In the past few episodes of Ripley’s Rarities, we have showcased some of the most interesting cultural artifacts from the various tribes of Papua New Guinea, and though penis sheaths and ancestor heads evoke curiosity from non-natives, this midwife skull is unique even in New Guinea.
While many of the same regards are held for this skull as for typical ancestor heads, this person’s skull wouldn’t have normally been preserved because it belonged to a woman. Iatmul tribesmen reserved the crafting of clay-covered heads for men only, then enshrined them in a special house in the village for leaders to consult. Women and children would only see the skulls during a select few parades or ceremonies.
The midwife’s skull, however, joined into all of these male rituals, and a living midwife—known as a waneng aiyem ser—was also to privy to many rituals women would have been barred from. Most female tribe members were relegated to caring for children and tending to small gardens while men hunted and fought.
Waneng Aiyem Ser
According to social anthropologist Fitz John Porter Poole, the midwife’s role usually fell to an older female who lived alone. They would often live apart from other villagers and work on the cultivation of sexual substances. They would preside over ceremonies for both men and women’s initiation rituals, rites of purification, medicine, divination, and decision-making. Their unique position not only made them a part of both genders but also kept them apart from male and female social functions. For this reason, many have designated the waneng aiyem ser as a third gender in the tribe.
In initiation rituals, midwives spoke with the authority of men and were sometimes the enforcer of cultural taboos. She had the power to take and dispose of male belongings and was welcome to speak out against men in public. When it came time to choose a new midwife, it was her right alone to name a successor. This tradition of transitioning from a female tribe member into the waneng ayem ser and change from one gender-role to another lasted for hundreds of years in the New Guinea highlands.
In death, a waneng aiyem ser continued to be revered: her skull was given a netted headdress decorated with shells, and the visage of a pregnant woman was inscribed on their forehead.
According to a previous collector, the skull would be used to appease wrathful spirits and ensure the birth of healthy babies to the tribe. Just as they served in life, they were expected to continue their protection in death.