The Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea

Travis Goobie, Josh Pike, Meagan Williams, Heidi Imlay, Jeremy Peck

Geographic Information

They live on a group of 22 small coral islands located in the province Milne Bay in the North Eastern area of Papua New Guinea. The islands are in the Solomon Sea which is located in the South Pacific Ocean. The total land area of the group of islands covers approximately 170 square Miles. There are several tiny islands as well as four larger islands which are called; Kiriwina, Kaileuna, Vakuta, and Kitava. The largest of the islands is Kiriwina which is 48 kilometers long and 56-16 kilometers wide. At its highest point, Kiriwina is 30 meters above sea level. The land of the islands is mostly covered with swamp areas. The population of the islands is approximately 12,000 indigenous people who live in tiny villages throughout the island which number around 80.

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Birthing Rituals for the Trobrianders

The Trobrianders are fairly uneventful when it comes to birthing rituals. When babies are born in the Trobriand tribes, it is a very private event in an otherwise very public tribe. A tribe that usually shares almost everything except yams does not believe that it is necessary to help with the birth of new born babies. “There was no village response to the infant’s cries. Naseluma’s baby did not even draw attention from those in neighbouring houses.” (Weiner, 52.) This is the complete opposite to what happens at the death of someone in the village. During a death no one associated with the departed wears bright clothing and the older women usually paint themselves completely black and shave their heads. Birthing only ever involves the “closest matrilineal female kin.”(Weiner, 52.)

At the beginning of a marriage the woman goes to live with the husband, but when she is discovered to be pregnant, she moves back to her mother’s house and remains there until the baby is born and for several months thereafter.

Once the baby is born, the woman must live for the first two months of the babies life, secluded from all others except from her own female kin. While nursing she must adhere to strict food taboos to ensure she does not in anyway harm the baby’s health. “Her enforced seclusion also requires her to stay on the high bed, with a fire burning steadily, and to cover her body with a long, light-coloured cape, made like a woman’s skirt from dried banana-leaf fibers.” (Weiner, 53.) Both birth and death are very much connected. In both instances the woman must exclude herself from society except for the most basic interactions, both must refrain from eating yams and pork, which are considered to be the most favored foods and both must change the appearance of their skin. Yet they are different in that when lying on the high bed new mothers are allowed to have a small fire underneath to keep warm and keep the baby safe; also the banana-leaf cape is to lighten the colour of the skin. Whereas, in a time of mourning, the woman cannot have a fire and must colour herself all black to hide who she is and her social identity. The difference is “warmth and cold, light and dark.” (Weiner, 53.)


Coming of Age Rites among the Trobrianders

There are many very important initiation rites and coming of age rites practiced among the Trobriander people. After a child is born, parents are subject to a prolonged post-partum sex taboo, which requires the father to leave the marital bed for some time. For this reason, children, usually sons, often sleep in the same bed as their mothers. In order to sever this intimate mother/child connection (and in Spiro’s view, to ward off the pending Oedipus complex that results from this sleeping arrangement) a child needs to gain independence through initiation rites. These rites are often painful and consist of practices that many in our Western culture would consider torture. (Spiro, 169-170)

Most interesting of these rites in my view is the male circumcision, a ritual practiced around the time that the child turns four or five. It is one of the few occasions when the Trobrianders will associate with other villages in the bush. There is great feasting (usually on pig) and then the boys, often a dozen or so at a time are circumcised. At this point they are sent into the bush to survive basically on their own for two months, where they will not be seen by any woman until they are healed. Men of the village are appointed to cook for them. They can not touch food with their bare hands. Instead they must use a certain designated leaf to eat with, which they scrunch up and use as a scoop for their food. They are not allowed to touch their hair, or pick out lice, and if they want to scratch their head they are required to use a twig. After the two months were finally finished, when the cut had healed, they will return back to their village wearing a “namba” they had made for themselves. A namba is essentially a purse to hold the genitals and is often the only thing worn by men in the village. (

          It is not this act however that whisks a boy into the position of manhood. A boy is not considered a man until about the age of thirteen or fourteen, when he reaches sexual maturity. At this point, he becomes physically and mentally prepared to take part in the activities of his elders, and he ceases to be regarded as a child (gwadi), and assumes the position of adolescent (ulatile or to'ulatile). This transformation means a different status, involving some duties and many privileges, a stricter observance of taboos, and a greater participation in tribal affairs Females are also considered to reach womanhood when their bodies have began to show the signs of having reached puberty, for example, the commencement of menstruation, growth of body hair and breasts etc. (

The Kinship of the Trobriand Islanders

            The kinship of these people is matrilineal: which means it is through the mother. The mother and her children are all part of the same kinship or matrilineage, the father of these children belongs to his own matrilineage, that of his mother. The father may want his children to marry into his family so that they will unite the two matrilineages, but this does not always work. The children are able to pick their own life partners, but the father may have an influence (Weiner, 75).

