Sunday, September 7, 2014

Louisiades Prep - Anthropology

The Louisiades are in the southern part of a wider area known as The Massim. It is to anthropology roughly what the Galapagos Islands are to evolution. Participant observer anthropology started here, and it has been a sacred area for anthropologists ever since.

It makes sense to me to try and understand it as much as possible before we go there.

The Louisiades are in the southern Massim.


The Indo-Australian Tectonic Plate has been moving north since the break-up of Gondwanaland. The Indian part collided with Asia about 50 million years ago, and the crumple zone of the leading edge threw up the Himalayas. The crumple zone of the Australian part hitting the Pacific plate threw up the New Guinea highlands. 

The line between the Australian plate (known as Sahul) and the Eurasian plate created a discontinuity of fauna known as the Wallace Line discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution. Monkeys and elephants to the north-west; marsupials to the south-east.

Sahul was a single island until the ending of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. You could have walked from New Guinea to Tasmania until then. 

My last boat was called 'Sahula' in recognition of this area that I hoped to cruise in.

The line of contact between the plates around the Pacific is associated with volcanoes and earthquakes. It is known as the Ring of Fire. 

Ring of Fire

The volcanoes in the area of New Guinea and the islands east of it lead to plenty of obsidian, which was important for high quality tools for stone age cultures such as the Lapita, and mines of gold and copper recently, eg Ok Tedi, Lihir Island,  and Bougainville Island. There was a gold rush on Misima and Sudest Islands in 1888.

 Human occupation

The first wave out of Africa

The second wave from Taiwan - the Lapita people.

Recent research on DNA has shed more light on the origins of the Lapita people.

The Lapita people have been called 'The Vikings of the Pacific'

They established a base in the Bismarck Archipelago in about 1400 BC. They used volcanic glass called obsidian in their tools. They had outrigger canoes, spoke Austronesian languages, and produced characteristic Lapita pottery.

Lapita pottery found here

Their descendants became the Polynesians, who colonized the Pacific.

The Papuan peoples tended to live on the New Guinea mainland. They speak about 600 different languages. The Austronesians tend to live on the islands and coastal areas. They have about 200 languages. More on the languages of the Pacific here.



  • Baron Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay (Russian)  Madang area 1870-87
  • Reverend Harry Moore Dauncey. Missionary. 1880-1920. 'Papuan Pictures'.
  • CG Seligman  (British physician) 1898, 1904. Wrote 'Melanesians of British New Guinea
  • W. H. R. Rivers. (British psychiatrist) Described in The Regeneration Trilogy
  • Bronislaw Malinowski (Polish) 1915-18 Trobriand Islands. 
  • Reo Fortune (NZ psychologist) Wrote 'Sorcerers of Dobu'. Margaret Mead's second husband.
  • Margaret Mead (US anthropologist). Manus, Sepik River. 
  • Gregory Bateson (British anthropologist) Sepik River. Margaret Mead's third husband.
Some of the shenanigans between Mead, Fortune and Bateson are described in an earlier page in this blog. 

I tried to write a movie script for the story years ago, but it was made into a movie by someone else. 'In a Savage Land'. 

I recently heard that there is a new novel which is a lightly fictionalised version of the same threesome, and that it is to be made into a second movie. Euphoria by Lily King. Youtube of her being interviewed here. Spooky.

But I digress.

I think the important things for prospective cruisers are:

The Kula Ring.

Described by Malinowski in 'Argonauts of the Western Pacific' (free download here).  

There are a mass of islands, stretching from the Louisiades in the east, to the D’entrecasteaux Islands close to Milne Bay, and Woodlark Island and the Trobriands slightly further north. On these islands, certain people belong to the Kula. They participate in an elaborate ritual, with ceremonies and magic that involve them passing ceremonial objects in a circle around these islands. The objects are quite specific; one is an arm-shell called ‘mwali’ made from a cone shell, and the other is a necklace made of spondylus shells, called 'bagi' or ‘soulava’. These objects are precious, but not kept as property. The key is to pass them on. So one man in the Kula who has a ‘mwali’ exchanges it with another man in the Kula who has a ‘soulava’.

 Mwali arm-band. Travels anti-clockwise round the Kula Ring.

Bagi necklace. Travels clockwise round the Kula Ring.


Most Massim cultures are matrilineal. Descent is traced through the mother and maternal ancestors
Spirit (Baloma) of a deceased ancestor impregnates the woman while bathing in the sea
Responsibility for a baby lies with mother and her brother (not the father).
Sexual taboos very limited.
Oedipus complex absent
Neuroses said to be rare

Many variations in New Guinea. 

This led to the Trobriand Islands getting known as the Islands of Love.

A festival at the time of the yam harvest features conspicuous celebration of sexuality.

A BBC documentary about Malinowski here.

Further episodes here.


Most canoes built in the islands are constructed on Panaeati Island (within Deboyne Lagoon), a regional canoe building centre for at least 100 years. Some canoes are built for use by Panaeati residents, but many are destined for other islands (primarily the small islands of the Calvados Chain and neighbouring Vanatinai, or Sudest Island.

Wood carving, historically, has been an important art of the Milne Bay area. The Milne Bay peoples created canoes, called waga. When Charles Gabriel Seligman visited the area in 1904, he described the waga as playing "such an important part in the life of the district," and being a "decorative art" that has "reached its highest expression in the carvings of the ornaments for the prows of the waga."

 Contemporary Anthropologists

* - studying islands of the Louisade Archipelago


Good site on the art of the Massim.

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