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Identification. The Mailu are a Papuo-Melanesian people of the southern coast of eastern Papua New Guinea and its adjacent islands. In addition to serving as a generic term for the people as a whole, who also at times refer to themselves as Magi, the name "Mailu" also refers to the most important Village of the area, on Mailu Island.

Location. Mailu territory extends along the southern Papuan coast from Cape Rodney in the east to Orangerie Bay in the west, and there are several villages on the larger of the off-shore islands along this portion of the coast. Rainfall is quite heavy here, during both the "dry" season of the southeast trade winds (May to November) and the even wetter season of the northwest monsoons (January to March). The climate is tropical, supporting a rain-forest vegetation throughout much of the territory; the topography changes to flatter swamplands in the western reaches of the region. Mailu Island, alone in the region, has ample clay suitable for pottery; it has no swampland, however, and therefore its inhabitants are dependent upon the mainland for access to sago.

Linguistic Affiliation. Magi is one of the languages in the Mailuan Family.

Demography. In 1980, the population of Mailu speakers was estimated at 6,000.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological evidence attests to the presence of a pottery-using people in the Mailu areaboth along the coast and on some of the islandsas far back as 2,000 years ago. The People of what is now known variously as Mailu Island or Toulon Island appear to have established dominance in the region very early on; because of their monopoly of both pottery making and oceangoing canoes they were able to assume ascendancy in direct trade as well as serving as distributors who enabled trade between other communities. This ascendancy was reinforced by raids carried out against coastal villages, which had the effect of driving the population back from the coast to more easily defensible hilltop villages. First European Contact occurred in 1606, when Torres anchored off Mailu Island; this brief encounter was not a pleasant one, for the men of the ship killed many of the villagers and kidnapped fourteen children. Nearly 300 years later, in the late 1800s, this region was made part of the Protectorate of British New Guinea, bringing the influence of missionaries and administrators and introducing European goods to the local Economy. Mailu men began working for Europeans, particularly in maritime industries, very early on in this period, with the effect of introducing new forms of wealth and new ways to acquire it. The London Missionary Society established a mission on Mailu Island in 1894. Government and missionary intervention brought an end to traditional raiding and its consequent head-hunting, thereby contributing to the end of male initiatory practices that centered on the acquisition of heads in war. In 1914, Bronislaw Malinowski arrived in the Mailu territory to do his first fieldwork.


Mailu villages are laid out in two facing rows of family houses, built on stilts, separated by a broad road. Prior to European contact, men's houses (dubu ) were built in the center of this road, running perpendicular to the dwelling houses. Houses were two-storied affairs, the upper floor consisting of a single, windowless room enclosed on all sides by the heavy thatch of the roof and entered by means of a ladder and trapdoor arrangement from below. The lower floor is open on all sides, but pandanus or woven reed mats are used as temporary, movable screens when needed. The ridgepoles of the buildings are elaborately carved, and pig jaws and fish tails are hung on the supports at the front of the buildings as decoration. There is no specialization of functions for the living areas of the houses, and no specifically men's or women's areas, although men tend to congregate at the roadside end and women toward the back of the buildings. Fenced gardens are built behind the houses.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . On Mailu Island, while some cultivation is done, the gardens are of far lesser significance than in mainland communities. Rather, the island economy centers around pottery making, fishing, and seagoing trade. Fishing is done with spears and nets, by individuals as well as in groups of two or three. Pottery is made of coiled ropes of clay. Gardens are of the swidden type, with long fallow periods between crop cultivation. Among the produce grown are bananas, taro, yams, and sugarcane. Coconut and betel palms are planted near the village but not in the fenced gardens. Sago palms are cut down and processed for their starch. Europeans have introduced papaws and pumpkins to the gardening repertoire. Pigs are raised in the village, but only sows are keptthese are permitted to range into the forest and mate with wild boars. Hunting is an important component of the mainland subsistence economygame customarily sought includes wallabies and wild pigs, which are driven into nets and speared, and a variety of birds that are caught in traps. Along the coastal reefs, shellfish are gathered.

