Small Nambas tribe

Ancestral Archers – Hunting with the Small Nambas of Malakula


Safari Magazine Editor’s Note: On Friday we reach way back into the Safari archives and dust off a gem from the past. Today we tag along on a hunt with two young men from the Small Nambas tribe on the island of Malakula in Vanuatu. This story first appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2000 issue of Safari Magazine.

Remo and Kaleb hugged their shoulders to ward off the biting chill of the predawn darkness. Under the pastel light of a silvery moon, they left the small hamlet of leaf huts and followed a path that centuries of select tribal traffic have formed. Having endured a painful circumcision with a bamboo knife during their initiation into manhood gives them the right to travel along the track that eventually leads them through the jungle to the nasara (sacred men’s house). Only the village men and boys who have undergone this rite dare to follow the trail. This inherent custom is never broken; for any uncircumcised male or any female who dares to foolishly enter the nasara, the penalty is death.

Generations of ancestral skulls are housed within the nasara’s thatched walls. In this most-hallowed shrine, Remo and Kaleb carried out a rite lasting several hours. Encircled by skulls, they asked for good luck and guidance from their forefathers’ spirits. Despite their youth, they’d been through this ritual many times before. Because they are bachelors, the custom of abstaining from sex the night before doesn’t apply to them. But refraining from drinking kava, carrying money and mentioning snakes do apply. The superstitious villagers believe Demismara, the custom devil, inhabits the reptiles and brings bad luck. A veil of secrecy shrouds the primeval ritual Remo and Kaleb carried out before they returned to the village. The necessary preparations had been made for us to venture into the jungle, armed with primitive bows and arrows for a traditional pig hunt.

Unique and Ancient Culture

Small Nambas tribe
Villager with ancestral skull. Hunters use these in a hallowed ritual to gain guidance from their ancestors spirits.

At 2,069 square kilometers in size, Malakula is the second largest island of Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides, in the southwestern Pacific near New Caledonia. Malakula is the home to the Small Nambas, a primitive tribe that inhabits the south of the rugged island. In spite of missionaries’ zealous attempts to erode their primordial beliefs, the Small Nambas have managed to precariously cling to their unique, ancient culture. Voodoo like customs are practiced, and some of the older villagers have elongated skulls from having their heads bound at birth. A documented act of cannibalism occurred as recently as 1969. Biten village is situated in the southeastern slopes of the island. It was from there that I eagerly awaited the return of Remo and Kaleb from the nasara.

Pigs play an important part in Small Nambas society. Men achieve elevated status among their peers through the rearing and the ritualistic slaughter of pigs that have had their top grinders removed to enable them to grow long, circular tusks. During rites such as funerals, initiations, circumcisions and women’s rituals, the blood of a pig is spilled on a sacrificial alter. To seal the sale of land, a pig is sacrificed. Anyone who foolishly breaks a tribal law is fined or ordered to pay compensation with pigs. Highly prized tusks adorn ceremonial bows, masks and other fetishes that are the focal point of revered rituals.

It’s ironic that an animal painstakingly reared and held in such high esteem is also treated with contempt by Biten’s villagers. The small hamlet, which clings to the slopes of the island’s rugged interior, is at war with feral pigs. Agriculture is the mainstay of these people’s subsistence lifestyle. A cyclone had ravaged the villagers’ gardens earlier in the year—with soul-destroying efficiency. Now, under the cover of darkness, mobs of wild pigs were scavenging what was left of the villagers’ emaciated crops. By memorizing every escape route foraging hogs have run Biten’s hunting dogs ragged. All of the hounds sport horrific wounds—inflicted by toothy boars—in various stages of healing. Packs of savage wild dogs roam the jungle and also inflict injuries on their domestic counterparts during hunts.

