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ETHNONYMS: 'Are'are, Fataleka, Kwaio, Kwara'ae, Langalanga, Lau, Sa'a, To'aba'ita


Identification. Malaita is one of six large islands in the double chain that forms the Solomon Islands, formerly the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. As the most populous island in the Solomons, Malaita has long been a source of plantation labor, and in earlier decades its people were famed and feared for their violent resistance to European invasion. The island remains noteworthy for its strong cultural conservatism.

Location. Running northwest to southeast and being about 160 kilometers long and up to 40 kilometers wide, Malaita lies at 9° S and 161° E. The island is mountainous (rising to 1,540 meters) and comprised of rain forest, with Lagoons along parts of both coastlines. The island of Maramasike is separated from Malaita proper by a narrow channel.

Demography. Malaita had a population in 1986 of about 80,000, with some 20,000 more Malaitans living elsewhere in the Solomons.

Linguistic Affiliation. Malaita languages fall into the Malaita-San Cristobal Group of the Southeast Solomonic (Oceanic Austronesian) languages. Southeast Solomonic may turn out to fall within a subgroup of Eastern Oceanic languages, along with North-central New Hebridean, Fijian, Polynesian, and Nuclear Micronesian languages; but so far the evidence is inconclusive, clouded by the shared retention in all these languages of many Proto-Oceanic features. Malaita is divided into a series of languages or dialects (mainly running in stripes across the island) although their precise Relationship is not yet established. The most recent Subgrouping establishes a subgroup of Northern Malaita Languages, consisting of a northern dialect cluster (To'aba'ita, Baelelea, Baegu, Lau, Fataleka), Kwara'ae (with 18,000 speakers, the largest language group), Langalanga, and Kwaio. (There is some evidence that the latter two, along with two smaller language groups, form a separate Central Malaita Group.) 'Are'are and Sa'a (spoken on Maramasike) seem to form a subgroup with the Makira (San Cristobal) languages, although on cultural and other grounds a closer affinity of 'Are'are with the Malaita peoples to the northwest (Kwaio, etc.) seems likely.

History and Cultural Relations

Malaita was largely avoided in the early whaling and trading period (pre-1860) because of its inhospitable coastline and inhabitants. About 1870, Malaitans began to be kidnapped (and were later indentured) in the labor trade to Queensland, Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia plantations, a process notable for violent confrontations and heavy loss of life. Mission enclaves were established at the turn of the century. Pacification of Malaita began in 1909 but was not completed until 1927, after the assassination of a district officer by Kwaio warriors. Malaita was mostly spared the direct ravages of World War II, but laborers working with American troops were central in a postwar anticolonial resistance movement, Maasina ("Marching") Rule, focused on recognition of customary law and the codification of custom, indigenous representation in the process of administration, improved pay, dignity, and working conditions, and communal reorganization along military lines. The Solomon Islands gained Independence in 1978, and today Malaitans play many important roles in national life.


