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From ‘Stone-Age’ to ‘Real-Time’

1. From ‘Stone-Age’ to ‘Real-Time’: Exploring Papuan Temporalities, Mobilities and Religiosities – An Introduction

Martin Slama and Jenny Munro

There are probably no other people on earth to whom the image of the ‘stone-age’ is so persistently attached than the inhabitants of the island of New Guinea, which is divided into independent Papua New Guinea and the western part of the island, known today under the names of Papua and West Papua. This volume focuses on the latter region, which took its own trajectory since the colonial division of the island and especially since its controversial incorporation into the Indonesian nation-state in the 1960s. In Papua, stone-age imagery has motivated missions to ‘pacify’, ‘civilise’, ‘modernise’, ‘Christianise’ and ‘Islamise’ the local population, and mobilised a proliferation of hierarchical relations, locally and regionally. These projects of frontier transformation became particularly invasive during the authoritarian Suharto regime (1966–98), but are continuing today under different guises.

Today, many Papuans are connected in ‘real-time’ through Facebook, YouTube and other social networking sites and are increasingly mobile within and beyond Indonesia, certainly belying the old images of isolated stone-agers. At the same time, technologies and mobilities offer certain freedoms while constraining others; novel trajectories may meet familiar challenges. This volume explores the real-time, mobile, social and cultural aspects of contemporary Papua, including historical trajectories that collapse notions of the past with visions of the future. It is concerned with the genealogy of the image of the stone-ager as well as with its current transformations by Papuan, regional and (inter)national agents. In this interconnected age, Papuans may position themselves anew offline and online, as they explore often heterodox religious and political visions, engage in Christian and Muslim networks, renegotiate intra-Papuan relations as well as their relations with non-Papuans, develop forms of resistance in a highly militarised space, and critically question prejudices directed against them. In short, Papua is being remade.

Grappling with today’s globalised modernities, indigenous agents are reworking inherited ideas, institutions and technologies according to their own interests, but also coming up against palpable limits on what can be imagined or achieved, secured or defended. This volume investigates some of these trajectories of innovation for the cultural logics and social or political structures that shape them, and examines in detail ways that Papuan efforts and aspirations may equally go awry. It attends to the circulation of particular images, technologies and ideas among Papuans and interrogates what they mean for emerging and ongoing inequalities. The volume analyses the scope of Papuan actions, and reactions, that have been generated and curtailed at the intersection of new (trans)national connections and routes of mobility. At the same time, it also illuminates how new mobilities shape power dynamics in situations that are variously intimate, interactive or publicly visible.

Most of the chapters in this volume are highly ethnographic, based on first-hand research with Papuans, conducted in various spaces within and beyond Papua.1 We present perspectives from diverse sites – lowland, highland, coastal, rural and urban – around the territory of Tanah Papua (the Land of Papua). These contributions explore topics ranging from hip hop to historicity, filling much-needed conceptual and ethnographic lacunae in West Papuan studies. In this volume, we have assembled papers that foreground current social, cultural and religious experiences, processes and conditions in Papua. At the same time, the volume explores historical genealogies that reach back to Dutch colonial times, notably the stone-age image itself, which cannot be ignored when analysing current social and political dynamics. In this regard we want to stress that, in some ways, political conditions in Papua are well-documented and the subject of much impressive scholarship (Chauvel 2005, 2011; Chauvel and Bhakti 2004; McGibbon 2004; Braithwaite et al. 2010; Widjojo et al. 2008; King et al. 2011). In other ways, the political tends to be revealed as extraneous to the social and cultural machinations of everyday life. By depicting ethnographic complexity and everyday entanglements, the contributors to this volume show us a different side of politics in Papua, a politics that is deeply embedded in social change, cultural tensions and economic inequalities and is sometimes less straightforwardly ‘separatist’ or ‘nationalist’ than we might assume.

Following the subtitle of the volume, this introduction reflects on the chapters via the themes of temporalities, mobilities and religiosities. It is not that one cannot find other categories to guide the reader through the rich material and analyses presented in the chapters, but we think that the chapters are particularly connected through these three concepts and that these concepts elicit particular intersections that generate novel perspectives for understanding current Papuan conditions. We start with ‘temporalities’, a theme reflected in the main title of the volume, as the image of the stone-age as well as the notion of the real-time imply particular conceptions of time that are intrinsic to so many contemporary Papuan issues. Given the emphasis of this volume on the everyday, intimate and interactive, we find it appropriate to introduce the theme of temporalities through ethnographic accounts in the first place.


In today’s Indonesia one can encounter representations of Papuans in unexpected and at the same time familiar ways – for example, by way of a picture shown on the display of an Indonesian businessman’s smartphone depicting a Papuan man who sits, dressed in his penis sheath (koteka), on a chair in front of a bank counter in one of Indonesia’s neatly air-conditioned bank buildings being served by a female Indonesian bank employee dressed in her professional business attire. Allured by this blatant juxtaposition of ‘primitiveness’ and ‘modernity’ at a frontier that is obviously promising wealth, the businessman explained that this picture was recently sent to him by a friend who got ‘a project’ (proyek) in Timika, and that he is hoping to join him soon.2 Whereas one might be struck to find such a picture on the smartphone of a Javanese businessman, the representation of a Papuan man as primitive in the context of Indonesian manifestations of modernity is less surprising.3 Yet this volume is not only occupied with the remarkably persistent association of Papuans with primitivism, especially with the stone-age as the ultimate realm of the primitive other, but also with the question how this stone-age image surfaces in the current era, in which so much emphasis is put on the ‘real-time’, an expression that popularly alludes to immediate digital communication that is free of delays. People communicate, transmit all kinds of data, as it really happens – at least this is the ideal. As such, ‘real-time’ functions as a synonym for the present, for participating in the present, for being part of today’s globalising modernity, and certainly not for belonging to a bygone age. The real-time thus signifies a global digital modernity in which ‘cyber’-citizens, i.e. potentially everybody who is not confined to the offline, occupy the same spatio-temporal realm. And in light of current user numbers of social media it becomes apparent that the real-time is very appealing to Indonesians.4

Similarly to the appeal of the real-time today, in the Dutch colonial era officials were occupied with what they regarded as ‘real’ or as belonging to ‘the real world’, notions that implied already a sense of coevalness as well as its denial. Most importantly, it was the world of Papuans that was not granted this status of being ‘real’. Michael Cookson (2008: 389) quotes in his dissertation Jan van Baal, a key figure of the colonial regime, who lamented in the 1950s about the state of education in Papua:

Their knowledge of arithmetic may be very unsatisfactory and that of reading and writing only slightly better, but they will all come to understand that the world of their fathers, that small and mysterious little world, is not the real world after all. There is only one real world that matters: it is the world of schools, of big ships and planes, of trade and films, of motor-cars, luxury and prosperity. That real world, however, is not theirs.

In the meantime, conditions in Papua have changed considerably and one might argue that ‘the real world’ as described by van Baal has, at least in some of its aspects, become part of Papuan daily life. Moreover, Papuans participate not only in what van Baal characterised as ‘real’ but in realms of the real-time he was not able to imagine in the 1950s. Given this contemporary emphasis on contemporaneity this volume asks what consequences, frictions and anxieties the current moment generates, when the persistency of the stone-age image meets the practices and ideologies of the real-time, and when different conceptions of time collide in ways that potentially endanger Indonesian-Papuan hierarchies. A first answer to that question may be that in the age of the real-time, considerably more effort has to be invested in denying Papuans a role in the present, and in relegating them to a past time by identifying them with stone-age images. Again, consider the case of the circulating picture of the Papuan in the bank. The Javanese businessman’s friend, or whoever has taken the picture, could easily have portrayed Papuans dressed in trousers and not a koteka. In fact, there were probably more trouser-wearing Papuans than koteka-wearing Papuans in the bank. Yet such a representation would grant Papuans a status of contemporaneity, of being part of Indonesia’s modern economy as bank customers or even businessmen. Instead, this picture from the Papuan frontier, circulating among Javanese businessmen in contact with each other via social media, exhibits the Papuan as a curiosity in the modern space of a bank. It imputes the opportunities that Papua apparently has to offer to those who are really part of the real-time, i.e. smartphone-owning Javanese businessmen who feel themselves compelled to document outsiders-cum-stone-agers who are intruding into the spatio-temporal realm of the contemporary.

Digital files sometimes take widely ramified trajectories, and this has also been the case with the ‘koteka-wearing Papuan in a bank’ picture. A quick search on Google Images reveals that the picture has made it onto the Indonesian online portal indowebster, which boasts around 1.6 million members. Discussed in the portal’s forum section, comments range from sensationalist remarks about a ‘naked’ (bugil) man in a bank wearing, besides his koteka, only a ‘cool wrist watch’ (jam tangan keren) to expressions of sympathy and understanding that his attire should be regarded as part of his ‘tradition’ (adat) and that one should respect people who ‘still love their culture’ (masih cinta terhadap budayanya).5 Though not centred on an interest in business opportunities, these interpretations follow a similar logic of denying the contemporary contemporaneity, as, in the first instance, they suggest that the ‘naked’ Papuan does not belong in the bank just like the ‘cool watch’ does not belong to such a ‘primitive’ man and, in the second case, they grant the Papuan a place in the bank only as a personification of tradition, as the ‘noble savage’ who still loves his culture in contrast to, as is suggested, those modern Indonesians who are active in the online forum.

