From New World Encyclopedia

Trobriand Islands map, Papua New Guinea

The Trobriand Islands (today officially known as the Kiriwina Islands) are a 170 mi² archipelago of coral atolls off the eastern coast of New Guinea, situated in Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea. Most of the population of 12,000 indigenous inhabitants, the Trobrianders, or Boyowans, live on the main island of Kiriwina, which is also the location of the government station, Losuia.

The people of the area are mostly subsistence horticulturalists who live in traditional settlements. The social structure is based on matrilineal clans who control land and resources. People participate in the regional circuit of exchange of shells called kula, sailing to visit trade partners on other islands in sea-going canoes. When inter-group warfare was forbidden by colonial rulers, the islanders developed a unique, aggressive form of cricket.

The Trobriand people have been extensively studied by anthropologists, initially by Bronislaw Malinowski and subsequently by others who were fascinated by his accounts. Two aspects of their culture have drawn particular interest—the kula gift exchange system and their sexual behavior. The kula exchange functions in many ways to benefit the society, bringing together the inhabitants of the Trobriand and other islands of the region into harmonious relationships and has been studied as a model of successful socio-economic structures. The sexualized lifestyle of the Trobriand people, involving early sexual activity, group marriages, and unknown paternity of children, however is more questionable.


The natives of the Trobriand Islands call themselves Boyowans, and are closely related to the people of eastern New Guinea, genetically-speaking. Unfortunately, there is no real account of these people during pre-European settlement, as they do not keep any formal written records of their history, but rather use a strong oral tradition as their historical legacy.

The first European visitor to the islands was the French ship Espérance in 1793. The islands were named by navigator Bruni d'Entrecasteaux after his first lieutenant, Denis de Trobriand.

In the early twentieth century, as the British colonial regime extended its influence and control throughout Papua, the southern portion of New Guinea, Losuia station was established and remained an important center for colonial police officers, traders, and missionaries. As World War I began, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski traveled to Papua and ultimately to the Trobriands to begin an in-depth immersive study of a non-western culture. Malinowski's 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 in 1932 and his Sexual Revolution in 1936.

In 1943, troops landed on the islands as a part of Operation Cartwheel, the Allied advance to Rabaul. In the late twentieth century, anti-colonial and cultural autonomy movements gained followers from the Trobriand societies.


The Trobriand Islands are flat coral islands, with very mineral-rich reefs and dark soil, which both produce a variety of nutritious dietary food sources. The flora and fauna of the region are extremely diverse, and include species such as parrots, crocodiles, the bushpig, shellfish, mangoes, yams, coconuts, papayas, and pineapples. Trobriand Islanders have lived very similarly for centuries, sustaining themselves as fishermen and farmers, rich in cultural tradition.

Trobriand society is generally divided by clans and subclans. Membership is gained through descent from a common ancestress, who is believed to have emerged from a specific hole at the subclan's original location.

As a result of his studies, Bronislaw Malinowski published a trilogy of works on the Trobianders: Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia (1929), and Coral Gardens and Their Magic (1935). The second book, The Sexual Life contained ethnographic data that he believed proved that the Freudian Oedipus complex is not universal.

Malinowski showed in detail that no matter how strange or exotic various practices might appear to outsiders, they were an integral part of the healthy functioning of the Trobriand community, revealing their logic and function within the context of that society. Although most developed world observers might think of magic as being merely superstitious, Malinowski demonstrated the foundation which it had to the individuals within a particular context. When Trobriand Islanders went fishing in a lagoon, it was a simple matter. But when they had to go beyond the reefs, into the deep ocean, there were many dangers and unpredictable difficulties. This was the occasion in which the magic rituals re-enforced the ability for the fishermen to brave all these problems. The magic rites thus functioned to help them do what they needed to do.

