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The Warembori
Warembori, and the Lower Mamberamo family

The Warembori language (locally: Waremboivoro) is spoken by the inhabitants of three villages along the northern coast of Papua, at and to the west of the mouth of the Mamberamo river, split between the districts (kabupaten) of Yapen-Waropen and Jayapura. It is (probably) a non-Austronesian language, and has not previously received any linguistic attention past the level of basic word list collection. This grammatical sketch is intended to provide basic materials in an area of New Guinea that is sorely undescribed.

The language and its speakers

The three villages that are home to the Warembori language are (proceeding from east to west) Warembori, Tamakuri and Bonoi; all have approximately 200-300 inhabitants, and are fairly homogeneous in makeup. Marriage is usually with other Warembori speakers; there are no marriage links with the language groups inland of the Warembori (the Anasi and other members of the Bauzi language family, and the Bagusa, a Kwerba language on the Mamberamo). Some, limited, exchange of wives is found with the Austronesian speakers of the Cenderawasih Bay region, notably the inhabitants of Kurudu island and eastern Yapen island, but this is by far a minority pattern. The most common links outside the other Warembori villages are with the Yoke, to the east (and inland).

The language is one of two known members of the Lower Mamberamo family; it is unlikely that there will prove to be any additional members of this small family, given what we know of the language situation in the region. Although it is not a member of a large genetic grouping, it is subject to some wide areal influences that are felt along the Mamberamo river, and is furthermore the subject of extensive Austronesian influence, seen at all levels of its grammar. Indeed, this influence is so strong that it is valid to question whether Warembori really represents a Papuan language heavily influenced by Austronesian contact, or an Austronesian language that has taken on several of the areal characteristics of the area it finds itself in, as well as extensive amounts of vocabulary from a no-longer extant language related to Yoke.

History and social structure

Being a coastal population, the Warembori have a long history of contact with the outside world. The most common contact, both in the past and today, is with the Austronesian-language speaking peoples of Cenderawasih bay, with whom much trade is conducted and many marriages arranged. This pattern of extensive and lasting contact is reflected in the use of obvious Austronesian loans for many items.

Warembori origin myths tell of seven brothers who originated in the middle Mamberamo region, north of the rapids around Edi Falen and Marina Falen, probably near the site of present-day Burmeso village, who traveled down the river on a tree that had been cut down by their angry mother. They first alighted on land on Pulau Monod, the southernmost limit of Warembori territory (approximately half-way to the nearest Bagusa settlements), and then continued down to the coast.

Here, after some confusion, they eventually married six women of a coastal population (one brother failed to obtain a bride, and returned up the river that runs past Tamakuri, to become the forefather of the current Anasi people). This is taken as an explanation of the fact that the material culture of the Warembori perfectly reflects that of the Austronesians to the west, as do the dances and song cycles of the area, yet the language is separate from the closely-related group found in Cenderawasih Bay (or, for that matter, from Sobei, the nearest Austronesian language to the east).

Socially, the villages are divided into clans and sub-clans. The clans present in Warembori are the following; some sub-clans are shared in the different clans (totem animals are included in brackets for each clan):
Batawasa (cassowary) Rumaikewi, Deromin, Samber, Kowi.
Tandarengga (crocodile) Inggemamba, Iriori, Suaba, Rumaiyomi, Windesi
Bamborya (fish) Iriori, Surumi, Rumansao, Samber

Three of these sub-clan names show obvious Austronesian influence: Rumaikewi, Rumaiyori and Rumansao all apparently begin with the Austronesian *Rumaq ‘house’, used in many family names in Biak. Windesi is a Waropen name, from Cenderawasih Bay. Marriage within the clan is permitted, but not within the sub-clan (nor with anyone related through a grandparent, regardless of sub-clan affiliations).

Environment and economic life

The physical environment of the Warembori is a difficult one, with virtually no dry land anywhere in the territory of the people. The whole coast of northern Papua, from the village of Mantarbori (three hours by canoe east of the Mamberamo) to a point somewhere on the Waropen coast in Cenderawasih Bay, is a series of mangrove swamps punctuated by rivers of various sixes flowing out to sea. Inland, the mangrove gradually gives way to other varieties of swamp, but the hunting and gardening territory of the Warembori does not extend that far inland.

The languages that abut on the Warembori range are, from east, curving to the south, to west, the Yoke (W.: Patena) in Mantarbori and the hinterland inland as far as Lake Rombebai, the Bagusa (W.: Putampa), who have now expanded north as far as Lake Rombebai, various small languages related to Bauzi (such as Anasi, spoken up the river on which Tamakuri is located, approximately two days' paddling away), and Kurudu to the west (technically not contiguous, since a large stretch of mangrove exists between Bonoi and Poiwai, the easternmost of the two islands where Kurudu is spoken. Of these, only Kurudu is Austronesian; Yoke is related to Warembori (in the Lower Mamberamo family); Bagusa is a variety of western Kwerba, and Anasi is related to Bauzi and other languages of the hinterland between the Waropen coast and the Mamberamo.

Apart from Yoke, there is a considerable stretch of uninhabited (and uninhabitable) territory between the Warembori and their neighbors. This reflects the not-so-distant patterns of reciprocal warfare that characterized the region, as well as the terrain, which is too swampy to permit permanent settlement. Although relations with the Anasi were relatively peaceful, the Bagusa (Warembori: Putampa) were always antagonistic, frequently indulging in small guerrilla-style raids on outlying groups of Warembori who were hunting or gardening upstream. Warembori people do not attribute a similar violent history to themselves, of course; this may, however, reflect the practical difficulties of mounting a successful raid on a population that lives more than a day's hard paddling upstream.

Last revised on November 26, 2010
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