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Ethnohistory 47.1 (2000) 227-240
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Afterword: Zero Hour:
Reflecting Backward, Looking Forward
On 15 September 1975, the day before independence “came” to Papua New Guinea, while I was living in an Abelam village in the Sepik foothills, I made the following entry in my field diary:
Some rumors about Independence:
- Jesus is coming and will kill everyone who doesn’t go to church.
- Jesus is coming with cargo.
- Yaliwan (a popular cargo cult leader subsequently elected to the National Parliament) is coming with a clever man and will destroy Wewak.
- Some bombs will be dropped around here (Maprik) and will kill some people.
- Another country is coming to “boss” Papua New Guinea.
- This government isn’t real: the true government will come later, along with new money and such.
- Independence is a lucky number.
- Independence is the name of the new country that will “boss” Papua New Guinea.
- At midnight all the “Independences” will come and try to kill everyone; thus you have to hide all spears, knives, and weapons in the bush. Then they won’t be able to kill you.
- Ancestral spirits are coming back on this night. Everyone has to clean the grave sites. Everyone has to sleep under a mosquito net wearing his best clothes and shoes, if possible. You should lie flat on your back (no turning over). You should prepare two beds, one for the [End Page 227] man, one for the woman, and put some food on a plate for the spirits to eat. Hide all expensive things. All cargo will come.
In a recent volume examining “millennial markers” in Papua New Guinea, edited by Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern (1997), researchers examine a variety of “ways in which people are attempting to create meanings for historical happenings in the years prior to 2000 A.D.” Among the topics taken up in anticipation of the millennium are the number 666, the changing color of skin, computers, bar codes, the Pope, the Antichrist, the earth’s decline, human sacrifice, the “rapture,” space rockets, and the prophesies in Revelation. The articles in this issue of Ethnohistory further underline the anxiety and anticipation that surround the imminent “coming” of the year 2000. The introduction to this issue, also by Stewart and Strathern, considers “the impact of Christian fundamentalist thinking, as well as other parameters of modernity, on New Guinea communities.”
Is there some sort of correspondence between the fears surrounding the “arrival” of independence among the Abelam in 1975 and the anticipation of the millennium described herein, fully a quarter-century later? Why should either event produce such a stir? Given the significance of Christianity in Papua New Guinea today, and the apocalyptic bent of Christian fundamentalist thinking, the current anticipation of an “end time” or a new world order ushered in with the arrival of 1 January 2000 is perhaps understandable. But in early 1975, in the Abelam village in which I lived, Christianity had made few inroads. There was only one couple, in a resident population of 557, who at the time professed even nominal Christian faith. So, what was the basis for the millennial thinking then?
In this afterword I reflect backward in time to look forward. I believe that at least some of the explanation for the current millennial thinking in Melanesia, and perhaps even the appeal of fundamentalist Christianity itself, may be deeply rooted in longstanding Melanesian notions of time and time reckoning. Whereas Westerners structure time primarily by employing a linear perspective, in which structures are seen as emerging, changing, and disappearing cumulatively, the Abelam use an episodic perspective, in which events are thought to be repetitions in an unchanging temporal reality structured around a cycle of ceremonial yam growing. From the Abelam perspective, real change can only occur cataclysmically or millennially via a total restructuring of reality. Such notions fit comfortably not only with “cargo cult” beliefs of the past but also with contemporary anxieties surrounding the year 2000. [End Page 228]
Episodic Time in Melanesia
Westerners seem to be strongly attracted to linear or “evolutionary” views of time...