Particularly interesting are the linguistic aspects of the indigenous language of the Trobriands. Dorothy Lee's writings, drawing upon Malinowski's earlier work, refer to "non-lineal codifications of reality."[1] 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 to ripeness to over-ripeness, the name for each object in a specific state changes entirely. This is because the description of the object at different states of development are perceived as wholly different objects. Ripeness is considered a "defining ingredient" and thus once it becomes over-ripe, it is a new object altogether. The same non-lineal perception pertains to time and geometric shapes.

Trobriand sexuality

The Trobrianders are very liberal in their sexual relations, and are subjected to sexuality from a tender age. As children, they are exposed to and weaned into sexual activity by their elders, so that by adolescence the Trobrianders are allowed, and encouraged, to seek out several different partners to engage in intercourse with. As adults, these liaisons become a permanent way of life, and a "group marriage" is often formed.

Throughout the Trobriand Islands, there is a specific custom for single bachelors and unmarried girls to all live together in a coed house, known as a bakumatula. This arrangement is sanctioned by custom and is considered very normal. Nudity is not frowned upon or considered taboo among the natives of the Trobriand islands. It is considered very natural for children to witness sex acts between older family and tribe members, and as such, they begin to emulate and imitate sexual indulgences as a pastime out of curiosity. The actual act of sexual intercourse generally first occurs for females between the ages of seven and twelve, and ten to thirteen for boys. However, it is considered improper for older men and women to have sexual dealings with children.

Although an understanding of reproduction and modern medicine is widespread in Trobriand society, their traditional beliefs have been remarkably resilient. The idea that in order to become pregnant women must be infused with spirits from the nearby island of Tuma (where people's spirits go after they die) is still a part of the Trobriand worldview. 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 sexual intercourse and pregnancy was not very evident.[2] The natural contraceptive properties of these vegetables probably contributed to the low birthrate of the Trobriand population, especially considering the high level of sexual activity of this culture.

Kula exchange

Main article: Kula
Kula arm bracelet

Kula, also known as the Kula exchange or Kula ring, is a ceremonial exchange system conducted in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. It involves a complex system of visits and exchanges and was first described in the west by Bronislaw Malinowski in his 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific. The word Kula is derived from bita kuli, a verb, meaning both “to form in the likeness or image of another” and “to be formed as a likeness or image of the other.” This is the "reciprocity" that Malinowski wrote about.

The Kula gifts are of two types and are not in themselves remarkably valuable. One consists of shell-disc necklaces (veigun or Soulava) that are traded to the north (circling the ring in clockwise direction) and the other are shell armbands (Mwali) that are traded in the southern direction (circling counter-clockwise). Mwali was given with the right hand, the Soulava given with the left hand, first between villages then from island to island. If the opening gift was an armband, then the closing gift must be a necklace and vice versa. These are traded purely for purposes of enhancing mutual trust relationships, securing trade, and enhancing one's social status and prestige.

The Kula ring spans at least 18 island communities of the Massim archipelago, including the Trobriand Islands, and involves thousands of individuals. On these islands, trade is often necessary for prosperity. However, historically there has been an urgent need for a method of fostering harmony between the islands, as they often had very different social practices. For example, some practiced cannibalism on those captured in warfare, while others did not. Kula is an experience encountered by two personalities. This expands to include and link whole communities and islands that are otherwise very far away. According to the Muyuw, a good Kula relationship should be "like a marriage." “It is a motion, an action of giving and taking between two people (partners) to begin with. This action results in the growth of participants.”[3]

There is an opening gift and finally a closing gift, all presented within the familiar context of tradition and ceremony, linking them also to the past. The Kula ring provides a connection between the environment, the spiritual world, and the other tribes. This allows the distinction of "the other" to be relaxed within a Kula relationship. The social stratification that the exchange reinforces also helps provide a stable social system that can protect the individual.

The Kula trading period ushers in a period of trade of various commodities, games such as Trobriand cricket, feasts, catching up on the news, and various other social events. There is much anticipation and preparation for the Kula season. It begins in the garden, harvesting surplus yams particularly in anticipation of the trading to come. Although taro is a staple, the higher status yams are a favorite item for the Kula trade. The yams will be displayed competitively and are also used in the feasts to come. They provide one of the ways a village can show hospitality to their visitors, old and new partners. For the new trading partners, it is not until the second visit that a Kula gift is exchanged.