Industrial Arts. Mailu manufacture, beyond the construction of their houses, includes the building of fences for the gardens, the weaving of mats from pandanus leaves and reeds, basket weaving, the making of arm shells, and the forging of stone implements. On Mailu Island, the two most significant items of manufacture are the coiled clay pots and, of course, the canoes upon which the island economy is based.

Trade. The Mailu Islanders, with their big, oceangoing canoes, participate in a wide-ranging trade network that extends beyond their own territory. Trade is a seasonal occupation: from July through August, Mailu travel westward with locally manufactured pottery in order to trade for betel nuts with the Aroma. On the return voyage they will stop to fish for shells with which to make the shell armbands that are used throughout the region as trade items. From September through October they sail west again, carrying a cargo of surplus sago to trade for pigs and dogs. During November and December, they voyage eastward with the pigs and dogs to trade for arm shells, ebony carvings, baskets, and (prior to the introduction of steel axes) polished-stone axe blades. Traditionally, Mailu also traded boar tusks, shell disks, and Imported netted string bags. This trade was not only the centerpiece of the islander's subsistence economy; it also provided the necessary wealth to support the big feasts (maduna ) held by the village clans every year.

Division of Labor. Pottery making is done only by women; arm shell manufacture, seagoing trade, canoebuilding, house construction, and hunting are all done only by men. Garden clearing and the construction of garden fences are men's tasks, while all weeding is done by women. Women do all the day-to-day cooking. Except for limited night fishing with torches, women do not fish. Pig tending is primarily a woman's task. Men make their own tools or trade for them. Child care is the province of women.

Land Tenure. Ownership of garden lands and canoes is vested in the local clan section, under the direction of the headman. Dwelling houses belong to the household head, and ownership passes from him to his eldest son, while in the past the men's houses were held corporately by the clan. Rights to individual coconut and betel palms are held individually.


Kin Groups and Descent. Mailu clans are patrilineal, dispersed over several villages. Local (village-level) clan "sections" are named, exogamous, and agnatically recruited. An in-marrying woman exchanges her clan membership for that of her husband, and her children, though initially held to belong to her brother (thus to her father's lineage), are normally claimed at some point by her husband through the gift of a pig. It is not unusual, however, for a childless man to adopt one of his sister's sons.

Kinship Terminology. Mailu employ a system of classificatory terms for all relatives of previous generations (i.e., grandparents, parents, uncles, and aunts) in order to get around the taboo of using personal names when speaking of or directly addressing these relatives. These terms mark not only one's genealogical position but also differentiate Between elder and younger members of a single generation. However, while several different relations may be designated by a single term (e.g., a man's elder brother, his father's elder brother's son, and his mother's sister's elder son may all be referred to by the term uiniegi), other terms or qualifiers are used to mark more specifically the actual relationship of the relative when necessary.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Mailu marriages are arranged through betrothal, often when the girl is still quite young but usually when she has reached her mid-teens. The boy's family provides a series of gifts of increasing value over time, and both families participate in roughly equivalent food exchanges. Upon betrothal, both the boy and girl are expected to remain celibatean affair by either one is sufficient to nullify the betrothal. Bride-wealth is paid in pigs, tobacco, and other items of locally recognized wealth. Since pigs can only be given away at feasts, at some point prior to the actual marriage the contracting parents of the betrothed pair will use the occasion of a maduna to make this gift. Marriage itself is not marked by elaborate ceremony: the bride prepares a meal for her betrothed in his father's house, then returns to her own for an interval of about a week. After that time, the marriage may be consummated, and the bride leaves her family home to live in her father-in-law's house, assuming membership in his clan. With marriage, a man enters into avoidance relations with certain of his wife's kin, most particularly with her older sister. Polygyny is permitted but rarely practiced, due to the great expense of pig-based bride-wealth entailed by Marriage. Adultery is considered a grievous offense for both men and women, but the punishment of an adulterous wifea severe beating, even deathis far more onerous than the public censure and gossip that serves as punishment for a man's adultery. Divorce appears to be possible but rare.