As our interpretations of these examples indicate, the volume builds on a tradition of scholarship in anthropology that critically reflects temporal and spatial hierarchisations as they appear within the discipline and beyond. This scholarship is characterised by critical (self-)reflexivity, i.e. following Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism (1978) it is concerned with strategies of representing non-Western people in temporally remote forms and with the construction of ‘cultural, temporal, and geographical distance’ (ibid. 222) at large. We thus find the ‘denial of coevalness’, which Johannes Fabian (1983) sees constitutive for classic anthropological accounts, as having transcended the realms of Western scholarship and cultural production. Seeking to contribute to an anthropology of temporal representations, this volume demonstrates that this denial can decisively inform not only ideological categories and government policies but also everyday encounters, practice and performance, offline and online – in a country like Indonesia and, due to the spread of evolutionist and developmentalist ideologies, in many other places in the world as well (for Africa see e.g. Ferguson 2006).

Another important aspect of the spread of temporal hierarchisations in the current era is that representations, such as exemplified by the digital files discussed above, are likely to reach new audiences. The importance of audiences for political projects in Papua, especially for notions of sovereignty, is emphasised by Danilyn Rutherford (2012: 2), who asserts that ‘audience infects the very concept of sovereignty: audience is sovereignty’s basis and its bane’. And it can indeed become its bane when files reach audiences for which they were not intended. The chapter by Budi Hernawan exemplifies such a case. Hernawan examines ‘torture as a mode of governance’ in Papua. His chapter is based on 431 codified cases of torture in Papua over the period of 1963–2010 and 214 interviews in five countries, which formed the basis of his doctoral research (Hernawan 2013). His analysis suggests that the most distinct pattern of torture in West Papua is that it takes place in public spaces, i.e. torture is practiced in public with a particular audience in mind, namely the family members and fellow villagers of the torture victim. However, in 2010 videos of Papuans being tortured by Indonesian military personnel were published on YouTube and spurred international reactions. The audience of Papuan villagers, which the perpetrators might have perceived as being spatially and temporally too distant from the interconnected world, suddenly gained support from the realm of the real-time, in which the videos were watched, shared and discussed.

We consider this example significant because, unlike the Papuan bank customer, the tortured Papuans were impossible to relegate to the stone-age. As torture victims they became subject to contemporary state practices, to one means that Indonesia employs to assert its sovereignty over Papua today. In sharp contrast to evolutionist and developmentalist projects that find international recognition as well as reinforce stone-age discourses, torture is irreconcilable with such attempts. When it is represented online, torture is part of the real-time and, tragically, one of its effects is that Papuans become part of the real-time as well. However, this occurs through mediatisation, whereas the act of torture is attended with discourses of dehumanisation, as the chapter by Hernawan also reveals, that resort to evolutionist and racist ideologies finding their expression in name-calling (e.g. monyet, meaning ‘monkey’). In fact, many of the chapters assembled in this volume give accounts of such practices of humiliation in which the ‘monkey’ referent features as a particularly evolutionist example derived from popular representations of apes as precursors of human beings, i.e. the early stone-agers. So these derogatory discourses place Papuans one evolutionary stage downwards, even below humankind.

But let us turn now to another example for stone-age/real-time dynamics that differs considerably from the ones above, since here we can observe Papuan-Indonesian encounters that have dialogic features and thus also represent the views of Papuans. This time our source is not to be found on digital social media but was recently published in an academic journal article. ‘A note on Jayapura’ is written by an Indonesian student, Inaya Rakhmani (2012: 151), who visited Papua with the attempt ‘to identify the threads that weave Indonesia together now’. In the course of her PhD research on ‘television, religion and national identity in Indonesia’, supervised at Murdoch University, Inaya had visited six cities in Indonesia, among which Jayapura ‘left the deepest impression personally and professionally’ (ibid.). As her visit in October 2011 coincided with the Third Papua Congress and its violent suspension by the Indonesian security apparatus, it was Inaya’s ‘driver [who] mapped out, based on his real-time communication with local officials, which areas would be more dangerous to travel through and [he] expertly avoided them’ (Rakhmani 2012: 152). Thus, in the first instance, modern real-time communication was used to keep a safe distance from the ‘rebelling’ Papuans, emphasising cultural distance between Indonesian modernity and Papuan primitiveness, similar to the circulating picture of the koteka-wearing Papuan man in the bank. But as a PhD student and researcher, Ina came to Jayapura not at all with the intention of shunning Papuans; she actually wanted to meet them, which she eventually did, choosing high school students as her respondents. From her conversations with them she learned that the ‘students showed great concern over how they are being stereotyped by people in Java, especially how they are being represented as “koteka-wearing-primitives” (as one respondent put it) by Jakarta-centred, nationally broadcast television programmes’ (ibid. 154). She was asked whether she expected them to wear koteka, and she was told by students who visited ‘Java with their family, [that] many people had been surprised that they were fully-clothed and articulate’ (ibid. 155). The students were also amazed that she wanted to talk with them, as one of her interlocutors said to her: ‘It is not common for a Javanese Muslim to have such an interest in us’ (ibid. 156).

Inaya’s approach was indeed uncommon, and it was not in accordance with how the Papuan students expected her to see them based on what some of them had experienced in Java, and certainly not based on the exemplary views of the Javanese businessmen discussed above. Perhaps related to her status as a well-educated young woman pursuing her tertiary education at an Australian university, she did not regard the young Papuans she met as somehow belonging to another age. Since she was interested in ‘the threads that weave Indonesia together now’, i.e. now, she treated her interlocutors as contemporaries – much to their astonishment. Nevertheless, her account includes the short reference to the real-time in the form of mobile phone communication that was used to avoid areas where Papuans could clash with Indonesian security forces – understandable from the perspective of personal safety. This is, of course, a very different use of real-time communication compared to the picture-sending Javanese businessmen with their smartphones. Yet both represent examples of the ambivalence of the real-time when it comes to Papua, where thanks to the real-time one can find a ‘secure’ way through a conflict-prone frontier or from where one can send pictures to confirm its inhabitants’ alleged primitivity. Although Papuans, like other citizens of the Indonesian Republic, are active participants in online spheres, as is also reflected in many chapters of this volume, Indonesian representations leave the impression that Papuans remain offline, reinforcing the stone-age identity.

Given the persistency of the stone-age image, mobile and techno-savvy Papuans who visit Java thus can become a source of surprise, as one of Inaya’s interlocutors pointed out, and also a source of anxiety – primitives who are no longer primitive anymore spur reactions. Unfortunately, one popular reaction is to deny them contemporaneity despite all empirical counter-evidence. So how do Indonesians and others reconcile modern, mobile and ‘articulate’ Papuans with their stone-age image? What attempts are made to reinstall a hierarchy, structurally and in personal encounters, that is based on temporal inequality? The chapters in this volume comprise instructive examples of how in Indonesia today, on different levels and in different settings, much effort is put into upholding this stone-age image and its attendant social hierarchy. Contributors also reveal how Papuans are taking up these ideas and for what reasons, and what cultural logics are invoked or dispelled in the process.

By doing so, they build on the first chapter of this volume written by Danilyn Rutherford, who is occupied with the Dutch colonial period when ‘expeditions’ into the interior of West Papua took place. Rutherford reveals that demonstrations of technology, from firearms to gramophones, were a crucial means of asserting colonial authority and structuring relations with Papuans between the 1930s and 1950s. Intrinsic to these performances was the need to demonstrate not only one’s own mastery of technology but also the stone-age condition of Papuans, and in doing so establishing relationships based on this hierarchy. It was not enough to conceptualise the Papuans as stone-agers according to certain evolutionist criteria; rather, the Dutch felt the need to visibly enact their evolutionist ideology in face-to-face activities. After the Second World War, when many Papuans had already acquainted themselves with the technologies demonstrated and introduced by the Dutch, the colonial authorities invited anthropologists to document the alleged primitivism of the Papuans through films. According to Kirsch (2010: 8) the Papuans were depicted as ‘living in a state of nature and ... as representatives of our collective human past. As members of a Stone Age society, they are not regarded as coevals but survivors of another era who must be brought into the present, thereby legitimating a variety of state interventions’ – and colonial presence, we might add. In fact, when the Dutch era came to an end, it was the stone-age image that featured in international discourse and was used to deny Papuan self-determination. After all, it was no less a person than John F. Kennedy who stated that ‘those inhabitants of West New Guinea are living, as it were, in the Stone Age’ (see Rutherford 2013; Webster 2013).

