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Dead Birds

(83 min., 1964, VC 1248 [2004 new anniversary edition, DVD 147; DU744.35.D32 D43 2004 DVD])

Scene from film Dead Birds.

video schedule

Dani People -- Wikipedia

Review: ‘Expedition Content’ Review: Anthropological Maneuvers in the Dark -- The New York Times (05 January 2022)


Robert G. Gardner (FM), Robert G. Gardner, Karl G. Heider, and Jan Broekhuyse (AN). Film Study Center. Peabody Museum, Harvard University (PR). 1964.

"A cinematographic interpretation of the life of a group of Grand Valley Dani, who are mountain Papuans in West New Guinea (Irian Barat, Indonesia), studied by the Harvard-Peabody Expedition (1961-1963). This film was made by Gardner in 1961, before the area was pacified by the Dutch government. The film focuses on Weyak, the farmer and warrior, and on Pua, the young swineherd, following them through the events of Dani life: sweet potato horticulture, pig keeping, salt winning, battles, raids, and ceremonies." -- Karl G. Heider

"Michael Rockefeller, son of former Vice-President of the United States Nelson Rockefeller, was a member of the Harvard-Peabody study and involved in the production of Dead Birds. While conducting further research on the Asmat people elsewhere in New Guinea, Michael Rockefeller disappeared. His body was never found." (Dani People -- Wikipedia)

Dead Birds -- Film Study Center at Harvard University

"Dead Birds is a film about the Dani, a people dwelling in the Grand Valley of the Baliem high in the mountains of West Irian. When I shot the film in 1961, the Dani had an almost classic Neolithic culture. They were exceptional in the way they focused their energies and based their values on an elaborate system of intertribal warfare and revenge. Neighboring groups of Dani clans, separated by uncultivated strips of no man's land, engaged in frequent formal battles. When a warrior was killed in battle or died from a wound and even when a woman or a child lost their life in an enemy raid, the victors celebrated and the victims mourned. Because each death had to be avenged, the balance was continually being adjusted with the spirits of the aggrieved lifted and the ghosts of slain comrades satisfied as soon as a compensating enemy life was taken. There was no thought in the Dani world of wars ever ending, unless it rained or became dark. Without war there would be no way to satisfy the ghosts. Wars were also the best way they knew to keep a terrible harmony in a life which would be, without the strife they invented, mostly hard and dull.

"Dead Birds has a meaning which is both immediate and allegorical. In the Dani language it refers to the weapons and ornaments recovered in battle. Its other more poetic meaning comes from the Dani belief that people, because they are like birds, must die.

"In making Dead Birds certain kinds of behavior were followed, never directed. It was an attempt to see people from within and to wonder, when the selected fragments of that life were assembled, if they might speak not only of the Dani but also of ourselves." -- Robert Gardner, 1964

"AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL CRITIQUE OF THE FILMS OF ROBERT GARDNER," by JAY RUBY, from Journal of Film and Video 43.4 (Winter 1991).


Barnes, J.A. "African models in the New Guinea Highlands," MAN 62.2.2:5-9 (1962).

Barrau, Jacques. "Subsistence Agriculture in Melanesia," Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 219, Honolulu (1958).

Bishop, John. "Dead Birds Migrating: DVD Reinvigorates Classic Ethnographic Film" (Review Essay). American Anthroplogist, Vol. 107, No. 3, September 2005, pp. 475-488. (ISSN 0002-7294)

Bromley, H.M. "The Linguistic Relationships of Grand Valley Dani: A Lexico-Statistical Classification," Oceania 37.4:286-308 (1967).

Brookfield, H.C. and J. Peter White. "Revolution or Evolution in the Prehistory of the New Guinea Highlands: A Seminar Report," Ethnology 7.1:43-52 (1968).

Bulmer, Susan. "Radiocarbon Dates from New Guinea." The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 73.3:327-328 (1964).