Remo and Kaleb returned to the cooking hut just as the first shards of light were piercing the predawn darkness and the last of a fire-roasted taro slid to the bottom of my stomach. We wandered up past the leaf hut of Biten’s oldest inhabitant. Tom claims to be, and looks every bit of, 100 years old. (Anthropologists have been fascinated by the survival of cannibalism in Malakula up until recent times. Tom had killed many men in the past when intertribal conflict was rife and had, no doubt, dined on human flesh at some point in his life. Today, no one ends up as “mystery mince” or “soup of the day”).

To the Hunt

Primitive hunting
Remo and Kaleb follow the river to what would prove to be a pig hunters’ paradise.

The rising sun painted the underbellies of clouds with a glorious golden hue as the chatter of waking birds and insects heralded the start of a beautiful day. The postcard image was soon forgotten when we traipsed through the last of the upper gardens and spotted fresh pig rooting among the crops. When the boys shook their heads in disgust, I really felt for them. We were heading for an area of jungle the villagers call Loweregh. Until a few days ago, no one had ventured in the area for the past six months. All hunting had focused on the marauding, crop-destroying pigs.

A four-hour slog up and down a succession of knife-edged ridges and seemingly bottomless valleys lay ahead of us. The previous cyclone had left a trail of devastation in its wake and turned what had previously been a well-worn track to a prime hunting ground into a thick wall of impenetrable vegetation. During a previous hunt, we’d hacked and toiled with our machetes for hours to open the path up again.

For the next 40 minutes, we picked our way along the cleared trail until we reached the top of a calf-cramping ridge. A look of reverence spread across the boys’ features as we gave three half-buried rocks a wide berth. We’d just passed the ruins of an ancient nasara. The bodies of high chiefs lay beneath the stones. Fresh signs spurred us on, but apart from the sound of a pig crashing off into the jungle, the next three hours it took us to reach the top of a wide-sweeping, near-vertical gully were uneventful. Way below us, the Lewesarinere River snaked its way through the jungle. By hanging onto vines and small saplings, we literally slid to the bottom of the steep gut and then over a small drop into the shallow river. Its waters teemed with freshwater crayfish, which the boys arrowed with ease. We gathered navele nuts, then cut down a nambagara palm and split its trunk to dine on the raw pith. By rubbing a shaved stick on a slab of dry wood, Remo expertly produced a glowing coal that he quickly transformed into a blazing fire. We ate like kings as we feasted on roasted crayfish and other delicacies from the gold mine of the jungle’s natural resources.

Refueled and refreshed, we moved on and followed the lazily flowing river as it cut a swath through the pristine rain forest. When Remo pointed to a nevenboatnats tree, both boys left the river and made a cut in its trunk with our machete. Sap oozed from the slice, and the boys rubbed their bowstrings across the bleeding resin to keep them supple. A flat expanse of jungle lay before us. Twenty minutes later, we clambered up a windfall and left the riverbed we’d been following. We were about to enter the realm of what could only be described as a pig-hunter’s paradise—an area that, apart from one other previous hunt, had remained untouched for the last six months.

Fresh signs were everywhere in the churned earth. Both boys notched a wild cane arrow as we entered the gloom created from the canopy of trees. We twisted and turned through the maze of growth for 10 minutes, stopping at the edge of a wallow the pigs frequent daily in an attempt to cool down in the stifling tropical heat. The imprint of bristle was still fresh where animals had rolled in the soft mud.

“Ball pig,” said Kaleb, pointing at his own crotch, and then squatted to run his hands over the marks of a huge boar. Although only boys, Remo and Kaleb belie their youth with their expertise when it comes to hunting and tracking game. Taking a pig with a bow in thick jungle is a big call for any hunter, yet alone for semi-naked adolescents armed with primitive bows they’ve fashioned themselves. A slight breeze that had initially been in our favor was now a swirling, fickle wind as we followed the marks of the boar. Pandemonium erupted when a mob of pigs that had bedded down in a patch of nearby wild cane caught wind of us and crashed off in all directions. Remo loosed an arrow, which harmlessly sliced in front of the snout of a small, fleeing piglet.

