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Collecting Local History:  Taxonomy of the Zia Knowledge System

By: Biama Kanasa, Department of History, University of Papua New Guinea - presented at 1997 Waigani Seminar

Before I share my thoughts based on my personal observations on the experiences of collecting historical information sources on local knowledge of the past, I would like to ask you an eye-opening question. The question is this:

"What is it that necessitates our total consciousness for our survival, our continuity and our advancement in our physical and non-physical environment within our relative universe? "

I think the answer is already given by the theme of this seminar. That is "information and nation". But I like to add by quoting the Minister for Culture and Tourism Honourable Michael Nali that the theme for this seminar should be " information for nation... from nation".

Information as a necessity of consciousness

To me "information" is the " necessity of consciousness". Any ordinary data or datum that has no informative value does not necessitate consciousness. But what does information mean to us? Information on what?

I think it means information about:-:

surviving life crises.

drawing the necessities of life from our physical and non-physical environment to feed, nourish, nurture and sustain the offspring of our own kind.

how to overcome obstacles and challenges in life so that comfort and harmony exists.

how to create and maintain the tie that binds between individuals and extend the same to other species and beings in the physical and non-physical environment in our relative universe.

I think it means these and many more and these form extremely important information for our survival, our continuity and our advancement.

Where can we obtain this information? Where can we find those relevant and appropriate information and knowledge which were precisely and specifically preserved and transmitted through many generations down to us. For example, information, knowledge and skills of:

  • how to grow taro, catch fish and hunt pigs.
  • how to cure the sufferer of sorcery and witchcraft
  • how to navigate or find our way home if lost in the middle of the vast ocean,
  • how to settle disputes between members of our clan,
  • how to survive natural disasters like volcanic eruptions, flood, landslides, tidal waves, epidemic, and drought in our villages.

Where can we obtain this information? In the library and archives? Yes, but are they relevant? Have they helped us much?

It is here that we must stop to think again, of the

  • relevance
  • appropriateness and
  • usefulness of the information, knowledge, and skills.

We must now begin to identify the right place and determine the right sources of: relevant, appropriate and useful information, knowledge and skills. To me the right place is my village and the right sources are my elders and my parents.

Almost all this information is kept in the memories of our own elders, our own parents and relatives at home in our own communities. Their consolidated memories of their own experiences of survival, continuity and advancement over many generations is what we must retrieve and record with pen, tape recorder and cameras ( especially video cameras). We must do this immediately before it is too late. Both these and other numberless types of information are extremely important to you and me because they necessitate our consciousness.

The value of information and knowledge among the Zia

For these reasons the people of Zia on the South Coast of Morobe province regard their information, knowledge and skills as extremely important and value it. They call it nigao and it means the totality of knowledge about the respective spheres of human actions and interactions that exists within their physical and non-physical environment. Through experience over time one taps in and acquires these knowledge. The knowledge is then transmitted through many generations.

Zia's spheres of knowledge

Nigao is then classified according to those respective spheres within their relative universe as outlined below:

(a) Ungwe (tales/narratives): Ungwe-Tutura (myth), Ungwe-Ewowora (legend), Ungwe-kikionena (narrative account).

(b) Wini (advice/wisdom),tinawiya (commentary / critical and reflective assessment)

(c) Ge-awa (intercede in prayers to the dead spirits), tugata-magata (interpretation/justification)

(d) Eka-isika (rituals/magic), gao ( magical chant, stereotype sphraces)

(e) Doo (sorcery), Waru ( witchcraft) wongze (bad magic for land), umbu (bad magic for seas, lakes, rivers and creeks), yatu (bad magic for entire population)

(f) Eya-weweka (learning by observation and imitation), Eya-ginita (artifacts/ technical skills), owe-kakawe (symbols and design)

