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Dead birds

Identifier: Film Collection no. 172

Scope and Contents

Filmed during the Harvard-Peabody New Guinea Expedition to the Baliem Valley of Dutch New Guinea (now Irian Jaya), 1961. This film chronicles the two seasons the expedition spent with the Dugum Dani (i.e. Dani) in the Kurelu area of the Baliem Valley, Dutch New Guinea (now Irian Jaya, Indonesia). Its purpose was to record the Kurelu wars, rituals, and daily life, and show a people trapped in an avenge-reprisal system. The scientists on the expedition were Karl G. Heider, Jim Brockhuyse and Peter Matthiessen. Michael Rockefeller was the still photographer and sound technician. The film portrays the stories of Weaklekek, a warrior, and Tukum, a tender of pigs, their enemies and their friends. Weaklekek is introduced at his kaio, or look-out tower, at Puakaloba, near the Aike River. Nearby, Tukum plays and tends his pigs. The women of the tribe, given clearance by Weaklekek, work in the garden, while other women go about collecting salt by soaking banana leaves in the salt wells. In mid-morning, the enemy tribe, the Wittaia, attack but are not committed to serious fighting, so the skirmish is over almost immediately. Later that morning, a battle is waged. The wounded are taken to safety where barbed arrows are removed and medicinal leaves tied to their wounds. In the days following the battle, the kains, or tribal leaders, decide that there should be a ceremony in the village to revive the bodies and spirits of the people. Away from battle, Tukum plays, wanders, tends his pigs, and mourns the death of one of his herd. Twelve pigs are killed for the celebration and are prepared for roasting on hot stones. During the feast, Tukum's friend, Weake, is ambushed and killed. The subsequent mourning ritual is vividly recorded. Weake's body is placed in a death chair and draped with woven bands, embellished with cowrie shells. The grieving, although ritualized, is profound: some of the mourners' bodies are smeared with mud; a pig is killed and its intestines are taken to a stream and washed by Tukum, a custom that supposedly dulls the pain of death. The shell bands draping the corpse are distributed to family and friends. One is offered to Weaklekek who refuses, feeling especially sad and angry because the boy was slain near his kaio. Weake is cremated and his bones are removed from the ashes. Three small girls are subjected to the iki palin ceremony, during which their finger joints are removed with a stone adze; the fingers are gifts considered necessary to placate the ghosts. A group of men, returning from their kaios surprise an enemy stealing one of their pigs and kill him, thus avenging Weake's death. The dead man's possessions are taken, but the corpse is delivered to a place where it can be reclaimed by the enemy. A victory celebration follows. Depicted in this film are the conical huts, or ebeais, weapons, and battle regalia. Men wear penis gourds (here called phallocrypt-horum), braided piths of bracken fern around their arms, cowrie shells around their collars, baler shell necklaces, and headdresses of coassowary feathers; they carry spears, and bows and arrows. Women wear pelvic aprons of fiber coils that encircle their bodies, and several nets of varying lengths on tumplines around their heads. After the expedition left, both missionaries and government officials had to come in and pacify the tribes.


  • 1962

Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Not available through interlibrary loan. Contact AMNH Library Special Collections for terms of access.


1 Film Reel (84 minutes) : sound, color ; 16 mm.

1 Videocassette (U-Matic (84 minutes)) : sound, color ; 3/4 in.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

3/4 in., U-Matic, viewing copy


Original format: 16 mm. print.



Robert Gardner, photographer, editor and writer; Michael Rockefeller, sound recording; Jarius Lincoln and Joyce Chopra, sound editing; Karl G. Heider, photographic assistant; Peter Chermayeff, titles; Jan Brockhuyse and Peter Matthiessen, advisers.

Dead birds, 1962
Iris Lee
Language of description
Script of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Museum Archives at the Gottesman Research Library Repository

American Museum of Natural History
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