Trobriand Islands: Wikis


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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. They are situated in Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea. 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 25 miles long, and varies in width from 2 to 8 miles. In the 1980s, there was around sixty villages upon the island, containing around 12,000 people, whilst 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 Trobriand People

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 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, The real cause of pregnancy is always a baloma, who is inserted into or 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. If you question any man, woman, or even an intelligent child, you will obtain from him or her this information. 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 language of the Trobriand peoples is 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 classifing nouns. Foreign languages are less commonly spoken, although by the 1980s at least, Melanesian pidgin and English was occasionally spoken by Trobrianders. The term "Trobriand" itself is not Kilivilan, it was instead devised by French explorers.[3]

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 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 perception pertains to time and geometric shapes.[citation needed]


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."[citation needed] 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 amongst Trobrianders, causing their teeth to often appear red.[4]

Marriage Customs

At seven or eight years of age, Trobrian 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 in earnest. 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 wants to marry, they show that desire by sleeping together on a regular basis, spending time together in public, and staying with each other for long periods of time. 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.[5]

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.


A Trobriand man's wife is thought to be pregnant when an ancestral spirit enters her body and causes conception. 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 matrilineage.[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. 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. 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. Young people don't use these spells; women use them only on their brothers' children.[2]


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.

Yam Exchanges

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.

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.[2]


When a person dies, mourning continues for months. The spouse is joined in mourning by women 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]

Grave of a chief


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 had begun 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 "Trobriander" was legally adopted for this group of islands.[6]

The first anthropologist to study the Trobrianders was C.G. Seligman, who focused his emphasis on the Massim people of mainland New Guinea. Seligman was followed a number of years later by 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 Trobrians islands, he was allowed to stay.[7] 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, 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.


Books by Malinowski about the Trobriands

Other books about the Trobriands

Trobriand Islands in popular culture


  1. ^ Weiner, Annette B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 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. ^ Weiner, Annette B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 11. 
  4. ^ Weiner, Annette B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 21–22. 
  5. ^ Ember, Carol R., and Melvin Ember. Cultural Anthropology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2007.
  6. ^ Weiner, Annette B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 11. 
  7. ^ Weiner, Annette B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 1–4. 

External links

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

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

The Trobriand Islands (also known as the Kiriwina Islands) are a group of raised coral atolls in the north of Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea.

Ever since the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski wrote about the courtship and marriage ritual of Trobriand Islanders in the 1920s, in books such as “The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia”, these islands have been visited by men hoping to be dragged into the bushes by topless, grass-skirted girls, particularly during the yam harvest when there is said to be a tradition that couples are permitted to have a fling with others. Although not easy to get to, the “Islands of Love” attract a steady stream of visitors for other reasons too. The Trobriands have a matrilineal culture that revolves around cultivation of the yam; a unique version of the game of cricket, originally introduced by Methodist missionaries; together with white sand beaches, coral lagoons and rainforest. Most of the population of 12,000 lives on the main island of Kiriwina. Other major islands are Kaileuna, Vakuta and Kitava.

Tourism is less than it has been in the past, due to reduced air services, with the main national airline, Air Niugini, no longer flying there. Sources of cash income are few and the islanders rely to a great extent on remittances from family members working in Port Moresby and Alotau.

Get In

Airlines PNG[1] has two flights weekly from the capital of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, on a small Twin-Otter plane, via the capital of Milne Bay Province, Alotau. From Alotau it may also be possible to get a ride on one of the small boats that carry stores to the Trobriands.

Get around

For a small fee, hitch a ride on one of the boats going between the islands.

Wood carving of traditional Trobriands yam house
Wood carving of traditional Trobriands yam house

Wooden carvings, particularly of traditional yam stores. Decorated gourds, used to carry the lime that is mixed with the betel nut that is much chewed in the Trobriands.


Restaurants are found in the two Lodges. There is not much else.

Given that the yam is central to the culture of the Trobriand Islands, no visit is complete without trying some.


While you can buy beer and other drinks at local stores, the only bars are to be found in the Lodges.

  • Butia Lodge, close to the airport +675.641.0900; +675.641.0999
  • Kiriwina Lodge, on the waterfront in Losuia township, Phone (675) 6411326 Fax: (675) 6439022.
  • Village stays. It may be possible to organize stays in traditional villages on arrival or at one of the two lodges. A package trip to the Trobriands, including village stays, is offered by Ecotourism Melanesia [2].

Get out

Flights out can be cancelled. Don't leave it until the last minute to leave the Trobriand Islands if you have connecting flights that cannot be changed


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