Papua New Guinea
Trobriand Islands
The Trobriand Islands are an archipelago of several low-lying coral islands situated to the northeast of New Guinea. They are part of Melanesia, a vast area to the south of the equator measuring 3,300 miles by 700 miles and encompassing New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, and the surrounding island chains. Since 1975, the Trobriand Islands have been considered part of a larger area known as the Massim District of the nation of Papua New Guinea. Included in the Massim are the Trobriand Islands, the d'Entrecasteaux Islands (named after the French explorer who first contacted the Massim region), Marshall Bennett, Murua, and the Louisiade Island groups.

The first European contact with Trobriand Islanders was in 1793 by the French vessel Esperance. Bruni d'Entrecasteaux, a navigator from France, named the islands after his first lieutenant: Denis de Trobriand. The waters surrounding their islands were soon filled with ships from all over Europe. American whaling ships made frequent stops there, as did German ships, who were in search of yams.

Contact with Europeans affected the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands in many ways. Many Trobrianders were kidnapped by Australian ships in order to be sold into slavery. All these contacts had great influence on the culture of the indigenous population. New technology and materials were introduced into the culture, which changed their traditions and their art.


The Trobriand Islands form part of the Melanesian archipelago, and politically they belong to Papua New Guinea. The unique and colourful culture of the Trobrianders, including their famous system of 'primitive exchange', the Kula ring, was studied extensively by Bronislaw Malinowski in the early 20th century.

However, nothing is known about the earliest occupation of the islands. Nor do we know why the Trobriand Islanders differ markedly from other Melanesian populations with respect to their physical characteristics and cultural set-up, instead bearing some resemblance to Polynesian populations further east.


The Trobriand Islanders have been subject to intense anthropological studies, but apart from a partial excavation of one of the megalithic tombs on the island of Kiriwina in the 1960's, no stratigraphic archaeological excavations have been carried out on the islands. However, extensive surface collections of potsherds have been made and analysed in the 1970's , both on Kiriwina, Vakuta and Kuyawa, and some burial caves have been mapped. Also, surface collections of potsherds have been made on the nearby Amphletts and Goodenough Islands.

Excavations on New Ireland and New Britain, Papua New Guinea, have shown that an early human colonization of some of the larger islands of Melanesia took place more than 30 000 years ago, and in the Solomon Islands the earliest domesticated taro, found in Kilu Cave, Buka Island, near Bougainville, has been dated to 23 000 BC.

Much controversy still surrounds the arrival of the Austronesian language family, which presently dominates most parts of the Pacific. The traditional view holds that Austronesian-speaking peoples invaded the archipelago from Southeast Asia around 3000 BC, but there is no evidence for such a large-scale migration into Melanesia in the archaeological record. The evidence for this scenario is mainly linguistic, but not even the linguists agree. It is possible, instead, that people have been moving in successively during a very long period of time, and many archaeologists believe that local evolution accounts for much of the cultural development in the area. The Lapita culture, for example, was previously considered to be associated with migrating Austronesians from Southeast Asia, but, following intensified archaeological work in the area, it is now thought that this in fact developed in the Bismarcks, from where it spread into the Pacific. It is also widely acknowledged that the Polynesian culture, an extension of the Lapita, originated in eastern Melanesia, not East/Southeast Asia.

See also: The Intricate Patterns of Trobriand Art


The Trobriands have a relatively uniform temperature of 70-80 degrees Farenheit year-round, with a rainy season lasting from November to April. Geologically, the islands are primarily coral reefs, with some isolated volcanic and coral islands, the soils of which are excellent for agriculture, a fact not lost on the islanders. The islands' inhabitants had a long history of contact with other Melanesians, specifically with the Massim peoples to the East, with whom they were often at war. Contact with the Europeans changed relations between the islands, introducing trade and warfare with the neighboring island groups, including the Amphlett and Dobu Islands as well as the islands to the southwest, in the Louisiade Archipelago.