Very sharp contrasts in ecological adaptation distinguish the "bush" peoples of the Malaita interior from those of the Lagoons of the northeast coast (Lau speakers, who also have a colony on Maramasike) and the lagoons of the central west coast (Langalanga speakers). The former, living on islets and on coral platforms dredged from the lagoon floor, specialize in fishing (in the lagoon and the open sea) and in bartering fish and other marine products for root vegetables and forest products offered by peoples of the adjacent mountains. The Langalanga speakers may earlier have had a similar adaptation, but in recent centuries their fishing has been complemented and overshadowed by the specialized production and export or barter of shell valuables. What follows deals primarily with the numerically preponderant "bush" peoples, but it also briefly examines the "saltwater" variants on common cultural themes (the contrast between tolo or "bush" and asi or "sea" is widely drawn in Malaita languages). In bush areas, settlements were scattered homesteads or tiny hamlets, clustered close enough for collective defense and frequently moved because of pollution violations or gardening cycles. Each settlement mapped out a cosmological pattern in which the men's house above and the menstrual hut below became symbolic mirror images, with domestic houses in between. During the colonial period, missions, labor recruiters, and the government encouraged movements to the coast; and these movements were accelerated by the postwar Maasina Rule anticolonial movement. Nowadays, the Malaita population is mainly concentrated along the coast in substantial villages, except in remaining pagan areas (notably the east Kwaio Interior) where old patterns still prevail; large Malaita populations have also resettled around Honiara, with pockets elsewhere in the Solomons.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In bush areas of Malaita, taro was the primary subsistence crop, grown in a continuous cycle in forest swiddens. Yams were a secondary subsistence crop, but because they were grown in an annual cycle, they were accorded ritual importance. Plantains and a range of other cultigens and forest products augmented these starchy staples. (The taro plants were devastated by viral and fungal blights after World War II, and sweet potatoesculturally disvalued but convenienthave become the dominant staple.) Animal protein came from fish, grubs, birds, cuscus, opossums, and other game, as well as domestic pigs. The latter (and their theft and defense) were a focus of cultural attention; the pigs were used mainly in sacrifices, mortuary feasts, bride-wealth, and compensation payments. Strung shell beads and dolphin teeth served as mediums of Exchange, used in bride-wealth, homicide payments, compensation, and mortuary feasts. Red-shell discs produced in Langalanga (especially the ten-stringed tafuli'ae of northern Malaita) were widely used, but Kwaio produce their own white-shell beads, which in standard lengths and combinations (denominations) serve as an all-purpose medium of Exchange. For 120 years, Malaitans have been locked into a System of circulating male plantation labor (originally to Queensland, Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia, and, in this century, to internal plantations). In the last 20 years, this adaptation has increasingly given way (except for the diehard pagans) to peasant production of copra, cocoa, and livestock, to petty entrepreneurship, and to wage labor in urban settings. Today, Malaitans occupy every rung of a developing class system, ranging from prosperous businesspeople and parliamentarians to a marginalized and violently predatory urban underclass.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, chipped chert adzes were the primary felling and cutting tools. Other elements of early Malaita technology included pouches and bags woven from bush fibers, river fish and bird nets, intricate fishhooks, and large composite seagoing canoes with caulked planks and high prow and stern. In contrast to the relative elaborateness of their weaponry and some aspects of their maritime technology, Malaita bush peoples specialized in a kind of throwaway tool technology: crudely chipped chert adze blades were used in place of older ground basalt blades; giant bamboo was used for water, cooking, and construction; today, digging sticks are not even fire-hardened (at least among the Kwaio). With highly uneven access to education and Westernization on Malaita during the last forty years, Malaitans now span a technological range from engineers, doctors, and pilots to subsistence cultivators using magic and digging sticks.

Trade. Precolonial trade systems included the far-flung Langalanga networks, through which shell valuables were traded for pigs, produce, and other items, and the well-organized markets (especially on the northeastern coast) where Lau bartered fish and marine products for taro, yams, Canarium almonds, and forest products with interior populations (Baegu, Baelelea, Fataleka, To'aba'ita). Chert for adze blades and other scarce materials seem also to have been traded.

Division of Labor. Men and women had complementary roles in the division of labor, with women doing the bulk of everyday garden work, foraging, domestic labor, and child care and men felling trees, fencing land, fishing, and fighting.

Land Tenure. Primary rights to land are obtained through tracing patrifiliation, but secondary rights are also granted to those with maternal links to ancestors.


Kin Groups and Descent. Throughout the Malaita Interior, descent-based local groups having primary interests in estates in land and primary connections to ancestors are the most important sociopolitical units. Everywhere, the ideal pattern is for virilocal residence and patrifiliation, with Children growing up in their father's place and developing a primary attachment there to lands and ancestors. Ideally, then, members of the group should all be connected to the founding ancestors through patrifilial chains (and those who are, are distinguished as "agnates"). However, throughout Malaita, connections with maternal relatives (and, through them, to lands and ancestors) are regarded as very important and complementary to connections to and through paternal relatives. "Nonagnates" are recognized as having secondary rights of residence and land use. Such ties are extended through father's mother, mother's mother, and more distant kin; and ancestors related through such links were commonly propitiated. Life circumstancesuxorilocal residence, parental divorce, or widowhoodcan lead children to grow up with maternal kin. When they do, they are accorded de facto rights of residence and land rights as though they were agnates: what matters is commitment to lands, ancestors, and kin and intimate knowledge of a place and its rituals and taboos. Given the ideological emphasis on agnation (at least in some contexts) and countervailing ideologies of symmetric bilaterality, and given the varying statistical composition of groups, it is no wonder that ethnographers have differed in characterizing Malaita social structure. Among the Lau speakers of the lagoons, densely concentrated in large villages, descent groups are quite squarely agnatic. In some parts of Malaita, segmentary ritual and political relationships above the level of local descent-based groups were accorded importance. In the north, eight clusters of descent groups were recognized, with the politically dominant and ritually senior "stem" groups of each cluster connected to one another by putative agnatic links (but with some other groups within each cluster connected to the "stem" group by nonagnatic links). In Kwaio, such higher-level linkages operate only through ritual links between shrines and their priests.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology ranges from a symmetric Iroquois-type pattern in Kwara'ae (systematically distinguishing cross from parallel kin in the middle three Generations according to relative sex of the last connecting links) to a basically Hawaiian-type pattern in Kwaio (broken only by a self-reciprocal mother's brother/sister's child category). Intermediate are systems (such as To'aba'ita) with a partial Omaha-like skewing in which the mother's brother/sister's child category is incorporated into the grandparent/grandchild category (which occurs in all the Malaita terminologies).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is generally serially monogamous, although polygyny is possible in some places. Bride-wealth is universal. Prohibitions on marriage generally are bilaterally based, with marriage between close cousins normatively prohibited. As noted previously, postmarital residence was Initially virilocal, although in some areas later flexibility in residential attachment was possible. Divorce was possible but difficult because of bride-wealth.