Referring to the late Dutch colonial period, Rutherford reveals another crucial aspect of the stone-age discourse that helps to understand current dynamics in Papua. In her chapter, she discusses a case where a Biak woman was brought to the highlands to work in the Dutch household of the head of the post’s health department where she encountered a local houseboy. In their first encounter it became apparent, as Rutherford writes, ‘how this coastal Papuan internalised the Dutch view that made Stone Age tribes out of people who had once used stone tools’, although the houseboy presented himself to the Biak woman as someone who receives formal education. For Rutherford, this example shows that even if Papuans ‘mastered modern instruments, the Stone Age stuck to their identities, like glue from a label they couldn’t peel off’ – all the more so if Papuans themselves view other Papuans as stone-agers. This example of the hierarchisation of relations between coastal and highlands Papuans based on colonial discourses anticipates current tensions among Papuans that often run along these coastal–highland lines, with Papuans from the coast still resorting to claims of superiority over highland populations.

However, this picture is complicated by Rupert Stasch’s chapter on the Korowai of the southern lowlands, where in fact highland Dani missionaries (among other actors) are engaged in the project of bringing the Korowai into the realm of the real-time, which the Korowai themselves very much desire. As Stasch shows, this project and its opposite, namely selling the Korowai as the ultimate stone-agers to international ‘alternative’ and ‘adventure’ tourists, is characterised by a set of highly ambiguous relationships: ‘Korowai take up the category of the primitive as a self-understanding, acting toward and through this category in their relations with outsiders [mainly tourists and government officials] newly central to their world.’ Stasch also shows how the Korowai appropriate the notion of the primitive according to their own concept of unequal human relations, although the inequality they are confronted with today is unprecedented in their history, in which ‘strategies of self-lowering as a way to elicit relations are … cultural patterns with deep regional resonance’. So what we see here is a very particular way of dealing with the stone-age image: Korowai are occupied less with getting rid of it and finding recognition as contemporary moderns, as many Papuans attempt today, but rather are actively using the stone-age image to obtain funds, services and consumer goods, and thus to become part of the real-time world as well. Moreover, Stasch sharpens our awareness that ‘in the Indonesian and Dutch colonial eras alike, church workers, government functionaries, schoolteachers, and other outsiders who introduce primitivist ideas to local populations have been themselves Papuan’.

From the above examples we can see that Papuan engagements with the real-time necessitate grappling with complex internalisations of the gaze of others; an affective experience with unpredictable results. In the central highlands, the perceived epicentre of Papuan primitivity and certainly the homeland of the koteka, growing towns and urban settlements are sites where the stone-age stigma shapes real-time highlander experiences, encounters and ambitions. Wamena is one seat of local government, a site of rowdy markets and a fluorescence of shops, where tall buildings are going up, and the new Wamena Mall, a shopping complex that could have been built in any other small Indonesian city, is awaiting merchants and customers (see also Sugandi 2013). Dani and other locals engage in compelling practices of impression management when preparing for a jaunt into this town, entering a different social, political and economic space that is now home to as many non-Papuans as highlanders. For instance, it is seen as important to put on footwear, minimally sandals, and ideal to remove garden boots and leave those at home. In general, the more layers of clothes and accessories the better, preferably on a freshly bathed and perfumed body. Activities like visiting a doctor or a government office require long pants (for men), as well as an accomplice with sufficient education or experience to avoid possible discomfort or embarrassment over not knowing the correct procedure, not understanding the lingo, feeling shy amidst powerful outsiders – or becoming the ‘primitive’ subject of a picture taken by a Javanese businessman and proliferated across Indonesia in real-time. A notebook in a netbag is essential for those women or men who want to be seen as having a genuine purpose in town, perhaps linked to a church activity, an NGO, or a project team. Walking is to be avoided at all costs because it implies that one does not have money (or a friend) for a ride. Mobile phones should be on display as much as possible, along with USB drives dangling from lanyards and laptops (or laptop bags, if a laptop is lacking).

These activities suggest ways people are recognising, while also devising, certain expectations related to modern, urban, multi-ethnic space, and in doing so seeming to accept, or at least know intimately, the gaze of others upon which judgments of their character and capacity are likely to be made. It is hard not to see the layers of clothing, the hats, jackets, socks and other accessories, in juxtaposition to the traditional koteka or the hip-hugging grass skirt that hold a significant place in so many conceptualisations of Papuans’ identity, but it is also possible to see an ongoing cultural form of adornment with traditional roots. We can read the recognition of unequal positioning in Indonesian modernity brought to the fore in a small, rapidly growing town. But, we would also encounter staunch and articulate resistance to many (but not all) expressions of alleged Papuan primitivity. What often confounds the stone-age designation in contemporary Papua is in fact Papuans’ confident critiques, creative expressions, thoughtful histories and bold moves. These scenes, flush perhaps with emotions of discomfort, anger, pride and concern, also remind us of the importance of looking at affective experiences of the current moment, as well as past and present mobilisations of affect in cross-cultural encounters.

Given the long-lasting association of the highlands with primitivism and more recent Papuan strategies to counter this image, it does not come as a surprise that desires of becoming part of the real-time world are particularly pronounced there, especially in the last few years when the lifestyles of Indonesian modernity have become more and more accessible, at least for some Papuans, spurring the dreams of those who have been merely bystanders. When we were in the phase of completing this introduction a ‘letter from the field’ reached us, i.e. an email and not a traditional letter of course. It was written by Jacob Nerenberg, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Toronto, who is currently ‘embedded in a small-scale mobile phone network pilot project, designed by foreign scientists, in a district centre that lies beyond the reach of the major national mobile phone networks, at the end of the main road from Wamena’.6 We want to include our colleague’s account here, as he illustrates so vividly the concerns of many Papuans with their spatial and temporal position in the world:

While conducting fieldwork in the Central Highlands I have heard many different forecasts and aspirations for changes that people anticipate happening in the region. One day, after a rally to promote the formation of a new regency in what is now a mere district centre, I asked a retired local politician what changes he hoped the new regency would bring. This man explained that new roads would link the village market to surrounding villages so that farmers could transport their produce efficiently; and that more new roads would allow the regency to sell its produce all over Papua, becoming the region’s breadbasket. I was also told that the national carrier would extend mobile phone network coverage, so that ‘the voice of the people would be heard’ in power centres far away; and that these changes would make this place more ‘advanced’. I have heard other, seemingly very different projects – providing improved education, training women to market handicrafts, or changing Papua’s political status – get framed in surprisingly similar terms of enhancing forms of wide-ranging connection.7

Nerenberg’s reflections on his fieldwork are worth quoting here as well:

It becomes difficult to decide if transcending space and time is seen as a means to an end, or an end in itself […] Sometimes I think about this situation as a kind of laboratory, where I am to determine how new network access transforms people’s reality. The stories I collect remind me of these transformations’ complicated trajectories. Families scatter from this ‘remote’ district to Wamena, Jayapura, Timika, Yogyakarta; young people travel around Papua living and working as miners, stereo salesmen, teachers, drivers, airplane ticket hawkers, before coming back home; some end up assisting foreign researchers, only realizing later that they appear in internationally-published books. The transition to ‘modern’ network connection has never been discrete – ‘rural’ life in Papua has long been about relocation, dislocation, migration, seeking out new knowledge and technologies. The story of real-time connection is also one where high-tech infrastructures try to catch up to existing patterns of connection and mobility. It is about disconnection, network failure and lack – busy signals, weak network reception, phones dying in the rain, trucks stuck in the mud, SIM cards that stop working because there is no cash to buy airtime. So much of life in Papua unfolds in this space between anticipated connections, experiences of breakdown, and realities of uncertainty and impermanence.8

Nerenberg addresses here the less pleasant side of the introduction of real-time connection in highlands Papua, namely that hopes and desires can be destroyed as connections break down or do not function the way they should. Yet being connected, having access to the real-time circles of Indonesian modernity, does not mean that one has automatically gained secure status, since this social space is characterised by its own particular risks. We remain in the highlands to exemplify this point with the following story.9

In 2013, Jeremiah,10 a Dani campaign manager and senior public servant, was released from prison after four years of detention and subsequent house arrest. The circumstances that led to his arrest are not entirely clear. In one version of the story, Jeremiah borrowed a vast sum of money from an Indonesian police officer to help a Dani candidate, who was also Jeremiah’s relative, advance in local elections. Jeremiah went to jail when the candidate did not advance and the money could not be repaid. The expectation was that if the campaign was successful the money would be returned through contracts or cash once the candidate was in office. In another version, the one that officially explains his imprisonment, Jeremiah is alleged to have corrupted public funds using his position as District (Kabupaten) Treasurer to secure funds for the election campaign of his relative. The rumour behind this official story is that the District Head (also an indigenous man) and the police wanted to expel Jeremiah from his position in the government due to disagreements over budgetary resources, including the extent of government corruption that the Treasurer was willing to cover up (and potentially, inevitably, take the blame for), and the fact that Jeremiah was supporting another man’s campaign in an effort to depose the District Head. Another version insists that the alleged embezzlement and subsequent imprisonment had nothing to do with an election campaign, but rather that Jeremiah used public funds to buy a project (proyek, probably a construction contract or an order for infrastructure) from officials in Jakarta, described as typical practice. In this case, he handed over the money, but the officials did not deliver the project as promised. Felix, an indigenous informant, himself a civil servant, explained this as a common way that the Indonesian government continues to control, manipulate and oppress Papuans. The big business players and government ministers in Jakarta (where Jeremiah travelled to buy the project), Felix said, bring Papuans into business networks only to turn on them, to cheat them, and to expose them in compromising positions.

