In recent years, a number of ammonite pendants, similar to the one in Fig. 1, have been offered by tribal art dealers. As scientific objects, they offer the interest all fossils – a chance to study the tangible remains of ancient life. Being among the more abundant of fossil types, ammonites normally wouldn’t excite major paleontological interest. However, the relatively unexplored locality from which these ammonites come, and the unfamiliar use to which they are put, call for a closer look.
They are reportedly from the Dani – a people from the central highlands of Irian Jaya (the western, Indonesian half of New Guinea) – and the methods and materials used in their construction support this attribution. Surrounded by steep mountains on all sides, these highlands were largely isolated from the outside world until the 1930s, when passing airmen spotted densely clustered villages and cultivated fields in the river valleys. Anthropologists were quick to realise the importance of this enduring Neolithic culture, and among the works published on the Dani were the book Gardens of War and its accompanying film Dead Birds (Gardner & Heider 1968), which remain classic studies of social violence. These investigations emphasised the ritualised nature of Dani warfare, during which the normally unadorned men would dress in elaborate costumes decorated with cassowary feathers, boar tusks and bailer shells.
Scholarly interest soon translated into artistic interest and tribal collectors began turning their attention to Dani ornaments, which now appear on the market with increasing regularity. Because the materials available to the Dani in their isolated location were limited, their artistic repertoire was too, and students of their art quickly learn to recognise it. This is why the ammonite pendants pose such a mystery – they fall outside that familiar repertoire.
Highland New Guinea as a fossil locality
As noted, central New Guinea has only recently been opened to outside visitors and, even now, is largely inaccessible. The terrain is rough, with high mountains and dense forests, and the area lacks major roadways. More seriously, it has witnessed resistance – sometimes armed – against incorporation into the Indonesian state. These factors combine to discourage paleontological and geological prospecting.
Journalist, George Monbiot, who visited Dani territory in the 1980s, reports having seen fossil bivalves at high altitudes (Monbiot 1989 p84), but types and quantities of highland fossil material remains unclear. While writers have discussed Dani ornaments at length (Gardner & Heider 1968 p19, 137-139; Heider 1997 p59; Borel & Taylor 1994 p211; Monbiot 1989 p59), they make no mention of fossils. Furthermore, no fossil ornaments appear in the Dead Birds film or any of the published sources I have consulted.
Is it possible that ammonites are items recently imported into the Dani area now that it is being opened to outside contact? Though generally isolated, traditional trade networks clearly existed with coastal New Guinea, as bailer shells – one of the most popular luxury materials among the Dani – do not occur naturally in their landlocked home. Another clue might be their level of finish – the ammonites appear to have been competently removed from their matrices and often show some level of polish. Our example shows it to have been detailed on both front (Fig. 2) and back (Fig. 3). Such work indicates the use of metal tools, which even now are uncommon in the highlands.
Wearing an ammonite pendant
If the origins of these ammonites are unclear, what can we say about their use as pendants? It is helpful to compare them against a more familiar type of Dani necklace, one which is often seen in the published literature as being worn into battle. The one shown in Fig. 4 is typical. There is a fibrous strap, decorated with cowries, supports several large slices from a bailer shell and a wide bib, faced with hundreds of small nassa shells. The strap holds snugly around the neck, and with the bailers keeping the weight high and close to the collar, the necklace as a whole can be quite ostentatious, without interfering much with movement or the handling of weapons.
By contrast, ammonite pendants invariably hang loosely from a long neck strap – on me, the ammonite rests at about navel level. Being stone, it presents a significant physical distraction when moving, as its weight making it swing heavily. Worse still, in experimenting with wearing it together with a traditional Dani war costume, I note that it tends to get tangled with the phallocrypt and interfere with the use of the bow and spear – inconveniences that could easily prove fatal in a fight (see my online notes at http://ForensicFashion.com/1968DaniChief.html for details).
These observations suggest that ammonite pendants were not part of Dani war costume. If used at all in a traditional context, they would likely have been reserved for ceremonial or ritual occasions, as the free-hanging weight would have interfered with the mundane physical tasks required of all Dani. Therefore, while not yet knowing enough to decide either way, the circumstantial evidence suggests that ammonites are a newer, post-contact item, which has been incorporated into the Dani artistic idiom.
Even so, this should not diminish our appreciation for them. As my own previous study has shown (Macaraeg 2007), warrior cultures – and the Dani certainly have such a culture – place a high premium on social markers in times of both battle and social performance, so these pendants may simply be the latest iteration of a longstanding practice. Indeed, this may be one of the last true examples of this being done in a pre-industrial way, making these pendants of equal anthropological and paleontological interest.
Recommendations for future research
For palaeontologists and geologists, the presence of ammonites of undetermined origin should invite exploratory interest in the central highlands of New Guinea, tempered of course by the physical and political risks mentioned above. This large, micro-continent is essentially virgin territory and significant finds surely await. Even if the ammonites are (as is likely) imported, they may yet reveal an unfamiliar source locality elsewhere, worth studying in itself, either on New Guinea or somewhere else in the wider Indonesian archipelago.
For anthropologists and art collectors, these pendants are equally fascinating. They indicate an awareness of, and an appreciation for, prepared fossil specimens, and speak broadly to the universal aesthetics that underlie the human impulse to find, create and interpret art. Just as the spiral of marine shells led to Pythagoras’ mathematical insights, it is certainly endearing to see how natural forms continue to inspire wonder and awe to those who find them, regardless of their level of material civilisation.
Borel, France & John Bigelow Taylor 1994. The Splendor of Ethnic Jewelry. ISBN 0819029937
Gardner, Robert & Karl G. Heider 1968. Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age.
Heider, Karl 1997. Grand Valley Dani: Peaceful Warriors. 3e. ISBN 0155051733
Macaraeg, Ruel A. 2007 March. “Dressed to Kill: Toward a Theory of Fashion in Arms and Armor.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, & Culture v11 n1 p41-64. ISBN 9781845206048 http://www.IngentaConnect.com/content/Berg/JDBC/2007/00000011/00000001/art00004
Monbiot, George 1989. Poisoned Arrows.