            If a child has done something to shame their matrilineage, the father of the child must leave while the child’s mother and mother’s brother (usually the head of the matrilineage) discuss what to do with the child. After something is done, the father is allowed to re-enter the child’s life. This does not mean that a father is completely inactive in his child’s life, often times, when his daughter decides to marry and she needs a Yam house built and filler for her husband her father and/or mother’s brother are usually the ones who do it until her brother is old enough to take over.

            In the case of a death in the matrilineage many of the men who are not a part of the matrilineage are called upon to help out with the preparation of banana leaf bundles. Their wives are in charge of making these skirts and bundles while their husband is in charge of finding and trading for the leaves. Even the Chief must partake in this if one of his wives had a death in the matrilineage (Weiner, 119-121). This is a form of exchange, under normal circumstances the Chief or husband would be receiving yams from his wife’s matrilineage. Yet in the case of death is the Chief/husband is required to give back to his wife’s matrilineage.

The Religious Beliefs of the Trobriand Islanders

            The beliefs of the people of Trobriand Islands are very largely entwined around magic. They feel that magic spells can help them with lovers, cure the sick and even control the yam harvest. The chiefs use this magic to help them control the people they rule. Men and women alike use the magic to amplify their jewelry to make themselves more attractive to others and use magic spells on their desired to entice them to fall in love in return. Weiner writes of a case where a woman used magic on her granddaughter to get her pregnant and the father, enraged, took them to court: “…the woman’s mother’s mother testified that she had used magic to make her granddaughter pregnant. The judge then dismissed the case” (Weiner, 55). This shows the importance of magic among these people. The father was angry that his daughter was pregnant, but when he found out that she was pregnant by means of sorcery he realized there was nothing he could do and accepted the fact of his grandchild to come. Weiner comments on how complicated the acts of sorcery can get:

“Yet sorcery is more complicated then any one person’s anger or jealousy. A member of a matrilineage may be killed for the wrongdoings of other living or dead kin, and children may be sorcerised in an attempt to weaken their father’s power. Villagers say that “big mistakes” such as sorcery, killing, and stealing land are remembered from one generation to another” (Weiner, 39).

            Sorcery is the biggest fear for the people of the Trobriand Islands. It is instilled in women, men and children. Only a handful of men know really powerful magic spells and many have to seek them out and ask them to perform their magic. The cost of these spells is usually a lot (Weiner, 39). The people attempt to wear happy faces all the time so as not to show when they are angry, which could encourage someone to use sorcery on them. Also they perceive every dead person to be a work of sorcery, a victim of someone else.

Trobrianders Islanders and Yams

Trobrianders use yams in all aspects of there lives. They use them economically, ritually and as food. Ritually they use them in marriage when the bride’s parents provide yams for the wedding. The couple that is getting married eat the yams to declare their marriage as well as their future in yam growing. Yams can also help give political power if the wives matrilineage give support with the growing of the yams. Yams are the major food of the Trobriand Islanders: “which includes chemicals whose effects are contraceptive, so the practical link between sex and pregnancy is far less clear to the islanders”. (


The Chief of the tribe has a specific and large pile of yams put aside for his wife. These yams are marked with dots or circles to show that they are for the Chief’s wife. There are other large piles under the lean-to’s but not as large as this one and have no markings. “These yams are grown by men but not for themselves but to give to others” (Weiner, 82). Yams in this culture are used to provide wealth for the women of the tribe. The more yams a woman has the wealthier she is.


Spells are chanted traditionally when making large yam gardens, also cycles of magic spells are done during the each stage of yam cultivation. “Even today, certain kinds of magic spells continue to be employed, for example, to direct the yams, how to move the soil so their growth will not be impeded by stone, to encourage the luxuriant growth of the vines, to make it rain when a drought occurs, and even to make the soil unattractive so pigs will not dig it up.” (Weiner, 83).

Yams are not the only source of food for the Trobrianders however they are commonly consumed and widely grown. Yams that are grown in special Yam gardens are more often used to show wealth and political power. Yams are also grown in the regular gardens as a food source along with tapioca root, greens, beans, squash, and banana and bread fruit trees. Even though these items are what will sustain the tribe for the year there is no ritual, spells or chants placed upon these gardens. Also note that the women are the ones that tend and harvest these gardens, and only the men harvest and tend the yam gardens and piles.


Spiro, Melford E. (1982) Oedipus in the Trobriands. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Weiner, Annette B. “The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea”. United States of America, 1933.