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Dead medium: New Guinea Talking Drum
From: (Bill Crawford)
Source(s): Margaret Mead, Growing Up in New Guinea, William Morrow; New York, 1930. p. 43 ff.


Here's one to think about. Talking drums.

This describes the talking drum in the village of Peri on

the south coast of the Great Admiralty Island in Papua New


"The drum language the children understand but make

no attempt to execute. This language consists of formal

phrase beginnings which mean 'Come home =' or "I am now

going to announce how many days it will be before I do

something,' etc. The first one will be followed by the

individual combination of beats which is the call of a

particular household for any of its members.

"The second is followed by slow beats, interspersed

with a formal spacing beat. Every one in the village

stops work or play to count these beats, but only a

knowledge of who is beating the drum and what he is

planning to do in the near future make it possible to

interpret the announcement.

"The children stop their play to hear which house call

follows the formal introduction, and go back to their

games if it is not their own. They seldom bother to

further identify the call. If a date is announced they

mechanically count the days and may stop to guess who is

beating the drum. There their interest ceases. One

ceremony is too like another to matter.

"But there are three drum calls which do interest

them, the beats announcing that some one is about to die,

that some one is dead, and the drum beat which means

'Trouble,' = theft, or adultery. For these they will

pause in their play and possibly send a small boy to

inquire into the cause. The drum beat for death is so

simple that children can make it and are sometimes

permitted to do so in the event of the death of an

unimportant person."

I guess that the people of Peri don't use talking drums

anymore. Or do they? Perhaps it's not a dead medium

after all. Just medium dead.

Bill Crawford (