Ovoid lime gourd with southern cassowary bone spatula with crab claw, fish vertebra, common spotted cuscus tail, seed, human hair and feather attached to the end.
Lime Gourd & Lime Spatula, Mekeo people, Central Province, Papua New Guinea. The chewing of nuts from the Areca palm (Areca catechu), commonly known as betel nut, was a major recreational activity for men throughout the mainland and island groups of New Guinea. This addictive stimulant (Arecoline) was brought into the island in remote prehistory from Southeast Asia, and a complex set of artworks and tools have developed over the centuries around the drug’s preparation and consumption. Lime containers are central to the use of betel nut in New Guinea: the alkaline lime powder (usually obtained by finely grinding coral) activates the Arecoline in the nuts, and so it is needed on hand whenever the nut is chewed. Gourd containers are produced throughout Papua New Guinea, in which the ground limestone is stored, and from which small quantities are periodically removed using a saliva-wetted lime spatula and put in the mouth alongside the nuts. From the inland portion of Central Province occupied by the Mekeo people, this lime gourd is a remarkable example of the resourceful way that New Guinea peoples make use of the animals in their environment to create useful tools and artworks. Here, one of the massive leg-bones of a Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) has been carved down to serve as a combination lime spatula-stopper for this elongated and plain lime container of bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria). Hanging from this stopper as a decorative element is the tail of a female cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus) – slightly bigger than a domestic cat, the largest member of the possum family, and an important wild source of red meat in New Guinea. This tail is likely to have symbolised the hunting skills of the gourd’s original owner. Alongside it hang a crab claw and a large fish vertebra, which would have been exotic rarities traded inland from more coastal branches of Mekeo society. Gourd, bone, shell, dried animal parts. Early 20th Century. Collected by Mr. A. E. Pratt and sold to the Horniman Museum in 1905.