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ETHNONYMS: Buka, Timputs, Tinputz, Wasio


Identification. Strictly speaking, the name "Kurtatchi" refers to a single village, the subject in 1930 of a classic Ethnographic study by Beatrice Blackwood. Modern usage would suggest designating the people by the language they speak, Tinputz.

Location. Tinputz speakers occupy part of the northern-most portion of the island of Bougainville, near the passage separating Bougainville from Buka Island, approximately 5° S and 154° E. The area ranges from sea level to about 100 meters above, in moderately high relief; the characteristic slope is one of high gradient. Temperatures range from 22° to 32° C, and 250 to 300 centimeters of rain are more or less evenly distributed throughout the year.

Demography. In 1930, Kurtatchi village contained 136 people. The entire population of Bougainville before European contact has been estimated at 45,000. In 1963, there were an estimated 1,390 Tinputz speakers. There has been a sharp increase in Bougainville's population since that time.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tinputz forms a family with Teop and Hahon; together with the Petats, Banoni, and Torau families and the Nissan and Nahoa languages, they are part of the Bougainville Austronesian Stock. Today, most younger people also speak Tok Pisin, the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea, or English.

History and Cultural Relations

There is evidence of human occupation on Buka Island more than 28,000 years ago. Speakers of Austronesian languages like Tinputz have been regarded as late arrivals in Bougainville, relative to people in the southern part of the island, who speak entirely different languages. Almost certainly Austronesian languages were spoken there more than 3,000 years ago. Austronesian communities in north Bougainville and Buka Island formed a cultural group, distinguished from southerners by such characteristics as use of large plank canoes, greater importance of fishing and trading, formal initiation for boys, inherited political rank, prohibited cross-cousin marriage and, probably, cannibalism. Bougainville Island was sighted in 1768 by the French navigator for whom it was named. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Traders and labor recruiters operated on the island, to which Imperial Germany laid claim in 1886. Australia administered what had been German New Guinea from 1914 to 1975. Since then, Bougainville has been part of the North Solomons Province of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. Europeans took up land in Bougainville, including the Tinputz area, for coconut plantations beginning in the early 1900s and continuing until World War II. Tinputz speakers, who had been recruited for plantations elsewhere in the Pacific, also were employed locally. Bougainville was occupied by the Japanese in World War II, and subsequent military action did considerable damage to the island and its People. Since that time, rapidly changing political and economic conditions have sometimes proved socially disruptive throughout Bougainville.


Tinputz speakers lived in scattered hamlets along the coast, atop cliffs which rose up from the shore, and, less often, slightly inland. People were under continual pressure from the government and missions to consolidate settlements, which were probably smaller in precontact times. Houses were aligned, and the hamlet was fenced except toward the shoreline. An important feature of each hamlet was a men's house, especially used for boys' initiation. Houses were built directly on the ground of sago-palm thatch, in the shape of a broad Gothic arch, a form distinctive of the Austronesian-language speakers of the north. Australian administrators urged people to build houses raised on piles for hygienic reasons, and today some Tinputz live in houses made of European materials with floor plans like those found in more urban settings.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Tinputz were typical Melanesian swidden horticulturalists, growing taro as a staple crop. Coconuts were grown for food and, after Contact and with administration encouragement, as a cash crop. When a taro disease swept through Bougainville during World War II, sweet potatoes became more important in the diet. Bonito fishing was an important male activity. Some Tinputz men worked as plantation laborers in Bougainville and elsewhere before World War II, but they devoted more time to their own cash crops thereafter. A major cash crop today is cocoa. Those Tinputz with higher education, like their peers elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, are now employed in the modern, urban economic sector.

Industrial Arts. Traditional crafts included canoe building, wood carving, and making mats, baskets, and rain hoods from pandanus leaves. Most of these arts are still practiced.

Trade. The most important form of traditional exchange was between coastal and inland villages, trading fish for taro. Tinputz also exchanged various items for pottery produced on Buka. Two forms of currency were used traditionally: strings of teeth, either of flying fox or porpoise, and strings of shell discs. However, these were special-purpose currencies only, used for marriages and other socially important occasions. Tinputz and other Bougainvilleans began sporadic trading with European ships in the nineteenth century, exchanging coconuts and other food items for metal tools, among other things. European administrations imposed a head tax early in the colonial period, which forced the development of a cash economy: the islanders began to produce copra and to work for wages. Today all are involved to some degree in a modern cash economy.