A great deal of shame and hardship was experienced by Jeremiah’s relatives, who spent the better part of 18 months after he went to jail pooling their very limited resources (by holding community pig feasts, donating garden produce and cash) in an attempt to repay a small percentage of the 500 million rupiah (about AU$50,000) he borrowed/embezzled. Jeremiah had been one of the most senior Dani government officials ever, with more years in the public service than the District Head. He was disgraced and his wife left him. Unfortunately, in Wamena it was not possible to hear his version of events, as his relatives and other informants said he was still suffering from ‘stress’ and it could be emotionally damaging for him to recount the events that led to his imprisonment.

Here we see some of the tested connections, challenging undercurrents and personal impacts of Papuan engagements in real-time, where money, politics and development evince new ambiguity. Especially after the government’s decentralisation policy of ‘Special Autonomy’ was introduced in Papua in 2001 (see Timmer 2007; McWilliam 2011; Suryawan 2011), more Papuans have reached higher positions in the bureaucracy and financial flows between Jakarta and Papua have increased. New opportunities – a ‘proyek’ or an election – bring to the fore untested alliances coupled with high stakes. There is the chance to win big or lose very badly – with the risks mainly being borne by Papuans such as Jeremiah. Highlanders’ narrations of Jeremiah’s experience also illustrate that there are no longer clear lines between indigenous and Indonesian interests or allegiances, but deep mistrust of Indonesian intentions remains obvious. The acts and decisions of government players are deeply entangled with ‘community’ or family, and new demands are made on kinship systems.

In Jeremiah’s story it is his trip to Jakarta that indicates the close correlation between being connected and being mobile. Since Special Autonomy, such ‘official’ trips to Indonesia’s capital are certainly on the rise, and within Papua they are replicated by travel to provincial and district centres. At the same time, there is a heightened desire for being mobile, as hopes are invested in mobility as a way to become part of the contemporary age. Thus, for many Papuans today, exploring new mobilities is tantamount to attempting to locate oneself anew in the complex landscape of temporal hierarchisations. It is thus expedient to focus our attention on emerging forms of mobility, bearing in mind the intrinsic relationships between mobilities and temporalities.


Contemporary Papuan mobilities are certainly not isolated phenomena but are embedded in wider developments within and beyond Indonesia. New opportunities of travel, communication and meaning production are part of what one of the editors of this volume has called ‘globalisation within Indonesia’ (Slama 2011), referring to the fact that phenomena that hitherto have mainly been described and analysed in their transnational guise, such as accelerated and intensified flows of people, capital and images (e.g. Appadurai 1996; Hannerz 1996; Eriksen 2007), occur to a large extent within Indonesia given its sheer size, its cultural diversity and its notable domestic inequalities. Especially since the fall of Suharto and the introduction of Special Autonomy, these inner-Indonesian flows have affected more and more Papuans, and more Papuans have become active participants in these mobile circles. However, this has been hardly acknowledged in the literature, as Leslie Butt aptly puts it in her contribution to this volume: ‘The lure of Papua as a discrete, politically distinct space has curtailed the study of Papuan mobility, or the impacts of the mobile technologies, peoples, objects and ideas that flow in and out of the province on the indigenous men and women who live there.’

In fact, mobility, of Papuans around and outside of Papua, and of Indonesians into Papua, is creating more opportunities for face-to-face encounters and personal evaluations than ever before. Although these encounters, due to new forms of mobility, might open channels for Papuans that hitherto were not available for them, the chapters in this volume hardly suggest that we can celebrate this ‘globalisation within Indonesia’ as mainly generating ‘win-win situations’ that are to the advantage of all parties involved. Rather, the new mobilities may evoke confrontations with Indonesians, or conjure tension amongst Papuans, even within families. For example, young people increasingly leave home, often for schooling, with the hopes of the family, clan and nation on their shoulders. These are mobilities of opportunity and privilege, but often fraught with risk and hardship. Mobilities away from home can result in lost connections, lost property and lost status. When mobilities intersect with the very real threats to life that are prevalent in Papua, including political violence, HIV and interpersonal conflict, the outcomes are unpredictable.

In her chapter, Butt explores the critical role of mobility for a particular group of highlands men – HIV-positive men – whose personal trajectories intersect with the mobile flows of viruses, drugs and technologies. As Butt asserts: ‘Upon his return the mobile HIV-positive man finds that the mechanisms of discrimination within the nation get replicated in the machinery of HIV health care.’ Indeed, in some cases mobility outside Papua is less problematic than the return to kin, territory and community – with empty hands and possibly in a state of weakness. Butt’s chapter thus makes clear that mobility and migration can become sites of anxiety where flows from outside are perceived as threat, such as in the case of HIV, and formerly mobile Papuan men are forced to become immobile due to the treatment requirements of their illness (see also Butt 2014; for ‘the anxieties of mobility’ in another Indonesian setting see Lindquist 2009). Exploring the ways mobility is gendered in Papua, Butt shows that her interlocutors, being unable to assume standard masculine roles in their home region, also cannot continue to explore the new masculinities that their mobility once offered them.

By contrast, as Munro shows in her chapter, university students who leave Papua may be drawn back to the attractive emotional space of Wamena. There, belonging is less of a struggle than in North Sulawesi where Papuan students have to deal with prejudices anchored in the evolutionist and racist discourses referred to above. This is particularly disappointing for Papuan students, since in Indonesia the category of ‘student’ (mahasiswa) implies occupying a respected position in Indonesian society, i.e. taking part in the real-time connections and mobile circles. However, this is not acknowledged by the locals in North Sulawesi, who do not consider the national image of the student appropriate for Papuans. As a result, assertiveness among students can cause conflict with locals who are heavily invested in ideologies that not only confine Papuans to stereotypes of primitive and uncouth but expect them to quietly acquiesce to these roles.

Munro’s research in North Sulawesi suggests itself to be associated with Inaya Rakhmani’s ‘note on Jayapura’, which comprises the account of a Papuan high school student who visited Java and met people there that were surprised that she and her family members ‘were fully clothed and articulate’. In both cases, the (high school and university) students – due to their mobility – were exposed to stone-age discourses prevalent in Indonesian society at large. But, as Munro also suggests in her chapter, the return of Dani graduates to the central highlands does not automatically mean that they will gain the positions they desire. In fact, the results that educated Dani women and men are able to achieve in the central highlands are severely limited by political conditions that continue to favour Indonesian settlers and migrants, but circumstances may allow for activities that nonetheless garner some status and positive reactions in the family (Munro 2013).

Mobility for educational purposes brings us to Rupert Stasch’s chapter. Stasch emphasises that ‘extreme parental enthusiasm and self-sacrificial striving in relation to children’s education is common throughout rural Papua’. In the case of the Korowai, ‘bootstrapping out of the primitive’ is closely associated with strategies of mobility such as making trips to administrative centres and sending boys to school in places outside Korowai land. Whereas in the first instance Korowai ‘primitivity’ is displayed in order to attract the attention of government officials, in the second instance it is hoped that the educated Korowai children will become civil servants themselves and thus will have access to funds and goods that will benefit the community at home. As in the case of Butt’s chapter, the mobility here is also highly gendered. Almost exclusively boys are sent to school in faraway places, whereas the girls are subject to parental control at home. However, what the boys experience in their new places is often hardship, as Stasch asserts, and adds to the chapter by Munro in exemplifying the difficulties of Papuan migration: ‘Boys themselves are often hungry in town, and may stay out of school for long periods there due to lack of money for fees or uniforms. Their relatives send them the little money they ever scrape together through income opportunities arising back home. Persons on all sides suffer painful separations, including during crises of illness or death.’ Contemporary Korowai experiences differ greatly from ‘the circulation of children to improve family circumstances’ on Java where we find a tradition of child adoption along kin and patron–client relations based on the principle of upward social mobility (Newberry 2014: 70).

As these Dani and Korowai examples suggest, by drawing attention to mobilities we refer not just to movement in space and time but to efforts to reposition oneself in social terms, in hierarchical relations, and how these actions evoke self-representations and self-definitions. In this, our contributors reveal some deep ironies of life in Papua related to the emergence of certain apparent liberties of expression, interpretation and assertiveness among Papuans. Henri Myrttinen sketches the multiple Papuan narratives linking Tanah Papua with Israel and the Holy Land; narratives that invoke different voices, local mythology, understandings of Christianity, political aspirations and readings of global politics (see also Kirksey 2012). Expressions of affinity with Israel take diverse forms, including Star of David graffiti in the streets of the provincial capital Jayapura, indigenous Papuans sporting pro-Israel t-shirts, and functionaries of the Christian congregations using Israeli and Jewish symbols as wallpaper on their laptops and smartphones. Some of these expressions are meant to invoke Papuan nationalism. However, this proliferation of Israeli symbols in Papuan public space occurs in a political context where freedom of expression on the streets is otherwise limited and expressive liberties are increasingly acted out on the internet.11 In 2013, 537 Papuans were arrested on political charges, such as flying the Papuan independence flag, the Morning Star, an increase of 165 per cent over 2012.12 In contrast, Israeli symbols can be regarded as ‘safe’, since they are not interpreted as representing Papuan nationalism by Indonesian authorities.

