The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea Short Summary

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The Trobrianders are a cultural group living in the Trobriand Islands located just off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea in the Solomon Sea. The Trobriands consist of four major islands: Kiriwina, Kitava, Vakuta, and Kaileuna (Ember, 2001). Kiriwina is the largest island of the four, and currently has a population of approximately 12,000 people inhabiting 60 villages (Weiner, 1988, pg 11). With 900 other languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, it is not uncommon for villagers to speak multiple languages.

The most common one in the Trobriand Islands, however, is Kilivila, which is spoken in 5 dialects (Weiner, 1988). Many races inhabit Papua New Guinea; some are tall while some are short, many are frizzy-haired while others have straight, and while several have dark skin, numerous have lighter toned skin (Malinowski, 1932). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea are a fascinating group of many unique rituals, practices, customs and symbolisms of power.

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The Trobriand Islands have been referred to as “one of anthropologies most sacred places” by several anthropologists (Weiner, 1988, pg 1). The two primary anthropologists to this nation are arguably Bronislaw Malinowski and Annette Weiner. Malinowski explained that he lived in the Trobriand Islands for numerous years, making three expeditions to the islands during 1914 and 1920 (Young, 2004). He focused mainly on the activities of the male Trobrianders, observing the way they went about fulfilling their daily tasks (Gordon, 2011).

One method Malinowski used to study the men and become one with the natives was by separating himself from the other white men and instead, spending the majority of his time with the villagers (Malinowski, 1932). Malinowski also learned that being an ethnographer does not mean to only observe, but to “put aside [the] camera, notebook, and pencil, and to join in himself in what is going on” (Malinowski, 1932, pg 60). This way, the Trobrianders viewed him less as just a ‘white man’ or a ‘celebrity’, but as an equal. He watched as they performed their rituals, customs and ceremonies (mainly the “kula”) throughout these years (Young, 2004). Contrasting Malinowski’s work which illustrated a larger interest in gaining perspective from the males of the group, Weiner drew her attention mainly on the women; on their value and power in their social system (Myers, 1997).
Following Malinowski’s work, Weiner took five expeditions to the Trobriand Islands from 1971-1981, spending 22 months there in total (Weiner, 1976). Weiner focused primarily on the role the females played in the family as well as their participation and expression of wealth during mortuary ceremonies (Myers, 1997).

The Trobrianders’ unique culture is recognized by their stern eating etiquette, their great hospitality, and the regular sharing of betel nut between friends. It is not a cultural normality to eat in the presence of others in the same way sharing betel nut is sociably acceptable (Weiner, 1976). While a limited amount of exceptions occur, Trobrianders are forbidden to consume food in the presence of another individual. Instead, food will be cooked and prepared by the mothers of the family, and each member will disperse into their individual rooms to eat with oneself (Weiner, 1976).

A hospitable and welcoming home is of utmost importance throughout Papua New Guinean culture. Although some families have lower income than others, it is still expected to offer what one has to whatever guest visits their home (Gordon, 2011). Frequently, home owners will give visitors coconuts, tobacco, and most commonly, betel nut. Although eating is not a sociable act, sharing and chewing betel nut is a traditional activity Trobrianders consistently engage in with one another (Gordon, 2011). The nut is combined with a piece of pepper plant and lime powder which turns a bright red colour after being chewed (the same way one would chew tobacco) (Gordon, 2011). This mixture creates a small “high” by acting as a stimulant to the nervous system and causing an increased blood pressure and heart rate (Weiner, 1988). As Weiner describes, “Trobrianders chew betel nut the way many Americans drink coffee” (1988, pg 21).

Melvin Ember describes the meals typical of Trobriand culture being: sago, breadfruit, yam, taro, sweat potato, wild greens, mango, coconut, and various kinds of bananas. Although not common to have on a daily basis; pork, fish, and shellfish are included in a fancy meal or feast (Ember, 2011). Villagers themselves are always responsible for producing their family’s food and preparing their own meals; women primarily do the planting, weeding, harvesting, and cooking while men are in charge of
slash-and-burn, fishing, clearing the brush, and cultivating the soil (Weiner, 1988).

