Ontong Java

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Ontong Java

ETHNONYMS: Lord Howe, Lord Howe's Group, Luangiua


Identification. Ontong Java is a coral atoll in the Solomon Islands and is one of the so-called Polynesian outliers, a number of islands and atolls located outside of the Polynesian triangle that are inhabited by people who are Polynesian in their language and culture. The name "Ontong Java" was bestowed in 1643 by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who apparently was reminded of Java. In 1791, Captain Hunter of the Waaksamhey'd named it "Lord Howe's Group." In official publications of the Solomon Islands Government it is listed as "Ontong Java," although some Solomon Islanders continue to refer to it by the name of "Lord Howe." Most of what is known about traditional life on Ontong Java is based on the anthropological research of Ernst Sarfert in 1910 and Ian Hogbin in 1927-1928. Much has changed since then and more recent information is derived from research by Timothy Bayliss-Smith and the author's conversations with Ontong Java people while doing research on neighboring islands.

Location. Ontong Java is located at 5°30 S, 160° E. The atoll, one of the largest in the world, is 72 kilometers across at its greatest length and its width varies from 11 to 26 kilometers. It has 23 passages into the lagoon and more than 100 islets. The climate is tropical.

Demography. Ontong Java suffered a severe population decline in the early twentieth century. Some estimates place its nineteenth-century population as high as 5,000 inhabitants, but it is more likely that it was about 2,000. It dropped to fewer than 600 in the 1930s. Since then the population has stabilized and begun increasing; it had reached at least 1,400 in 1986. In addition, in recent years, people have migrated away from the atoll and reside in other parts of the Solomon Islands.

Linguistic Affiliation. Linguists place the language within the Samoic-Outlier Group of Polynesian languages in the Oceanic Branch of Austronesian languages.

History and Cultural Relations

According to a local legend, the ancestors of the present Population arrived from the overpopulated island of "Ngiua" (which cannot be identified) and named their new home "Lua Ngiua," literally "Second Ngiua." Other legends refer to immigrants who arrived from the north and "Ko'olau," which could be Kiribati or Tuvalu. Comparative studies of language and material culture indicate strong affinities with Samoa and Tuvalu and probable contacts with Micronesia. The atoll was first sighted by Europeans in 1616 and occasionally visited during the following two centuries. In the nineteenth century the atoll's inhabitants were hostile toward foreign traders and whalers. The British bombarded the atoll in 1875 in retaliation for the slaughter of the crew of a trading ship. Afterward, traders established permanent businesses there. Germany administered Ontong Java from 1893 until 1900, when it was turned over to Great Britain, which placed it within the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. In the twentieth century the atoll adopted and incorporated many Western institutions and practices including Christianity, formal education, labor for wages, and governmental administrative services. When the Solomon Islands became an independent nation in 1978, Ontong Java was administratively incorporated into Malaita Province.


Luangiua, in the southeast, and Pelau, in the northeast, are among the few islets containing swamps suitable for the cultivation of taro, a major staple in the diet. Throughout the History of Ontong Java, these two villages have been the centers of economic, political, and ceremonial life. Almost everyone maintains permanent residences in one of these two villages, although people leave them to stay on smaller islets when collecting coconuts, trochus shell, and bêche-de-mer (trepang). At present, there is a large settlement of Ontong Java Migrants residing at the mouth of the Matanikau River in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The main indigenous foods are fish, coconuts, and taro (Cyrtosperma chamissonis and Colocasia esculenta); other local food includes bananas, sweet potatoes, shellfish, turtles, chickens, and pigs. At present, imported foods such as rice, flour, sugar, and canned products are purchased at one of several small stores in each village and make up approximately 50 percent of the total diet. With its long reef and large number of islets, Ontong Java has very valuable resources for trade, especially copra and bêche-de-mer. The money earned from selling these goods is used to purchase a variety of commodities Including imported food, tools, clothing, gasoline, outboard engines, and fiberglass boats.

Industrial Arts and Division of Labor. The main division of labor on the atoll is based upon sex. Men fish and dive; women care for young children, tend gardens, and plait. Traditionally men made clothing out of hibiscus fibers on a backstrap loom, but at present clothing material is usually Purchased in stores. Many Ontong Java people, especially male migrants living away from the atoll, also participate in the Westernized economic system in the Solomon Islands. They work as teachers, businesspeople, laborers, church officials, and medical workers and in other occupations and professions.

Land Tenure. The land-tenure system must be understood in terms of the settlement patterns and kinship groups. Patrilineal descent groups ("joint families") have rights to most land where coconut trees are planted, including most of the islets other than Pelau and Luangiua. On the latter, rights to house sites and taro gardens are inherited through women.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship-based groups include the family, the household, the house-owning group, the garden-owning group, the cooperating or fishing group, and the joint family. With regard to those groups beyond the Family and household, rights to house sites on Luangiua and Pelau are held by house-owning groups that trace their ancestry through females. Men, as sons and brothers of these women, also have interests in the house sites. The garden-owning group is also formed around females: daughters Inherit their rights to taro gardens from their mothers, and they may decide to divide their garden land. The cooperating or fishing group is an informal group of closely related males, often brothers and their sons, who fish together and cooperate informally in other activities. The members of a joint Family usually are related through patrilineal descent from an ancestor who lived about six generations earlier. In some cases, nonagnates (e.g., the offspring of a member's sister) can be incorporated into the joint family. Members of the joint Family share rights to land planted with coconut trees, most notably the islets others than Luangiua and Pelau. Joint families have leaders, usually the oldest males. The patrilineal principles followed with regard to joint families apparently developed in response to the increased importance of the copra trade in the late nineteenth century. There are many land disputes in present-day Ontong Java, and tracing genealogies is important in litigating and adjudicating them.

