The history of salt baking by the Keri Tribe in South Simbu - 1
15 March 2015
BEFORE the white men brought their salt to Simbu, salt baked by the Keri tribe in South Simbu was widely used throughout the central highlands of New Guinea.
Using a crude technique, the salt was baked from a sulphur stream that flowed from within a shale rock formation at Pleme on the banks of the Wahgi River.
Before the 1950s, this salt was a highly valued item and Pleme, where the salt was baked, a renowned economic centre in the central highlands.
The Keri people specialised in baking this salt and traded it with all tribes of the area for di-gaima (stone axes), pigs, shells, bird feathers and garden crops.
Salt was also an important item in bride price transactions. Their ownership of salt made the Keri people a Pharaoh family, highly revered among the tribes of the area.
The salt was traded as far away as Bundi in north Simbu, east beyond Elimbari mountain and west beyond the Kubor Range into the Wahgi Valley. It found its way south to Karimui and further to the Gulf of Papua.
Leigh Vial, a kiap at the Chimbu-Wahgi patrol post, referred to seeing this salt in the northern Simbu area in 1940 in an article, Down the Wagi – a New Guinea Patrol.
The first white men to visit the sulphur spring and baking area at Pleme were Vial and geologist Noakes sometime in May-June 1939.
Vial wrote of a “salty liquid, smelling of rotten eggs soaked out and ran into pools… We dipped our fingers in and cautiously licked them. It was very bitter.”
The men observed that there were many baking houses and hundreds of people around.
Earlier, in October 1934, Danny and Michael Leahy had explored the Yuwi area, crossing the Wahgi from Elimbari further downstream from the salt spring at Pleme.
Four years after Vial and Noakes, in 1943, Angau Capt J A Costelloe and J C McInerney visited the Dom axe quarry upstream and north from the Keri area. Another Angau officer Lt K W Jones also visited the area in February 1945.
In March 1947, Assistant District Officer J C Costelloe, known to the South Simbu people as Holtoru the Bad, with his New Guinea Islands policemen, crossed the vine bridge at Sinasina and walked through Deboma Pass to Deri and across to Sua.
Here they massacred 37 Golen and Keri people who were engaged in inter-tribal warfare. I wrote of this killing in September 2014 in the PNG Attitude and it generated much discussion from among our ex-kiap friends. Dr Robin Hide also wrote a supporting document in his comments on the article in PNG Attitude.
In 1950, the Seventh Day Adventist Missionary, Pastor Lawrence Gilmore, also crossed the vine bridge near the salt spring to settle at Yani. The splendid photos accompanying this article were taken by him during that trip.
More recently, between 1988 and 1991, an English-Canadian anthropologist, Patricia Peach, lived in my village in Deri and studied my Keri tribe basing her work around salt production.
In the mid-1950s, when processed salt became easy to obtain, the salt baking at Pleme was discontinued.
Its expiry was hastened also because many of the able salt makers in the Keri tribe went to work on plantations in other parts of New Guinea through the Highlands Labour Scheme.
My father, Raphael Kin, a young man at the time went to work on a coffee plantation in Bulolo.
My father insists it was only about four generations ago when the salt was first discovered. As far as he can remember, there was a first Kin whose son was Bretine whose son was Hobel and whose son was my father Kin. Beyond the first Kin, he could not remember.
Our people had baked this salt for about four fathers before the white men arrived. This would mean that the salt baking at Pleme was less than 150 years old before it expired in the 1950s.
The Keri people migrated from Yoma beyond the Kubor Range further south where they lived with five brothers. They left there after a fight over the singing of a bird.
The first brother, Hobel, came north first; he was my ancestor. Kene and Aiwa came later and their descendants are the Keneku and Aiwaku tribes. The other two tribes are extinct and any remnants have dispersed into the Yuwi, Sa, Golen and the other Keri tribes of the area.
When our forefathers arrived on the current Keri land, they settled on the western face of Gugama mountain. Soon after, the salt stream was discovered and they conceived a way to bake salt from it. It was this discovery that enabled them to settle permanently at their current locations at Mirima, Omkole, Bosila, Sua and Deri.
As is the case in every primitive society where there are legends attached to everything, our salt baking at Pleme has a beautiful legend.
This first Kin had two daughters Gon and Giame and lived in Deri village. They were so beautiful that young men came from as far as the Golen, Kia, the other Keri tribes, Yuwi and Gunage to court them.
One evening two brothers from the Guna Emere clan of Gunage tribe came and slept with the girls. They left very early before dawn for Wahgi to go back to Gunage.
They crossed the bridge and were at the eastern side when they saw that Gon and Giame had followed them and were on the Keri side of the river. Pau said to Tul; “look, the two girls have followed us, maybe they want to go to Gunage with us, you go across and bring them over”.
“Ok, this is good, you wait here. I’ll go over and bring them across,” said Tul and crossed the bridge back to the Keri side. When he arrived at the spot where the girls were standing, Gon and Giame were not there. So he shouted back to Pau; “where are the girls. I can’t see them”.
Pau shouted back, “They are right there with you and smiling at you, bring them across and we must continue our journey back to the village.” But Tul shouted back; “I cannot see anybody here”.
“They are with you, look, they are smiling at you now” Pau shouted back. Tul looked around him again but could not see the girls. He shouted back; “I can’t see them, you come and look for them, I will come to your side”.