If we assert that Papua is currently being remade, limits to Papuan agency appear to be a major topic – not only with regard to the political sphere. Transformations are taking place at an accelerated pace and expanded breadth in spaces that were once considered off limits or beyond reach. It is fair to say that most Papuans have little power to determine what developments take place where, or in what manner. Mobilities thus evokes another theme, that of mobile capital, its ‘quick and dirty’ extractive approach to development in resource-rich Papua, and what it means to live in the shadow of these enterprises (Ballard 2002; Kennedy and Abrash 2001), or to try to engage from the margins. Other scholars have explored current economic conditions directly (Resosudarmo et al. 2009a, 2009b; King 2004). Rather than following them, the contributors in this volume illuminate everyday life in the frontier economy, and expose how economic inequalities are ingrained in social interactions and perceptions of the present. In exploring the affinity for American hip hop among Papuans in Manokwari, Sarah Richards considers the role of images of black affluence that stand in contrast to what Papuans usually see of themselves and other peoples of black heritage: poverty, sickness, hardship and being stuck on the fringes of ‘progress’. In other instances, university students’ ambitions for taking up the cause of development in their home areas are shaped by the perception that Freeport and other companies are extracting Papua’s natural wealth and leaving Papuans in the ‘stone-age’, even when on occasion their education is funded directly or indirectly via such endeavours. And, as noted above, the chapter by Rupert Stasch on the Korowai documents strategies of coping with extreme economic inequalities through mobilities aiming at access to circulating goods and capital, which are perceived according to indigenous concepts of social inequality.

Papuan concepts and symbols are examined in many chapters of this volume, and we can only agree with Myrttinen, who argues in his chapter that ‘in order to gain a better understanding of Papuan aspirations and dreams of a better future, one needs not to merely look at socio-economic statistics but also to investigate symbolic offerings’. He asserts that symbols – often with a heavily religious/mythological overtone – play a central role in Papuan nationalist politics. Moreover, Timmer, who brings forward a similar argument, writes that ‘the producers of Papuan histories are a diverse crowd, including intellectuals, philosophers, bureaucrats, church ministers and local leaders’; they are mobile figures residing in different places. The chapters indeed show that Papuan forms of expression are much more diverse than either Indonesian or Papuan nationalists would have us believe. Deep ethnographic exploration into local affinities, hierarchies and histories reveals surprising forms and content related to Papuan nationalism. Thus, when Timmer examines how nationalist narratives unfold, he comes to the conclusion that they often ‘turn the unpredictable succession of events into retroactive proof of a glorious predestination’. In a similar vein, these local-cum-national(ist) narratives point to translocal connections and mobilities as part of Papua’s predesigned destiny.

In light of the research presented in this volume, and in particular with regard to Rutherford’s seminal book Raiding the Land of the Foreigners (2003), we want to adopt an argument put forward by Noel Salazar (2010) about ‘cultural mobilities’ or ‘culturally rooted imaginaries of mobility’. We argue that in Papua one can discern particular mobilities that are difficult to comprehend without taking into account Papuan cosmologies (in all their entanglements with the Abrahamic religions and nationalism). Myrttinen reports that after Special Autonomy, pilgrimages to the Holy Land became more and more popular, and suggests that these new relations to Israel might also be read through the lens of Papuan mythology where people travel to engage with foreign beings who are in possession of goods that must be returned to Papua. In addition to such Koreri-like (imaginations of) mobilities that reach out to the foreign,13 one can encounter variations of mobility that spur travels within Papua, such as pilgrimages by Papuan Muslims to the ‘mountain of the prophet’ (gunung nabi), which is located close to Kaimana. In this case, the foreign, i.e. Mecca, is substituted by or relocated to a local site (Wanggai 2008: 59–60; see also next section, and Slama in this volume).

Particularly interesting examples of Papuan conceptions of mobility can also be found in Timmer’s chapter on Papuan historiography. In the histories he analyses, Papua is not only imagined as a place of origin from which people spread across the globe, an attempt to (re)localise Genesis in Papua, but also as having been in close contact with Sriwijaya and Majapahit, the great precolonial kingdoms so important in Indonesian historiography. Some of these histories that stem from the Bird’s Head Peninsula go even so far as to locate the origin of groups of Papuans in Java, from which they had to flee due to a ‘religious war’ between Islam and Buddhism. Without discussing the local contexts of and interests involved in these Papuan histories, which Timmer examines in detail in his contribution, one can conclude that what is emphasised in these narratives is a mobility that lets Papuans appear as having travelled across the archipelago for ages, i.e. as being a constitutive part of the archipelago’s, if not of the world’s, history, running counter to any discourses that only grant them a role as marginalised ‘primitives’ being stuck in remote lands while history unfolds elsewhere.

As this section has described, due to mobilities great contrasts in experience abound: Papuans are unpredictably jostled about, dislodging themselves from kin and land, or being dislocated by more powerful social actors and economic processes. Yet they also venture on undertakings that bring them to new places within and outside Papua based on their particular imaginaries rooted in Papuan cosmologies. Thus, in this volume, we have the young HIV sufferer in Wamena who, despite his efforts to live up to expectations of the mobile educated generation of which he is a part, is totally shunned and shamed because of HIV, or the young Korowai schoolchild who is struggling for education and for having enough food for the day. This contrasts with the hip hop dancer in Manokwari who finds pride in bodily expression and hope in images of black wealth and power, or the university students in North Sulawesi who may literally fight with Indonesians over recognition and equal treatment. And this contrasts again with Papuans who imagine their people as a mobile force in the archipelago, or with those who go on pilgrimages to Israel or to the ‘mountain of the prophet’. It is not a coincidence that among these diverse examples of contemporary Papuan mobilities religious aspects are prominent. In the next section we will discuss them in greater detail.


As particular concepts of time are constitutive for both the image of the stone-age and contemporary assertions of the real-time, they also cannot be separated from another theme that runs through this volume, namely the centrality of religious imaginations, expressions and practices. Similarly, as demonstrated above, the mobilities that the chapters of this volume discuss are often closely linked to Papuan religious life. When Papuans reflect on their history, their relations to non-Papuans, current political conditions and projects etc., they often resort to symbols and narratives that are rooted in major religious traditions such as Christianity as well as Papuan mythology. They do so in ways that often creatively combine and reconfigure these traditions so that one can discern the logic of local myths in interpretations of Christianity and Islam or find myth and monotheistic doctrine reconciled in novel ways. Moreover, as we have also already alluded to in the preceding section, there are strong links between religious thought and Papuan nationalism.

Following Kapferer, Telle and Eriksen (2010: 1), who assert that ‘many nationalisms implicated religious or cosmo-ontological orientations embedded in religious practice’, Papua features as a particularly salient example of a nationalism that employs religious symbols and logics for interpreting events and ‘history’ itself. For example, defining Papua as a Christian land, as opposed to Indonesia which is identified with Islam, is a theme that has its roots in the late Dutch colonial period (Rutherford 2012: 168). The popular labelling of Manokwari as the ‘Gospel City’ (kota injil) in the post-Suharto period indicates to what extent Papuan political thought continues to be informed by religious, especially Christian, concepts. Jaap Timmer, in his contribution to the volume, observes that ‘people do not read the Bible as a disparate set of texts but instead as a cohesive whole that reveals the nature of local history, the unfolding of time and the purpose of history’. Analysing nationalist texts and Papuan conceptualisations of history, Timmer suggests that the coming of Christianity marks Papua’s ‘coming of age’, i.e. when the hierarchy between adolescents and adults, between the ‘junior’ stone-agers and the ‘mature’ moderns, is dissolved by becoming part of the spatio-temporal realm of global Christianity. In this enchanted, equalising realm, according to some interpretations, Papua features as ‘holy land’ and Papuans as ‘chosen people’. These discourses spur analogies with Israel (see especially Myrttinen’s chapter) while fuelling the nationalist imagination. Timmer is inspired by Ballard, who asserts in his ‘Oceanic Historicities’ (2014: 111) that ‘our enquiry must centre on the ways in which historicities transform with the adoption of new religions, with incorporation into colonial or post-colonial states, and with the emergence of bureaucratic and professional elites’.