Kinship Terminology. Ontong Java uses a Hawaiian-type, or generational, kinship terminology system, with one notable exception: the mother's brother and his sister's Children address one another by a reciprocal term, lamoku, and their relationship entails special obligations.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In traditional times, some marriages were arranged although it is also clear that sometimes such arrangements could be avoided. Early sources also indicate that some women were prostitutes and some men transvestites. Residence in the villages of Pelau and Luangiua is normally uxorilocal, at the house site of the wife. When residing on the islets away from these villages, the couple usually lives on land Controlled by the husband's joint family. Traditionally, divorce could arise from adultery by either husband or wife, laziness on the part of either, ill treatment by the husband, or incompatibility. The couple would simply stop cooperating and live in separate places, sometimes to reunite later. Currently, Divorce is affected by Christian beliefs about marriage and it is subject to the laws of the Solomon Islands.

Domestic Unit. The family consists of a husband, wife, and their offspring. A household includes those families (or people) who are residing together.

Inheritance. Rights to land for coconut groves are held by joint families, which are formed through patrilineal descent, while rights to taro gardens are inherited from a mother by her daughters; rights to house sites are inherited through females, passing from mothers to their offspring. Personal property is inherited according to sex: a woman's property goes to her daughters, and a man's to his sons; the oldest offspring sometimes have a larger share.

Socialization. Children of both sexes are primarily cared for by their mothers until about the age of three. As they mature, boys generally associate with older males, including those from outside their household. Girls associate with older females but not so often with people from outside the Household as boys do. Formerly, there were numerous behavioral avoidances between brothers and sisters that derived from incest prohibitions. In adolescence, both sexes are influenced by their peer groups.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. Before 1800, there was no centralized political authority within either village. During the nineteenth century, however, there were rivalries between the Leaders of prominent joint families for dominance and certain individuals emerged, especially in Luangiua, who held considerable power. During the protectorate period the British established Western political institutions. At the time of national independence in 1978, Pelau and Luangiua were separate wards with local administrative services. Each village sends an elected representative to the Malaita Provincial Assembly. Ontong Java and Sikaiana together elect one representative to the national parliament.

Social Control. Informal sanctions, such as public opinion, are important mechanisms for social control. Also, in their traditional religion the Ontong Java people believed that the spirits of the deceased, kipua, took an interest in human affairs and could punish with sickness and death offenses such as incest, adultery, or failure to fulfill social obligations. More formally, a leader of a joint family could temporarily bar a disobedient member from using land. At present, Ontong Java is part of a court system established by the British and now administered by their provincial and national governments.

Conflict. In the nineteenth century, there was constant feuding as various leaders tried to consolidate their power. By the end of the century each village had one ruler who was able to settle some disputes and punish people. At present, land disputes are a major source of tension and conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The traditional ritual system centered on the sanga ceremony, which was performed to honor the Island's legendary founders and to ensure that taro, coconuts, and fish would be plentiful It was also believed that the spirits of deceased ancestors, kipua, were aware of all human events and could interfere in them. By 1927, the traditional religious system was disintegrating as a result of culture Contact, and at present most people are members of the Church of Melanesia, which was originally established by Anglican missionaries.

Religious Practitioners. Formerly, the maakua, who were the leaders of certain joint families, supervised the performance of the sanga ceremony. In times of famine or pestilence, the maakua were held responsible for the community's misfortune and were either put to death or asked to resign their positions. Other traditional beliefs centered on spirit mediums who were able to contact the spirits of deceased ancestors (kipua) to learn of their intentions and enlist their aid. At present, people participate in various Christian offices and organizations.

Ceremonies. Apart from the church calendar, there are frequent occasions for dances and song performances in the present-day life of Ontong Java. These performances include traditional musical, dance, and song genres. In addition there are new genres, such as guitar music and songs that derive from culture contact.

Arts. Men formerly wore nose ornaments and even now some people are tattooed, although not as extensively as in former times. Women still cover themselves with turmeric when dancing.

Medicine. In traditional times, most sickness and death were attributed to the actions of kipua (ancestor spirits).

Death and Afterlife. When people died, their relatives stopped most work activities and mourned the deceased by weeping and singing dirges. The Ontong Java buried their dead in a cemetery with slabs of coral rock for grave markers. Upon death, a person became a kipua. Nowadays, Christian beliefs are prevalent.

See alsoMalaita, Samoa, Tuvalu


Bayliss-Smith, Timothy (1986). Ontong Java Atoll: Population Economy and Society, 1970-1986. South Pacific smallholder Project Occasional Paper no. 9. Annidale, N.S.W., Australia: University of New England.

Friedlander, Jonathan S., et al. (1987). The Solomon Islands Project: A Long-Term Study of Health, Human Biology, and Culture Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hogbin, H. Ian (1931). "The Social Organization of Ontong Java." Oceania 1:399-425.

Hogbin, H. Ian (1934). Law and Order in Polynesia: A Study of Primitive Legal Institutions. London: Christophers. Reprint. 1961. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press.

Keopo, John, comp. (1981). Kelaungiu: Ngakakala, Ngalue, Nga 'ai: Stories from Luangiua, Ontong Java. In Journal of Oral Tradition and Contemporary History. Vol. 1. Honiara: National Museum of the Solomon Islands.

Sarfert, Ernst, and Hans Damm (1931). "Luangiua und Nukumanu. " In Ergebnisse der Südsee Expedition, 1908-1910, edited by Georg Thilenius. IL Ethnographie; B. Mikronesien, vol. 12. Hamburg: Friedrichsen.