The Trobrianders dressing style varies from western-style clothes to traditional attire based on the occasion and event (Ember, 2001). Papua New Guineans take pride in standing out by wearing bright and colourful clothing, a lot of which is brought from Australia to the South Pacific (Ember, 2001). Day to day activities may call for casual wear like this, but traditional dress is still very popular. Females will be seen covered in coconut oil wearing short miniskirts made of red-dyed and dried banana leaves, along with leis, armbands, feathers, flowers, and jewelry made of shells (Weiner, 1976). The female Trobrianders also seem to enjoy having hibiscus flowers delicately placed in their teased hair (Weiner, 1988). Men will be dressed similarly, but wearing sarongs and pandanus coverings (Weiner, 1976). Makeup is applied to the villagers faces using vegetable dyes to create intricate designs. Baby powder also may be sprinkled on their bodies, as this is considered beautiful in the Trobriand culture (Weiner, 1988).

During his Trobriand Island expeditions from 1940 to 1920, Malinowski’s studies focused primarily on the kula (Young, 2004). The kula refers to the great voyage involving thousands of individuals spanning throughout 18 islands to trade white shell armbands and red shell necklaces (Malinowski, 1932). Malinowski describes that the necklaces include gold-rimmed oyster shells and are traded in the clockwise direction, while the armbands consisting of pendants and beads are traded counterclockwise. The contributors continue passing along these shells until they make a full circulation, often taking longer than 2-5 years (Malinowski, 1932). Malinowski was bewildered how this “simple action – the passing from hand to hand of two meaningless and quite useless objects” could become “the foundation of a big inter-tribal institution . . . so vast, complex and deeply rooted” (1932, pg 147). It was discovered that the exchange of these goods was linked to political authority and fame (Weiner, 1988). Men who succeed in extensive trading are highly respectable and are viewed honorably by elders and women (Weiner, 1988).

The “yam ceremony” is a great and elaborate annual celebration with the goal of presenting the wealth of the males in the community (Weiner, 1976). The ceremony occurs at the start of the harvest season, where the yams are put on display for the village for a full month. The day finally comes to deliver the yams to the yam house of that family, and all related peoples attend wearing traditional clothes, dancing provocatively with the yams (Weiner, 1976). This large quantity of yams are given to the owner (always a woman) and she will distribute the yams among the people (Weiner, 1976). Weiner emphasizes that the more yams a woman receives from her brother and father, the more rich and powerful the family is considered to be.

The Trobrianders have a unique custom of initiating and officializing marriage which is specific to their culture (Hartsock, 2011). Jennifer Hartsock addresses that prior to any kind of marriage ritual, the woman will stay overnight at her lover’s house but will always leave before sunrise the next morning. This eliminates any possibility of neighbors noticing the man and woman’s relations. When they decide to marry, however, the woman will stay past sunrise and they will sit on the veranda in unity (Weiner, 1988). The mother will bring them cooked yams and the bride and groom will eat them together; the first time eating in each other’s presence (Weiner, 1988). This act makes their marriage official and recognized by the other villagers, and the word of their new marriage spreads quickly (Weiner, 1988). Weiner states that for one year they will continue eating meals together but after the year passes, they will return to eating separately once again for the remainder of their marriage.

The theory of conception among Trobrianders is an unordinary one that has been passed down for generations. Their belief is that a woman becomes pregnant as a result of an ancestral spirit from the island of Tuma entering her body and causing the growth of a baby (Malinowski, 1932). The idea of a sperm fertilizing an egg is not recognized in Trobriand culture.