Domestic Unit. Domestic family groups (prototypically nuclear families but often augmented by widows, bachelors, spinsters, and foster children) are the primary units of Production and consumption.

Inheritance. Inheritance assigns rights to those who create property and transmits these rights to and through Children. Normatively, although sons and daughters inherit rights, sons transmit primary rights to their children and daughters transmit secondary rights. A steward, ideally a senior agnate, acts as a spokesperson for collectively held land and other property.

Socialization. Children are highly valued and caringly nurtured, with women having the primary responsibilities for early child care and training. Sexual polarization early separates boys' and girls' life experiences (though there are no Formal initiations), with boys being much more free to hunt and play and girls beginning early a regimen of hard labor and child care. Boys spend progressively more time with men, stay in men's houses, and participate in ritual.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In bush areas, a fierce egalitarianism based on achievement rather than rank traditionally prevailed. However, in some coastal areas (e.g., Lau and Mararnasike) ideas of hereditary rank had some currency.

Political Organization. A pervasive ideology on Malaita distinguishes three leadership roles: that of "priest," who acts as the religious officiant of the descent group (see below); that of "warrior-leader" (ngwane ramo), a bounty hunter and fighting leader; and that of a secular leader (in the Northern Malaita dialect, ngwane inoto/inito'o ). Characterizations of the latter range from a hereditary chief (araha in Maramasike) to a smallish big-man in the most politically fragmented bush areas, such as Kwaio and Northwestern 'Are'are. Other areas combined an ideology that the senior agnate of a descent group acted as its secular leader with a recognition of de facto leadership achieved through entrepreneurial success. In Lau and southeastern 'Are'are, hereditary leaders commanded prestige and had considerable authority in peacemaking and other intergroup relations. The colonial government appointed headmen as agents of administrative control. Partly in counter to this, in the Maasina Rule movement Malaitans put up a hierarchy of chiefs to lead them in an anticolonial struggle. The Leaders were imprisoned in 1947, then released and incorporated into the process of gradual, indigenous-led participation in government, culminating in national independence in 1978. Today, Malaita (including Polynesian outliers) forms the Province of Solomon Islands, with a premier and a Provincial Assembly. Interest in "custom" remains strong, even in relatively Westernized areas, and "paramount chiefs" are being given legitimate status, even in bush areas where riant big-man systems prevailed.

Social Control and Conflict. Blood feuding was endemic on Malaita, with larger-scale warfare infrequent but dramatic and culturally celebrated in epic chants of ancestral deeds. Using bows and arrows, clubs, and spears, warriors challenged one another in direct combat or sometimes launched attacks in force against an enemy group in a fortified refuge, led by a shield-bearing fight leader. More often, killings were stealthy executions to gain vengeance, often on behalf of another group, to collect a bounty of valuables and pigs. Cannibalism was apparently practiced at least sporadically everywhere on Malaita; it seems not to have been primarily motivated by a quest for spiritual power, or even for protein, but rather represented a relegation to animal status of enemies or of social offenders (such as adulterers) whose conduct took them out of the bounds of human society. In Northern Malaita, sorcery accusations were a common cause of killings; in central Malaita, sorcery was a less-central theme, and seductions were the most common cause of killings (a puritanical sexual code enjoined the execution of adulterers and often led to the killing by their own kin of young women whose sexuality had been invaded, even by a proposition). Curses and other insults also triggered brawls and killings. Principles of collective accountability in blood feuding often led to the killing of a substitute victim, a close or sometimes distant relative, if the seducer or sorcerer could not be killed himself. A cultural distinction was made (at least among the Kwaio and 'Are'are) between powers of productivity (and associated magic and ritual) and powers of destruction (warfare, theft, vandalism): a kind of uneasy tension existed Between groups whose primary commitments were to stability and prosperity (and whose safety lay in their capacity to put up blood money against transgressors) and groups whose ancestors incited and supported killing, theft, and destruction (and whose living was consequently too unstable to allow sustained productivity).