Inheritance. Personal ornaments and wealth are inherited by a man's "real," as opposed to his classificatory, brothers. His coconut palms are passed to his brothers and his sons. The ownership of a house passes to the eldest surviving son. Women do not hold or inherit property, except in cases where a woman's father dies without sons.

Socialization. During their early years, Mailu children are cared for by their mothers and other female members of the household. Children enjoy a great degree of independence, rarely being corrected or chastised and generally being left free to indulge in games and sport. Boys are given miniature boats, similar in design to those used by their elders on the seas, and they are also provided with small versions of hunting and fishing nets and spears. For both boys and girls, early training in their adult roles is acquired by observing their elders at their daily tasks and by helping out when they possess sufficient skill and interest; this participation is allowed to develop at its own pace. Both boys and girls have their ears (and, formerly, the nasal septum) pierced shortly after birth. At about the age of 4, girls begin to undergo the long process of body tattooing, which culminates when they have attained marriageable age with the tattooing of their facesdone in conjunction with women-only feasts. Male initiation, which once was an important ritual event and required the acquisition of human heads during a raid, is no longer practiced. Infanticide is practiced when twins are bornthe younger twin is killedor when the mother dies in childbirth, as well as in the case of an illegitimate birth.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, Mailu households were under the ostensible direction of the eldest male, though since each adult male had his own gardens his self-sufficiency ensured a certain degree of independence. Enterprises requiring the cooperation of large numbers of people (trading Voyages, garden clearing, the giving of major feasts) drew their personnel from beyond a single household's membership, and leadership in such cases was sought from influential Individuals (headmen) in whom the participants had confidence. Clan affiliation determined the men's house to which one belonged, when men's houses were still being built, and it also served as the organizing principle for contributions of wealth in the pig feasts.

Political Organization. There is no traditionally recognized central authority among the Mailu, although elders generally provided leadership by dint of their prestige and reputation for sound judgment. Once Mailu territory came under colonial rule, individuals were picked by the administration to act as go-betweens, but this imposed leadership has no validation in traditional practice.

Social Control. Within the village, eldersand particularly headmenmight be called upon to mediate disputes and settle grievances. Major offenses such as the adultery of a woman or the killing of kin are sanctioned by death, but for lesser offenses the force of public opinion serves to punish offenders. Sorcerers within the village were usually appeased rather than punished.

Conflict. Warfare between villages was common prior to the arrival of missionaries and Western administrators, and it was conducted primarily for the purpose of collecting heads, which were of ritual importance in male initiation rites. Wars were fought with spears and clubs. Intervillage hostilities might arise over the suspicion of sorcery or in retribution for earlier raids.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Mailu indigenous beliefs hold that a culture hero, called Tau or Samadulele, sailed with his mother from out of the West, bringing with him the pigs, sago, coconut, and betel nuts that form the core of Mailu economy and ceremonial life. However, outside of the chants performed during the "Govi Maduna," the largest ceremony performed by Mailu, the importance of this mythological Personage is unclear. Of more direct, day-to-day importance in Mailu ritual life are two classes of spiritual beings. The first, spirits of the ancestors, are benevolent, and they are often consulted for protection and advice. They are held to reside in the skulls of the deceased, which are kept in the houses of their descendants. The second class of spirits are malevolent female beings who take possession of living persons, causing their unwitting hosts to commit murder or destroy property.

