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Meakambut ways of speaking: Audio-visual documentation of communication practices in a small semi-nomadic hunter-and-gatherer society in Papua New Guinea


Language Meakambut
Depositor Darja Hoenigman
Affiliation Australian National University
Location Papua New Guinea
Collection ID 0370
Grant ID IPF0221
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Blog posts

ELDP Project Highlight (Part 1): Meakambut ways of speaking: Audio-visual documentation of communication practices in a small semi-nomadic hunter-and-gatherer society in Papua 

ELDP Project Highlight (Part 2): Meakambut ways of speaking: Audio-visual documentation of communication practices in a small semi-nomadic hunter-and-gatherer society in Papua 


Summary of the collection

The Meakambut are semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, numbering about 45, moving between rock shelters around their mountainous territory in East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. As one of very few semi-nomadic groups in Melanesia, they are key for understanding the (socio)linguistic situation which would have prevailed before agriculture. Apart from basic word lists there has been no prior research on the language, and it is not even listed in Ethnologue. Using observational filming to supplement basic linguistic documentation, this collection provides audio-visual documentation and analysis of a variety of their speech practices, embedded in rich ethnographic data.


Group represented

Meakambut is an undescribed Papuan language spoken by 45 semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers.

The Meakambut language is interesting not only because it has survived so long with such a small number of speakers (people do not remember this largely endogamous group ever being considerably bigger), but also because it and Awiakay are the most divergent members of the Arafundi family. With some variation, all Arafundi groups share the same myth of origin, according to which people, spirits and animals emerged from a rock of creation called Kopao. The last ones to come out, they all agree, were the Meakambut people, who are the only Arafundi group who have not made a permanent settlement, but keep moving from one rock shelter to another. Their nomadic lifestyle is explained by saying that the creator spirit set them the task of guarding the creation rock. The Awiakay believe that if the Meakambut move away from their territory, natural catastrophes will take place; in Imboin I was told that there is a big fig tree close to the rock and if this tree is felled, the whole area will be consumed by fire, there will be earthquakes, loud thunder, strong winds and landslides (Hoenigman 2007: 239). The Meakambut themselves say that everyone on earth would die if they left that place (Telban 1998: 151-2 fn. 10).

In recent years there have been some attempts to get the Meakambut people to occupy a more permanent settlement close to Imboin and a couple of bush houses were built for them. While they did come and stay there for some periods of time, they haven’t settled down there. The whole community usually does not stay together, but tends to move around in two groups. In recent years they have been contemplating giving up their nomadic lifestyle in order to be able to gain the goods that their sedentary neighbours have.


Language information

Meakambut is an undescribed Papuan language spoken by 45 semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers. The language appears on Wurm and Hattori’s language map, and on the SIL map, where it is simply called Arafundi. Arafundi was originally believed to be a single language with a high degree of dialect variation (Foley 1986; 1991). However, Hoenigman’s (2007) investigation of lexical similarities and mutual intelligibility between its lects, based on her fieldnotes and a 260-word list that she recorded in eight Arafundi lects, indicated a degree of diversity that proves Arafundi to be a family of six or seven different languages (dialectal status among some lower Arafundi lects is yet unclear), consisting of

  • Upper Arafundi languages: Meakambut (45 speakers) and Anday, spoken in Namata, Kupin, Andambit and Kaiyam (number of speakers yet unknown but not more than 400)
  • Awiakay (300 speakers, spoken in Kanjimei, the site of my previous research)
  • Imboin (~170 speakers)
  • Lower Arafundi group: lmanmeri (~800 speakers), Wamblamas (~100 speakers), Yamandim (+400 speakers), and Awim (~250 speakers)

The whole Arafundi family thus amounts to only about 2500 speakers.

The Meakambut language is the only means of communication within the community and is spoken by all children. Tok Pisin, a national language of PNG and a lingua franca in the area, is only spoken by few adults, and used to communicate with members of other groups.

This positive status quo for the Meakambut language, however, may rapidly change. In 2013 a Malaysian company lodged an application for a mineral exploration licence in this region. The area they intend to explore for gold covers the whole of Meakambut land, and great portions of the land belonging to the other Arafundi people. The area does indeed contain gold. Any kind of mining in the area would be destructive to the people in the Karawari-Arafundi region, and even the start of a mineral exploration presents a serious threat to the Meakambut language and their traditional knowledge.


Special characteristics

To the best of depositor’s knowledge, this collection is the first study of natural speech behaviour of a small nomadic group that is primarily based on observational film.

The video-recordings include night-time speech practices and in this way expand the present scope of language documentation methodology.


Collection contents

When finalised, the materials in this collection will include

  • a practical orthography, sketch grammar and word list of Meakambut
  • an annotated corpus of video and audio recordings focussed on Meakambut ways of speaking, documenting language use and socio-cultural practices in all spheres of social life, from daily conversations to rituals, engaging with spirits and occasional outsiders, practises of in-group joking and quarrelling, as well as local myths, oral histories and songs
  • a corpus of video-recordings regarding key locations on Meakambut territory, with GPS co-ordinates and recordings of people describing their relationships to particular sites
  • a full-length observational film about Meakambut ways of speaking based on materials from the entire corpus
  • various short films, some of which will be made specifically for the Meakambut

At this point, the collection contains

  • over 13 hours of video recordings, representing spontaneous language use in natural contexts (mainly observed and staged communicative events) and cover everyday conversations, conversations about and practice with recording equipment, conversations about food and food taboos, women chatting and singing while doing community activities, children playing, mother/father-child interactions, sibling interactions, procedurals, community activities like fishing and hunting, songs, myths, community and life stories, etc. Some video recordings also depict speakers watching and commenting on video footage of themselves as children and their relatives collected in 1991.
  • 45 text files with time-referenced subtiles (orthographic transcriptions and/or Tok Pisin translations of the recordings)
  • metadata for the materials with comprehensive information about the content, the recording situation and the actors


Collection history

The core of the materials in this collection were gathered during the depositor’s postdoctoral research from 2015 to 2017.

Before that, during her long-standing research work with the neighbouring Awiakay people, the depositor has recorded wordlists, video-recorded some songs and collected some basic ethnographic data with the Meakambut people when she briefly visited them in 2006 and 2009.


Other information

This collection is related to the Awiakay collection, a collection for a related language also prepared by Darja Hoenigman. To see the Awiakay collection, click here: Language Variation and Social Identity in Kanjimei, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea (


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Hoenigman, Darja. 2017. Meakambut ways of speaking: Audio-visual documentation of communication practices in a small semi-nomadic hunter-and-gatherer society in Papua New Guinea. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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