The Dutch anthropologist Jan Pouwer, who was terminally for some time, died at his home in Zwolle on 21 April 2010. He had a lifelong involvement with New Guinea and published two books and many articles on individual tribes such as the Kamoro, Asmat and people of the central and eastern Bird’s Head area. His last book, ‘Gender, Ritual and Social Formation in West-Papua’, came out in February of this year. In this work, he incorporates previously unused material from his fieldwork and with a critical appraisal of his own approach and that of others , including the well known Karl Marx and Claude Levi-Straus , as well as more recent social scientists such as Bruce Knauft and Tod Harper. Pouwer compares the culture of the Kamora (18.000 people) with that of the Asmat (40.000 people) on the south west coast of the island. His analysis illustrates how major differences in lifestyle came about despite huge similarities in their respective ritual acts and myths.
The cremation service was held on Tuesday 27 April.
His wish was that his ashes be buried in New Zealand, where he lived and worked with great enthusiasm. Jan Pouwer started his career in July 1951 at Inland Affairs of the Dutch Ethnology Department in Hollandia (capital of former Dutch New Guinea). The then Head of Internal Affairs, Jan van Baal, sent him to start a thorough investigation into the socio-cultural aspects among Mimika people (now Kamoro). Jan Pouwer researched the possibility of Village Councils, later implemented by Van Baal. Pouwer advised using representatives of kinship groups to go on these councils. The goal was to strive for Papuan autonomy and self-determination to be reached initially by 1980, and later even by 1970. Pouwer acted as a go-between for the local people and steered away from the political power of missionaries and Dutch administrators. He gave advice on adat rule, ceremonies, land tenure and mediated in conflicts. He also worked with young Papuan elite to set up an independent newspaper. He continued to work within the Dutch administration until 1962 . In 1955, Jan Pouwer graduated in Leiden with a PhD thesis based on his fieldwork and research on Mimika Culture: ‘Enkele aspecten van de Mimika-cultuur’. From 1962-1966 he was Professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. For the next ten years, starting in 1966, he worked at Victoria University in Wellington (New Zealand), where he was the founding professor of the Department of Anthropology and Maori Studies. In 1976, he returned to the Netherlands as a Reader for the Department of Anthropology of Radboud University in Nijmegen. More than ever, he became known as an inspiring thinker and teacher, especially for the way in which he was able to fruitfully synthesise divergent theoretical perspectives on Structuralism and Marxism. His legacy is not only a riche oeuvre, but a notably large number of ex-students in leading positions within contemporary Anthropology. He retired from Nijmegen University in 1987. Because of increasing deafness, he withdrew from the public arena, but he remained actively involved as an adviser to many a PhD student. His interest in Anthropology, and the Papuans in particular, never let up. He continued to work on it till his death. Not only his recent book bear witness to this, but also his participation in the oral history interviews for PACE conducted by his daughter about his work as part of the Expedition to the Star Mountains in 1959. A week before his death, he said: “I am an anthropologist in heart and soul. To me Anthropology is not a subject, but a way of life”. We wish his three sons and two daughters, his further family and friends much strength in coping with their loss. With Jan’s passing, we not only lose a great social scientist and teacher, but also a man with a warm heart, a ready smile and a great sense of humour. We will miss him.
Sjoerd Jaarsma and Francesca Pouwer
Jan Pouwer - * Dordrecht, 21 september 1924 - † Zwolle, 21 april 2010.