A person’s death in the Trobriand culture is of so much emphasis and priority that it will drastically alter the lives of all those mourning for
a minimum of six months (Weiner, 1988). Mourning is a long and drawn out process taken very seriously by all villagers; respect being decreased for individuals who do not express enough obvious actions of mourning (Weiner, 1988). Malinowski was exposed to many deaths in the village, and observed the men “sobbing and slobbering; women keening and wailing . . . [He] noticed the squeezing of the noses by men and smearing of the mucus excretion on the ground” (Young, 2004, pg 400). Weiner expresses the belief that the majority of deaths are considered to be because of spells spoken over the person. Spells are normally believed to either have been chanted into the betel nut or tobacco that the deceased consumed just prior to their death (Weiner, 1988). Villagers view death as an attack to destroy or weaken matrilineage for the next generation; to eliminate power from a family (Weiner, 1988).

Following the death of a Trobriand villager, a mortuary ceremony will take place. When the service comes to a close, the Trobriand women take this opportunity to display their own wealth instead of the way men’s wealth is portrayed in the yam ceremony (Weiner, 1988). During this time, the women will distribute their banana leaf bundles and decorated skirts to all who engaged in an act of mourning for the deceased (Weiner, 1988). These bundles and skirts are either passed down through families or made by these women; Weiner stresses the copious amount of time and energy put into this work. After the service, the women who exchanged the most products are considered to be of higher value and importance, for the skirts symbolize power while the bundles represent the woman’s ability to provide and nurture (Weiner, 1976). 300,000 bundles are potentially presented in one ceremony, which is comparable to $400-500AUD (Weiner, 1976).

Trobrianders strongly believe in life after death. Following the mortuary ceremony, the deceased’s spirit is thought to “become youthful” one more and move to Tuma Island (the same island the ancestral spirit of conception is from), where it will live another life.

Sorcery and magic are not only common to the belief of causing death, but spells are also used to enhance physical beauty and increase one’s
seduction. Already at infancy, babies are covered in bracelets and necklaces made of shells and seeds to appear more beautiful (Weiner, 1988). This occurs because having a seductive personality is expected at a very young age; girls are generally sexually active when they reach the age of 13. Weiner explains to elevate a person’s physical features, many people will use “beauty magic” (Hartsock, 2011). While this sorcery does not physically change appearances, the method the spells use is to trick males into believing that female has beautiful facial features (Hartsock, 2011). Attracting multiple men is a sign of power; therefore changing partners frequently is typical. Weiner expresses that traditional seduction spells are constantly circulating, as new spells cannot be created. Commonly, young people will offer gifts to elders in exchange for a couple lines or a verse of a spell, hopeful that one day they will possess the spell in entirety and eventually pass it on to their grandchildren (Weiner, 1988).

Visibly expressing angry or hostile behavior is very dangerous in the Trobriands, as the risk of being attacked by someone who could be practicing sorcery might be increased (Weiner, 1988). Weiner communicates the belief that some people are “flying witches”, meaning they have the power to leave their bodies at night and rupture certain organs in another person’s body. Sorcery is feared throughout the islands, and people will drastically rearrange their schedules based on full moons, temperature, and dark and moonless nights (Weiner, 1988).

The Trobrianders are a remarkably intriguing body of people, consistently offering anthropologists immense and detailed knowledge on their customs, ceremonies, sexuality, sorceries, and beliefs.


  • Ember, M., & Ember, C.R. (2001). Countries and Their Cultures: Laos to Rwanda, 3. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
  • Gordon, R., Lyons, A.P., & Lyons, H.D. (2011). Fifty Key Anthropologists (pp 141-146). London and New York: Routledge.
  • Hartsock, J.M. The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Retrieved on October 08, 2013, from
  • Malinowski, B. (1932). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: George Routledge & Sons, LTD.
  • Myers, F. (1997). Annette Weiner: 1933-1997. New York: Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania.
  • Weiner, A.B. (1976). Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives in Trobriand Exchange. Austin, University of Texas Press.
  • Weiner, A.B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovaovich College College Publishers.
  • Young, M.W. (2004). Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist 1884-1920. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

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