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Trobriand Islands/Papua New Guinea

Introducing Trobriand Islands

In 1914 a young anthropologist called Bronsilaw Malinowski set sail for the impossibly remote Trobriand archipelago. When WWI broke out, he suddenly found himself cut off from the outside world and, being an Austrian Pole in a British controlled area, unable to leave. The story goes that not being sure which side he was on (or even wanted to be on), he spent the next three years immersed in his fieldwork. On his eventual return, that fieldwork bore fruit as one of the most famous and influential books in anthropology, The Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

Despite the dozens of anthropologists, missionaries, TV crews and tourists who have since followed Malinowski, the Trobriands remain one of the most culturally intact places you could possibly find. Although an understanding of reproduction and modern medicines is common, islanders still maintain a world view that includes the belief that in order for a woman to become pregnant, she must first be infused with the spirit of a departed ancestor. A strict matrilineal social system, enormous and highly decorated yam houses, exquisite carvings and the colourful festivals of clan prestige will keep your head turning.

Known locally as the Trobes, the people take their name from Denis de Trobriand, an officer on D’Entrecasteaux’s expedition. The Trobriands are low-lying coral islands, in contrast to their mountainous southern neighbours. Trobriand Islanders have a distinct Polynesian appearance and there are scattered remains of stone temples that resemble those of Polynesia. Trade between the islands had strong cultural and economic importance, and the pre-European traders crossed vast distances of open sea in canoes, exchanging fish, vegetables, pigs, stone axes, a rare jade-like stone from Muyua (Woodlark) Island and volcanic glass from Fergusson Island. The kula ring is the most famous of these trade routes.

It’s good manners to let the paramount chief know you have arrived. If you are there for reasons other than tourism, you should request an audience with him to explain why you’ve come. It’s enough to ask almost anyone to pass on the message to the chief; it will reach him.