FORGET mobile phones and the internet. There were more radical and profound technological changes in Papua New Guinea long before anyone dreamed up those things.
I suppose the granddaddy of all technological change was the arrival of the steel axe and bush knife but, other than those, change tended to be more subtle.
In the highlands I reckon (1) umbrellas, (2) men’s jackets, and (3) can openers were at the cutting edge. So to speak.
When I arrived in Mount Hagen in the 1960s, the umbrella reigned supreme. Umbrellas came in two colours, black and blacker; the kinky coloured ones came a bit later.
No one worth his salt ventured onto the roads without one. If you owned an umbrella, it was mandatory that you parade along the road showing it off.
The umbrella, apart from being a status symbol, had some radical uses. Not least was keeping the rain off. It also kept the sun off. It also had a nice pointy end that could be jabbed into anyone’s ribs to emphasise a point.
In addition, it was useful for swatting errant and annoying little boys and village dogs.
In those days just about everyone, except most Europeans, were getting around in arse grass and pulpuls. However, for the truly trendy male, nothing surpassed the formal blazer or jacket.
Where they came from I’m not sure. The kongkong stores sold new ones I guess but there were not really any second hand shops around like there are now.
Maybe the missionaries brought them in. I know I once passed a gentleman paddling a canoe down the Fly River dressed in a very fetching black negligee courtesy of the local SDA mission.
The can openers weren’t those clunky things with little winders or the other ones with spikes that you used to jemmy the can open.
They were the neat little openers with the tiny spike and inbuilt spoon that came in army ration packs. How 10,000 highlanders obtained one each is an enduring mystery.
So there you have it.
The well-dressed male in the highlands in those days had a broad bark belt with tankets at the back and pulpul at the front over which he wore a tweed or business-grey jacket. Nothing on the feet, but a woven beret on the head. Beard on face and razor sharp axe or bush knife tucked into the back of the bark belt.
The axe handle didn’t have a wide curved handle like the European version but was tapered so it could be twirled around with ease.
One of the most terrifying sights I ever saw was several hundred highlanders dressed in pulpul and tankets and glistening with sweat charging full bore swinging the axes above their heads. Thankfully it was just a display at the funeral of a prominent bigman and was not directed personally at me.
On their chest, the men wore a necklace made up of small horizontal bamboo tubes (or bits of aluminium fuel line if there happened to be a convenient crashed balus nearby), designating the number of pigs owned by the wearer. At least I think that’s what they meant.
Over the necklace dangled the ration-pack can opener on a string. If it was cool the wearer might also be sporting a shiny coat of pig grease.
It was a sartorial elegance to put those future foppish rap-geared city kids to shame.
Nowadays highlands men just wear jeans and tee-shirts like everyone else and spend their time nattering on mobile phones.
Oh well, such is progress.