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Trobriand Islands


The Trobriand Islands are a 450-square-kilometre (174-square-mile) archipelago of coral atolls off the east coast of New Guinea. They are part of the nation of Papua New Guinea and are in Milne Bay Province. Most of the population of 12,000 indigenous inhabitants live on the main island of Kiriwina, which is also the location of the government station, Losuia. Other major islands in the group are Kaileuna, Vakuta, and Kitava. The group is considered to be an important tropical rainforest ecoregion in need of conservation.



The Trobriands consist of four main islands, the largest being Kiriwina Island, and the others being Kaileuna, Vakuta and Kitava. Kiriwina is 43 kilometres (27 miles) long, and varies in width from 1 to 16 kilometres (0.62 to 9.94 mi). In the 1980s, there were around sixty villages on the island, containing around 12,000 people, while the other islands were restricted to a population of hundreds. Other than some elevation on Kiriwina, the islands are flat coral atolls and "remain hot and humid throughout the year, with frequent rainfall."[1]


The people of the area are mostly subsistence horticulturalists who live in traditional settlements. The social structure is based on matrilineal clans that control land and resources. People participate in the regional circuit of exchange of shells called kula, sailing to visit trade partners on seagoing canoes. In the late twentieth century, anti-colonial and cultural autonomy movements gained followers from the Trobriand societies. When inter-group warfare was forbidden by colonial rulers, the islanders developed a unique, aggressive form of cricket.

Although an understanding of reproduction and modern medicine is widespread in Trobriand society, their traditional beliefs have been remarkably resilient. For example, the real cause of pregnancy is believed to be a baloma, or ancestral spirit, that enters the body of a woman, and without whose existence a woman could not become pregnant; all babies are made or come into existence (ibubulisi) in Tuma. These tenets form the main stratum of what can be termed popular or universal belief. In the past, many held this traditional belief because the yam, a major food of the island, included chemicals (phytoestrogens and plant sterols) whose effects are contraceptive, so the practical link between sex and pregnancy was not very evident.[2]


The Trobriand peoples speak Kilivila, though various different dialects of it are spoken amongst each different tribe. It is an Austronesian language, although has the distinction of having a complex system for classifying nouns. Foreign languages are less commonly spoken, although by the 1980s at least, Trobrianders occasionally spoke Tok Pisin and English. The term "Trobriand" itself is not Kilivilan: the islands take this name from the French explorer Jean François Sylvestre Denis de Trobriand who visited in 1793.[3]

Malinowski in the Trobriands

Drawing upon earlier work by Bronisław Malinowski, Dorothy D. Lee's scholarly writings refer to "non-lineal codifications of reality". In such a linguistic system, the concept of linear progress of time, geometric shapes, and even conventional methods of description, are lost altogether or altered. In her example of a specific indigenous yam, Lee explains that when the yam moves from a state of sprouting through ripeness to over-ripeness, the name for each object in a specific state changes entirely - the description of the object at different states of development relates to wholly different perceptions of the object. Ripeness is considered a "defining ingredient" and thus once it becomes over-ripe, a yam is perceived as a new object altogether. The same perception pertains to time and geometric shapes.[4]


In Trobriand society, it is taboo to eat in front of others. As Jennifer Shute noted, "the Trobrianders eat alone, retiring to their own hearths with their portions, turning their backs on one another and eating rapidly for fear of being observed."[5] However, it is perfectly acceptable to chew betel nuts, particularly when mixed with some pepper plant and slaked lime to make the nut less bitter. The betel nut acts as a stimulant and is commonly used by Trobrianders, causing their teeth to often appear red.[5] Because in the past food was often scarce, to boast of having food is one of the Trobriand Islanders' chief glories and ambitions . Though food is most important, and the subject of food is most discussed, at Miamala, the annual time of harvest and feasting, the islanders can face hunger and scarcity due to poor growing conditions at any time of year. In mid-2009 the problem of population pressure, leading to food insecurity, received much national and international media attention.[6]

Marriage customsEdit

At seven or eight years of age, Trobriand children begin to play erotic games with each other and imitate adult seductive attitudes. About four or five years later, they begin to pursue sexual partners. They change partners often. Women are just as assertive and dominant as men in pursuing or refusing a lover.[2] This is not only allowed, but encouraged.

