The Sohi – just who are they then?

We have now reached the end of this series about daily life in the stone age. But how do I know so much about the Sohi people?

I was there.

I've watched the women harvest the sago starch, and I have eaten it. I've paddled across the lake in a hollowed-out log, and seen the rows of ancestral bones on ledges above the lake. I've sat round a fire inside a hut telling stories with the men, hearing about their lives and the lives of their ancestors and their legend of how the lake was formed. And I've negotiated the mountain ridges to cross to the villages in adjoining valleys, and I've seen the scars on the men where the spear went in and the scars where the spear came out.

The real name of these people is not the Sohi. I coined that name because, in order to provide a full picture of daily stone age life, I've had to combine what I know about several different tribes. But they are all genuine stone-age tribes, all from Papua New Guinea, and mostly from the Southern Highlands region (hence, Sohi) where the Foi people live on the shores of Lake Kutubu.

These stone-age tribes were amongst the last to discover westerners. There are still some of them alive today who remember the first contact their societies had with early explorers and prospectors. Although western life is rapidly penetrating and reshaping their societies, even today there are women harvesting sago with stone tools, and men hunting with bow-and-arrow. Even today, canoes made from hollowed-out trees are plying the lake, although they may now sometimes have an outboard motor clamped onto the back.

I visited the Papua New Guinea highlands twice in the 1980s, and trekked into the most remote parts that I could reach. The original purpose of my trek was for a wilderness adventure, but it turned into a cultural adventure instead.

Although by then these people had seen some government officials and plenty of missionaries, many of them had not encountered recreational travellers. One day as I walked along a remote path, burdened down by a heavy backpack, I passed the sago-harvesters that I mentioned in the first article. When I saw that they were using a stone tied to a stick with twine, my mind was blown as it dawned on me that I was witnessing the last remnants of the stone age.

Much of the content of these posts, therefore, is from my own recollection. But some of it is not, because the practises had already died out before my visits.

Organised raids on other villages were no longer occurring – the missionaries had seen to that. I know about them from a remarkable book, an autobiography of a tribal chief who witnessed the arrival of “white man” and tells about life before and after their arrival. It is fifteen years since I read this book, so my memory might be a bit vague on some of the points, but I think I have the gist correct.

The book is Ongka: A Self-Account by a New Guinea Big-Man, narrated by Ongka himself and translated by anthropologist Andrew Strathern. It's easily readable by lay people such as myself, and it's one of the most fascinating books I've read.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this series as much as I enjoyed writing it. It brought back many fantastic memories for me. And thanks to Digs for his Daily Life In Ancient Egypt series, which inspired me to write these posts.

3 Responses to “The Sohi – just who are they then?”

  1. pafalafaga says:

    Thanks Roger. This was a terrific series. I had originally suspected the Sohi were somewhere in the Amazon rainforest, but some mention or other made me think ‘probably not’. Now that reveal their whereabouts, I seem to recall you mentioning your journeys to PNG in other posts.

    I bet you have many more tales to tell.

    Looking forward to hearing them.


  2. eiffel says:

    One day I’ll find a way to get my 35mm slides of these trips onto the web.

  3. digsalot says:

    A great series. Looks like we may become the Google Search and Anthropology blog.

    Biting my tongue on this one ever since your first post when I jumped about coconut palms in the PNG Highlands, then you pointed me to a lake in the Southern Highlands where the elevation was low enough a few would grow.

    You claim you are not an anthropologist, but you write like a good one.

    Great job