The Melanesians of British New Guinea

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Every year, at the end of September, or the beginning of October, the season of the southeast trade wind being then near its close, a fleet of large sailing canoes leaves Port Moresby and the neighboring villages of the Motu tribe on a voyage to the deltas of the rivers of the Papuan Gulf. The canoes are laden with earthenware pots of various shapes and sizes which are carefully packed for the voyage in dry banana leaves. In addition to these, certain other articles highly valued as ornaments (and latterly foreign made articles of utility) are also taken for barter. The canoes return during the northwest monsoon after an absence of about three months, laden with sago which the voyagers have obtained in exchange for their pots and other articles.

The origin of these western trading expeditions, called by the Motu hiri, is veiled in obscurity. Everything goes to prove that the custom has been in existence for many generations. The fact that the Motu and the various Gulf tribes visited by them make use of a common trading dialect which is in some measure distinct from the very widely divergent languages of either, justifies the conclusion that the custom has existed for a very considerable period. [During the voyage sexual and food tabus are enforced, and corresponding ones by the women at home.]1

The arrival of the lakatoi [boat] at its destination in the Gulf [says Seligman] is an occasion for great rejoicing. As soon as the vessel is moored in the river opposite the village to which it is bound, tabus cease to exist, the baditauna [originator (of the expedition)] and doritauna [top man] and udiha leap into the water to wash off the accumulated dirt of months. A ceremonial visit is then paid by the headmen of the Gulf village with their escort to the lakatoi and during it each man of the crew selects an individual to be his tarua (friend), and they make much of each other.

Baditauna and doritauna each select two headmen for their tarua, and they adorn these men with the personal ornaments they have brought to barter. As soon as this has been done—but not before—the crew produce their ornaments, and each one proceeds to decorate with them his chosen friend. Every article so bestowed has its recognized value, and—if accepted—the corresponding value will be given in exchange. . . . When the sago is brought down the parcels in which it is packed called gorugoru and turua are put aboard first. These have been paid for in toia (shell armlets), mairi (pearl shell crescents, or, generally in the Gulf the whole shell, for the people there prefer a rather shorter and deeper crescen and so grind down the shell themselves), tautau (Nassa necklaces), etc.

In this case the ornaments are present, ceremonial friendships are established, but the ornaments are carried in only one direction. The Motu women received only sago from their returning husbands. No kula circuit was established but the basis for an elaboration was present.

Among a Polynesian group, in the Island of Tahiti, special privileges were acquired by membership in the arioi society and at the same time the most extraordinary requirement was made of its members that they should kill all their children at birth.

The attention of the early English missionaries was of course fixed particularly on the infanticide aspect of the society, and they usually represented it as a body of licentious strolling players, welcomed and feasted as pantomimists and comedians by the general population. But from both the narratives of the old voyagers and from later studies it appears that the society had several aspects, some of them dignified and socially important, that its composition included various types of personality, and that the privileges enjoyed and the infanticide practiced were a stepping-up of patterns which were prevalent in simpler forms either in Tahiti or in the neighboring islands.

1 Narrative of CaptainF.R.Barton, n/an/an/a in Seligman, C. G., , 96 (Cambridge University Press. By permission).

2Ibid., 108.

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Chicago: Seligman, C. G., ed., The Melanesians of British New Guinea in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . The Melanesians of British New Guinea, edited by Seligman, C. G., in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: (ed.), The Melanesians of British New Guinea. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from