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Identification and Location. The Kilenge, subsistence swidden horticulturalists, live along a 4-kilometer coastal stretch on the northwest tip of the island of New Britain, 5°28 S, 148°22 E. They are part of the Kilenge-Lolo District of the province of West New Britain in Papua New Guinea. A reef about 1 kilometer offshore fringes the coastline, and the land rises from the beach to the peak of Mount Talave (an extinct volcano), some 1,834 meters high. The bulk of Talave shields the Kilenge villages from Langila, an active volcanic spur of the mountain. Rainfall averages some 300 centimeters per year, with much of the rain coming during the northwest monsoon (December to March). A marked dry period (July to September) causes occasional droughts. Daily temperature usually exceeds 25° C.

Demography. In 1982, approximately 1,000 Kilenge lived in northwest New Britain settlements. Another 400 to 600 Kilenge lived elsewhere as students, wage laborers, or their dependents. Family size averaged about five children per couple.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Kilenge speak a dialect of Male'u, a language they share with their inland Lolo Neighbors. Male'u is an Austronesian language, part of the Siassi or Vitiaz Family of languages.

History and Cultural Relations

The Kilenge themselves are not sure of their origins: different legends variously ascribe their ancestors as coming from the north coast of New Guinea, the Siassi Islands, or the south coast of New Britain. Evidence suggests that their immediate forbears lived on the lower slopes of Mount Talave and slowly migrated down to the coast, arriving there about 150 years ago. The Germans began recruiting the Kilenge for labor around the turn of this century, establishing a pattern of wage-labor migration that persists today. Some depopulation resulted from a smallpox epidemic in the second decade of this century. World War II caused dislocation but few casualties. It also opened up new cultural and social horizons. Today, the Kilenge are marginally incorporated into the world economy. The Kilenge cultural repertoire, while related to those of other New Britain and Siassi Island groups, is unique in its particular configuration. The Kilenge are Primarily endogamous, and they distinguish themselves from other people, particularly their bush-dwelling Lolo neighbors, in terms of their particular combination of locality, language, marriage, and culture. In the past, the Kilenge participated in the overseas trade network organized and maintained by the Siassi Islanders, exchanging their pigs, coconuts, taro, and Talasea obsidian for carved bowls and clay pots needed in their bride-price payments. They also mediated the exchange between the Lolo and the Siassi and maintained ties with the Bariai, Kaliai, and Kove to the east.


Historically, the Kilenge lived in small hamlets centered around men's houses. Colonial rule saw the formalization of hamlet clusters into villages. Currently, the Kilenge live in three villages separated from one another by streams or stretches of bush. The villages are (from southwest to northeast) Portne, Ongaia, and Kilenge proper. The latter is further divided into three distinct sections: Ulumai'enge, Saumoi, and Varemo. Portne and Ongaia each have a Population of about 250, while Kilenge proper has about 500 People. Other Kilenge settlements further east were destroyed by the eruption of Ritter Island in 1888 or in battles during World War II and were never resettled. Villages are built along the beach, and while most houses tend to be raised a meter or more above the ground, building materials and house styles vary widely, from bush materials (sago-palm roof thatching, woven coconut-palm-frond walls) to imported timbers and corrugated iron. Each village contains at least one large, distinctive building constructed directly on the ground: a men's house with a high-pitched roof.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Although they live on the coast, the Kilenge derive their primary subsistence from swidden horticulture rather than the sea. They slash- and-burn their gardens in the volcanic soils on the lower slopes of Mount Talave. Individual gardens are devoted to one of the three staple root starches (taro, yams, sweet potatoes), but they also contain up to twenty other types of plants, both native food (sugarcane, cassava, bananas) and various introduced fruits and vegetables. A single garden produces for no more than three years, then lies fallow for Between ten and twenty years. Gardens are planned so that they will normally feed a family and the family's pigs and still provide a nonstorable surplus for ceremonial events. People Commonly use coconuts for food and drink. Fish caught in the Lagoon (with nets, hooks, explosives, or poisons), shellfish gathered from the reef, and marine animals occasionally Supplement the diet, as does sago flour. Hunting wild pigs, cassowaries, and other birds and mammals contributes a little to the diet. Today, Kilenge also eat imported food (mainly rice and canned fish but also flour, canned meat, biscuits, etc.) purchased at local, group-owned trade stores. Villagers get money for their purchases through the production of copra (dried coconut meat), remittances from relatives in town, or the rare casual wage-labor opportunities offered by the Catholic mission or government station. The limited money available (1981 income estimate of less than $100 U.S. per capita) also pays school fees, purchases imported items (clothing, kerosene, soap, tobacco, etc.), and supports Ceremonial activities.