The coming of Christianity to Papua indeed transformed Papuan historicities, but it did not do so in a uniform way. The multiple uses and (re)interpretations of religious symbols, as the chapters also indicate, point to ‘limits of meaning’ (Engelke and Tomlinson 2006) in the Papuan realm, since what for some Papuans seems to be highly significant has for others no meaning at all. We find such an example in the contribution of Henri Myrttinen where one can see that the rather recent emergence of uses of ‘Israel’ in Papuan nationalist circles, including ample references to the Old Testament, can be decoded by some Papuans, whereas for others they remain a riddle. The significance of religiosities in this volume, i.e. religion understood as source of dynamics of meaning and practice, thus leads us directly to the complexities of the production of meaning in today’s Papua. Instead of associating Papua with ‘the jungle’ in an evolutionist fashion, as Indonesian Islamic preachers (see Slama’s chapter) or Western travel agencies (see the chapter by Stasch) do, Papua is better approached as a ‘forest of symbols’, a rather free adoption of the title of one of Victor Turner’s (1967) classic books. This forest of symbols can be observed in various Papuan domains, not only in rituals where strict followers of Turner would look for it, and its analysis must take into account a wide range of sources, intersections and assemblages of meaning. But the point we want to make in this introductory chapter is that in most cases, meaning production, in all its complexity, relies in one way or the other on religious symbols (of transnational and local origins). From this observation follows the question: Why do Papuans find religious idioms so attractive for expressing their concerns and hopes?

Let us try to answer this question by referring to an example in Timmer’s chapter where Papuans employ a range of Christian concepts, including identifying Papua as the Garden of Eden, and in doing so, turn evolutionist regimes of value on their heads – instead of representing the ‘stone-age’ and ‘backwardness’ Papua appears as the paradisiacal place of the origin of mankind. Indeed, we think that the attractiveness of Christianity to Christian Papuans as well as Islam to Muslim Papuans is to a considerable extent rooted in the fact that Christian and Islamic concepts offer an alternative to evolutionist and racist devaluations (see also Warta 2011: 44). However, this promise of equality that one can find in Christianity and Islam, namely that everybody is the same before God, can easily lead to disappointments when experiences in everyday life are a far cry from the ideal. This volume comprises such cases when Papuan ways of imagining and practicing Christianity meet, inside and outside Papua, the harsh reality of Indonesian hierarchisations. In Jenny Munro’s chapter, we find a telling example where she describes the celebration of the 88th birthday of a Catholic priest in North Sulawesi. A group of Papuan students honoured the priest by staging a dance for him, which did not deter key members of the community from treating them derogatively.

When Papuans become part of church congregations abroad, Munro’s ethnography suggests, they are not automatically seen as fellow members of the church being on one level with anybody else. In contrast, there is a high chance that they are treated as second-class believers and are confronted with stereotypes and prejudice that, ironically, often rest upon (or are at least informed by) the very evolutionist concepts that these denominations officially reject. Current conditions thus differ greatly from how Dutch colonial officials imagined the future integration of Papuans into wider society. To illustrate this, let us again quote the colonial official Jan van Baal (in Cookson 2008: 389) who, after stating that Papuans are not part of ‘the real world’, saw ‘only one narrow sphere where the Papuan may enter and where he is even welcome without being reminded of his inferiority: that is the church, where he is called a brother and acknowledged to have a place of his own’.

Van Baal would certainly be disappointed to see that many Christian Papuans today, particularly those in diaspora, have to deal with the condition of not being fully accepted in the social universe of official religion, the social realm where they would most expect to find recognition in Indonesia’s multi-ethnic society. This must also be viewed against the backdrop of the importance of church congregations as major fora of sociality and social support in Papua and Indonesia at large. The social role of churches, particularly as significant sources of status for Papuan men, becomes apparent in Leslie Butt’s chapter about HIV-positive Papuan men. She describes cases that reveal not only the effects of HIV on the mobility of Papuan men (referred to above) but also notices the severe consequences for their social life once their HIV seropositivity has become public. Being barred from the church congregation is among the most hurtful consequences for HIV positive men. One of Butt’s interlocutors told her that nobody visits him anymore, ‘not people from our church and not people from my family’. Whether it is a coincidence that he mentioned church first and then family remains undecided, but what this quote and other examples in Butt’s chapter indicate is that in celebrating a collective spirituality, the church, with its public forms of religiosity, such as church going, participating in church committees etc., assigns public roles to men in everyday life as well as rituals. Those HIV-positive men who were excluded from church sociality and have lost all their status thus have to develop their religiosity anew, as they are isolated not only socially but also spiritually. As Butt shows, people not only do not want to meet them anymore but also do not want to pray for them anymore. It is this double isolation, or even the threat of it, that may lead to a religiosity that becomes centred on an individualised human–God relationship. As a consequence, HIV-positive men associate their seropositivity with sin, but feel guilty only to God, not to the community which, for obvious reasons, is not supposed to know. This reflects a very personal(ised), unmediated relationship to God, which we find telling because it is rather untypical for Papua, where religiosity is so closely connected to local sociality, imaginations of a global community of believers and national identity.

But let us come back to the question of the attractiveness of religious symbols for Papuans. As noted above, Papuan mythology, like the Abrahamic religions, offers alternative ways to imagine Papua in the world and world history than the evolutionist paradigm. Moreover, one can discern similar temporal logics in the ideologies of Christian denominations, especially Pentecostal and evangelical ones that have become popular in Papua in the last decades, and Papuan millennial movements. In this regard, our reading of Papuan religiosities is inspired by Joel Robbins (2007: 12) who has argued that ‘scholars have not ... fully recognized or attended to similarities between the rupturing of temporal continuity in conversion and in millennial imaginings or tied these to the similar rupture that, in Christian understandings, lies at the origin of Christian history’. What Robbins characterises here as rupture concerns the personal as well as the collective levels on which radical breaks with the past are intrinsic to both Christianity and millenarianism (for Christianity see also Keane 2007). The coming of Christ or the coming of Manarmakeri, the central figure of the Koreri myth, often becomes interchangeable, and, as Rutherford (2012: 158) has pointed out, some Papuans indeed identify Jesus Christ with Manarmakeri. Myrttinen (this volume) discerns another Koreri theme: that Papua is a place of origin from which foreigners have taken objects that Papuans must recuperate. In this case, Myrttinen describes the view that ‘the Star of David is actually the Morning Star which was taken by Israel from Papua’.

In Papua, Abrahamic narratives are ‘grounded in landscapes’ and ‘privilege the performative and sensory,’ features that Ballard (2014: 105, 107) sees as typical for vernacular histories in the Pacific. Indeed, Myrttinen found that it ‘was not always possible in all my interviews to draw a distinct line between when events in Papua were merely being compared to those occurring in the Bible and when Biblical events were actually considered to have happened in Papua’. Taking the landscape theme seriously, it does not come as a surprise that we find, as briefly noted above, a ‘mountain of the prophet’ (gunung nabi) close to Kaimana as a pilgrimage site for Papuan Muslims (see Slama in this volume). As for the performative and the sensory themes in Papuan religious histories, in the Fakfak region we find an oral tradition that asserts particular origins of Christianity as well as Islam in Papua. According to this tradition, close to Fakfak there are two springs, a saltwater and a sweet water spring, that were watched over by guards. The guards each owned a book. The guard of the saltwater spring owned the Qur’an, and the guard of the sweet water spring the Bible. They then spread the teachings of the books, with the people living on the coast following the Qur’an (from the saltwater spring), and the people of the interior following the Bible (from the sweet water spring) (Onim 2006: 53–54; Warta 2011: 334). Thus, this self-empowering narrative assigns Papua a special place in Christianity and Islam and does not identify it with an inferior evolutionary stage or a remote geographical region.

As Myrttinen and Slama note in their chapters, the question of the coming of Christianity and Islam to Papua, especially the question of which religion came first, is a topic that is not only treated in mythological narratives but also quite openly debated – in Papua and in Indonesia at large, in online fora and offline. Whereas Western scholarship has a clear answer to this question, namely that some Papuans of the coastal regions of the Bird’s Head Peninsula adopted Islam in the course of tributary trade relations with the Sultan of Tidore in the 17th century, if not earlier (see Warnk 2010, and Slama in this volume), many Papuans imagine Papua as a Christian land and equate the coming of Islam with the arrival of the Indonesian state.14 The question ‘Who came first?’ has, as in so many other parts of the world, highly political connotations and its relevance is certainly not confined to the academic field. At the same time, such discourses are challenged from within Papua, not only by heterodox interpretations of Christianity and Islam or civil society groups that seek to ease interreligious tensions, but also by the emergence of a Muslim Papuan identity, as it is advocated by the Council of Papuan Muslims (Majelis Muslim Papua) (Pamungkas 2008, 2011). This relatively new organisation has to navigate Papua’s political landscape by asserting that being Muslim does not automatically mean adopting the positions or interests of Indonesian Muslims, including religious authorities from Java who share particular Islamic perceptions of Papua as a marginal frontier (analysed by Slama in detail), or becoming disloyal to the land of Papua. At the same time, the presence of an increasing number of Islamic proselytisers of various organisational backgrounds (see e.g. Noor 2010), some of whom also attract Papuan Muslims to study Islam in other parts of Indonesia, is further diversifying Papua’s Islamic field, and it remains to be seen what consequences these new inner-Indonesian connections will have for forging a Muslim Papuan identity. Yet what becomes apparent in Slama’s chapter is that the presence of Islamic preachers from outside Papua add to the spatio-temporal hierarchisations with which Papuans have to deal, as their Islamic frontier notions are inflected by evolutionist and developmentalist discourses.

