Rossel Island

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Rossel Island

ETHNONYMS: Duba, Rova, Yela


Identification. The Rossel Islanders live on the eastern-most island of the Louisiade Archipelago in the Massim Culture region (Milne Bay Province) at the east end of New Guinea. They speak "Yelatnye," meaning "language of Yela," and their name for themselves is "Yelatpi," meaning "Rossel people."

Location. Rossel Island is located at about 11 ° S and 154° E. The island is 34 kilometers long and 14 kilometers across, being approximately 290 square kilometers in area. It is very mountainous, with the highest peak, Mount Rossel (also known locally as "Mbgö"), reaching 800 meters. The coast is highly indented and mainly fringed by mangrove swamp. The island is covered in tropical rain forest. It is surrounded by a coral reef extending 12 kilometers east and 40 kilometers west of the island forming two lagoons. The distance from Rossel to the nearest westward island of Sudest (Vanatinai) is 33 kilometers. The trade wind blows from the southeast from May to October, the more irregular northwest monsoon from January to March, both bringing rain.

Demography. In 1979 the population of Rossel Island was about 3,000 persons, with 800 being away from the island working or studying. The population density averages 8 Persons per square kilometer and the population is growing at the rate of 3 percent per year. Before 1950 it was declining.

Linguistic Affiliation. Yelatnye is a Non-Austronesian language whose affiliation to other "Papuan" languages of New Guinea and Melanesian islands has not yet been established. Rossel Islanders are the only people in the region who speak a Non-Austronesian language. The number of cognates with the language of the nearest island, Sudest, is only 6 percent. Yelatnye has a very complex phonology and grammar and is regarded as extremely difficult by outsiders.

History and Cultural Relations

The Rossel Islanders probably represent the last remnants of an original population of the region, which on the other Islands has been superseded by, probably, several waves of Austronesian-speaking immigrants. In one of these pottery, derived from the Lapita culture, spread through the Massim about 2,000 B.P. It is probable that a stratified social system was introduced at the same time, linking island populations to political centers. Although Rossel preserved its Non-Austronesian language, the culture is much affected by its Austronesian neighbors. The first historical contact gave Rossel an ill repute: 316 Chinese coolies, bound for Australia, were reported massacred and eaten after a shipwreck in 1858. Rossel became a part of the British (later Australian) protectorate of Papua in 1884. During the next decades the island was "pacified" by government patrols. In 1903 an enterprising family of traders established a plantation that became the economic center of the island for the next fifty years and deeply transformed the socioeconomic relations of the people. Rossel is now more involved in the cash economy than its nearest neighbors to the west. The plantation is now worked by local people. Missions were established starting in 1930; the first was the Methodist (now United Church) mission, followed in 1947 by the Catholic. Now, roughly the western half of the island is United Church, while the eastern half is Catholic.


Earlier the settlement pattern was one of hamlets scattered along the coast and in the interior. A census in 1919 showed 145 villages with an average of ten inhabitants. During World War II the population was concentrated in about 10 villages on the coast. Most of these settlements broke up into hamlets or hamlet clusters after the war, but people did not return to the interior. Although there is no standard site plan, hamlets often feature a carefully weeded square or street surrounded by living houses and with one or two stone sitting circles, common in the southern Massim. In "traditional" hamlets, a seclusion house for menstruating and postpartum women is built behind the house line. Hamlets are surrounded by banana trees, coconut palms, and other fruit trees. Early house types included a barrel-roofed ground house and a pile house entered through a trapdoor in the floor. Today, living houses are regularly built on posts with a roof of sago-palm leaves and walls of sago-leaf sheaths. Cooking takes place under the house or on a clay hearth on the kitchen floor.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Basic subsistence is by swidden horticulture, gardens being used for two or more plantings and left fallow or, near the coast, being often used for small coconut plantations. Crops are tubers such as taro, yams, sweet potatoes, and cassava, as well as bananas and sugarcane. Sago flour is prepared from the pith of the sago palm. Tree crops are coconuts and breadfruit. Wild nuts and fruits are collected, as well as shellfish. Feral pigs and opossums are hunted and fish are caught by line, spear, or net or by means of dams. A plant poison is also sometimes used for fishing. Cooking methods include boiling with cream of coconut, roasting in embers, and baking in hot stones. Commercial crops are mainly coconut (for copra) and some coffee. Other important sources of cash income are the manufacture of shell necklaces and labor migration.

Industrial Arts. Rossel is well known for its high-quality red-shell necklaces made from the mollusk Chama, which is common in the lagoon along the western half of the island. This traditional craft was expanded and managed by the Traders in the early decades of this century. Imported grinding blocks are now used. The necklaces are of the type that move in the kula ring. The islanders build their own houses, canoes, and dinghies. A few larger boats have been built during recent years. Basketwork, made by women, is of high quality.

