Cultural Overview

The first Austronesian immigrants may have settled on the Trobriand Islands about 4,000-5,000 years ago. It is likely that at this time the region was inhabited by a Papuan-speaking population, as islands much farther away from mainland New Guinea (e.g., Buka in the Bougainville group) were settled as early as 23,000 bp by Papuan speakers and the Austronesian seafarers arrived much later. There are clear traces of Papuan genes on the Trobriand Islands and on islands in the wider vicinity (Kayser et al., 2000); one of them, Rossel, still has a Papuan speaking population. Only preliminary archeo-logical surveys have been carried out so far, and the earliest dates determined range around 1,000 bp (Gotland University College, 1999). A legend telling of a man-eating giant and a young hero born from a woman who was left behind when the others fled the inhospitable place, may represent the clash of the early Papuan population and the Austronesian newcomers. Kilivila, the language of the Trobriand Islanders, is grouped into the Kilivila Language Family which comprises the islands east of the Trobriand Islands, including the big island of Muyuw (Woodlark Island). The Kilivila Family, in turn, is part of the Papuan-Tip-Cluster Group of Austronesian languages.

Malinowski conducted his ground-breaking field-work among the Trobriand Islanders, mainly in Omarakana, the village of the paramount chief, for a total of 23 months between 1915-16 and 1917-18. Much of what he described in his major works (Malinowski, 1922, 1926, 1927, 1929, 1935) is still basically true today (for his neglect of the important roles of women in Trobriand society see Weiner [1976] and for a criticism of some of his accounts on sexuality see below). This text is based on more recent anthropological fieldwork, especially that of Weiner (1976, 1988, 1991) on Kiriwina and Bell-Krannhals (1990) and our group on Kaileuna. As of 2000 there were approximately 35,000 Trobriand Islanders; as in other areas of Papua New Guinea, population growth is very dramatic.

The Trobriand Islanders are a very proud people who quite consciously and vigorously defend many aspects of their traditional way of life. Of course, major changes have been brought about by the missions (initially the

London Missionary Society, now Papua Ekalesia, for the Protestant majority of the inhabitants and the Catholic Mission), the government, schools, and tourists, whose numbers have dwindled considerably in recent decades, and the fact that quite a number of Trobriand Islanders work outside their home area, including in the national capital Port Moresby, sometimes in high positions—the Papua New Guinea ambassador to the European Union was, at one stage, a Trobriander.

Despite these changes most Trobriand Islanders are still subsistence farmers and, depending on the distance of their villages from the sea, collectors of marine food. The women usually gather shells and other small animals and plants on or near the reef, and the men employ various methods of fishing (line and hook, nets, spearing, Derris elliptica fish poison, and others). Fish (yena—I use the orthography laid down in Senft's [1986] dictionary of Kilivila) and shells (wigoda) are the most important sources of protein. Hunting feral pigs, birds, and a few species of marsupials does not play an important role.

The most valued crop is yam (mostly Dioscorea alata, tetu), especially as it is the "currency" for harvest gifts (urigubu) and other ritual exchanges. Yams are quite regularly grown in a competitive way; one of the leading men hosts a kayasa, that is, the most successful gardeners receive valuable prices provided by him. In good years, astounding amounts of yams will be harvested this way, displayed in large conical heaps and stored in the special storage houses (liku) of the high-ranking men, or placed under the roof of the verandahs (bwema) of the commoners. These yams from large specially chosen gardens (kemata) will not be consumed by the families who grew them, but will be given away to others as harvest gifts, a peculiar mark of Trobriand culture and a sign of the sophisticated network of reciprocity. A quantitative analysis (S chiefenhovel & Bell-Krannhals, 1986) of these urigubu showed that it is not ego's sister or her husband who receive the majority of these gifts (as claimed by Malinowski) but rather ego's father and elder brother, generally male persons who are close blood relations of the giver. Taro (uli), sweet potato (simsimwai), cassava (tapioka), bananas (usi), coconut (nuya), and several leafy vegetables are nutritionally (but not psychologically) as important as yams. Betel nuts (Areca catechu, buva), which produce mild hallucinogenic and other physiological (parasympathicomimetic) effects are greatly sought after. Trobrianders are prepared to spend a large amount of available cash on betel nuts which are seen as the equivalent of the white man's beer. The various stages of garden work, from clearing (usually) secondary vegetation using the slash-and-burn technique to harvesting, from the prime cooperative activity involving many ceremonies, including the milamala harvest dances (see below).