Religious Practitioners. All adult males possess some magical knowledge involving the use of herbs, incantations, and special taboos. This magic is used to protect one's Garden, bring good luck in the building of a canoe or the making of tools, ensure a good crop, or other such individual Concerns. Such knowledge is privately held, taught by a father to his sons, and a man will as a rule initiate his wife into this knowledge as well. Magic intended to secure protection for communally important enterprises such as a trading expedition or a big feast is performed by the more important Members of the Community. Sorcerers have private magical knowledge of a more destructive nature, but they are not thought to be anything other than mortal. Their magic permits them to travel unseen at night, during which they try to cause injury and even death to their rivals. Sorcery is believed to be wide-spread within Mailu society.

Ceremonies. The central ceremonial occasion of Mailu life is the Govi Maduna, a great annual pig feast held after the last of the year's trading voyages. The maduna is hosted by the entire village, although its initial sponsors may be drawn from only some of the clans represented therein. Because pigs can be exchanged only during the maduna, a number of other ritually important events are encompassed by it, such as the payment of pigs by the family of a prospective groom to the bride's kin and the assumption of paternal rights to a child. Each of the village's clans is represented by its local headman, who supervises his portion of the feast preparations, solicits contributions of food from his kin, and makes speeches during the festivities. Prior to the big feast, there is a series of lesser feasts of shorter duration and narrower scopethe big feast brings together people from a great many villages, while the lesser ones involve people from a smaller radius. During the course of the smaller feasts, promises of contributions to the upcoming maduna are solicited, and throughout this period wealth is collected to be used in a trading voyage to Aroma territory to get the pigs that will be slaughtered by each clan during the feast.

Arts. Mailu visual arts consist of decorative carvings on house posts, canoes, and a variety of utensils. The designs employed in the decorative arts are similar to those used by the Southern Massim and appear to have originated with them. Songs and dances performed in the Mailu feasts also appear to have originated elsewherewith the Southern Massim as well as with other neighboring groups. Many of the dances involve mimicking the movements of birds or animals, while others involve the pantomiming of important day-today activities, such as preparing a garden or building a canoe.

Medicine. Illness, always attributed to sorcery, is treated by incantations, massage, and the sucking out of foreign matter (inserted magically by sorcerers) from the body of the patient. Medical practitioners are almost always male, and they charge high feespayable in armbands and other local forms of wealthfor their services.

Death and Afterlife. Death is assumed to be caused ultimately by the action of a sorcerer. Upon death, two spirits are said to survive the corpse. One spirit departs the body and travels to the southwest where a ladder permits his or her Descent into Biula, a subterranean underworld. The second spirit is thought to reside in the skull of the deceased, and it is this spirit with which a person's survivors communicate when seeking advice or assistance. Initially, the spouse and classificatory siblings of the deceased shave their heads, blacken their skin with burned coconut fiber, put on special armbands and other adornments, and assume mourning dress that conceals the entire body and face. Immediately upon discovery of a death, these close kin set up a wailing lamentation, while less close relatives of the deceased bring coconuts for distribution throughout the village. As soon as possible after a death, the body is washed and decorated and a chant is performed over the corpse in an effort to determine the sorcerer responsible (the corpse is thought to react violently at the naming of the sorcerer's village). As soon as may be after these preparations, the body is buried either under the house of the deceased or in his gardens. If the latter burial is performed, a small mortuary hut is built over the grave. A series of small feasts are held during the ensuing period of mourning, and after about two to three months the body is dug up to retrieve the head, which thereafter is kept in a small basket in the house of the surviving members of the deceased's Household. A final, large-scale mortuary feast is held between six months to a year after the death, often as part of the maduna, where one of the nearest kin (though never the father or the widow of the deceased) performs a dance with the deceased's head. At this time the mortuary hut is destroyed, and the period of public mourning comes to an end.


Abbi, B. L. (1975). Traditional Groupings and Modern Associations: A Study of Changing Local Groups in Papua and New Guinea. Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1967). A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1988). Malinowski among the Magi: "The Natives of Mailu." Edited with an introduction by Michael W. Young. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.