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Fiber and ‘Dress’ Culture of the Dani People

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The late Dr. O.W.Hampton was an ethnographer who studied the material culture of the Dani people of Irian Jaya (later renamed Papua) during the period from 1982 to 1999. This was a critical period for anthropological study in this region, since the area became safe for travel, while outside influences still remained relatively modest. Hampton was principally interested in stone tools (he was a geologist by training), but collected, photographed and documented all aspects of Dani material culture. Numerically speaking, fiber artifacts make up the largest part of the collection that he assembled (more than 400 individual items out of a total of around 600-700 items). The fiber objects include many different kinds, such as hoop skirts (worn by both men and women), leaf fiber skirts (worn by women), large net bags that were worn on the head by Dani women and which were objects of both practical use and ritual significance, bags and bracelets made of orchid fiber, arm bands, head ornaments and waist ornaments incorporating feathers and other materials, samples of cordage made from bast fiber, necklaces for ritual protection made of spider’s webs and other items. Hampton published his research into stone tools in a book (Culture of Stone), but his collection of fiber artifacts remains mostly unpublished.

The loom-based weaving cultures of Insular Southeast Asia and the Pacific region, as well as the bark-cloth traditions of the remote Pacific islands, have been relatively well-studied. There are numerous academic and popular publications on these traditions, covering their practical aspects and social significance. The non-loom fiber traditions of New Guinea remain almost unstudied however, despite their intricacy and intrinsic interest.

In the long span of human history, loom-woven textiles are a relatively recent invention, having been present only for the last 8000 years or so. In contrast, cordage has a history of at least 40,000 years. Evidence of 3-ply cords has been recently found, for example, in mid-Paleolithic archaeological sites in Spain. The Dani culture, with its many uses of cordage and other fiber materials for bodily adornment, ritual objects and practical tools gives insight into the ways in which pre-loom-weaving cultures used fiber technology. These uses go well beyond the practical items (bags, nets and mats) that might be anticipated.

The Hampton research archive documents one of the last surviving examples on our planet of complex non-loom fiber technology for daily use and bodily adornment, in its original social and ritual setting. Hampton collected and documented at a time of rapid change: today the Dani have adopted Western dress in their daily lives and their skills with making and using traditional fibers are falling into disuse.