Trade. The dominant trade store is run by the Catholic mission but small stores are found in many hamlets. Otherwise there is no market on Rossel. Through a traditional visiting trade with Sudest Rossel exported shell necklaces and Imported clay pots, pigs, and stone axes. This trade connection is now much weakened. Internal noncommercial exchanges by means of a complex system of shell valuablesthe famous "Rossel Island money"are important and include payments for pigs, houses, canoes, garden crops, and some forms of labor service. There are two kinds of shell money. Ndap are flat pieces of Spondylus, kö are sets of 10 disks of Chama on a string. Both are ranked into many classes. Higher-ranking ndap are rare treasures believed to have been made by deities and, like kula shells, individually named. They are now out of open circulation and change ownership through inheritance. Kö and low-ranking ndap still circulate and are still made. Women own shell money and participate in exchange but they rarely sponsor payments. Exchange rules are very complex. Wallace Armstrong, who first described this monetary system, explained it by supposing lending at compound interest. This interpretation was based on misunderstandings of the operation of the system. Other valuables are ceremonial stone axes and shell necklaces. Cash now enters into some payments.

Division of Labor. The main division of labor is by sex. Men fell large trees for gardens, build houses and canoes, hunt, and fish; women collect most shellfish and dominate in domestic tasks, such as cooking and child care. Both sexes plant, weed, and harvest crops. They combine work in sago preparation.

Land Tenure. With a fairly small population land pressure is slight. The tenure practices are flexible and disputes over land infrequent. Areas of land are associated with matrilineal subclans, but stewards of land often belong to different clans. Use rights are frequently based on descent from bilateral grandparents. Mortuary payments of traditional valuables from the deceased's spouse's relatives to the deceased's relatives confirm such land rights.


Kin Groups and Descent. There are some fifteen totemic, matrilineal, and dispersed clans (pu). Subclans (pughi ) share exogamy with one or more linked subclans of different clans. The members of subclans do not all reside in the same area but there are local subclan sections. A more loose cognatic category (yo ) denotes the bilateral descendants of an ancestor or the bilateral kindred of a person.

Kinship Terminology. The terminology system is classificatory and of the Crow type, with alternate-generation terminology in one's own (male speaking) and one's father's line (both sexes speaking).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage within most clans, between one's own and linked subclans, between children of men of the above categories, and between first cousins is proscribed. Marriage with a classificatory mother's brother's daughter is discouraged while marriage with a classificatory father's sister or Father's sister's daughter is preferred. Actually, only 46 percent of a small sample had actually married according to this preference. There is a tendency toward local endogamy. Many marriages are still arranged by elderly relatives. A considerable bride-wealth is paid in shell money, no cash being allowed. Due to mission pressure polygynous marriages are now infrequent. Residence is predominantly patrivirilocal. Divorce is rare.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the primary Domestic unit (the people who pool food resources and eat Together), with the addition of occasional unmarried young or old enfeebled relatives. This unit conducts daily food production but is assisted by bilateral kin and affines for larger tasks such as forest clearing or house building.

Inheritance. The main significant property is fruit trees and ceremonial stone and shell valuables. Sons tend to Inherit from their fathers and daughters from their mothers. The person who takes main responsibility for taking care of a close relative in old age receives the major share.

Socialization. Infants and children are raised by members of the domestic unit and by grandparents and other elderly relatives. Socialization practice varies between families. Generally sharing and cooperation is emphasized and, although self-assertion is discouraged, autonomy of the individual is valued.

Sociopolitical Organization

Rossel Island is part of Papua New Guinea, a sovereign state in the British Commonwealth. Rossel elects one member to the Provincial Assembly of the Milne Bay Province. With the East Calvados chain and Sudest Rossel forms the Yelayamba Local Government Council and elects seven of the sixteen councillors.

Social Organization. There is no descent group rank on Rossel. Inequality is manifested in the greater influence and prestige of elders in relation to the young and men in relation to women. A "financial aristocracy" of exchange experts and owners of high-rank shell money form the dominating stratum of the population.

Political Organization. The island is divided into ten Census "villages" that, in combinations, elect the seven local Government councillors. A lower-lever functionary is the komiti. Precolonial leaders were warriors, ritual experts, and powerful big-men. The last category had attached henchmen and Controlled high-rank shell money used in payments for cannibal victims. Pacification and mission influence weakened the power of indigenous leaders but elderly males with financial expertise still command some local influence. Councillors are younger men with outside experience and language ability. The government provides primary-school education, a hospital, medical aid posts, and other services, such as an airstrip, a minor wharf, and water-supply facilities.