In the Trobriand Islands, there is no traditional marriage ceremony. A young woman stays in her lover's house instead of leaving it before sunrise. The man and woman sit together in the morning and wait for the bride's mother to bring them cooked yams.[2] The married couple eat together for about a year, and then go back to eating separately. Once the man and woman eat together, the marriage is officially recognized.[2]

When a Trobriand couple want to marry each other, they show their interest by sleeping together, spending time together, and staying with each other for several weeks. The girl's parents approve of the couple when a girl accepts a gift from a boy. After that, the girl moves to the boy's house, eats her meals there, and accompanies her husband all day. Then word goes out that the boy and girl are married.[7]

If after one year, a woman is unhappy with her husband, she may divorce him. A married couple may also get divorced if the husband chooses another woman. The man may try to go back with the woman he left by giving her family yams and other gifts, but it is ultimately up to the woman if she wants to be with that man.


Trobriands believe that conception is the result of an ancestral spirit entering the woman's body. Even after a child is born, it is the mother's brother, not the father, who presents a harvest of yams to his sister so that her child will be fed with food from its own matrilineage, not the father's.[2]

The Trobrianders practice many traditional magic spells. Young people learn spells from older kin in exchange for food, tobacco, and money. Spells are often partially or fully lost because the old people give away only a few lines at a time to keep getting gifts. Often, the old person dies before they finish passing on the spells. Trobrianders believe that no one can make up a new magic spell.

Sometimes a man gives a woman magic spells because he wants to give her more than betel nuts or tobacco. People also buy and sell spells. Literate villagers write their magic spells in books and hide them. A person may direct magic spells toward heightening the visual and olfactory effects of their body to induce erotic feelings in their lover. Some spells are thought to make a person beautiful, even those who would normally be considered ugly.[2] The beauty magic words are chanted into coconut oil, and then a person rubs it onto their skin, or into flowers and herbs that decorate their armbands and hair.


After tribal conflict was banned, cricket became a replacement for war in the Trobriand culture. The colonial powers were appalled with the violence and sexual displays associated with tribal warfare.[8] Matches are often played between all male teams and last for several months.[8] There are often feasts for the winning team.[9] While regular cricket is played around the world, these islanders add their own elements which reflect their culture. Since this sport resembles war, there is not a limit on team size. For example, every time a team scores there is a special dance ritual involved. These dances are an adaptation of the former war rituals. Therefore, they consist of taunts and jeers often criticizing the other team.[10] "The words are sexual metaphors, used as one team taunts the other and exhibits their physical and sexual prowess to the appraising eyes of the young women on the sidelines"[8] Often, there is also magic involved in this sporting event.[8] Teams will use charms and incantations to gain an advantage in the match. For example, a spell could be used to make the team less efficient in scoring.[8] The visiting team is expected to lose when visiting a rival island.[8] However, when this is not the case, there are often reports of vandalism and arson when matches end unfavorably for the home team.[8] During such events, yam houses are burned which is considered a major insult.[8] In essence, this form of cricket has a more aggressive feel and is an important part of Trobriand life.[10]


Trobrianders use yams as currency, and consider them a sign of wealth and power. Western visitors will often buy items from the Trobrianders using money. There is also a Kula exchange, which is a very important tradition among the Trobriand Islands. The women also use bundles of scored banana leaves.

Yam exchangesEdit

Each year, a man grows yams for his sister, and his daughter if she is married. The husband does not provide yams to his wife. The more yams a woman receives, the more powerful and rich she is. The husband is expected to give his wife's father or brother a gift in turn for the yams they give his wife. When the woman is first married, she receives yams from her father until the woman's brother thinks his sister and her husband are old enough for him to give the yams.

Wood carving of a traditional yam store in the Trobriand Islands

At the beginning of the yam harvest, the yams stay on display in gardens for about a month before the gardener takes them to the owner. The owner is always a woman. There is a great ceremony for this every year. The yams are loaded into the woman's husband's empty yam house. Young people come to the gardens dressed in their most festive traditional clothes early on the day the yams are delivered to the yam house. The young people are all related to the gardener, and carry the yam baskets to the owner's hamlet. When they get to the owner's hamlet, they sing out to announce the arrival of the yams while thrusting out their hips in a sexually provocative motion. This emphasizes the relation between yams and sexuality. A few days later, the gardener comes and loads the yam house, and the man is now responsible for the yam.