How different Christian and Islamic configurations of identity will inform Papuan assertions of identity at large is a question that is only touched upon in this volume and will certainly occupy researchers in the future. Similarly, we think, researchers will attend to orthodox versions of religion that, as it seems, will become more influential not only with regard to religious practice and doctrine but also concerning everyday cultural life. We consider Sarah Richards’ chapter as anticipating trends in this regard, as her work shows that the hip hop cultural scene in Manokwari, a self-empowering subculture that enables young Papuans to connect with global trends – to become part of a global ‘real-time’ – without abandoning their Papuanness, could develop without major ideological obstacles except versions of orthodox Christianity. In fact, as Richards’ chapter makes clear, orthodox Christianity can be seen as the only source of counter-discourse to hip hop in the ‘Gospel City’. Furthermore, her chapter indicates that when we place broad, singular notions such as Papuan identity in specific local contexts, we are able to shed light on some of the dynamics that give rise to a heightened sense of Papuanness in some places, but test this idea in others.

As we wanted to point out in this section, looking at Papuan religiosities brings to light various aspects of being Papuan today and of engaging with forces – symbolic and material – from outside Papua that point to a range of ambiguities and contradictions. Whereas Christianity informs Papuan nationalist expressions to a great extent, Christianity – itself being of transnational nature – can also emerge as counter-force to other global influences. It can be a source on which Papuan histories build, and at the same time its history can be reinterpreted according to the logics of Papuan mythology. Similarly, Christianity as well as Islam can offer an alternative to evolutionist perceptions. Papuans might find a great deal of social support through religious institutions, yet in the very realms of these religions deprecatory attitudes might prevail in everyday encounters. Moreover, the very identification of Papua or a Papuan city such as Manokwari with a particular religion raises issues not only of historical trajectories and Dutch colonial reverberations but also of the very possibility of an encompassing Papuanness that can transcend religious boundaries. Having said this, and having explored Papuan conditions in their mobile and temporal dynamics, we want to highlight additional aspects of the volume, especially by embedding contemporary Papuan experiences in wider regional settings.

Regional trends and experiences

With this volume we hope to position conversations about cultural change, religion, gender, technologies, mobilities, economic inequalities, colonialism and everyday politics in Papua in relation to regional trends and experiences – Melanesian as well as Southeast Asian. For instance, a particular thread that runs through many of the chapters indicates ways that Papuan experiences of colonial hierarchies and ideologies of diminishment invoke contestations familiar in other cultural and historical contexts (Robbins 2004, 2005; Rosaldo 2003). Contestations are related to ways of being seen and being known, and negotiating the frameworks that each party brings to the encounter (Balme 2007; Jolly et al. 2009). In thinking about how Papuans are responding to encounters, even how and when they may also produce and evoke primitivist identities, contributors are building on widely discussed experiences of encounter in Melanesian contexts (for Papua, see Ploeg 1995; Ballard 2009; for elsewhere in Melanesia see Clark 2000; Douglas and Ballard 2008; Bashkow 2006). There are many different sorts of ‘outsiders’ to whom Papuans may present themselves, including Indonesian and Papuan (local or non-local) government officials and proyek (project – see Aspinall 2013) personnel, international and domestic tourists and ethnic neighbours within or beyond Papua (see Stasch 2009, 2011; Silverman 2013).

Authors are also pursuing explorations of contemporary racial formulations in relation to development priorities and mentalities, and in doing so build on earlier work that sketches racial ideas in historical context in Papua (Ballard 2008; Giay and Ballard 2003). Butt’s analysis of HIV among Papuan men notes: ‘The political conditions whereby endemic racism and colonial mentalities make their way into health care regimens exacerbate the challenges of getting on drugs and staying on them.’ And Stasch (in this volume) highlights the close connections between racism and developmentalism:

Global metropolitan publics today widely hold a model of a Manichaean contrast of ‘primitive’ and ‘civilized’ poles of humanity. This model is indebted to 19th century anthropological theories of social evolution for its sense that the ‘civilized’ pole is history’s telos. Additionally, this globally dominant primitivist model has strong if submerged overlaps with histories of racism and racial theory, as well as connections to the crypto-evolutionism of ‘development’. Although ideological structures of ‘primitivism’ are my main focus across this chapter, one effect of looking at stereotyped people’s own uptake of such ideologies is that the inter-implication of primitivist, evolutionary, racial, and developmentalist models are made more explicit than usual.

Melanesianist scholars thus may find that Papua provides insights into the complex formulation of new racial identities and new antagonisms in the region, especially related to Asian settlement and immigration, labour migration, and tensions formed in the shadows of extractive industries.

In this volume, several contributors shed light on how Papuans are engaging with exogenous orders, practices and values (Rumsey 2006; Robbins and Wardlow 2005) that are a prominent part of life in a society characterised by high levels of in-migration by Indonesians as well as high levels of internal mobility. Political authority is increasingly dependent on bureaucratic know-how, networks that include Indonesians, and educational qualifications that confer status. As Melanesians engage with contemporary practices and ideologies of capitalism and neoliberal development (Jacka 2007; Cox 2013; Bainton and Cox 2009), a formulation Robert Foster (1999: 143; see also Lash and Urry 1994) refers to as ‘hypermodernity’, in this volume we shed light on Papuans’ affective experiences with notions and practices of Indonesian modernity, such as kemajuan (progress) and pembangunan (development), as well as globalised capital. In fact, Papuans are not alone in their positioning on the ‘fringes’ of Indonesian modernity, as other frontier inhabitants have also been the subject of spatio-temporal degradation (Li 2001; Tsing 2005). In this context, desire, humiliation, shame and pride are just a few of the affective dimensions of Papuan experiences explored in this volume.

In the region, profound shifts in gender relations and constructions of masculinity and femininity are taking place at the interface of cultural change, capitalism and colonialism (Ford and Lyons 2012; Nilan et al. 2014; Lipset and Roscoe 2011; Wardlow 2006). Papuans are grappling with an influx of new gender ideals, norms and expectations, including those that prioritise more individualistic pursuits and evaluations. Indonesians in Papua are seen as closely linked to national cultural and religious norms and state power, giving their gender models added weight (Butt 2005). State practices, including, for example, the torture activities described by Hernawan, clearly treat men and women differently, raising questions about how gender asymmetries and the spatio-temporal hierarchisations discussed in this volume reinforce each other, such as more strongly associating Papuan men with the perceived dangers of ‘the wild’ and ‘primitive’ and thus with ‘insecurity’, as well as Papuan women with ‘underdevelopment’ and thus with not being able to assume public roles.

The volume thus also sheds light on the ways that gender identities and practices of gender relate to, embrace, resist and otherwise engage with primitivist and evolutionist ideologies in the region, for these ideologies position men and women differently in spaces of development, education, culture and politics. A close examination of the chapters reveals that Papuan men and women are positioned differently with respect to their ability to engage in mobilities and modern pursuits and the ways in which they are burdened with primitivist symbolism and stereotypes (Munro, this volume). Papuan men may be criticised for not reflecting modern aims of mobility, education and employment, whereas women are judged negatively for engaging too much in these initiatives, which in local ideologies ought to come second to marital and child-rearing duties. Gendered interests are also revealed in relation to disclosure of HIV-positive status (Butt, this volume), with women employing secrecy to maintain comfortable domestic relations, while men are keeping their status a secret to maintain their public social roles. Anxieties typically identified with Melanesian men, such as around gender and masculinity, do not surface in these accounts (see Knauft 1997). Instead, the stories of HIV-positive men in Papua tell us that mobility and migration are sites of anxiety, and mobility affects how these men experience their masculinity.

Another line of inquiry reflects on Papuan engagements with religion, nationalism and historiography, which we discussed extensively above. Just as questions are being asked about nation-building and collective identity in other regional cultural contexts (Leach et al. 2012; Otto and Thomas 1997; Foster 1997; Robbins 2004), chapters in this volume explore religion, memory and contemporary music in relation to Papuan understandings of identity and sovereignty. Christianity (alongside a few feelers of Baha’i, Islam and Judaism) thoroughly suffuses Melanesian societies at both national and community levels (Tomlinson and MacDougall 2012). What a regional comparison (Gingrich 2012) reveals here is that in Papua religion frequently enters the domain of political strategising for self-determination and for the purposes of differentiating ‘Papuans’ from ‘Indonesians’, of drawing boundaries between ‘Christianity’ and ‘Islam’. However, as it can be observed throughout Melanesia, in Papua the domains of the state and religion, as well as custom, are in most contexts hard to conceptually separate (Timmer 2013; and Timmer in this volume). Moreover, a diverse set of linkages are mapped out connecting Papuan self-understandings to arguably ‘foreign’ content and imagery – Israel, American hip hop and ancient Javanese kingdoms, as we have seen above. Thus, regional comparison points also to Papuan particularities or to unexpected Papuan expressions of broader patterns that one can observe in other Melanesian and Indonesian/Southeast Asian settings.

