Trobriand Islands  

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"Given the social importance of food, it might seem strange to discover that 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." --Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating (1980), p. 8-9, Peter Farb, ‎George J. Armelagos

"The natives of the Trobriand Islands, who are in so many respects a model to us all, consider eating as private as any other bodily function. Should a science of dietetics arise among these people presumably the expounders of this new knowledge would speak about 'ingurgitation, 'imbibing' and 'the buccal orifice' so that the ears and eyes of the nice might not be offended by the sight or sound of the crude monosyllables so full of associations and magic, which had till then been used only for rude talk or swearing." --The Revolutionary Ideas of the Marquis de Sade

Trobriand Islanders are a people lacking awareness of paternity. --The Evolution of Human Sexuality

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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. Its people, the Trobrianders, were the object of a trilogy of anthropological studies by Bronisław Malinowski published as Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia (1929) and Coral Gardens and Their Magic (1935).



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.

"The Trobrianders... whose culture traces family lineage through mothers rather than fathers." [Eds.] "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." (Both quotes from an excerpt from Jenefer Shute's 1992 novel Life-Size in the book, Open Questions.)

Particularly interesting and unique to the Trobriand Islands are the linguistic aspect of the indigenous language, Kilivila. Drawing upon earlier work by Bronislaw 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.


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 20th century, as the British colonial regime extended its influence and control throughout the Territory of 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, Bronislaw Malinowski came to Papua and ultimately to the Trobriands to begin an in-depth immersive study of a non-western culture. 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.


food and drink prohibitions

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." 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. In the Trobriand islands to boast of having food is one of Trobriand Islanders chief glories and ambitions because it was difficult to have enough food. Miamala is the time of the year when the subject of food is most discussed and that time food is more important because it is harvest time and it is time of feasting. But they can face hunger and scarcity at any time of year because of poor growing conditions. In the mid of 2009 the problem of food insecurity was brought to attention on national and international level by the media. The stories they reported were of more concern about population pressure which results as food shortage. Australian and International media highlighted the food shortage topic.


Books by Malinowski about the Trobriands

Other books about the Trobriands

Trobriand Islands in Popular Culture

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