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Gebusi Homicide and the Cultural Influence of Violence
From one of the highest homicide rates ever recorded to none for decades
The Gebusi forager-horticulturalists of New Guinea traditionally attributed all natural deaths to sorcery.
Whenever a seemingly healthy adult or older child died, an inquest involving a spirit medium would be held to determine the culprit. After the spirit medium identified the offender, the suspect would have to undertake a public divination to prove their innocence. This usually required the suspect to cook a large package of either meat or fish, and failure to cook it properly was taken as proof of guilt.
The guilty party would sometimes be killed right there on the spot, or they might be ambushed later somewhere in the bush. The corpse was not uncommonly cooked and eaten. The phrase “Si-nay!” in the Gebusi language was a threat directed towards potential sorcerers which meant “we will cook and eat you!”.
“For most Gebusi, it wasn’t murder to execute sorcerers. Rather, it was a proper way to dispense with persons who were believed to have used killing to compromise community good.”—Bruce Knauft
As a consequence of these beliefs and practices, the Gebusi had one of the highest homicide rates ever recorded at the time of contact. Anthropologist Bruce Knauft attributes about 40% of adult deaths in the precolonial period between 1940 and 1962 to homicide.
And yet, in the 28 years from 1989 until 2017 when Knauft’s fieldwork ended, the Gebusi did not have a single recorded homicide. From one of the highest recorded homicide rates to no homicides at all.
If you think of violence as simply being the result of some innate drive, or that cross-cultural differences in homicide reflect biological differences between populations, this rapid change presents a very confusing puzzle. However, when you understand the important ways sociolecological context and culture influence behavior, it becomes much more explicable. Let’s see what factors contributed to the decline of Gebusi homicide.
First, a decline in mortality. As the Gebusi aggregated in larger villages with increased access to healthcare, and better nutrition with the influx of metal tools allowing for more productive gardens, there was a decline in mortality in the post-colonial period. Fewer seemingly inexplicable deaths meant less emphasis on sorcery.
Second, the Gebusi traditionally practiced sister-exchange marriage, with marriages arranged and reciprocated between clans. In cases where a marriage failed to be reciprocated, sorcery accusations were much more common, indicating a subtle strategic element to this practice. In the post-colonial period of greater resource acquisition, particularly more pigs and the introduction of money, there was an increasing emphasis on bride price instead of exchange.
A period of as much as five to ten years was allowed for bride price payment, staving off any potential of immediate retribution for failure to adhere to the agreement. Even partial payment of the bride price seemed to mitigate the animosity associated with unequal exchange which had previously led to sorcery accusations.
Third, some Gebusi attributed the decline of sorcery executions to the influence of Christianity. Knauft writes that, “As the elected Councilor of Gasumi Corners proclaimed, “If there are police but no Church, there will be killing. [But] if there is Church but no police, there won’t be any killing.”” However, some Christian Gebusi have still suspected or accused people of sorcery, so it is important to keep the previously mentioned socioecological factors in mind regarding the decline of executions. Knauft adds that,
In some cases, including that of a Gebusi Evangelical church pastor, the belief in Christianity and in a higher authority of divine judgment itself is taken to justify at least the idea of killing someone, like a sorcerer, who self-evidently does not follow the rules of the church. As such, it appears that religious belief combines with other more pragmatic economic and social organizational factors in accounting for the highly reduced rate of killing among Gebusi. [emphasis added]
Surprisingly, one factor which many people might predict to be important that does not appear to be especially relevant is government or police influence. Knauft writes that, “recent fieldwork has confirmed that no police or other coercive government presence exists in any meaningful way among Gebusi or in neighboring areas.” There is however one documented case in the past where the Gebusi reported a man who murdered his own wife and child to the police, so law enforcement may play some role, albeit a minor one in comparison to the other elements mentioned.
Overall, these patterns of Gebusi homicide, from its high rate in the past to its massive decline, indicate the important role of socioecological context and cultural beliefs in influencing violence.
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