Among these broader patterns, another theme informs the chapters of this volume, revolving around the question of how Papuans are engaging with and imagining the state as a material and symbolic institution (see also Timmer 2013), and how the state positions Papuans in stone-age or real-time imaginaries. Stasch opens his chapter with a Korowai encounter with a new (if familiar) expression of state power, an official delegation from the Unit for Accelerated Development in Papua, not the first nor the last intervention of this sort, but an intervention that asks Korowai to once again suspend their prior knowledge and experience with the Indonesian state and to invest in this new iteration of the perpetual promise of development. He also explores how the civil service features in Korowai engagements with notions and expressions of primitivity, both as an aspiration that positions Korowai as less successful than other Papuans, in terms of obtaining jobs in the civil service, and how encounters with bureaucrats and Papuan government officials are managed from a Korowai point of view. How the state presents itself to Papuans is considered by Rutherford and Hernawan (see also Kirksey 2012), who are both concerned with the delivery of powerful messages, albeit in different ways, times and contexts. Hernawan reflects on direct and indirect forms of state violence occurring in the case of torture (and its public display), while less overt forms of state violence, manifested as threats, accusations, intimidation and surveillance, feature in Munro’s account of highlander students in North Sulawesi.

It continues to be the case that the stone-age is invoked in Papuan encounters with the state, in one way or another, and that the state puts forward particular visions of how Papuans ought to be incorporated into real-time. These struggles are highlighted in the current era of decentralisation, as competing voices attempt to define and shape the modernisation agenda of the future. Tensions in state–society relations are being played out throughout the broader region, yet in Papua in particular ethnic inequalities continue to be expressed in and through structures of governance, which have historically been dominated by Indonesians. Indeed, it is the role of Papuans (and, which Papuans) in the state, and the rights of Papuans (and, which Papuans) vis-à-vis the state, that is currently the subject of much debate linked to the Special Autonomy revisions (the so-called ‘Otsus Plus’). It is certainly possible to read in these debates views that promulgate Papuans’ alleged incapabilities and unsuitabilities in the realm of governance, as well as views that deny longstanding Papuan engagements with the real-time.

(No) future of the stone-age

This volume demonstrates that the stone-age image in its various manifestations shapes Papuan encounters and imaginaries. It is constitutive for representations of Papuans in Indonesia and internationally, and it heavily influences, often by its active negation, Papuans’ own constructions of their place in the world and their history. Putting the stone-age in the context of the real-time, as this volume does, has the effect of illuminating the very contestedness of the concept in the current age as well as the multiple ways of using and engaging with it. The volume is thus essentially occupied with questions of hierarchy and possibilities for equality expressed in spatio-temporal idioms. It shows how ‘ideologies of unequal human worth’, as Rupert Stasch put it, are enacted in face-to-face encounters, and how they find their expression in symbolic production in a time of heightened translocal mobility and communication. As such, the volume first of all aims to provide insights into contemporary Papuan dynamics that have so far been largely unrecognised, and to deliver new understandings on topics that are already on the agenda of researchers. Yet, more than this, and despite the fact that the chapters examine ongoing processes, we also want to discuss to what extent the work assembled in this volume can provide the basis for drawing more general conclusions. This discussion comprises considerations probably of relevance for formulating future research agendas, including future research on the stone-age image.

A conclusion that this volume evidently supports is that conceptions of time are critically ingrained in contemporary processes in Papua. Starting from the hegemonic evolutionist concepts epitomised by the stone-age image to their anti-evolutionist counterparts of Christian, Islamic and Papuan ancestry, these concepts and discourses mediate power asymmetries among different groups and persons within and beyond Papua. When the Papuan student pursues his studies in Manado, the Javanese health worker treats Papuans in Wamena, the coastal Papuan civil servant is stationed in the highlands, the highland Papuan preacher spreads the word of God in the Korowai lowlands, or the Islamic preacher from Jakarta tours the Bird’s Head Peninsula – their endeavours are framed by concepts that locate their interlocutors and themselves in time or, as it is often the case, in different times. These concepts might be consciously contested or concealed in particular circumstances, but as such they are present in a seemingly inescapable way; and they have already been there for quite a long time now, as reflected in the colonial accounts examined in Rutherford’s chapter.

This brings us to another conclusion inspired by the chapters, especially Rutherford’s contribution. It is based on the observation that technologies need to be demonstrated to convey certain messages, especially messages that emphasise power asymmetries. In the early Dutch colonial era that meant that the colonial masters were also the masters of technology. In the age of real-time communication, where the possession and usage of technologies is much more widely distributed, expressing social hierarchy through technological demonstrations becomes more complex. However, as the hopes and desires associated with communication technologies show, in today’s Papua becoming a user of these technologies is a major source of status, not least because it offers the possibility to demonstrate that one has left the stone-age behind: demonstrating the real-time, not the stone-age. To this realm of the real-time belong mobilities and religiosities as well as cultural expressions that distinguish Papuans as being part of wider networks and socialities, of sharing the world with other moderns, spurring reactions among those who still perceive them through the prism of the stone-age image. Such reactions range from spontaneous wonder that Papuans are ‘fully clothed and articulate’ to reiterating assertions of Papuan inferiority in everyday life that re-establish a hierarchy that has lost its alleged obviousness. Thus, demonstrations of the real-time can exacerbate emphasis on social hierarchies, as they can be used to dismantle them.

Finally, let us emphasise that the emotional experiences, affective affinities and repulsions that are exposed and imposed by Papuan mobilities, religiosities and self-expressions are structured by these very tensions at the interface of ‘stone-age’ and ‘real-time’, as are Papuan efforts to re-enact, change and reinterpret contemporary ways of being. And we think that in this complex sphere of tensions many encounters within and beyond Papua will also take place in the future. However, as the realm of the real-time is irreversibly expanding, the future of the stone-age will be an increasingly contested one, as it is today. But even if we close with the optimistic note that the notion of the stone-age per se will lose its strength and influence, it is rather unlikely that spatio-temporal hierarchisations in general will cease to exist. As this volume also shows, the dynamics of the real-time imply temporal others, and it is not unlikely that Papuans will personify some kind of past and remoteness for still quite a long time in the eyes of those who consider themselves as having seized the present and the centre. At the same time, Papuans increasingly mobilise against being relegated to a bygone age, be it the stone-age or another yesteryear. We thus would like to see that this volume will not be the last one that considers these dynamics, which we find crucial for understanding current Papuan conditions.


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1 The origins of this volume go back to a panel held at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in November 2012 in San Francisco. It was organised by Martin Slama and Christian Warta and bore the title ‘From “Stone-Age” to “Real-Time”: Temporalities and Mobilities in and beyond Papua’, including papers by Leslie Butt, Budi Hernawan, Eben Kirksey, Jenny Munro, Jacob Nerenberg, Danilyn Rutherford, Martin Slama, Rupert Stasch, Jaap Timmer and Christian Warta. Andrew Willford was so kind as to discuss the papers.

2 This is an episode from Martin Slama’s fieldwork in Yogyakarta in June 2012.

3 See for example Michael Cookson’s analysis of Indonesian post stamps from the year 2002 dedicated to ‘modern communication devices’ (alat komunikasi modern). One stamp depicts a female Indonesian office worker and a Papuan man both holding mobile phones in their hands. Cookson (2008: 124) writes: ‘The Papuan’s exaggerated facial features and naked black skin contrast sharply with the elegantly dressed, pale female office worker and despite possibilities to the contrary, this stamp issue powerfully reinforces popular imaginary of Papuans as tribal, traditional and perhaps even primitive in a modern world.’

4 For example, with more than 48 million users Indonesia boasts the world’s fourth-largest Facebook community. See: (accessed 1 June 2014). 1. United States 165 million. 2. Brazil 65.6 million. 3. India 61.7 million. 4. Indonesia 48.8 million.

5 See: (last accessed 12 December 2013).

6 Email from Jacob Nerenberg, 29 January 2014.

7 ibid.

8 ibid.

9 This is an episode recounted during Jenny Munro’s fieldwork in Wamena in August 2013.

10 All names in this scenario are pseudonyms.

11 At date of publication, it seems that surveillance of the internet by the Indonesian state is rather weak and, to our knowledge, so far no Papuan bloggers or webmasters have been arrested.

12 (accessed 22 February 2014).

13 Koreri is a central Papuan myth originating from Biak which spread to coastal Papuan regions, especially the northern coast of the Bird’s Head Peninsula, due to the mobility and migration flows of the people from Biak. The myth tells of a messiah-like figure called Manarmakeri who returns from a foreign place in a millennial event dissolving the dichotomy of the foreign and the self and thus rendering ‘raiding the land of the foreigners’ to bring back goods that initially belonged to the people of Biak unnecessary (Kamma 1972; Rutherford 2003; Kirksey 2012).

14 One should not underestimate the extent to which this undifferentiated view has entered the work of international NGOs and engaged scholarship. For example, in an otherwise interesting article about land grabbing in Papua, Ginting and Pye (2013: 165) write: ‘The national government in Jakarta wanted to change the demographic character of key lowland areas and build up a political base of Muslim Javanese to counter the Christian Papuans.’

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