Division of Labor. Like other Melanesians, Tinputz traditionally divided subsistence tasks according to gender: men did the heavy work of clearing land for gardens, built fences, houses, and canoes, hunted, and fished beyond the reef while women gardened, cooked, gathered marine life from the reef, and bore most responsibility for child rearing. Men were much more active than women in the economy established during the colonial period, working as casual or indentured laborers, and are still overrepresented in higher education and the cash economy. However, women today may grow and market cash crops.

Land Tenure. Blackwood describes land as belonging to a village, but with managerial rights vested in the highestranking clan. It is most likely that rights to land could be obtained through more than one kind of social connection: clan membership, locality, marriage, or individual kin networks. Trees might be individually claimed and today, when much land is planted in cash-crop trees, there are more disputes over land as people seek individual ownership in a European pattern.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic kin group is the matrilineage, traditionally occupying a single hamlet, to which the lineage claimed ultimate rights in land. Matrilineages were grouped into exogamous clans which, being dispersed, did not normally act as corporate units. Like other Bougainvilleans, Tinputz were uninterested in genealogy in a Western sense.

Kinship Terminology. Tinputz terminology was a variant of the Iroquois system, in which siblings are equated with parallel cousins and terminologically distinguished from cross cousins.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Blackwood maintains that there was no preferred marriage pattern, only restrictions. Cross cousins as well as parallel cousins were forbidden to marry. Child betrothal was common, typically negotiated between the boy's father and the girl's mother. Marriage involved a series of Exchanges of food and other items between the two sets of relatives; a bride-price was paid in porpoise or flying-fox teeth currency. Polygyny was confined to men of higher rank. A man might inherit his brother's widow and a widower lay claim to his deceased wife's sister. Residence after marriage was uxorilocal; divorce was frequent and easy. Today, Polygyny and child betrothal have ceased, but bride-wealth is still paid in traditional valuables. Furthermore, marriages are contracted beyond the language, or even the ethnic group, since educated young people are more likely to seek out their peers in adopting European life-styles.

Domestic Unit. Traditionally, households consisted of a married couple and immature children. In polygynous Marriages, each wife had her own dwelling. Occasionally an aged parent of either sex might join an adult child's household. During their initiation period, adolescent boys lived in the men's house. The nuclear family household continues to be the norm today, while adolescent children may go away for secondary education.

Inheritance. Since much of a deceased person's property, such as pigs or productive trees, was traditionally consumed or destroyed during funeral observances, inheritance was not of great significance. Traditional valuables and rank were Inherited matrilineally. Today, cash-crop trees or money normally pass from parents of either sex to their children.

Socialization. An individual's kindred was the group of greatest influence in daily life, and fathers took an active part in caring for small children. Many events in a child's life, such as first appearance in public after birth or a first trip to the garden, were marked with ceremonies, especially if the child was of high rank. However, the most distinctive aspect of Socialization among the Tinputz and several other Austronesian groups in Bougainville was the initiation of boys, involving the wearing of the upe hat. This distinctive headgear was made from leaves of a fan palm, stretched over a bamboo frame to form a cylindrical, or melon, shape. Although the upe was light, it was clumsy and the wearer had to learn to keep it in position during daily activities. For several years, Beginning at age 8 or 9 until the upe was formally removed, the boy was never supposed to be seen by a woman without the hat. The removal ceremony involved cutting the boy's hair, which was quite long by that time. A girl, especially an eldest daughter or one of high rank, might be the subject of seclusion and celebration at menarche, but such observances were not carried out for all. Today, socialization for both sexes involves formal education, at least to the primary level and extending for a few to tertiary schooling.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional Tinputz society was relatively egalitarian, especially in comparison with some other Melanesian groups. Relations between the sexes tended toward complementarity, rather than hierarchy; women as well as men could inherit high rank. Today, distinctions of wealth and education are more notable.