Bulmer, Susan and Ralph. "The Prehistory of the Australian New Guinea Highlands," American Anthropologist, 66.4.2:39-76 (1964)

‘Expedition Content’ Review: Anthropological Maneuvers in the Dark -- The New York Times (05 January 2022)

Gardner, Robert and Karl G. Heider. Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age. New York: Random House. (A photographic ethnography of the Dani, with photographs by the members of the Harvard Peabody Expedition, 1961-1963.) (1969).

Heider, Karl G. "Archaeological Assumptions and Ethnographical Facts: A Cautionary Tale from the New Guinea Highlands." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. 23.1:52-64 (1967a) (Suggesting some difficulties in making ethnographic interpretations from archaeological data by describing how the Dani might be misinterpreted from their archaeological remains alone.)

Heider, Karl G. "Speculative Functionalism: Archaic Elements in New Guinea Dani Culture." Anthropos 62:833-840 (1967b). (Suggesting that if one considers the Dani as having only partially completed the transition from hunting and gathering to horticulture, many present traits, which are more appropriate to hunting and gathering, make more sense.)

Heider, Karl G. "The Dongson and the Dani: A Skeumorph from the West New Guinea Highlands." Mankind 7.2:174-148 (1969a) (A stone axe blade shaped like a bronze artifact found in a Dani cave suggests that the Bronze Age has had some influence in the Highlands.)

Heider, Karl G. "Attributed and Categories in the Study of Material Culture: New Guinea Dani Attire." MAN 4.3:379-391 (1969b). (A theoretical paper concerning the nature of ethnographic categories using the Dani penis gourd and women's carrying net for illustration.)

Heider, Karl G. "The Dugum Dani. A Papuan Culture in the Highlands of West New Guinea." Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology 49. Chicago: Aldine. (A general ethnography). (1970).

Heider, Karl G. "The Grand Valley Dani Pig Feast: A Ritual of Passage and Intensification." Oceania 42.3:169-197 (1972). (Description and analysis of the 1970 Pig Feast.)

Heider, Karl G. "The Dani of West Irian." Warner Modular Publications. Module 2, 1972. (An Ethnographic Companion to the film, "Dead Birds," containing basic ethnographic data and a frame-by-frame analysis of the film.)

Hoffman, Carl. 2014. What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller. Smithsonian Magazine, March 2014. Accessed January 30, 2020.

Koch, Klaus-Friedrich. "Marriage in Jalemo." Oceania 39.2:85-109 (1968a)

Koch, Klaus-Friedrich. "Structure and Variability in the Jale Kinship Terminology: A Formal Analysis." Ethnology 9.3:263-297 (1970). (On the Jale, Dani-speakers living just to the northeast of the Grand Valley.)

Loizos, Peter. 1968 Review. Man 3(1):166.

Matthiessen, Peter. Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age. New York: Viking (1962). (An interpretative account of the Dugum by a novelist and natural historian, which covers the same events as Gardner's film.) O'Brien, Denise, and Anton Ploeg, "Acculturation Movements among the Western Dani." American Anthropologist 66.4.2:281-292 (1964). (An important report on the first trauma of contact between a tribal group and the modern world. The Western Dani are closely related to the Grand Valley Dani, but the kinds of movements which are described have made little headway in the Grand Valley.)

Ploeg, Anton. "Some Comparative Remarks about the Dani of the Baliem Valley and the Dani at Bokondini," Bijdragen tot de Tall, Land-, en Volkenkinde. 122.2:254-273 (1966).

Watson, James B. 1965 Review. American Anthropologist 67:1357-1359.

Watson, James B. "From Hunting to Horticulture in the New Guinea Highlands," Ethnology 4.3:295-309 (1965).

Whiting, John W. "Effects of Climate on Certain Cultural Practices." pp. 511-544 in Ward H. Goodenough (ed.) Explorations in Anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill (1964).

Wurm, S.A., "Australian New Guinea Highlands Language and the Distribution of their Typological Features." American Anthropologist 66.4.2:77-97 (1964).

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