Social Signaling and the Warrior-Big-Man among the Western Dani : A Man Called Tibenuk


Cook School of Intercultural Studies

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We employ the Social Signaling Model (SSM) and life history of a Western Dani big-man, Tibenuk, to analyze a neglected curiosity in the career of the big-man type. The big-man is renowned as an economic entrepreneur, the master of material displays. In New Guinea, however, big-men had invariably first gained fame and some influence as eminent warriors. The SSM accounts for this two-part career path by proposing that small-scale social organization rests on honest, competitive signaling of individual and collective fighting strength, with leaders being those who excel in these contests. The performances for which big-men are already known, conspicuous ceremonial displays, broadcast this strength indirectly. Explicitly conceptualized as symbolic fighting, they constituted indexical proxies for their sponsors’ individual and collective willingness and ability to fight. Success on the battlefield, though, signaled fighting strength more directly. Men therefore had to demonstrate strength on both the battlefield and the ceremonial ground if they were to become big-men. This was Tibenuk’s achievement. When he was young and at his physical peak, he demonstrated outstanding capability in war. War is a young man’s game, however, and as his physical capacities waned, he shifted to politics, an older man’s game, honing his political talents and developing extensive political networks that allowed him to sponsor massive pig feasts, the principal form of conspicuous ceremonial display. Tibenuk’s career also reveals synergies between warrior and political talents that hitherto have been overlooked in big-man analysis.


Social Signaling Model; Western Dani; Leadership; New Guinea

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Human Nature





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