Lime spatula

Production date
Papua New Guinea
Milne Bay
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Object detail

Lime Spatula, wood, handle, lateral view of a stylized squatting human figure, incised decoration filled with lime (missing) on body
INDIGENOUS CULTURES Melanesian & South Sea Islander lime spatula
Production date
Production place
L337.5 x W37 x H25mm
Media/Materials description
History and use
This carved, wooden lime spatula is used in the practice of chewing betel nut. It was collected by Captain John Thomas Bebrouth of Burns Philp & Co, which was one of the first companies to provide tours to Papua New Guinea in the 1880’s. The spatula was collected from Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea and is made in the Massim style of that region.

Betel nut (from the Areca palm) is actually a drupe (like a stone fruit). The nut is chewed in many parts of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Across these places, there are many different practices, techniques, and paraphernalia used in chewing the nut. Even within Papua New Guinea (where this betel nut mortar is from), there are many different ways of chewing, and different tools used in its consumption and preparation.

In Papua New Guinea, betel nut is known as buai. The nut, once bitten or cut into a smaller piece, is inserted into the mouth. While initial chewing begins, the user inserts a moistened daka (mustard stick) into some kambang (crushed certain coral and/or shells, that form a fine powder), and then bites off and chews the newly whitened end. The chemicals in the lime stimulate the salivary glands, meaning the user will have an excess of saliva in their mouth, and the lime and mustard reaction turns it all red. People tend to spit out the extra saliva (known as buai spet) because it has been said if they swallow it, it will make them sick, especially if they are not an experienced buai chewer. Users generally do not swallow any of the chewed buai; it is merely chewed for long enough to achieve its purpose and then spat out. Its purpose then? A mild stimulant that may have users feeling dizzy and a little intoxicated, chewing buai is also said to stave off hunger. It is possible to chew without the lime and mustard, but the user would not achieve the full effect if they do not.

Chewing betel nut is a known carcinogen, related to mouth, throat, oesophageal and stomach cancers. The practice can also rot teeth, first staining them red and then to black. Indeed, betel nut mortars are often only used to mash buai for those people whose teeth are beyond the capacity to chew. There is a saying in Papua New Guinea that older people sometimes use in reference to younger people: “tit bilong yu wait yet”, literally meaning “your teeth are still white”. Interpreted figuratively the saying means something like, “you know nothing…you’re too young to have eaten enough buai to turn your teeth a different colour, therefore, you’re too young to know what is really going on”.

In Papua New Guinea, there are very few if any restrictions on who can chew buai. Certainly, there is no age or gender restriction on its use. It can be chewed at any time, by any one, but is often offered to guests as part of a welcome – whether this is a formal occasion, or just a neighbourly visit.

Uploaded to the Web 27 May 2011.
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