Dani Economic Organization

The main productive resources in the Dani economy include capital, land, and labour.  The primary land and capital resources are inseparably conjoined in the form of irrigated fields on which the staple sweet potato crop is grown.  The allocation of irrigated plots seems on the surface to be a simple and straightforward procedure insofar farm land is freely available and requires no payment or other form of negotiation for its use.  This ease of access is remarkable in a system in which such a heavy labour commitment has been made to develop the land and a limited supply of well watered and drained fields.  Possibly Heider has portrayed a limited view of Dani land tenure, which is in fact restricted to some extend though control by the heads of large households that include adult male clients.

Labour allocation follows a pattern of strict gender role division.
Women's work is organized through the household and is allocated according to responsibilities to fathers and husbands. As such, individual men can increase domestic  labour force through polygyny, which involves some payment in the form of pigs and other prestigious exchange items.  Men with more wives of course have many children, who also contribute to the household labour force by assisting their mothers

Women's productive efforts are devoted to the major daily household chores, including

Young boy herding the family's pigs
Photo: Courtesy of Robert Gardner
    The products of women's labour are all consumed within the household and are essential for the basic sustenance of the family.  However salt and pigs assume a wider importance as both constitute essential trade items in exchange for which the Dani obtain shell, stone, and hardwood.  Pigs have further uses insofar as they constitute the main course of all ceremonies and are also capital goods which serve as a way of storing value for a long period and  generate "interest" in the form of piglets. The animals that women tend also provide their husbands with a fund for acquiring additional wives.

Allocation, Production, and Distribution in the Dani Economy


Men's work is similarly allocated as part of domestic responsibilities, although men, unlike women, can take full personal responsibility as to when, where, and how they commit their efforts.  The primary male domestic task involves the construction and maintenance of the irrigation system and preparation of the fields for planting. This work is heavier than women's but involves only a few weeks commitment prior to the planting season.   To some extent men bear an additional work  responsibility to key figures, the bigmen, who organize and co-ordinate major public events such as rituals and warfare, the two activities that place the heaviest demands on male time and effort.  However, men's participation in these arenas and their allegiance to particular leaders are ostensibly voluntary. Trading with other communities is a additional male chore that all household heads must undertake to provide the raw materials needed for the production of farms tools, weapons, ornaments, and ritual objects.

Distributing shell valuables at a funeral
Photo: Coutesy of Robert Gardner

The subsequent distribution of goods and services can be understood in terms of two contexts: trade and prestige, which, with the additional activities of capital formation and domestic consumption, make up the total range of final product uses within the Dani economy.

Trade is oriented towards lowland communities in the forest with whom local specialities are exchanged.  The Dani export salt and pigs and receive shell, stone, and hardwoods.  This activity is organized according to a market principle, as all transactions are impersonal and immediate, and participants bargain to obtain the best return for what they have to offer.

Prestige exchanges occur predominantly in two contexts: ritual and war, which are closely related since each death in battle creates two ritual occasions: an edai (victory) celebration for one side and a funeral for the other.

Ritual activity involves the consumption of pork and other food items provided by the host as well as the exchange of especially valued gift items, including shell bands and je stones among the guests.  Both activities involve the display and use of wealth in public contexts for the purpose of validating and increasing prestige and status within the community.

Warfare also involves the acquisition and validation of prestige through the disposition of captured weapons, which are highly significant prestige items.  Under normal circumstances they should be transferred to the major leader of the military alliance of the victorious group in the course of the edai ceremony, but in cases of competition for leadership they may be retained by the head of a component unit (confederation).

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Date Created: October 1, 1997
Last Updated: