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ETHNONYMS: Butam, Guramalum, Laget, Lambel, Pugusch, Siar, Siarra


Identification. Lak is the name of a coastal Papua New Guinea population and encompasses two groups that are no longer distinct: inland dwellers who relocated to the coast at the time of Western contact (c. 1900) and an original coastal-dwelling group. The name has been adopted by the New Ireland provincial government and designates an electorate composed almost exclusively of Lak speakers. The word "Lak" corresponds to the English word "hey" and is commonly used as a greeting.

Location. The Lak reside on the southernmost eastern coast of New Ireland, inhabiting a strip of land that rarely extends more than a quarter of a mile inland before steep foothills make settlements and gardening untenable. Siar village, at the center of the Lak electorate, lies roughly at 153° E, 4°30 S. The northern border of the Lak area is marked roughly by the Mimias River and the beginning of the Susurunga region. Included in this region are two outlying islands with significant settlements, Lambom and Lamassa. The region is largely tropical rain forest and lies just below the equator. The rainy season is generally between June and September, the period of taubar, or the southeast monsoon. This period stands in contrast to labur, the months in which the northwest wind is strongest and rain may be as infrequent as once every twenty days. This alternation reverses the pattern typical of northern New Ireland and the neighboring Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain.

Demography. There are no reliable estimates of the precontact population. Today, there are roughly 1,700 Lak speakers. While the population is currently expanding, this figure represents the effects of depopulation brought on by world war and disease in the 1940s and 1950s.

Linguistic Affiliation. Lak is a member of the Patpatar-Tolai Subgroup of Austronesian languages. There is no great dialectal variation across the region. Use of the vernacular is strong, even though all but the most elderly women speak Melanesian pidgin (Tok Pisin) fluently. Formal linguistic study of Lak has yet to be undertaken.

History and Cultural Relations

While a number of European explorers laid anchor at Cape Saint George (including Dampier, Carteret, Bougainville, and Duperry), only Duperry's crew, in 1824, made contact with the population. Two members of this crew, Blosseville and Lesson, were the first to report of the duk-duk, or masked men's society, in New Ireland. The last half of the nineteenth century saw a great deal of "blackbirding," or impressment of New Irelanders into plantation service in Australia and Samoa; however, few Lak speakers fell victim to such servitude because of their continued movement from coast to interior and their generally hostile attitude toward Europeans. In 1880, Charles Bonaventure du Breuil, the self-styled "Marquis de Rays," chose the Lak region as the site for "Port Breton," a large-scale attempt at colonization that led to famine for the colonists and a jail term for their leader. Major European penetration of the area did not occur until 1904, when Germany enforced its colonial claim by sending a punitive expedition against an interior Lak group. By about 1915, most of the interior groups had relocated to the coast, where copra planting and trade with Europeans were well under way. By this time, pacification was complete. Following World War I, the area reverted to English and then Australian control, but the region appears to have seen even less Western contact with time.


Lak settlements are small and dispersed. A large village consists of ten to fifteen houses, containing at most seventy to eighty people. Villages are usually affiliated with nearby satellite hamlets, each consisting of one to three houses. Only in densely populated Lambom Island, where land and water are scarce, is this pattern altered. Men gather to build houses collectively, but each house is occupied by a single nuclear family. At the margin of each community is a triun, or place forbidden to women and children. This area is used for men's society activities. Near the triun, or sometimes within the village proper, is a men's house (pal). Bachelors, but also all men whose daughters have reached puberty, sleep in the pal. Lak villages are located along the coast in areas cleared of coconut palms. Copra stands and betel palms ring the villages, while gardens lie farther off.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The household is the basic unit of production and consumption, though villages are also knit together in extensive food-sharing relations. The staple is taro in the northern half of the district, and a combination of manioc and sweet potatoes in the south. Every household plants two concurrent swidden gardens, one along the beach, which is devoted exclusively to manioc and pineapples, and a more diverse garden inland, which may contain taro, yams, sweet potatoes, melons, sugarcane, bananas, spinach-type greens, and a variety of newly introduced vegetables. Tubers are planted with a digging stick. Gardens are fenced and set with traps to prevent domestic and wild pigs from ravaging crops. Manioc is grated, mixed with coconut oil, and baked in earth ovens to form a kind of bread (gem, komkom ). Individual-size portions of this bread are exchanged between households two or three times a week, along with plates of cooked food. The people also gather a great range of wild fruits and nuts. The major source of protein is pigs, especially those raised within villages, which are mainly killed as part of mortuary commemorations. These pigs roam freely through villages, despite efforts to fence them as a way to improve village hygiene. Wild pigs and cuscus are hunted with spears. Reefs provide a great variety of shellfish. Lak also fish and are adept at catching large ocean-dwelling turtles. Turtle eggs are collected from the beach and are highly prized. Each household also harvests coconuts and cocoa as a source of hard currency. As of 1986, this arduous work netted an enterprising household no more than $400 yearly. The major cash expense for households involves fees for schooling, and few are able to send children to high school.

Industrial Arts. Items produced include canoes, plaited mats and baskets, wooden bowls, and traps to snare feral pigs.

Trade. Intervillage trade currently centers on pigs, which are transported live between lineage leaders planning to host mortuary commemorations. In the precontact period, Lak traded foodstuffs and ritual paraphernalia in an interisland network that stretched between southern New Ireland and the outlying islands of Nissan and Anir.

Division of Labor. The sexual division of labor among the Lak is less pronounced now than in the precontact period. Men and women both clear garden land, plant, and harvest; and both string the nassa shells that are used as traditional currency (sar). However, maintaining gardens is largely women's work, while men appear to have exclusive control over magic designed to improve garden yields and foster growth of pigs. Hunting is a collective male affair, as is all major ritual. Men alone fish. Women perform all domestic chores.

Land Tenure. Garden land among the Lak is inalienable. It is a possession of matrilineal segments, which is under the exclusive stewardship of the segment big-man, or kamgoi. All garden land currently under cultivation by a village is owned by the dominant segment in the area. The segment kamgoi allows all residents to plant on the land. This stewardship, However, does not allow him direct control over village garden production. Because garden land is abundant, disaffected Village dwellers can always resettle in areas in which their own segment controls land. While ownership of garden land is theoretically inviolate, tenure over land does in fact change. This occurs in two ways. First, segments (such as lineages, or kampapal ) do move between larger matrilineal units (kamtikan oon). Second, if a big-man can convince his supporters to follow him, landowning segments can sell land to individuals, provided that this land is used only for cultivation of coconuts or cocoa (i.e., cash crops). Evidently, rent or lease arrangements are also possible.


Kin Groups and Descent. Lak society is characterized by dual organization: every Lak belongs to either "Bongian" (sea eagle, Haliaetus leucogaster ) or "Koroe" (fish hawk, Pandion leucocephalus ) moiety; and members of one moiety must marry into the other. Each village is considered Bongian or Koroe, depending on the dominant landowning segment in the area. This designation is important for rituals that regulate relations between moieties. Thus, the first time a member of the opposite moiety sleeps or dances in the village, he will be showered with gifts, which must, however, be repaid shortly after. Recruitment to moiety and clan membership is matrilineal. Lak clans are thus partitioned into two sets. Interestingly, two of the largest Lak clans bear the same names as the moieties, suggesting that the other clans are perhaps newer to the region. Lineages are demarcated by their right to erect men's houses; they also have ancestors who are invoked in men's ritual.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Iroquois type. Affinal terms are extended to all members of the opposite moiety.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The only marriage rule among the Lak is that of moiety exogamy. While marriages between certain Lak segments are more common than one would expect by chance alone, these unions do not reflect prescriptive rules. Polygyny, once common among big-men, is no longer practiced. A large bride-price is required for all marriages, though marriages are no longer arranged in any strong sense. Postmarital residence is variable and usually depends on the relative strength of each spouse's segment leader. Thus, a man marrying a bigman's daughter is likely to reside in the big-man's village at least for the early years of the marriage. Affinal lineages have a great stake in marriages and are involved in a series of ritual exchanges that commemorate births and deaths. Exchanges of pigs are also common to shame a husband who has struck his wife, for example. Divorce is an option for men and women; in such cases, children usually remain with the mother and her lineage.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is the household, composed of either a nuclear or extended family. Each household cooks and gardens separately.

Inheritance . Inheritance is matrilineal in the case of the two goods that matter most, land and ritual objects. However, fathers give money to their sons, so that the sons are able to purchase land and access to ritual. In this way, fathers manage a hidden form of patrilineal transmission.

Socialization. Children are indulged until about age 5 or 6. At that point a major crisis is typical. The child is denied something and may throw a tantrum for hours, in which he rends his clothes and flings sand at himself and at those around him. When the tantrum is finished, he understands that he must begin to assume new duties. Girls as young as 5 years old are a valuable resource for households, and they are put to work carrying heavy garden produce. Boys are brought into the realm of productive labor later, when they are first given a plot to cultivate at about age 15 or 16. The real assumption of adult responsibilities for young men comes with marriage, when all at once they must build a house, plant a garden, perform bride-service for their father-in-law, and begin to amass the wealth that will allow them to move up in the men's secret society and hold their own as a participant in an extensive system of competitive feasting.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Lak village is above all a food-sharing unit. Households eat separately, but strong sanctions enjoin them to circulate food products whenever there are surpluses. In fact, the people create an artificial surplus in their exchange of komkom, the manioc product that circulates between households on a regular basis. A household will prepare thirty or so packets of manioc bread, send half to other households (which are conveyed by small children), and receive about that much in return. Every household in the village is supposed to participate in the exchange. This exchange relation represents the ideal solidarity of the village. Such solidarity must be contrasted with tondon, "the work of marriage and of death," that is, the exchange relations that define lineages as competitors and partners in complex pigproviding exchange relations. This opposition between lineages is mainly evident in the context of mortuary ritual. Lineage membership overrides the claim of village solidarity only in ritual. Thus, all village men congregate in the men's house of the big-man of the village, despite varied clan membership. Lineages are not localized in villages, and villages include members of many segments.

Political Organization. Political leadership among the Lak is typical of coastal Melanesian big-man systems: a bigman (kamgoi) emerges by working harder than others to amass wealth in the form of pigs; this achievement makes him central in the competitive feasts that define interclan relations and also allows him to purchase control over segment ritual objects, such as the tubuan and duk-duk masks critical for segment leadership. The consummate big-man convinces others to put their labor in his service and in this way rises quite quickly as a leader. He may even use the feasting system to incorporate lineages within his own segment. The Lak bigman hosts mortuary feasts for all deceased of his segment, and he may also manage its collective stock of shell money.

Social Control. Enforcement of ritual sanctions is carried out by the tubuan: masked figures appear at night and fine an offender; earlier, they might have killed the offender using a special axe (firam). Enforcement of civil disputes is turned over to village courts, in which an elected village member uses public opinion to resolve bride-price disputes, sorcery accusations, and minor infractions of daily etiquette. Disputes may be taken to a provincial officer if they involve bloodshed.

Conflict. Before pacification, feuding was endemic. Roaming bands undertook cannibalistic raids.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The traditional religious beliefs of the Lak focused on a set of creators: two brothers, Swilik and Kampatarai, and their grandmother. Swilik created the Lak landscape and gave them moieties to regulate marriage. He has been assimilated into the Christian god, as the Lak have been progressively missionized. Other religious beliefs center on lineage ancestors and marsalai, spirits associated with particular features of the landscape.

Religious Practitioners. Lak shamans (iniet ) serve as healers and sorcerers, but few of them remain. More common is the tenabuai, an expert in magic associated with betel nuts.

Ceremonies. Dances, accompanied by music and drums, mark the major mortuary feast. These are twenty-four hour events and may bring hundreds of people together. Big-men host "teams" of young men, who try to outdo one another as dancers. Men also practice secret ceremonies associated with tubuan and duk-duk masks, as well as other ceremonies revolving around bullroarers (talun).

Arts. Ritual objects are the focus of artistic effort, but designs are relatively spare when compared to those of other Melanesian peoples. Most Lak villages have large, unadorned slit gongs used in ritual, but these instruments are no longer being made. Houses are not decorated, and canoes show little elaboration.

Medicine. Traditional healing is performed by the iniet, or shaman, who is schooled in an extensive indigenous pharmacopoeia. Treatments are costly and typically take the form of long-term sessions, in which the iniet casts spells on plant materials and blows them onto the afflicted person. Currently, Lak make use of both traditional remedies and Western medicine.

Death and Afterlife. Lak fear the recently deceased, who are said to roam the village and lure others to the netherworld. The prominent dead man is apparently incorporated into ritual paraphernalia, as in current betel-nut magic. In the past, this practice was more common, as dead lineage leaders slowly took on the status of lineage ancestors. Lineage dead are seen to be somewhat capricious, visiting sickness or misfortune on the living with no apparent motive.

See also Nissan, Tolai


Albert, Steven M. (1987). "Tubuan: Masks and Men in Southern New Ireland." Expedition 29:17-26.

Albert, Steven M. (1988). "How Big Are Melanesian Big Men: a Case from Southern New Ireland." Research in Economic Anthropology 10:159-200.

Albert, Steven M. (1989). "Cultural Implication: Representing the Domain of Devils among the Lak." Man 24:273-289.

Schlaginhaufen, O. (1908). "Orientierungsmarsche an der Ostkuste von Süd-Neu-Mecklenburg." Mitteilungen aus den deutsche Schutzgebieten 21:213-220.

Stephan, E., and F. Graebner (1907). Neumecklenburg: Die Kuste von Umuddu bis Kap St. Georg. Berlin: D. Riemer.


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LAK (læk) Med. lymphokine-activated killer (in LAK cell; used in cancer treatment)

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