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In Deepest Anthropologia II: The Steel Axe Cuts Both Ways

In comments and elsewhere people are disputing the claim that a steel axe is better than a stone one:

Comment: Chris Lovell: But this assumes that the people of PNG evaluate technology and goods in the same way as the European colonists did and as we do now. For all that steel axes seem to us clearly superior than stone ones, they've been viewed with ambivalence in the South Pacific--a classic article by Lauriston Sharp, "Steel Axes for Stone Age Australians," details what happened when missionaries introduced steel axes to a northern Australian tribe--the axes were not adopted smoothly, and many members of the tribe viewed them with suspicion...


Savage Minds: Henry Swift asks: "Were the cargo cultists not interested at all in 'cargo' for its usefulness to them? (i.e. a steel axe would be useful to almost anyone.)" Fred and Deborah say: "Thanks for your responses.... To Henry, yes, perhaps [steel axes were 'useful', but steel axes were, of course, more useful to some than others--mostly to men in the PNG case. This is to say, there is always a political economy at work which must be understood when interpreting what is useful for whom and why--and often a gendered political economy. Usefulness, we think, is never absolute nor asocial. Lauriston Sharp's classic article, "Steel Tools for Stone Age Australians," is very good on the problematics of the introduction of steel tools among the Yir Yoront. They were welcomed by some and detested by others...

Let us be very, very clear about what Chris Lovell and Fred and Deborah are really saying when they claim that steel axes are not "useful." Let's let Lauriston Sharp speak:

Lauriston Sharp: In... aspects of conduct or social relations, the steel axe was... at the root of psychological stress among the Yir Yoront. This was the result of new factors which the missionary considered beneficial: the simple numerical increase in axes per capita as result of mission distribution, and distribution directly to younger men, women, and even children. By winning the favor of the mission staff, a woman might be given a steel axe which was clearly intended to be hers, thus creating a situation quite different from the previous custom which necessitated her borrowing an axe from a male relative. As a result a woman would refer to the axe as "mine," a possessive form she was never able to use of the stone axe. In the same fashion, young men or even boys also obtained steel axes directly from the missions, with the result that older men no longer had a complete monopoly of all the axes in the bush community. All this lead to a revolutionary confusion of sex, age, and kinship roles with a major gain in independence and loss of subordination on the part of those who now owned steel axes when they have previously been unable to possess stone axes...

Each individual steel axe was very useful to its possessor--on that all agree. But to the set of high-status older men as a group, the introduction of steel axes was not useful to them because they "no longer had a complete monopoly of all the axes." The result was a "revolutionary confusion of sex, age, and kinship roles." Why, even a woman could have an axe of her own! How shocking! How terrible!

Most of us would think that the fact that the coming of steel axes brings "a major gain in independence and loss of subordination" for the poorer members of the community would be a plus that makes steel axes more useful community, not a minus.

But, apparently, not Fred and Deborah, and not Chris Lovell. They appear to say that because steel axes destablized patriarchy, they were not "useful" to the Yir Yoront.


  1. Fred and Deborah write: "...the problematics of the introduction of steel tools... welcomed by some and detested by others."
  2. Chris Lovell writes: "the axes were not adopted smoothly, and many members of the tribe viewed them with suspicion."
  3. I would have written: "High-status established males were pissed: not only did women and youngsters no longer have to bow and scrape to get permission to borrow axes, but the women and youngsters had better axes that chopped faster."

Which of these three ways of putting it conveys more and more accurate information about the introduction of steel axes among the Yir Yoront?