After they had changed places, Tul from Gunage side could see the girls were close to Pau. But Pau did not see them. There ensured another bout of shouting. They exchanged places two more times with no improvements to the situation.
Then finally they both went across to the Keri side to search. When they looked around the girls had truly disappeared. At the very spot where the girls had been standing, two milky streams gushed out from the hard rock. When they tasted it, it was salty. They were greatly surprised and excited about their discovery.
They quickly went back to the village with the news of their discovery. The next day the men of the two tribes brought pigs to the river and killed it as offerings to the gods.
The salt stream can still be seen today at Pleme on the banks of the Wahgi River.
My next article will be on the process used in baking the salt cake.
Thank you for sharing this valuable historical knowledge. I'm grateful I came across this article because it's going to help me with an assignment I am working on - resources development in the curriculum for schools.
Just wondering if Part 2 on the salt baking process is published already.
You'' find Part 2 here, Margaret - KJ
Posted by: Margaret Bro | 07 March 2023 at 02:23 PM
Grace Nugi. I hope you still can pick this up. Thank you for your interest in the Salt Baking article. I missed your comment at the time.
The photo was taken by an SDA Paster Lawrence Gilmore sometime in the early 1950s when he first arrived in the South Simbu area.
The two men in Simbu bilas are chiefs of the Golen tribe and the two white men are missionaries.
Let me know if you need any more information.
Posted by: Mathias Kin | 03 April 2017 at 11:57 PM
I am interested in the year the photograph of the three men in bilas and the two white men was taken. Any possible links or source I could follow?
Posted by: Grace Nugi | 20 July 2016 at 04:08 PM
This has greatly helped a section of my research! Thank you Mr Kin.
Posted by: Grace Nugi | 20 July 2016 at 03:59 PM
Senior Mathias Kin, I've always a keen follower and reader of some of your writings.
The article on salt making is an excellent piece especially when it is written by one of the sons of the salt makers. Well done mate! Wawe dibno.
Posted by: Morris Ami | 08 June 2015 at 11:54 PM
Hi everyone. I have undertaken systematic study and research on this topic. I am at Unitech Applied Sciences Department. I even published a paper recently.
Posted by: Janarthanan Gopalakrishnan | Assoc Prof & Head of Department | 08 June 2015 at 02:09 PM
Thank you very Mathias Kin. This is a well written piece of our pre-history.
Salt making was a significant arts developed by our ancestor in the past. I am very sad that nowadays this piece of our cultural arts are dying.
Therefore as offspring of this particular heritage I am proposing a new lights to uplift its historical character into the world market by promoting through Postal Stamps. As my expertise in arts & design industries our next stamp issue will features this topic: Kery traditional Salt Making.
I will need further information and pictures to produce the Postal Stamps. We have more than 200 collectors around the world collecting our Stamps.It was my task to market and promote our beautiful traditions & Cultures in the world. Most of our collector love our traditions & Cultures.
Please MK do send some pictures so I can develop a postal stamp and also souvenir gift packs to our customer. You will be mentioned in our stamp edition as one of our contributor.
Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org or call me: 305 3748
Monegai, Wai premio.
Posted by: Joe Kin Kaupa | 01 June 2015 at 01:45 PM
When I was a kiap in Sinasina in 1971 I walked from Igidi to Gumine via Deri Village, crossing the old log bridge over the Wara Waghi.
I was shown where the salt making used to take place, and for sure there was an evil rotten egg type smell emanating from the white streams flowing into the Waghi.
The guys with me started a fire and showed me how the salt was once produced.
They put a pot of the salty water on the fire and then covered the pots with ferns. The water evaporated and the white substance attached itself to the fern fronds.
These fronds were removed and shaken onto paper (originally most likely banana leaves or the like), and the result was a grey coloured salt, with a smoky flavour.
Posted by: Alan (Makalei) McLay | 19 March 2015 at 09:16 AM
Yal wai, yu yet yu lida blon haus man. Interesting read, wai wo!
Posted by: Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin | 17 March 2015 at 09:06 AM
Thank you bros Jim, Arnold, John and Bomai. I have started on the second part, should be out any time.
I have visited the McCarthy Museum in Goroka and have seen the salt making implements and process described. I am not really sure it came from Pleme.
Posted by: Mathias Kin | 17 March 2015 at 08:21 AM
MK, the next time you are in Goroka, we will visit the J K McCarthy Museum where some salt processing materials are displayed in a glass case with very little explanation.
These materials may come from the Keri tribe or elsewhere and your salt making story will help a layman like myself and others understand these historical materials better. Wakai wo.
Posted by: Bomai D Witne | 16 March 2015 at 10:57 PM
Mathias - I would love the next one on the salt making process.
Mathias has promised that it will be - KJ
Posted by: John Kaupa Kamasua | 16 March 2015 at 06:35 PM
When it comes to Mathias Kin putting pen on paper you expect nothing better. Good one, bro, a very good historical article here. Very interesting.
In fact, I don't think many people (including myself) know much about the salt baking in Keri although we heard about it.
I am looking forward to reading Part 2 of this article. Wakai wo...
Posted by: Arnold Mundua | 15 March 2015 at 04:57 PM
Great a detail article featuring the history and the discovery of salt making of the Keri people. Yagl Kin Waiwoo.
Posted by: Jimmy Awagl | 15 March 2015 at 07:10 AM