Social Control and Conflict. Pacification and mission Influence have produced a very peaceful society on Rossel Island. Conflicts and disputes are remarkably rare. A major deterrent from offending others is fear of sorcery retaliation. Dominance over the young is supported by the control of the elders of supernatural knowledge and of the intricate system of exchange of indigenous valuables. While villagers attempt to settle minor offenses informally, major delicts are prosecuted by the government, represented on the island by a patrol post.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The religious system is a combination of Christianity and traditional beliefs. Although two Christian denominations (United Church and Catholic) divide the Island, the relations between them are harmonious. The Islanders have adopted Christianity as a means of acquiring a link to forces of the greater world, spiritually as well as in terms of health-care, education, and cash opportunities. The government has taken over hospitals and schools, but these services are still located at the missions. Apart from Christian beliefs the islanders still hold beliefs in local supernatural beings and ways of communicating with them by means of incantation and sacrifice. Deities (woyili ) are believed to have lived on the island before, when they brought or created natural and cultural features such as landscape forms, food plants, sorcery, etc. Some are regarded as ancestors of subclans. Later they disappeared into the underworld (teme ) at the sacred places. They may appear as snakes, crocodiles, or dugongs. Armstrong's report of a hierarchy of gods cannot be supported. The power of the deities can cause blessings, such as crop fertility, or misfortune, such as sickness. Each sacred place is associated with only one or two effects. Formerly, they were avoided, except by the knowledgeable custodians. Now some have fallen into disuse and are not respected any more. Other supernaturals were ogres (podyem ), with white skin and long hair, and gnomes (kömba ) living in hollow trees. They are rarely, if ever, reported now.

Religious Practitioners. Christian practitioners are United Church pastorslargely from neighboring islandsand Catholic catechists. Some men, who have inherited spells and ritual knowledge associated with sacred places (yopo ), still perform rites there. Because of mission aversion such practices tend to be secret.

Ceremonies. The guardians of sacred places are supposed to keep them clean and at certain rimes of the year, or when needed, perform rites such as libations and reciting of spells in the presence of other men. Other ceremonies connected to the deities are nocturnal singing of sacred songs (ndamö ). This worship is a male cult. Women have won a legitimate place in religious worship only with Christianity.

Arts. Traditional Rossel carving style, for example on canoes and lime spatulas, is plain, usually nonfigurative, and symmetric. It has largely been supplanted by the Massim style characterized by the use of spirals and scrolls. A number of types of baskets are woven, from large food containers to fine baskets for shell money. There are no traditional Musical instruments but drumming on canoe hulls may take place in connection with the singing of ndamö. There are several types of traditional dance and song performances. The most common is the tpilöve, in which men appear in dancing skirts.

Medicine. Illness is traditionally mainly attributed to Sorcery and infringement of sacred places. Curing practices include countermagic, sacrifices at sacred places, traditional medicines, and healing.

Death and Afterlife. Burial takes place in an L-shaped grave, usually in a common cemetery for a number of hamlets. Formerly, the body was placed in a shallow grave in the house and later exhumed. The skull was exposed in the hamlet and later deposited in a shelter in the bush. At the death of an important person in-laws were usually accused of sorcery and had to atone by supplying a cannibal victim for a special feast (hanno ). Now, a week after the death the mortuary feast (kpakpa ) is held. Here, the burial services are rewarded and donations of traditional valuables are presented to various categories of relatives of the deceased. When the spirit (ghötmi ) leaves the body at death it travels to Yeme, the mountain of the dead, at the western end of Rossel. According to another belief the dead go to the underworld. Formerly, the spirits of victims of cannibalism were believed to go to Tpi, a mountain on the south side of Rossel. Ordinary ghosts (mbwe ) are not greatly feared, unlike the ghosts of cannibal victims. In contrast to beliefs in Sudest, in Rossel culture the dead are not supposed to interfere much in the life of the living.


Armstrong, Wallace E. (1928). Rossel Island: An Ethnological Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Liep, John (1983). "Ranked Exchange in Yela (Rossel Island)." In The Kuh: New Perspectives on Massim Exchange, edited by J. W. Leach and E. Leach, 503-525. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Liep, John (1983). "This Civilising Influence': The Colonial Transformation of Rossel Island Society." The Journal of Pacific History 18:113-131.

Liep, John (1989). "The Day of Reckoning on Rossel Island." In Death and Life Rituals in the Societies of the Kula Ring, edited by F. Damon and R. Wagner, 230-253. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.


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Rossel Island

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