(g) Tutu/Gota ( beginning/origin/foundation): ati (string bag), puto(pig net), moga(fish net), gumawe( prawns' net), somi( net for aina the tiny school of fish), otiya (band for stone axe), tato (arm band), yanta (leg band), geing(belt), saka(basket), tero(mat), anu(grass skirt), nii-mo (head dress), guwa(stockade), goma(fence), wao (traps),boga/papo ( shelter/structure), niri/tari( bridges),

(h)Buro (work/production): ma-urao (gardening), wo-pao (hunting/ fishing), ame-dao (sago making), wang-ayao (canoe making),

(i)Yawa-yaura (recreation), wuiro-gauno (dancing/ singing/ festivity), na-be (verses/ chorus), na-te (dancing steps/ choreograph),

(j) Yere-borere (song/singing) : yere (songs), boti (love songs), koka-zebuye (working songs, eg. songs for tree felling),

(k) Ana-bonene(feasting/distribution),

(l) Aya-kayau (death/funeral): zii-zangwo (moaning/ mourning), zii-be (cries/ chant/ mourning songs),

(m) Bi-asaba (mortuary feast): noi ( widow), somi (widower), gani-gao (released from seclusion since the death of spouse),

(n) Aruga-busao ( birth day feast to compensate the mid-wives),

(o) Kapota ( compensation feast),

(p) Yazo (names): mani (personal), soma (place), nona (things), ii-wore (fauna and flora).

(q) Sao-tauyao(law/rules): Aka (taboo), zangwa (sign of restriction), tano (boundary),

(r) Ge-yao (warfare):gi-bemi(weapons/spears/shields)

(s) Ge (language/speech community),

Above are only main spheres of both technical and non-technical knowledge that necessitates the total consciousness for Zia's existence in their physical and non-physical environment within their relative universe.

Their existing modes of thought, their thinking processes, their modes of production or their knowing and acting are confined to limitless spheres as classified and presented.

To the Zia, all forms of knowledge are universal. They exist within the human mind in spheres and they are communicated verbally and non-verbally. Those which are vebally transmissible includes: ungwe, wini and tinawiya, ge-awa, tugata-magata, eka-isika, doo and waru, yere-borere, zii-be, na-be, yazo, sao-tauyao and ge. We also have those which are non-verbally transmissible as follows: Eya-weweka, tutu and gota, buro, yawa-yaura, ana-bonene, aya-kayau, bi-asaba,ge-yao aruga-busao and kapota. These are our traditions which existed in the oral culture for about two thousand generations as a living treasure and still exists.

This "living treasure" ( in Waiko's words) is what we need to build on. Because I think it adds non-physical essence to the physical being of the person. The Zia perceived it to co-exist in the limitless spheres within the reach of human perception and when tapped, it gives them non-physical essence. Both physical and non-physical co-exist to necessitate the completeness of the whole person. One who acquires this non-physical essence becomes a complete person, fully conscious of ego and ego's physical and non-physical environment within ego's relative universe.

The fully conscious and complete persons desire to live satisfied life. But their life and living, their way of living and thinking or their totality of existence must rest on a very special foundation.

For this reason, the totality of Zia's existence rests upon what, the Zia's call susuwa /tai (foundation /basis/roots). This susuwa/tai is nigao. But nigao (spheres and totality of knowledge) does not exist alone or in isolation from Zia's uwazawa (the material and non-material resources) and soma (the physical and non- physical environment within their relative universe). Zia's nigao is about survival, continuity and advancement in their physical and non-physical environment within their relative universe.


In the relative universe Zia's nigao is the root, the basis and the foundation upon which they exist as reasonable human beings with dignity, respect and pride for their own kind. These reasonableness is also extended to include other species of fauna and flora so that conservation and sustainability is achieved indirectly.

Collecting Local History:  Taxonomy of the Zia Knowledge System - by: Biama Kanasa, Department of History, University of Papua New Guinea - presented at 1997 Waigani Seminar
e-mail author:  c/o John Evans John Evans et al
Papua New Guinea © 2000

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