PETER S KINJAP
PORT MORESBY – For thousands of years before the first Australian patrol reached Mt Hagen in 1933, stones axes (known as ‘green axes’) were used daily in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and were widely traded often in the context of ceremonial exchanges.
In more recent times, a group of ‘factories’ located in the Waghi and Jimi Valleys accounted for the bulk of production of green axes.
In late 1963 and early 1964, an anthropologist had spent three months journeying through the highlands to trace sites where the green axes had been made.
In the Simbai (Tsembaga) and Kaironk areas in Simbu, the steel axe has effectively replaced stone axes only in the previous 10 years. In other highlands areas, stone working axes had probably dropped out of use by the early 1940s.
Of the 10 quarry sites the anthropologist examined, three had been visited before, two reported by an anthropologist, C Criper, working in the Upper Simbu.
Ggreen axes were also used in West Papua (Irian Jaya). When Ronnajdn Frank travelled up the isolated Brazza River in West Papua in 1989, the ‘tree-house men’ would only trade a stone axe in exchange for a steel axe. Money, tobacco or other trade items not being sufficient.
During the ancient period of the Stone Age, there were many known areas of New Guinea where green axes were used but few areas which were ‘factories’.
Simeon Nikints of Moika village near Mt Hagen could be one of the last remaining survivors of the green axe makers of the highlands, acquiring the skills from his father and grandfather.
Simeon currently lives in Taurama, a suburb of Port Moresby, with his wife from Simbu, three daughters and a son. From here he makes and sells some of the last of the green axes.
He named them green axes because of the colour of the fine stone he gets after months of rubbing the blades against each other.
“My father made the stone axe and I watched him when I was a small boy,” Simeon said. “I started imitating my father and tried a few myself when I was young.
“I started collecting stones from the Rondon River upstream from Mt Hagen and started sharpening them against each other.
“It’s not an easy task to get the expected sharpness and toughness. It took us months to rub the stones against each other. Only committed men could do that.
“We have to rub, sharpen and polish until we get to the core which is the green part of the stone that gives us the sharpness and the green’ colour,” Simeon said.
“Too much energy! You’ve got to strain your muscles to get to it. I had to spend hours each afternoon to do that.
“I can get a finished product in few weeks. But just a few hours in the afternoon means it takes months.”
Strangely, Simeon said he had never used a green axe himself. He only makes them to sell or trade.
Jim Taylor, the first explorer of the Western Highlands, had arrived in his village when he was a boy.
“Jim offered us salt. Some kids, especially young girls, tasted it first. I was amongst the kids but did not taste it as I was afraid of the white man.
“I was also afraid of my village elders. They restricted us from going close to the white man, saying he could be a spirit of a dead man from the enemy tribe sent to kill us or poison us.”
After leaving Moika village, Taylor later settled in Nebilyer valley.
“One day I saw a group of foreigners taking photos and videos. A man was invited to demonstrate cutting a tree using a green axe. It cut like a steel axe. It was exciting to watch,” Simeon said.
Like many other traditional items, green axes were used in the ceremonial events. Western Highlands men in full traditional attire would hold a green axe or carry it under the armpit while marching around and chanting the ritual traditional songs.
The green axe was mainly a tool for gardening, cutting trees and building houses. The handle was made separately and then. The hardest task was readying the stone.
“Some tourists told me when I was selling some green axes during APEC in Port Moresby that I had the toughest job of all indigenous artwork to make a green axe,” Simeon said.
“Carving is another special gift I have. I can produce through my imagination a bird of paradise and carve it. Or a human face and carve it. Other designs too. I can produce a human face from a wood or any other design from my imagination,” he added.
“I am still carving and doing my artwork in producing the green axes today. Any museums or historians or just about anyone who is interested to get a green axe for their display and exhibition or a souvenir from the island of New Guinea.
“You can find me at the back of Holiday Inn hotel in Port Moresby where there is a craft and paint market or alternatively you can contact the writer of this story who knows where I live,” Simeon said.
The green axe is a sustainable and eco-friendly tool that has been used in the past, especially during the Stone Age.
Today, when humanity is facing suffocation from the climate crisis, remains of such tools are being produced and used without causing any disturbance to the environment should find a special spot in the museum exhibitions and environmental conservation forums around the globe.
Peter S Kinjap is a freelance correspondent on climate change issues and advocates for the Travel4Green (T4G) PNG project. Email firstname.lastname@example.org