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ETHNONYMS: Kosirau, Kosirava, Maisina


Identification. Maisin-speaking people live in Papua New Guinea. All but the remote Kosirau people refer to themselves as Maisin. Westerners called these groups Kosirava and Maisina in early reports.

Location. Maisin speakers occupy three areas in Tufi Subdistrict of Oro Province in Papua New Guinea. The Kosirau live in small isolated settlements within the vast swamps of the Musa River basin. A second group of Maisin speakers shares the village of Uwe with Korafe speakers on the northeast coast of Cape Nelson. The largest portion of the population lives in eight villages along the southern shores of Collingwood Bay. Behind the coastal villages stretches a vast area of unpopulated forest, swamp, and mountains. The Region is very isolated from the rest of Papua New Guinea. There are no roads. The only access is by boat or small plane into grass airstrips. There are two distinct seasons. The Northwest monsoons are accompanied by heavy rainfall between November and April. Around May, the winds switch to the southwest and the weather becomes dry, cooler, and breezy.

Demography. The 1980 National Census suggested a total Maisin population around 2,000. Of that number, approximately 1,400 lived in the rural villages while the rest had migrated to the cities. The population density along the coast was about 10 persons per square kilometer.

linguistic Affiliation. There are two dialects: Maisin and Kosirava. Maisin attracted scholarly attention from an early date as a rare example of a language that combines grammatical features from both Austronesian and Non-Austronesian sources; thus Maisin has been variously classed as "mixed" or as "Non-Austronesian."

History and Cultural Relations

There is archaeological evidence of human occupation of southwestern Collingwood Bay going back 1,000 years, with trading links to Goodenough Island and the much more Distant Trobriand Islands to the east. The Maisin relate that they are relative newcomers to the coast who have displaced the original inhabitants. Elders say that their ancestors emerged from underground about seven generations before the 1980s at a site on the western edge of the Musa Basin. Those who remained behind became the Kosirau; others made their way along coastal and interior routes to their Present locations. At the time of European contact in 1890, the Maisin had a widespread reputation as ferocious warriors, employing huge canoes to sweep down upon their neighbors. In 1900, the administration of British New Guinea established a station at Tufi on Cape Nelson and, within a year, forcibly brought intertribal raiding in the area to a halt. The following year, the Anglican New Guinea Mission opened a church and school in the largest Maisin village of Uiaku. Over the next thirty years, the Maisin gradually became integrated into the emerging colonial society: most young people converted to Christianity and young men routinely signed up to work on distant plantations and in mines. Although Collingwood Bay lay outside the sphere of the Japanese invasion in 1942, all able-bodied Maisin men served as laborers with the Australian forces. Following the war, the pace of national integration quickened. Many Maisin young people attended new secondary and tertiary schools and entered the professional labor force. Those who remained behind experimented with a number of cash crops, most of which failed.


The nine coastal villages range in size from less than 100 to more than 300 people. All but two of the villages are situated in clusters of two or three other communities. Local populations rise and fall considerably as people move between Villages and town. A few villages are composed of a single kin group, but most are multinucleated settlements of patrician hamlets, strung out along the coast. Most hamlets are arranged in two roughly parallel lines following the edge of the shore. A few hamlets, homes of the higher-ranking clans, have houses arranged in a rough circle around a bare earth plaza, traditionally used for feasting and dancing. Where hamlets are not contiguous, paths connect them to other parts of the settlement and to the gardens and other settlements. The three largest villages possess simple churches, school buildings (including houses for teachers), medical aid posts, and community trade stores. Prior to contact, Maisin constructed their dwellings on mangrove posts, 3 to 4 meters above ground. A platform on the bottom level served as a cooking area and shelter during the day, while an upper level room, entered by means of a ladder, served as sleeping quarters. Since the 1920s, the Maisin have built rectangular houses with windows and verandahs, along the lines of house styles introduced by the colonial administration in the 1920s. The houses are still on posts and constructed mostly of bush materials. In the mid-1980s, some villagers, with funds provided by working relatives, began to construct houses with metal roofs.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Maisin practice slash-and-burn horticulture, shifting their gardens every two to three years. Staples include taro, sweet potatoes, plantains, and sago supplemented by coconuts, papayas, sugarcane, watermelons, squash, and sweet bananas. The usual gardening tools are digging sticks and machetes. Villagers enjoy fish and shellfish, which they gather by hand, line, net, and spear. They also hunt wild pigs, cassowaries, wallabies, and birds in the dense forests that surround the villages using spears and shotguns. They supplement this local diet with white rice and tinned meats and fish purchased in local trade stores. Domestic animals include chickens, dogs, and cats. The Local Government Council banned village pigs in the mid-1960s. There is a tiny commercial market for copra and a somewhat larger one for tapa. Villagers receive most of their cash and commodities as gifts from relatives working in the towns.

Industrial Arts. Maisin villagers continue to produce much of their material culture: string bags, tapa, houses, and outrigger canoes. They purchase some items, like clay cooking pots, from neighboring peoples. Many items, such as clothing, fishing nets, and cooking utensils, are quickly being replaced by factory products.

