(Boylove Documentary Sourcebook) - The "Bau a" Ceremonial Hunting Lodge of the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea

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Photograph taken in 1966 at Didessa village, Kaluli ethnic group, Mt. Bosavi region, Papua New Guinea.

From "The Bau a Ceremonial Hunting Lodge: An Alternative to Initiation" by Edward L. Schieffelin, in Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea, edited by Gilbert H. Herdt (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1998), originally published in 1982 by University of California Press.

Note: The following information relies on firsthand accounts given by people who witnessed the practice in question before it was discontinued.[1]

This essay concems the bau a, a bachelor men’s ceremonial hunting lodge that was held periodically before European contact by the Kaluli, Onabasulu and Etoro peoples of the Papuan Plateau in Papua New Guinea. The bau a exhibited many features typical of a male initiation program, including the seclusion of the members, ritual activity aimed at promoting growth and enhancing manly qualities, and the teaching of secret lore. It also heightened the reputation of its leaders and of the sponsoring community, encouraged social integration and cessation of fighting over a wide area, and formed part of an ongoing, large-scale ceremonial cycle of food exchange.


The bau a itself was an oval building constructed on the ground, in which the membership performed hunting magic and slept for part of the period of their ritual seclusion. The membership ranged from boys of eight or nine years old to bachelors of around twenty-eight. The period of seclusion was about fifteen months. The major criterion for admission, apart from being able to trace some kinship connection to the sponsoring community, was that the individual had never been sexually involved with a woman. The major activity of the bau a, to which most of the rituals pertained and to which all other benefits were in one way or another related, was hunting. The game, principally marsupials of moderate size, was smoked and accumulated in a smoking rack in the bau a in preparation for a large-scale distribution at the climactic ceremony that marked the young men’s coming out of seclusion.


In conversing about the bau a, my informants’ eyes would shine; their voices would become excited or drop to low, mysterious whispers. Clearly they felt their experiences in the bau a were among the high points of their lives.

A bau a was believed to promote the growth of the young boys (about ten to fourteen years old) and to induce strength and attractively light skin color for the youths and bachelors. It was also believed to ward off sickness and death by quieting the appetites of witches in the surrounding communities. In addition, it led to a general suspension of hostilities and revenge killings among longhouse communities during the time it was in session. Finally, it represented a special relationship between men and the mɛmul spirits of Mount Bosavi.


Bachelors and boys carried out grueling hunting expeditions from early in the morning until late in the afternoon most days. Hunting groups ranged considerable distances over the Papuan Plateau, made week-long expeditions to the forested slopes of Mount Bosavi, and traveled to the lands south of the mountain at the headwaters of the Turama river. Youths and boys thus developed extensive knowledge of the habits of animals and a familiarity with the forest geography over a wide area outside the confines of their own longhouse territories. Because of their ritual status, bau a youths always could pass through other longhouse areas safe from attack.

While the characteristics of endurance and knowledge of the forest were developed in hunting, self-control was encouraged within the bau a itself. Self-control was more than a matter of strict ritual avoidance of women (a stricture that was checked for each youth and young man periodically by divination). It also pertained to social harmony among the inmates. Argument and angry words between bau a youths were strongly censured, and if frequent, or if a fight erupted, the offenders would be expelled by the bau a leader and sent back in disgrace to their longhouses.

The growth of young boys who were around the age of puberty was encouraged specifically by pederastic homosexual intercourse with some of the older bachelors. Kaluli believe that girls attain full maturity as women by natural growth but that boys cannot do so without being given a “boost,” as it were, by the semen of older men. This pederasty was considered a major male secret vis-à-vis the women, and it was generally regarded with embarrassment and lascivious humor among the men themselves. Homosexual intercourse for boys also took place in everyday life beyond the bau a context whenever a boy reached the age of about ten or eleven. At that time, his father would choose a suitable partner to inseminate him, and the two would meet privately in the forest or a garden house for intercourse over a period of months or years. Less frequently a boy might choose his own inseminator, although this was risky: if the man was a witch, his semen would turn the boy into one too. In the bau a, boys were inseminated “openly” (that is, they were inseminated by their homosexual partner after lights out in the close, crowded, smoky darkness of the bau a while the rest of the exhausted hunters were thought to be asleep). A few of the bachelors came to the bau a specifically to act as inseminators, and fathers sometimes assigned their sons to one or the other of them. Other lads chose their own inseminators from among the older bachelors (or bachelors chose them) and formed specific liaisons for a while. Side by side with the serious business of hunting, pederastic intercourse was a marked feature of the bau a which men chuckled over self-consciously in reminiscence.


It is difficult to assess what women felt about the bau a. They publicly maintained the stance that it was an affair of the men and that they did not know anything about it. Actually, I discovered that many older women appeared to have a fairly good idea about what went on with regard to the more obvious hunting and homosexual activities (though not the secret ritual details). As audience to the whole performance, however, they went along with its disguises and pretended they knew nothing. The point here is that part of the importance of the bau a for the men lay in the way it was meant to frighten and mystify the women and to impress them with male mystique, a cultural ideal in which, to some extent, everyone believes. It is the same mystique and attraction that could cause a woman to lose her heart to a dancer at a public ceremony and elope by following him home (Schieffelin 1976:24).


The continual hunting over wide ranges of forest, the growth-stimulating pederasty in the bau a, the ritual discipline and unity of purpose, the vigorous manly ethos and mystification of women—all came together under the auspices of the mɛmul spirits to form a kind of sacralized paradigm of masculine productivity and the manly life. In this sense it expressed what men liked best about themselves, what they stood for and wanted to be.

Kaluli tribesman dressed for a special occasion from Sugu village, Mount Bosavi, Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.


  1. Edward L. Schieffelin, "The Bau a Ceremonial Hunting Lodge: An Alternative to Initiation"; Gilbert H. Herdt, ed., Rituals of Manhood (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1998), pp. 156–157.

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