Another spectacular element of Trobriand culture, centering on exchange and reciprocity, is the ceremonial kula exchange of two types of valuables, soulava necklaces and mwali armshells, which are circulated clockwise and counterclockwise respectively, in a quasi-circle comprising various islands in the Solomon Sea (Leach & Leach, 1983; Malinowski, 1922). To become a successful participant in the kula is highly prestigious for a man and requires a well-developed sense of entrepreneurship and social competence. As in the kayasa harvests and the lisaladabu exchange carried out by women (see below), the highly competitive nature of Trobriand culture becomes obvious in the kula. Costly and well-prepared kula expeditions are still carried out today, but motorboats and small ships are increasingly used for the journey to the neighboring islands rather than the traditional large and lavishly decorated masawa outrigger canoes with pandanus sails.

Like other Austronesians, and unlike the Papuan peoples living on the nearby islands and the New Guinea coast, the Trobrianders were good sailors and navigators utilizing wind directions and the stars as their basic compass and calculating the course by a number of other parameters as well. However, the ordinary (i.e., non-kula) version of the historical seagoing masawa canoes can now only be seen in daily use in some remote villages of the Trobriand group.

Descent is matrilineal, as in many other Austronesian societies, that is a couple's children will inherit their clan (one of four, Malasi, Lukwasisiga, Lukuba, and Lukulabuta, each of which have various subclans or lineages) via the mother. This is of particular importance with regard to chieftainship. Village chiefs, regional chiefs, and the paramount chief (who traditionally resides in the village of Omarakana, still has considerable power, and is entitled to a large number of spouses) cannot pass their positions on to their sons, as their role is tied to a specific clan (for the leading positions to the tabalu lineage of the Malasi clan) and, owing to clan exogamy (a rule rarely broken, see below), their sons belong to their mother's clan hence are not eligible for chieftainship. Therefore succession of chiefs is usually via sister's sons. Land, on the other hand, is primarily passed on in the patriline. Thus Trobriand society is matrilineal with respect to genealogical descent but patrilineal for land rights and some other aspects. Residence is virilocal, that is, a newly wed couple will usually live in the village of the husband. Compared with other Melanesian societies, women have a rather pronounced public role, but do not make political decisions for the whole community; that is the exclusive function of male chiefs. Therefore matrilineality has not led to matriarchy.

Each lineage is headed by a male spokesperson, some of whom, especially when they are renowned kula participants or otherwise famous, are equally influential as the village and regional tabalu chiefs. Their role, including that of the paramount chief who still presides over traditional court cases and other matters and is feared/venerated because of the magic powers ascribed to him, seems to be diminishing because a modern political system of local village councillors and other more or less formally elected positions is becoming increasingly important. The inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands and neighboring Goodenough Island elect a representative for the national parliament.