Trade. Into early colonial times, Maisin traded tapa, stone axe blades, and food for shell and obsidian with peoples to the east on Cape Vogel and Goodenough Island. They continue to trade occasionally with interior tribes for net bags, dogs, and feathers and with Wanigela people for cooking pots. Sometimes they exchange tapa for these things, but more often they pay money. Small trade stores, often operating out of village houses, sell tobacco and a few tinned items. Some villages hold weekly markets where women sell or Exchange garden produce and tapa.

Division of Labor. There is a marked division of labor in most areas of life. Men clear and burn off garden land, erect fences against bush pigs, and help women plant crops. Men also hunt, fish, and build houses and canoes. Women plant, weed, and harvest gardens and gather wild foods from the bush, rivers, and mangrove swamps. They carry produce and firewood from the gardens to the villages and cook the meals. Women also weave string bags and beat tapa. Men and women both prepare sago, often together.

Land Tenure. Low population density and a relatively moderate climate provide the Maisin of southern Collingwood Bay with a rich food base. Land passes down through the male line, although villagers frequently make gardens on the lands of their affines and matrilineal relations. Patricians also claim large areas of forest and grassland and occasionally Stretches of coast.


Kin Groups and Descent. Patricians occupying hamlets within the village form the most stable kin groups. They vary greatly in composition. The smallest comprise single lineages, while the largest are composed of smaller named subclans, each occupying different areas of the hamlet or separate Hamlets. Patricians occupying land in different hamlets or villages often have close historical associations with each other. Patrician identities are indicated by land claims and by emblems, including tapa designs, ritual customs, types of magic, limespatula designs, body decorations, and plant tokens. They are also affirmedand disputedin migration stories. Maisin distinguish two ranks of patrician: the kawo and the sabu. The higher-ranked kawo clans enjoy certain ritual prerogatives, including the right to host feasts and dances in their hamlet plazas and to wear certain ornaments such as chicken feathers. Whatever importance these ranks had in the past when warfare and intertribal feasting were common, they have little practical or political influence today. The Patricians are rarely significant in the day-to-day affairs of the Villages. Villagers generally call upon close cognatic kin and affines to form work groups and to host or participate in ceremonials and formal exchanges. Active kin groups, then, vary greatly from occasion to occasion. Descent is formally patrilineal, but as in much of Melanesia, there are many Exceptions to the rule.

Kinship Terminology. Iroquois-type terms are used and relative age is distinguished.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Until the recent exodus to the towns, the vast majority of Maisin married close to home, although almost always outside of their own patrician. Sister exchange was the preferred form of marriage since it required no bride-wealth payments. Many such arrangements, however, broke down and in the past, as today, young people exercised considerable choice in their marriage partners. Premarital intercourse is common. Many individuals will temporarily live with a series of partners before settling with their permanent spouse, often after children are born. Husbands are expected to raise bride-wealth and the couple should also arrange formal prestations to the wife's kin to mark the birth and maturation of their firstborn. Many villagers complain, however, that couples today delay and often never meet their exchange obligations. Some couples are initially married in the church, but most wait, often until they have children, before seeking a priest's blessing of their union. Upon marriage, most couples settle initially with one of the husband's clansmen before building their own house in the patriclan's hamlet. The church frowns on divorce, but it is common and informal. Monogamy is the norm, but a few polygamous marriages occur in most villages.

Domestic Unit. A household, usually with a nuclear Family at its core, makes up the basic working unit: gardening and consuming together. Parents, grandparents, adult siblings, aunts and uncles and other kin often enlarge the household. As older relations lose their ability for physical labor, their children build small satellite houses where they live in semiseclusion.

Inheritance . Most ritual property is bestowed upon the eldest, particularly if it is a boy. Sons inherit land equally and daughters are allowed to garden their fathers' land after they marry. They may not, however, pass this right to their own children.

Socialization. Infants and children are raised by their Parents, close kin, and siblings. Older children provide much child care for younger siblings and cousins. Adults teach Children to be respectful and cooperative by example and by chiding, rarely by punishment. From age 6 or 7, children spend a considerable amount of their time in school. Formerly, all males underwent short initiations into their patricians. Much larger ceremonies were staged for firstborn children, male and female, and these occasionally still take place. Most Maisin girls still have their faces tattooed during puberty. As more children have entered distant high schools and as more villagers have left for jobs in the towns, traditional puberty practices have declined.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Maisin live in a relatively egalitarian society. Kinship obligations, marked by steady inFormal and formal exchanges, tend to level out differences in wealth and power and to provide support for the weak and elderly in the communities. Maisin frown upon those who show too much independence or who put themselves above others. However, some categories of people exercise more Influence and expect to be treated with deference: parents over children, elders over younger persons, kawo clans over sabu clans, wife givers over wife takers, and men over women.

