Enmity and amity: Reconsidering stone-headed club (gabagaba) procurement and trade in Torres strait

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Historical records for Torres Strait, including those from Haddon's 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition, identify the Papuan mainland as the main trade source for stone-headed clubs (gabagaba). This view has persisted despite the contradictory facts that the Papuan lowlands are essentially devoid of stone and Torres Strait abounds in stone suitable for club manufacture. Not surprisingly, preliminary raw material findings for ethnographic and archaeological gabagaba in museums indicate that local Torres Strait manufacture was more significant than previously thought. Some of the early confusion over gabagaba sources probably reflects diffusionist assumptions that 'superior' cultural items, such as stone-headed clubs, must have moved from so-called 'advanced' Papuans to 'less-developed' Torres Strait Islanders. However, more significant is the lack of understanding of the multiple and complex roles of gabagaba in inter-group social relations which saw clubs moving between Islanders and Papuans through looting, trade and ceremonial exchange. Apart from their well-documented use as lethal weapons during head-hunting raids, I argue that gabagaba also had an important ceremonial role in exchanges between hostile groups aimed at cementing social alliances. Following post-contact disruptions to trading networks and inter-group hostilities, the social/ceremonial roles of gabagaba were emphasised while gabagaba production became less specialised.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)94-115
Number of pages22
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1998

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