Ideally, the houses in a village form a circle with their entrances facing the center, a symbolic representation of unity. The backs of the houses (bwala), usually built in the traditional way with local materials, are directed toward the bush or the sea, basically dangerous spheres, and thus shield the inhabitants from evil forces. Facing toward the center, in front of the houses, are the verandas (bwema), thatched platforms without walls, where many activities take place in quasi-public. The insides of the houses are private. In the third circle (given the idealized village layout) towards the middle stand the liku, yam storage houses of influential high-ranking men, which are often impressive. Their axis points to the very center of the village which has no built structures. Despite this, it is socially and symbolically the most important part of the village, where gatherings, ceremonies, and dances are held. Until the Trobriand Islanders changed their burial customs under the influence of the early missionaries and administrators after the turn of the 20th century, the dead were interred in the center for a period of several months or more, after which, in a secondary mortuary ceremony, their skulls and other bones were placed in caves or rockshelters near the villages. Thus the center had a high religious significance. Only a few skulls and long bones are found. In some burial caves, such as those near Labai and Mwatawa at the northern and historically significant part of Kiriwina (this is the location of the famous "hole" from where, according to the legend, the first people surfaced from their underground existence and the young hero killed the cannibal giant). These caves appear to have been reserved for the skeletons of high chiefs. Today the dead are interred near the family houses, and the practice of exhumation and secondary placement of the bones has been abandoned. In fact, this old custom is almost forgotten.

Other mortuary rites have survived acculturation almost unchanged. Mourning chants are often begun before death has occurred. Relatives, including those from distant villages on other islands, arrive, and in an atmosphere of deep grief and crying the grave is dug and the body is placed there. The subsequent sagali (a collective term for exchange ceremonies) involves specified role playing by the two kinds of relatives, consanguineous and affine, food is prepared, and a festive meal is eaten. A central part of these gatherings is the often spectacular lisaladabu ceremony carried out by women (some husbands may participate from the fringe, handing their spouses coins to make up for a shortage of nunugwa (in Kiriwina, nununiga) bundles). These are made from scraped banana leaves, in a long and time-consuming process, and constitute a currency. Influential high-ranking women will have hundreds of these bundles (each containing five actual nunugwa) plus skirts (doba, which is also the general term for women's wealth) made of nunugwa and decorated with other accessories. The women will proudly display their power, calculation and control of the very complicated exchange process, and their social and theatrical skills in the village square, which, on these days, is completely dominated by the women who are often in an elated euphoric stage during the transactions (for a full description see Weiner [1976]). Several mortuary ceremonies will follow until, after about a year, the taboos under which the widower, the widow, and others must live are lifted and they can rejoin full village life.

Much of the traditional animist religion has survived Christianization. For example, the spirits of the dead (baloma) are still believed to enter the underworld through a hole at the southern tip of the island of Tuma and to be reincarnated in newborns of their matriline. All serious diseases, and especially death, are attributed either to "poisoning" (there is no scientific proof for this) by sorcerers (bwagau), the action of evil-minded spirits, including "flying witches" (mulukwausi), or the power of God who is basically angry with humans because they killed his son and will punish wrongdoers (e.g., people who have stolen betel nuts which were protected by taboo).

Because of the sharp growth in population there is increasing pressure on the ecology. Traditional fallow periods (in the past up to about 15 years) can no longer be kept and therefore the fertility of the gardens is decreasing. Thus people increasingly rely on rice and other food items from shops. Only small patches of rain forest are left on some of the smaller islands. Almost no ebony wood, which was used to produce many of the highly attractive Trobriand carvings (a good source of income in past decades), grows locally any more and it is now imported from Woodlark (Muyua) Island. The very precious beku, finely polished ceremonial stone adze blades, which constituted, and still do to some extent, a form of valuables (vegua) needed for certain important transactions (e.g., marriage) also come from Woodlark Island.

Modern times have brought peace; there are no more wars between villages, only occasional fights, in which men may be injured but which rarely result in deaths. The Trobriand Islanders probably appreciate peace more than the introduction of modern tools and techniques which make life easier for them. Of course, there are also negative impacts on their culture, and many of the islanders feel threatened by the modern way of life. There are also negative developments concerning the marine environment. Poaching by high-tech fishing boats from Taiwan and other nations, as well as more frequent and more efficient fishing (e.g., long lines with many hooks) and the use of dynamite by the local fishermen themselves, are a threat to marine resources. Sea cucumbers (family Holothuridae; French, beche de mer), which have been a valuable item traded, as an aphrodisiac, to Chinese ports for centuries and the reason why Melanesian Pidgin developed as a lingua franca, are also extensively collected and need long periods to recover.

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