Industrial Arts. The Kilenge are capable of producing most material items needed for daily life, although they rely increasingly on imported substitutes. All adult men should be able to build their own houses and canoes, but men with expertise in a given field are recognized as master artisans and are called on by others to supervise house building and canoe carving, to repair a fishnet, or to decorate ceremonial artifacts. Steel tools such as axes, adzes, and saws have completely replaced the traditional stone tools.

Trade. Local markets rise and fall sporadically. Regional trade has suffered with the decline of the Siassi trade system, but men grow tobacco for sale to other New Britain groups and women produce dancing skirts for the same market.

Division of Labor. Whenever possible, the Kilenge conduct work as a social, not a solitary, activity. Men clear the gardens, plant some crops, provide infrastructure (houses, canoes, fishnets), fish, butcher pigs and large sea animals, organize ceremonies and produce ceremonial paraphernalia, and control political activity. Women plant other crops, tend and harvest gardens, organize the household, prepare food for daily and ceremonial use, look after children, sweep the Village, and gather shellfish from the reef. Both men and women make house walls and roof thatching, participate in required government and communal labor, and produce copra.

Land Tenure. Groups, rather than individuals, hold title to land. Most garden land (whether in use or fallow) and productive reef sections are controlled by localized men's house organizations (naulum). Recently cleared primary forest is controlled by the cognatic descendants of the clearer, but over time control reverts to the clearer's men's house group. Individuals own the gardens and trees they plant on group land. A government-backed attempt to introduce individual landholding met with little success in the early 1980s.


Kin Groups and Descent. In Kilenge, a cognatic descent: principle serves as a basis for recruitment of membership in various groups and organizations. Cognatic descent, wherein the sex of the linking kinsmen does not matter in the reckoning of the descent continuum, entitles people to group Membership and various use rights, but actual membership in a unit depends on a host of possible reasons for activating or severing connections with a unit. People can therefore choose, rather than be assigned, group membership. The most socially significant kin-based group or organization is the naulum, or men's house. Each naulum, manifested in a named cluster of coresident, cognatically related individuals and their spouses, controls land, owns other tangible and intangible property, sponsors ceremonial events and cycles, and provides help and support to members. Naulum may or may not have physical men's house buildings. Individuals may be a primary, active member of one naulum while maintaining secondary membership in one or more other naulum. Other kin-based units include the naulum kuria, which is a subdivision of the naulum; unnamed resource-focused ramages composed of the descendants of the resource establisher; and unnamed sibling groups that provide members with mutual aid.

Kinship Terminology. Kilenge kinship terminology is a Hawaiian-type generational system modified by a form of Sibling ranking, reflecting the importance of seniority in Kilenge culture.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Some traditional marriage practices like Brideprice persist, while others, such as polygyny and arranged marriages, are things of the past. Today, individuals choose their own partners, and they mark their marriages by Brideprice payment, sanctification in the church, or both. Kilenge elders frown on simple cohabitation and forbid marriage within the naulum kuria. Bride-price payments consist of traditional valuables such as Siassi bowls and pigs, as well as cash. Payments are negotiated by the groom's father, gathered from the groom's parents' kindreds, and distributed by the bride's parents to their kindreds. Debts incurred by Brideprice contributions enmesh young men in the local prestige exchange system. Upon either the bride-price payment or church wedding, the couple set up their own household. Virilocal residence is the statistical norm, but uxorilocal Residence is common and accepted. Divorce rarely occurs: the Kilenge are Catholic, and they find it virtually impossible to reconstruct and return dispersed bride-price payments, even in the face of continued domestic violence.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family household is the most common domestic unit, providing most labor needed for daily activities. Childless couples usually adopt one or more children for companionship and help with work. Elderly Individuals, even those with limited physical capacity, take pride in maintaining their own households.

Inheritance. The eldest child inherits titles and statuses, contingent on his or her abilities. Children inherit traditional valuables and fixed resources (such as coconut trees) from their parents. People gain rights to land from their naulum membership. Adopted children may inherit material items and gain land rights through both their natal and adoptive families.

