This seems particularly pertinent and moving at a time when the world is watching the displacement of people from all over the globe. Perhaps we need to ritualise a little more, eat together, work beside one another to feel we are all living the same history.
Among the Ku Waru people of New Guinea, for example, children become kin through an essential substance called kopong (grease) which originates in the soil. The Ku Waru call both father’s sperm and mother’s milk kopong, and it is through these two sources that conception of a child is said to occur. However, sweet potatoes and pork also contain kopong, and when people share these foods, the same fundamental connection emerges between them as does between parent and child: they become kin. The offspring of two Ku Waru brothers, Sahlins says, are ‘as much related because they were sustained by the same soil as because their fathers were born of the same parents’. The children of immigrants to the community become full kin with those who share no genes with them by carrying out socially inscribed practices around kopong.
Barbara J King is professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia