All the members: A PNG Attitude Special Feature
All the members: MPs of the East Sepik province

‘Dullest culture on earth’ frowns upon sex, bans play


WHAT DOES A CULTURE LOOK LIKE when recreation is forbidden? The Baining of East New Britain value work as the highest human ideal, and view play as the domain of animals.

This has led some anthropologists to deem them "unstudiable" because of their failure to do anything interesting. British anthropologist Gregory Bateson spent 14 months attempting to study the Baining in the 1920s before giving up entirely.

But a successful study of the Baining reveals some fascinating details about this unusual culture.

An article in Psychology Today notes that studying the Baining has proved challenging because their daily life is so mundane. They are small-scale farmers with no institutions outside of the family — no political or spiritual leaders.

They have little in the way of traditional stories, mythology, or even gossip. They do not engage in recreational play. Their daily talk is mostly about the gathering and preparation of food.

The exception, as the picture suggests, is that they do have costumed dances, which are elaborately choreographed and which only adult men may participate in and observe.

Jane Fajans, now an associate professor of anthropology at Cornell University, studied the Baining in the 1970s and 1990s, and discovered that they have a fascinating belief system.

The Baining eschew the natural, believing that work and productivity are unique to humans. In order to separate themselves from the animals, the Baining focus their lives on work. Play, being the natural state of children, is punished (sometimes going so far as to stick a child's hand in a fire) until children learn to overcome their natural urges and accept work.

Similarly, sex, being natural, is frowned upon (though they do have children), and adoption is highly encouraged, to the extent that Fajans found that 36% of children were adopted.

Even cooked food is preferable to raw food because it is the product of human labour. What is valued in Baining society is not the natural, not your own desires, not biological ties, but what you can turn raw materials into, including how well you can turn yourself into a productive person.

From the outside, Baining society looks quite colourless, but Fajans found these strict beliefs result in a radically egalitarian, anarchistic society. She published her findings in her book They Make Themselves: Work and Play among the Baining of Papua New Guinea.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)