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. The precolonial religious system on Malaita centered on the propitiation of ancestral spirits (akalo, agalo, adalo ) through the consecration and sacrifice of pigs. Each descent group had one or more focal shrines where Religious officiants sacrificed; hierarchies of shrines and Priesthoods marked higher levels of segmentary connection Between groups and bonds to common ancient ancestors. In communities with maritime orientations (Lau, Langalanga, Maramasike), sharks were seen as spirits and were accordingly propitiated. Some Malaita peoples, particularly those in the north and south with maritime orientations, had extensively elaborated cosmologies positing multiple levels of creation and elaborated bodies of myth. Cosmologies and myth were less developed in bush areas, especially in central Malaita. Divination, dreams, and omens provided daily communication with the spirits. When displeased with their descendants, the ancestral shades visited sickness and death on the living; when pleased, they supported and protected them from malevolent "wild" spirits and empowered their efforts (in Production and violent deeds) by "mana-izing" them. [In Malaita languages, cognates of mana were used mainly verbally: "be effective, be potent, be true, be realized" and (speaking of or to ancestors) "support, empower." They were also used as verbal nouns, such as "mana-ness," "manaization," or "truth."] The sacred (abu ) men's houses and shrines where men symbolically gave birth to spirits through mortuary rites were a mirror image of the dangerous (abu) menstrual huts and childbirth areas where women gave birth to infants, a cosmological scheme that was mapped in the spatial layout of settlements. The traditional religious system functions still in pockets of pagan settlement, particularly the mountainous Kwaio and 'Are'are interiors. Elsewhere on Malaita, Christianity (principally the South Sea Evangelical, Catholic, Anglican, and Adventist churches) holds sway. Fundamentalist Christians, in particular, see themselves as being in continuous struggle with the ancestors that are viewed as manifestations of Satan.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally kin groups had "priests" (in North Malaita, fataabu ) who took primary responsibility for conducting sacrifices and other rites and maintaining relations with the spirits. Divinitory powers were believed to be quite commonly distributed, but certain Persons were thought to have extraordinary powers and were widely sought.

Ceremonies. The death of an important or sacred person plunged a descent group into an intense and dangerous Communication with the dead. This liminal separation from other living people was gradually ended by rites of desacralization and an eventual mortuary feast (north Malaita maoma, Kwaio omea), which was also an occasion for largess and competition involving large-scale exchanges of prestations (particularly shell valuables and pigs) in the fulfillment of kinship obligation.

Arts. The most notable artistic achievement on Malaita consisted of panpipe music, with orchestras of eight or more musicians playing matched sets of scaled pipes. The contrapuntal structures of this music are beautiful and complex, using as many as seven or eight melodic voices. In some genres, the panpipers accompanied formations of dancers, and they themselves performed intricate movements while piping. Another noteworthy musical genre is epic chanting, in which deeds of ancestors are recounted with harmonized accompaniments. Other musical forms include stamping tubes, Jew's harps, and other flute varieties. The most striking graphic arts took the form of bodily ornamentswomen's heirloom jewelry (chest pendants, nose sticks, earrings, necklaces), intricately plated ornamental combs worn by men, arm shells, chest pendants, belts, and bandoliers. Weapons, batons, betel mortars, bowls, and other items were carved and/or decorated with nautilus inlay.

Medicine. Magic was highly elaborated, and it followed the sharp cultural separation between productive and destructive powers. Gardening, feast giving, fishing, fighting, and stealing all called for elaborate magic.

Death and Afterlife. Throughout Malaita, the souls of the dead were believed to travel to the land of the dead (associated with a small island off the northwestern tip of Malaita), while their shades hovered about the community, propitiated by the consecration of pigs and placated by purificatory Sacrifice. The shades of the dead monitored the strict pollution taboos that compartmentalized menstruation and childbirth and sharply separated men's and women's realms, and they also supervised the strict observance of ritual procedures.

See alsoGuadalcanal, Ontong Java, San Cristobal


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Ivens, Walter J. (1927). Melanesians of the South-East Solomons. London: Kegan Paul.

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