The yam house owner provides the gardener and young people with cooked yams, taro, and pork. Sometimes, no pig is killed, perhaps because the yam house owner did not have a pig to spare. The yam house owner also may decide not kill a pig for the gardener because he is unsatisfied with the number of yams, or is angry with the gardener for another reason. Once the yam houses are full, a man performs a special magic spell for the hamlet that wards off hunger by making people feel full. The women also use bundles of scored banana leaves as a type of currency between themselves. As many days of work are required to make bundles each one has an assigned value and can be used to buy canned foods as well as given away in exchange for other goods.[2]


When a person dies, mourning continues for months. The spouse is joined in mourning by female kin and the dead person's father's sisters. These villagers stay in the house and cry four times a day. If someone who did not attend the funeral comes to the village, he or she must immediately join in on the mourning that is taking place. Other workers observe many of the mourning taboos. Most of them shave their heads. People closely related to the deceased avoid eating "good food." Those more distantly related may wear black clothes. Before this, however, everyone receives a payment from the owners for the part they had in the burial process.

The first set of exchanges takes place the day after burial and involves yams, taro, and small amounts of money. The spouse, the spouse's matrilineage, and the dead person's father or father's representative, and members of his matrilineage get the largest distribution.[2]


'Missionisation' has had a mixed effect on daily Triobriand life.[9] Most of the islanders adhere to native tribal traditions. In an attempt to counter this, missionaries experienced with animist tribes are sometimes sent.[9] One example is trying to insert Christian blessings in traditional funeral ceremonies.[9]


Soul boat, Kiriwina, Trobriand Islands (wood and white lime)

The first European visitor to the islands was the French ship Espérance in 1793. The ship's navigator, Bruni d'Entrecasteaux, named them after his first lieutenant, Denis de Trobriand. The first European to settle in the Trobriand islands was a Methodist minister who moved to the island of Kiriwina in 1894. He was followed a decade later by colonial officers from Australia who set up a governmental station nearby, and soon a small colony began to be set up by foreign traders on the island. Then in the 1930s, the Sacred Heart Catholic Mission set up a settlement containing a primary school nearby. It was following this European colonisation that the name "Trobriand" was legally adopted for this group of islands.[3]

The first anthropologist to study the Trobrianders was C. G. Seligman, who focused on the Massim people of mainland New Guinea. Seligman was followed a number of years later by his student, the Polish Bronisław Malinowski, who visited the islands during the First World War. Despite being a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was at war with Australia which then controlled the Trobriand Islands, he was allowed to stay (provided he checked in with authorities every now and then).[11] His descriptions of the kula exchange system, gardening, magic, and sexual practices—all classics of modern anthropological writing—prompted many foreign researchers to visit the societies of the island group and study other aspects of their cultures. The psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich drew on Malinowski's studies of the islands in writing his The Invasion of Compulsory Sex Morality and consequently in developing his theory of sex economy in his 1936 work Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf.

In 1943, Allied troops landed on the islands as a part of Operation Cartwheel, the Allied advance to Rabaul. In the 1970s, some indigenous peoples formed anti-colonial associations and political movements.

Trobriand Islands in the modern dayEdit

Growing populationEdit

Since 1975, the government of Papua New Guinea has had political control of the island. In this time of growth, the population of the island is expanding quickly.[9] Therefore, more land is needed to be cleared to accommodate the increasing population.[9] In other words, there are environmental concerns like deforestation which affect the islands.[9] To counteract this, the government often sends social workers to increase the use of birth control and contraception.[9] However, the Trobriand culture is not accepting the outside influences dictating their reproductive norms. This means that sex is "the most natural thing in the culture".[9] Another effect of Trobriand promiscuity is the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS on the island.[12] The first documented case of HIV/AIDS was reported in 2001. Nowadays, HIV has become a major health problem. Since young Trobrianders often have multiple sexual partners before marriage, it is hard to slow the spread of the disease.[12] “The moralistic tropes of risk and promiscuity that dominate the language of HIV prevention are not easily accommodated by Trobriand ideations of sexuality, which celebrate premarital sexual activity as healthy and life-affirming, and which stress the productive values of reciprocity and relations of difference.”[12]

Income inequalityEdit

After statehood in 1975, the Trobriand Islands’ economy has been restructured to fit a tourist and export market. Most Trobrianders live on less than one dollar a day.[9] Since food has been traditionally distributed among the people based on their need, there has been little need for a currency based economy outside of the Kula rings.[13] To counteract this lack of hard currency, several western goods stores have opened on the islands and created most of the foreign goods market. These stores are multimillion dollar enterprises.[9] However, most Trobrianders struggle to pay for goods from these stores because they only take cash.[9] Due to this practice, there are often reports of unrest because of a lack of funds. One remedy that many islanders seek is to sell cultural artifacts and relics to tourists in exchange for their currency.[12] For example, a worker can spend 10 days working on a ceremonial turtle bowl and only get paid $10. "However this commercialization is often done sanctimoniously. "[13] “They protect their cultural identity and use it as a tourist commodity”. However, one of the items imported that causes economic and social problems is betel nuts.[9] They are a major narcotic on the island.[9] Due to this new currency based economy there is more reported crime on the islands. There is a great economic disparity due to the income inequality between the modern world and the Trobriands.

