Zoomorphic Figure, date unknown
Mendi region, Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea
Stone, pigment; H. 16 1/8 in. (41 cm)
Anonymous Gift, 1984 (1984.123.1)
The earliest known Oceanic sculptures are a variety of ancient stone objects discovered in New Guinea. Unearthed primarily in the mountainous highlands of the interior, they are enigmatic remnants of a culture, or cultures, that once flourished widely on the island, and include independent figures as well as mortars, pestles, club heads, and other forms. The dating of these objects remains uncertain, although organic material associated with one example has recently been carbon-dated to around 1500 B.C., indicating that some are of great antiquity.
This figure possibly depicts an echidna, an egg-laying mammal native to New Guinea and Australia. Such "echidna" figures have been unearthed at a number of locations in the New Guinea Highlands and this example comes from the Mendi region. Although their original significance is unknown, unusual stones, whether ancient artifacts or natural objects such as fossils, play, or played, important roles in the religious life of many contemporary Highland peoples. Unearthed by chance, they are regarded as supernaturally powerful objects and used in diverse ceremonial contexts, including fertility rites, curing sickness, warfare, and malevolent magic. On occasion, large groups of stones were formerly brought together for a ceremonial cycle, known as amb kor or kor nganap, devoted to a female spirit who renewed the fertility of the earth and brought vitality and prosperity to the community.