Between 250 and 450 years ago, the introduction of sweet potatoes enabled the Enga people of Papua New Guinea to settle more permanently, practice intensive agriculture, and produce a substantial surplus of pigs. These changes led to the gradual emergence of some of the largest and most elaborate networks of ceremonial exchanges known in pre-state societies.
Drawing on interviews conducted over ten years with elders in 110 tribes, Polly Wiessner and Akii Tumu chart seven generations of Enga history, reconstructing the ecological, social, and ideological processes that shaped these continually changing networks. At the heart of the book is an ethnohistory of the Tee ceremonial exchange cycle, which by the onset in the 1950s of the colonial era, had grown to encompass about 355 clans and involve the redistribution of up to 100,000 pigs. Wiessner and Tumu describe how Enga big-men crafted the full-blown Tee cycle by drawing on alliances to control trade in the east, great ceremonial wars in the center, and religious cult networks in the west. They also show how, by using religious cults to alter norms and values, Enga leaders mediated the tensions caused by economic competition amidst a growing population.
In this unusual collaboration between an anthropologist and a member of the society being investigated, the authors use practice theory and a vanishing oral record to argue that not only economic but also cultural needs motivated those who directed the course of change in Enga society.