Political Organization. Maisin divide political activities into three domains: the "village side," the "mission side," and the "government side." "Village side" affairs include life-cycle ceremonies, exchanges, and land and sorcery disputes. These are matters handled between kin or kin groups, in which patrician elders play a dominant role. "Mission side" affairs include the efforts of the church councils and Mothers' Unions to provide moral and monetary support for clergy and teachers. "Government side" affairs embrace the work of the Local Government Council and village business groups to promote development projects and locally organize for provincial and national elections. Frequently the same men become leaders in all three domains, largely through strength of personality, education and experience outside of the rural areas. Senior women have an indirect but important influence, especially in "mission side" and "village side" affairs. However, men dominate public politics.

Social Control. Informal sanctions, such as gossiping and strongly internalized values of respect and equivalence, provide the chief sources of social control. Fear of sorcery is another important sanction. Miscreants who are not brought into line informally may face a full village meeting or, in Serious cases, be taken to court at the subdistrict government station.

Conflict. Warfare and raiding were common until around 1910. Maisin eiders speak with some nostalgia of the great warriors in the past, but the only major conflict living Maisin have witnessed was that between the Japanese and Allies during World War II. Most conflicts today occur over land or Sorcery accusation and rarely involve violence.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Most Maisin believe that the spirits of the recent dead exercise a considerable influence, both for good and bad, over the living. Encounters with bush spirits can cause serious illness, particularly to women and children. Despite many attempts to get rid of sorcery, Maisin believe that various kinds continue to be practiced by villagers and by outsiders and they attribute most deaths to this cause. God and Jesus are very distant deities, sometimes encountered in dreams. Faith in them, it is said, can overcome the evil caused by sorcerers and spirits. With a handful of exceptions, Maisin are Christians. Most of the coastal people are second- or third-generation Anglicans while the Kosirau converted to the Seventh-Day Adventist church in the 1950s. Villagers accept this version of Christian teaching and liturgy, but they also encounter local bush spirits, ghosts, and sorcerers and most practice garden magic and make use of indigenous healing techniques and practitioners. There is considerable diversity in religious belief, depending in large part upon an individual's education and experience outside of the villages.

Religious Practitioners. Six Maisin men have been ordained as priests, and many more have served as deacons, members of religious orders, teacher-evangelists, lay readers, and mission medical workers. The Anglican Church has been almost entirely localized and, since 1962, an indigenous priest has served the Maisin. Healers can also be found in most villagesmen and women who possess superior knowledge of indigenous medicines, bush spirits, and the interactions Between human souls and the spirit world (including God).

Ceremonies. At the time of European contact, funerals, mourning rites, initiations of firstborn children, and intertribal feasts were the main ceremonial occasions. All were marked by large exchanges of food, shell valuables, and tapa cloth. Initiations and intertribal feasts were also occasions for days, sometimes weeks, of dancing. The chief ceremonies today are Christmas, Easter, and patronal feast days. Huge feasts are often held on such days, along with traditional dances by troops in indigenous costume. Life-cycle Ceremoniesparticularly firstborn puberty celebrations and mortuary ritualsare the other chief occasions for ceremonies.

Arts. Maisin women are famed throughout Papua New Guinea for their exquisitely designed tapa (bark cloth). Primarily serving as the traditional clothing for men and women, tapa today is a major item of local exchange and a source of cash. It is sold via church and government intermediaries to artifact shops in the cities. Most women receive elaborate facial tattoos in late adolescence, with the curvilinear designs covering the entire face that are unique to the region.

Medicine. Maisin attribute illnesses to "germs" or to spirit attacks and sorcerers, depending upon whether they respond to Western medicine. Villagers make use of local medical aid posts and a regional hospital, as well as home remedies and the services of village healers.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, Maisin believed that spirits of the dead inhabited the mountains behind their Villages, frequently returning to aid or to punish kin. Villagers still encounter the recent dead in dreams and visionsattributing both good luck and misfortune to thembut they now say that the deceased reside in Heaven. Although they have been greatly modified by Christianity, mortuary Ceremonies continue to present the most "traditional" face of Maisin society. Villagers mourn a death collectively for three days following the burial, during which time they avoid loud noises and work in the garden, lest they offend the soul of the dead person or its living relatives. Bereaved spouses and parents go into semiseclusion for periods lasting from a few days to Several years. They are brought out of mourning by their affines, who wash them, trim their hair, and dress them in clean tapa and ornaments in a ceremony that is almost identical to the puberty rites for firstborn children.

See alsoGoodenough Island


Barker, John (1985). "Maisin Christianity: An Ethnography of the Contemporary Religion of a Seaboard Melanesian People." Ph.D. dissertation, University of British Columbia.

Barker, John (1989). "Western Medicine and the Continuity of Belief: The Maisin of Collingwood Bay, Oro Province." In A Continuing Trial of Treatment: Medical Pluralism in Papua New Guinea, edited by Stephen Frankel and Gilbert Lewis, 69-93. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Ross, Malcolm (1984). "Maisin: A Preliminary Sketch." Papers in New Guinea Linguistics 23:1-82. Pacific Linguistics, Series A, no. 69. Canberra: Australian National University.

Tietjen, Anne Marie, and Lawrence J. Walker (1985). "Moral Reasoning and Leadership among Men in a Papua New Guinea Society." Developmental Psychology 21:982-992.