After a quick search, we found Remo’s arrow at the base of a nangalat tree. A confused wind decided to make its mind up; with the breeze in our faces, we stalked along the numerous, well-used pig runs. Several times, we trailed marks that led to huge narou trees. Their tangled mass of buttress roots is a favorite place for pigs to lay up in as they seek relief from the midday heat. Each painstaking stalk proved fruitless; luck just wasn’t on our side. We pressed on until the buzzing of flies led us to a steaming pile of dung in the middle of the game trail we were following. A look of excitement spread across Remo’s face. From the size of the prints, we were very close to a good-sized boar.

Remo led the way as he expertly tracked our quarry until the marks disappeared into an opening among a tangled mass of creepers. Kaleb and Remo urged one another to go first as we dropped onto our hands and knees. Their reluctance was justified, since a toothy boar commands respect, especially in the confines of a recently used, murky pig tunnel. If there were a prize for exiting the dank crawlway first, I think we all would have won it when we heard a series of muffled grunts and the rustle of vegetation ahead.

Even so, the boys moved forward in virtual silence, until we quickly crawled into daylight and crouched behind a huge banyan tree. Our eyebrows raised and our heads cocked as the grunts became louder and clearer. After slowly inching out from the cover of the tree, the boys moved with a poise and stealth that not only comes from having an intimate affinity with the jungle, but from being an integral part of nature, as well. From the sound of things, the pig was rubbing himself against a tree to rid himself of the huge lice with which Vanuatu’s pigs are covered. The oblivious animal was totally preoccupied and seemed to be enjoying the bliss of removing the blood-sucking parasites.

Textbook Results

Primitive hunting
The hunters and their quarry. The young men took this boar with weapons they made themselves.

I held back, sharing their every movement and every footstep as the boys skillfully narrowed the gap to about 10 meters. The muscles danced and twitched beneath their ebony skin as the limbs of their bows stretched to full draw. As the arrows hissed through the air, the divine guidance of their ancestral spirits worked its magic. Both black palm arrowheads punched their way through the boar’s thick hide. Kaleb’s arrow struck the animal high in the shoulder, while Remo’s was a textbook shot, piercing the boar’s heart. The mortally wounded pig crumpled into a quivering heap only meters from where it had been arrowed. I was elated to see a large boar taken with such astounding accuracy with simple weapons. It was a joy and a privilege.

We dragged the pig to a clear area of jungle and started a fire. Once it had burned down, Remo and Kaleb mixed a paste of ground charcoal and spittle to anoint their bodies. Kaleb transformed a piece of bamboo into a tamtam (slit drum), while Remo dug out the arrowhead from the boar that had snapped off during the animal’s death throes. Because the arrowhead is believed to possess the dead boar’s spirit, Remo placed it in the back of his hair to show his ancestors that the hunt had been successful. Back at the village, he would use it to empower a new arrow for the next hunt.

Remo pounded out a rhythm on the tamtam, while Kaleb tirelessly danced and sang for over an hour. When it was Remo’s turn to take center stage, he worked his body into a lather of sweat as he danced to culminate the necessary rite to appease his ancestors and give thanks for their supernatural guidance during the hunt. I breathed life back into the smoldering embers of the fire, and we dined on roasted pig’s heart, liver and kidneys. We pulled off as many lice as we could and then divvied up the butchered pork, which we carried on saplings over our shoulders in the traditional manner. With our bellies full, we followed the river, then cut back into the jungle. The setting sun seemed to detonate the vocal chords of every creature inhabiting the jungle.

Once we were entombed by darkness, a light show accompanied the ear-splitting symphony of insects as fireflies flitted and dived around us. Under the glowing orb of the rising moon, we felt our way along a wide path until we eventually dropped down to the village. Custom dictated that the chief receive a couple of legs of pork, and the rest was then equally divided among the villagers.

Rather than relying on the boundaries of their physical capabilities, Remo and Kaleb believe their hallowed rite in the nasara evoked powers that transcend man’s limited capabilities. They aren’t simply rows of ancestral skulls that line the thatched walls of the nasara—to these primitive people, it’s also where spirits dwell.—Rick Williamson

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