do this each time a funeral is celebrated by the ‘peace chief’, in so far as this chief must at this time also perform his own de-conception and that of the other chiefs. He does this by giving them portions of sacred food, ikufuka. These portions of ikufuka (which can be translated as “magic-power mountain”) are composed of the whole carcass of a dog and certain special parts of the skin and certain organs of a pig. This sacred meat can and must be eaten by the commoners, but in no event by the chiefs. The latter redistribute their own share of the ikufuka to their fellow clansmen but do not eat any. That would be tantamount to eating the flesh of the god Akaisa, and eating their own flesh, since all chiefs descend from the sons of this god, who were born at the beginning of time, without a mother, without female blood in their bodies. In short, by de-conceiving themselves while they are still living, the chiefs purge themselves of that which came from their mother. They detach this part which made them androgynous beings, and with it all of the attendant social relations, and in so doing recover their ancestral, divine and purely male essence.

Chiefs thus are reborn during their lifetime, without the mediation of women to bring them into the world and, in the process, recover the primal condition enjoyed by humans at a time when there were only men who never died and who, when they grew old, shed their skin like snakes and became young once again. It was in those times that Foikale, chief of the first men, who had always lived underground and had no wives, emerged and appeared in the garden of the god Akaisa. The god gave him a warm welcome and told him to go fetch his companions. These first men did not know how to hunt, or work the land and did not drink water. Later, Akaisa gave them fire, the edible plants, meat and his own daughters so that they might have sexual intercourse and procreate. Akaisa then lived among his protégés in the guise of a young boy, who soon made the humans jealous because of the game that ran into his nets and which he shared generously with everyone. One day the men beat him and drove him away. In revenge, Akaisa drove the men, through his magic, to kill each other. Death had made its appearance. Three times Akaisa drove them to fight each other, and three times he brought them back to life. At last, he sent the men down to earth after having distributed to certain of them the four political-religious offices, which have since become hereditary. At the same time he sent down the chiefs’ wives, whom he had made pregnant, and it was the firstborn sons of these women who were later to hold the offices and titles.

According to another myth, Akaisa challenged his young brother Tsabini to kill his mother and eat her, telling him that he had already killed his own and that they were going to share her. Tsabini discovered that he had been tricked by Akaisa, who had substituted a pig for his mother. He killed Akaisa’s son. Akaisa carried his son’s corpse to the top of a mountain and laid it on a platform for the bones to dry. But each night, his son’s bones changed into game animals. So Akaisa called together the Mekeo’s ancestors and told them to catch the game and to organize a funeral feast for his son. He showed them how to do this and gave the chiefs the pieces of the boy’s body changed into game to be distributed to all the members of their clans but without eating any themselves.

It is these founding myths that assert the chiefs’ divine essence and which the peace chiefs and the other clan chiefs reactivate each time a Mekeo dies and his clan performs the (ordinary) de-conception of the deceased.

In contrast to the Kanak chief or the great Tu’i Tonga, who become a human-ancestor or a man-god by eating human flesh and thus raising themselves higher, here we are dealing with chiefs who assert their divine essence and their legitimate right to govern others by detaching from their body every female ingredient that might subsist there and having others consume it. It is by reducing themselves that they raise themselves.

In the West we are familiar with another god who shared his flesh and his blood with his followers, and who is said to have been born of a human woman who had conceived him without having had sexual relations with her earthly spouse. For Christ is a god, son of another god and of the Holy Spirit. A god without a heavenly mother, a purely male god conceived of a woman who had never had intercourse with the man she married, Joseph. A god born immaculate of an virgin herself born of an “immaculate conception.”

But whether one is a man made god (Tu’i Tonga) or a god made man, whether one “raises oneself up” by eating others or by giving oneself to be eaten by others, this exceptional human or superhuman being then must prove that he is entitled to veneration and to the submission of ordinary humans by providing them with abundance, health, strength, in short, life; or on the contrary by depriving them of strength, health and life by annihilating them by his wrath. He will have to either give life or take it away in order to manifest his divine essence and power.


Bensa, Alban and Antonie Goromido. 1998. “Contraintes par corps: ordre politique et violences dans les sociétés kanak d’autrefois,” in Le Corps humain. Supplicié, possédé, cannibalise, edited by M. Godelier and M. Panoff, 169-97.

