Friday, August 10, 2012

Papua New Guinea 2: Aseki

A Kukukuku village, isolated on a mountain ridge top in the
Morobe Province
Although it didn't yield much in the way of wildflowers, a trip up to the village of Aseki, in the mountains above Lae, was one of the most fascinating encounters with a tribal culture.  This area is the home of the Kukukuku people, who had been quite isolated until about 10 years earlier.  They had in fact traditionally been feared by surrounding tribes for their vicious raids and cannibalistic practices.

Aseki is located among spectacular limestone mountains.
Two gentlemen from Aseki, the one
on the right in full traditional dress.
Both have a mouthful of betel nut.
A young woman with her child
watches the strange activities of
the pale-skinned botanists from
The distinctive dress of both men and women consisted of a grass skirts, the men's skirts typically in a triangular shape, a bark cloth cape, and various necklaces including seashells acquired from coastal villagers. Men often had a piece of bone through their nasal septum. Men and women alike seemed to be constantly chewing betel nut, from the Areca catechu palm.

A recently deceased member of the
tribe sits in his airy coffin.
The Kukukuku neither buried nor cremated their dead.  Instead they dried them over a fire, and mounted the resulting mummies on stick pedestals in niches of the limestone cliffs.  It is said that this was so they could carry their ancestors with them when they moved to a new area.

Plant collecting in the area was successful for my colleagues from the Forestry Herbarium in Lae, Heinar Streimann and Peter Stevens.  Heinar would later move to Canberra, Australia, serving as the chief bryologist at the herbarium of the National Botanic Garden.  Peter had an illustrious career as a botanist at Harvard and later at the Missouri Botanical Garden, where he currently manages the successful Angiosperm Phylogeny Website, containing the most comprehensive and up-to-date information on the classification of flowering plants (
Heinar Streimann (in back) and Peter Stevens press plant
specimens collected in the Aseki area.

Ptychococcus lepidotus growing in the
mountain forest. it can be found at
altitudes up to 3000 meters.
I also was able to collect material of some interesting palms, including Ptychococcus lepidotus, a species discovered and named by my mentor Hal Moore a few years earlier.  The fibrous trunks of this species are quite dense, and widely used in the New Guinea highlands for bows and spear heads. I also collected material from a very tall specimen of Gronophyllum that had been left in a clearing.
A lonely Gronophyllum chaunostachys remains where the forest has been cleared
for gardening. The genus has recently been combined with
the closely-related Hydriastele.