Socialization. The nuclear family is the main unit of Socialization of children. Relatives and neighbors also participate in the process. Responsibility for proper initiation rests with parents or their elder siblings. Today, the government school acts as a major agent of socialization. In the past, the period of seclusion associated with initiation during puberty (circumcision for boys and ceremonial dressing for girls) provided time for intense indoctrination into Kilenge lore. Now, such seclusion would interfere with schooling, and Ceremonial initiation occurs at a much younger age.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Birth order, genealogical seniority, age, sex, and ability combine to provide one's relative status in Kilenge society. Solidarity decreases in intensity from the household level through sibling groups, men's house groups, villages, and Kilenge society as a whole. Kinship ties can crosscut organizational affiliations.

Political Organization. Traditionally, the men's house group, or naulum, served as the basic political unit. A natavolo, or hereditary leader, headed each naulum. Hereditary leadership candidates validated their claims to natavolo Status by organizing ceremonies, trading expeditions, wars, and feuds and by arranging marriages. Today, under an imposed administrative structure, the village is the basic political unit. The senior natavolo in each village is ideally the village leader in traditional activities, but he must compete with appointed and elected government functionaries. The hereditary leader serves mainly as an organizer of ceremonies, but recently hereditary leaders have become prominent in commercial activities, using their status to organize their followers for business undertakings. Villagers elect representatives to the Gloucester Local Government Council, the West New Britain Provincial Government, the National Parliament in Port Moresby, and a variety of local bodies.

Social Control. Contemporary sanctions for serious offenses (murder, theft of imported goods) are the prerogative of the national government and its appointed agents (the Police, village magistrates, the court system). Gossip and fear of sorcery act as powerful sanctions against violation of local norms and conventions. Traditionally, the hereditary leader of the men's house group acted as the final arbiter of social control. He could order the death, through physical or supernatural means, of a recalcitrant follower. He could also, through the use of sacred "Nausang" masks, have offenders beaten and their property confiscated. Followers could use sorcery on or assassinate a tyrannical leader, or they could join other men's house groups.

Conflict. In the past, naulum and naulum clusters went to war over violation of property rights, women, and sacred injunctions. A group's hereditary leader would assess his own strength and the potential enemy's strength, and then decide on a course of war or peace. Battles were fought as individual spear duels between lines of men. People related to members on both sides of the conflict would facilitate eventual peacemaking, but violations of sacred injunctions usually resulted in surprise attacks and extermination of the violator's group. Colonial rule saw the end of organized conflict. Open conflict is now settled either locally or, if violent, by the police. People pursue hidden conflict using sorcery.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practitioners. The Roman Catholics established a mission in 1929, and today most Kilenge are at least nominal Catholics. People maintain their beliefs in a variety of precontact phenomena: the power of sacred stones to change into humans or animals; forbidden places (ngaselnga ) where malevolent spirits dwell; Nausang spirits manifested in masks; and sorcery. Most people know some magical formulas to help in work. Some people claim the power to find lost souls through dreaming; others claim to control weather. The Kilenge say that they know little sorcery, and they ascribe most acts of homicidal sorcery to their Lolo neighbors.

Ceremonies. A rich variety of ceremonial cycles, lasting up to five to seven years, provide the Kilenge with a context in which they initiate children, honor the dead, validate hereditary leadership, compete for group prestige, and exchange quantities of pigs and other traditional valuables.

Arts. The masks, headdresses, and dancing paraphernalia produced for the ceremonial cycles constitute the major items of Kilenge artistic production. Intricate songs and dances associated with the cycles demonstrate ability in the performing arts. Utilitarian items may be decorated, but most, with the exception of canoes, are left plain.

Medicine. The Kilenge rely on mission and government clinics for treatment of some major ailments, but they know spells and plants to relieve minor discomforts and go to curers when modern medicine fails.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals occur the day after a death. When people feel the death was caused by human malevolence, they will discreetly inquire about sorcery or consult Diviners. Mortuary ceremonies for important people may last years, culminating in the destruction of the deceased's house. Attenuated ceremonies accompany the death of children or less important adults. The soul lingers by the grave for days or weeks and can present a threat to humans. Traditionalists say the soul then departs for Mount Andewa to the east, while committed Catholics believe the soul goes to Heaven or Hell.


Dark, P. J. C. (1974). Kilenge Art and Life: A Look at a New Guinea People. London: Academy Editions.

Grant, J., H. Saito, and M. Zelenietz (1986). "Where Development Never Comes: Business Activities in Kilenge, Papua New Guinea." Journal of the Polynesian Society 95:195-219.

Zelenietz, M., and J. Grant (1986). "The Problem with Pisins: An Alternative View of Social Organization in West New Britain." Oceania 56:199-214, 264-274.