Copet-Rougier, Elisabeth. 1998. “Tu ne traverseras pas le sang. Corps, parenté et pouvoirs chez les Kako du Cameroun,” in Le Corps humain. Supplicié, possédé, cannibalise, edited by M. Godelier and M. Panoff, 87-108. Amsterdam, Archives Contemporaines.

Douaire-Marsaudon, Françoise. 1998. “Le Meurtre cannibale ou la production d’un homme-dieu. Théories des substances et construction hiérarchique en Polynésie,” Le Corps humain. Supplicié, possédé, cannibalise, edited by M. Godelier and M. Panoff, 137-67. Amsterdam, Archives Contemporaines.

Mosko, Mark. 1983a. “Conception, de-conception and social structure in Bush Mekeo culture,” Mankind 14: 24-32.

———. 1983b. Quadripartite structures, categories, relations and homologies in Bush Mekeo culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1992. “Motherless sons. ‘Divine kings’ and ‘partible persons’ in Melanesia and Polynesia.” Man 27: 697-717.

———. 2005. “Peace, war, sex and sorcery: Non-linear analogical transformation in the early escalation of North Mekeo sorcery and chiefly practice.” In On the order of chaos: Social anthropology and science of chaos, edited by M. Mosko and F. Damon, 166-205. New York: Berghahn.

Sahlins, Marshall. Islands of history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Salomon, Christine. 2000. Savoirs et pouvoirs therapeutiques kanaks. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.


* We are very grateful to Verso Books for giving us the permission to publish this version of Chapter eight (Fifth component 2), The metamorphosis of kinship, Verso (forthcoming 2012).

1. It should be remembered that cognatic relations are present in all kinship systems, even though they may not be named.

2. Warriors cut off the enemy heads, for the head is the source of blood, strength and life. By eating the bodies, they made sure they could not become ancestors, protectors of their descendants. The enemy blood and fat became tools for the Kako’s material and social reproduction by thickening their blood and ensuring the continuity of the patrilineal clans (dowry) and enabling them to augment their means of production (tools) and destruction (weapons).

3. “The blood of the body, of sperm, of the foetus, blood souls, blood-thirsty spirits and blood-drinking warriors: it is around this essential notion that representations, discourses and practices are elaborated. Whether we are talking about the body, procreation, the kinship system, animal categories, cannibalism, sorcery or leadership, we must follow the blood trail if we want to understand both the symbolic and ideological logics, and the orders and disorders of social life” (Copet-Rougier 1998: 89).

4. Elisabeth Copet-Rougier notes a very important fact, which is that for women “the brother is not really like their father,” and at this point the terminology they use “switches to the Hawaiian type” (1998: 97).

5. Maurice Leenhardt’s thesis, which says that the role of the Kanak father is merely to fortify because sperm plays no role in conceiving the child, is not sustained by later ethnological studies. But the existence of two conceptions of the role of sperm, one of which sees it as a plug, points in this direction. The debate is open and has been renewed by the publication of Christine Salomon-Nekiriai’s work, which criticizes certain aspects of Alban Bensa’s analyses. It is up to the Kanaks and to those working with them to reconstruct their traditions and to take a stand (cf. Salomon 2000: 43).

6. Alban Bensa rightly draws a parallel between the example of the Kanak chiefdom and the great Melanesian chiefdoms of the Fiji islands, with which, as we have seen, the Tongan aristocracy intermarried. in Fiji the chief was also an outsider, a heavenly god received by the people of the land where he was supposed to have appeared one day. in order to become one of them, this foreign chief had to drink kava made from a plant that had grown atop the corpse of a local child. Later, the chief would lead his warriors to raid human victims beyond his borders and share their flesh with them (cf. Sahlins 1985: 75, 97-8).

7. The Mekeo were “pacified” in 1890 by William MacGregor at a time when Papua was still a British colony. Between 1890 and 1940, eighty per cent of the population died from a series of diseases introduced by the Europeans and for which the Mekeo had no immunity. With the end of war and these mass deaths, initially blamed on the peace sorcerers, internal strife and accusations of sorcery multiplied. The role of the peace sorcerers became increasingly important. Representatives elected by the Kairuku regional administration replaced the war chiefs and at the same time the Mekeo were converted to Christianity by French Catholic priests.

8. The word for “womb,” ma, is also the word for “mother.”

9. Engama, in the Mekeo language, means “beginning” and “conception.”