Carefully prescribed customs and traditions surround the ceremonies that accompany the exchanges which establish strong, ideally life-long relationships between the exchange parties (karayta'u, "partners"). At sea, Trobriand participants travel sometimes hundreds of miles in a ceremonial canoe (waga) used specifically for this occasion. If, for example, a particular village had presented their visiting partners with necklaces the previous year, then now the villagers fly across the waves in their own powerful Kula canoes to receive armbands. The men who arrive to receive Kula valuables are seen as aggressive visitors by the men in the host village whose turn it is to give. They are met with ceremonial hostility that the visitors must charm away, often by giving lime spatulas and betelnuts that carry magical spells to induce their hosts to return good pieces. The visitors present themselves as being strong and as having immunity from danger, which is seen as physically beautiful.

The hosts in this competition are seen as relatively passive and vulnerable to the strength, beauty, and magical charms of the visitors. The hosts comply because they know that the next time around it will be their turn to be the visitors. Each man hopes that his own beauty and power will then compel his trading partner to give him the Kula piece he desires.

Some partners are close by, but many and the most important are far away. Those in a specific cycle (keda) are not usually personally known to each other, but each knows the others’ names and stories as they are passed along together with the exchange of the powerful and magical valuables. Older named pieces which have been around many times increase in value as they are owned by powerful men. Even temporary possession brings prestige and status. Important chiefs can have hundreds of partners while less significant participants may only have less than a dozen.[4] It is critical for a successful Trobriand man to have Kula partners for life. Many young men state that they would rather be successful in Kula than in business, but as both come together it is rather a choice of order than exclusion.


Trobrianders today continue to live in rectangular log-frame dwellings, covered with steep, pitched roofs which touch the ground. Certain structures are decorated with carved and painted boards to demonstrate social status. Most of the Trobriand natives have gardens beside their houses, and continue to live in group facilities, as has been their custom for hundreds of years, although married couples and their children also live in separate structures from the unmarried women and single bachelors. Coastal villages are generally built according to similar patterns, which are conceived to be the most practical when it comes to heavy sea winds, as well as the topography along the shoreline.

Although the traditional Kula exchange has continued, naturally the interaction with modern economic exchange and cultures has changed the events. Currently, there is much less ceremony and care in the preparation and execution of the events of the Kula exchange. Some women exchange Kula, and sometimes Kula objects are sold at the marketplace in exchange for money. It is unknown to what extent contact with more modern cultures has influenced Trobriander veiws on Kula. Many, however, still practice and value this traditional social custom.


  1. Dorothy Lee, "Lineal and nonlineal codifications of reality," Psychosomatic Medicine, 12, (1950): pp. 89—97. Retrieved March 16, 2008.
  2. Isabella Tree, "Culture Shock: In the Trobriand Islands the annual yam festival is more than just ordinary.",
  3. J. Malnic and J. Kasaipwalova, Kula: Myth and Magic of the Trobriand Islands, (Halstead: Cowrie Books, 1998, ISBN 0646346172).
  4. Bronislaw Malinowski, "Kula; the Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea" In Man. Vol. 20. (1920).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Lee, Dorothy. 1950. "Lineal and nonlineal codifications of reality" In Psychosomatic Medicine. 12. pp. 89—97
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1920. "Kula; the Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea" In Man. Vol. 20.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. [1922] 1984. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Waveland Press. ISBN 978-0881330847
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. [1929] 2005. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1417904778
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1935. Coral Gardens and their Magic.
  • Malnic, J. and J. Kasaipwalova. 1998. Kula: Myth and Magic of the Trobriand Islands. Halstead: Cowrie Books. ISBN 0646346172
  • Weiner, Annette B. 1988. The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 978-0030119194

External links

All links retrieved May 2, 2023.

  • Sorcery and Seduction The Art of Influence in the Trobriands - A travel story about the Trobriands by Roderick Eime.


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