Early education on the islands featuring Malinowski


In addition to missionary schools, there are public schools on the Trobriands which were introduced by the government of Papua New Guinea "All children are required to go to school".[9] The required subjects are English, Math, Science and culture. Schools also educate students about current international events .[9] Math is the favorite subject among the students of the island.[9] On Wednesdays, the children are required to dress in traditional garb as part of the government mandated culture day.[9] During this time, children are encouraged to explore Trobriand culture, history and values.

Malinowski's plaque in KiriwinaEdit

A plaque dedicated to Bronisław Malinowski in Omarakana, decorated by village children

There is a commemorative plaque dedicated to Bronisław Malinowski in Omarakana village, the residence village of the Paramount Chief of Trobriand Islands.[14] The current chief Pulayasi Daniel is positive that it is placed in the very same place where Malinowski's tent used to stand at the beginning of the 20th century.[15] There are two inscriptions on it – one in Polish and one in English – which say: "Toboma Miskabati Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) Notable scientist The son of the Polish nation Father of the modern social anthropology Friend of Trobriand Islands peoples and the populizer of their culture" (see: picture). The plaque was brought to Kiriwina by sailors Monika Bronicka and Mariusz Delgas[16] who took it from New Zealand where it was left by two other yachts: "Maria" and "Victoria".[15] The plaque was founded by Jagiellonian University in Cracow and National Museum in Stettin, Poland.[15]

Anthropological studies and pop culture referencesEdit

Books by Malinowski about the TrobriandsEdit

Other books about the TrobriandsEdit

Trobriand Islands in popular cultureEdit


  1. ^ Weiner, Annette B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. pp. 10–11.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Weiner, Annette B. The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. United States of America: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 1988.
  3. ^ a b Weiner, Annette B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 11.
  4. ^ Lee, Dorothy D. B. (1950). Lineal and nonlineal codifications of reality. Psychosomatic Medicine march-april 1950. p. 89.
  5. ^ a b Weiner, Annette B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. pp. 21–22.
  6. ^ MacCarthy, M. (2012). Playing Politics with Yams: Food Security in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea. Culture, Agriculture, Food & Environment, 34(2), 136-147. doi:10.1111/j.2153-9561.2012.01073.x
  7. ^ Ember, Carol R., and Melvin Ember. Cultural Anthropology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2007.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Holly., Peters-Golden, (2012). Culture sketches : case studies in anthropology (6th ed.). Dubuque, Iowa: The McGraw-Hill. p. 258. ISBN 9780078117022. OCLC 716069710.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Toby Marshall (2012-05-16), The Unholy Paradise.mp4, retrieved 2018-01-09
  10. ^ a b Concord Media (2013-07-09), Trobriand Cricket, retrieved 2018-01-09
  11. ^ Weiner, Annette B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. pp. 1–4.
  12. ^ a b c d Holly., Peters-Golden, (2012). Culture sketches : case studies in anthropology (6th ed.). Dubuque, Iowa: The McGraw-Hill. p. 264. ISBN 9780078117022. OCLC 716069710.
  13. ^ a b Holly., Peters-Golden, (2012). Culture sketches : case studies in anthropology (6th ed.). Dubuque, Iowa: The McGraw-Hill. p. 168. ISBN 9780078117022. OCLC 716069710.
  14. ^ Gumowska, Aleksandra, (2014). Seks, betel i czary. Życie seksualne dzikich sto lat później. Krakow: Znak Litera Nova. p. 29. ISBN 9788324025701 8324025707.
  15. ^ a b c Gumowska, Aleksandra, (2014). Seks, betel i czary. Życie seksualne dzikich sto lat później. Krakow: Znak Litera Nova. p. 35. ISBN 9788324025701 8324025707.
  16. ^,12397095
  17. ^ "de Gruyter Reference Global - The Trobiand Islanders' Way of Speaking". Retrieved 2010-09-13.

External linksEdit

Coordinates: 8°40′S 150°55′E / 8.667°S 150.917°E / -8.667; 150.917