Political Organization. Traditional Tinputz hamlets appear to have operated as autonomous units. Within each hamlet, the senior male and female of the most important lineage were recognized as tsunaun, a "person of importance." It is not clear how much real power the tsunaun exercised Before European contact, but the position seems to have been one of influence and status, rather than necessarily of Political authority. Tsunaun were certainly treated deferentially and stages in their life cycle were occasions for elaborate Ceremonies. Male tsunaun normally had several wives. Rank was not based on property; succession passed matrilineally. German and Australian administrations appointed village headmen, and today Tinputz elect representatives to the Provincial Assembly and to the Papua New Guinea House of Assembly.

Social Control. The tsunaun was supposed to settle disputes within his own village, and may have had the power to pass the death sentence on someone guilty of persistent antisocial behavior. However, a much more pervasive method of social control lay in the fear of harmful magic that could be performed by a victim against an offender. The usual way of expressing anger was to break up one's own personal possessions. Today Tinputz are subject to the laws of Papua New Guinea, which include a system of village courts for settling local disputes.

Conflict. A state of sporadic warfare existed before Colonization, especially between coastal and interior dwellers, but also among coastal people themselves. A tsunaun was expected to lead his village or even a group of villages in such conflict. It seems that warfare took the form of raids and ambushes, rather than pitched battles. One motive for raids was the capture of prisoners to be eaten. Colonial administrations regarded eliminating warfare as a first task, but groups living inland from the Tinputz continued cannibal raids on coastal villages until after World War II.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. To a Western observer, traditional Tinputz life seemed filled with supernaturalism. Most daily activities involved consideration of spells, magic, and attention to spirit beings. Tinputz do not seem to have recognized a category of supernaturals that might be called "divinities." By far the most important spirits were those of deceased humans. Although they were generally regarded with dread, they might also be propitiated and called upon to aid in gardening and other activities. The same term, ura, was applied to spirits thought to inhabit particular locales. Roman Catholic missionaries began work in Bougainville in 1902, and Methodist and Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries arrived after World War I. Methodist (now United Church) presence is today very strong in the Tinputz area.

Religious Practitioners. There were no full-time religious specialists, but many individuals were believed to have special knowledge to influence events (e.g., every village had its rainmaker) . Mission teachers and United Church pastors play a role in today's religious life.

Ceremonies. As noted, life-cycle ceremonies were the most significant for Tinputz, but almost any activity might have associated with it spells or magical substances. Missionization brought Sunday and other Christian observances.

Arts. Music, dance, and other aesthetic activities were intimately connected to ceremonial life. Slit gongs, wooden trumpets, panpipes, bullroarers, musical bows, and Jew's harps were used for different occasions. Utilitarian objects like lime pots and canoe paddles were decorated, but carved wooden figures, especially of ura spirits, were traditionally associated with religious observance.

Medicine. Tinputz did not make the Western distinction between medicine and religion. Illness was thought to be brought by malevolent spirits or magic performed by an enemy. Although plant and other materials were used for curing, their efficacy was as much supernatural as pharmacological. Western medicine has stamped out yaws and Hansen's disease, but malaria continues to be a serious health problem.

Death and Afterlife. Except in the case of the very young or very old, Tinputz regarded all deaths as caused by malicious human or spirit beings. The dead were believed to go to the active volcano at Mount Balbi, but some remained near the living in the form of ura. Tinputz living on the shore originally threw the dead into the sea; however, burial had been adopted even before Christianity became dominant. Mourning was enjoined for widows and, in the case of a tsunaun's death, for a whole village.

See alsoNissan


Allen, Jerry, and Conrad Hurd (1963). Languages of the Bougainville District. Ukarumpa, Papua New Guinea: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Blackwood, Beatrice (1935). Both Sides of Buka Passage. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Oliver, Douglas L. (1949). Studies in the Anthropology of Bougainville, Solomon Islands. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, Harvard University.

Spriggs, Matthew (1984). "The Lapita Cultural Complex: Origins, Distribution, Contemporaries, and Successors." The Journal of Pacific History 19:202-223.