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Identification. "Tolai" is the modern name for the indigenous people who live within a radius of about 32 kilometers of the port town of Rabaul in the northeast corner of New Britain known as the Gazelle Peninsula. In the past they had no inclusive name for themselves, and early Roman Catholic missionaries introduced the name "Gunantuna" (meaning the "true land" or the "proper land"), a usage that is no longer followed. "Tolai" itself (from a local greeting akin to "mate," "buddy," and the like) appears to date back to the 1930s.

Location. The Tolai live at 151°30 E and 4°30 S on the Gazelle Peninsula. The peninsula was in the past effectively cut off from the rest of New Britain by the Baining Mountains. It is a highly tectonic area, its chief physical landmarks being the volcanic craters that ring Rabaul Harbor. A major eruption in 1937 brought massive loss of life and virtually destroyed Rabaul. The volcanic ash deposited for centuries across the land has given the soils an unusual fertility. The year falls into two seasons: the taubar, the time of the Southeast trade winds (roughly May to October); and the labur, the northwest monsoon or rainy season.

Demography. Estimates place the population at contact at about 30,000. This is one of the most densely populated areas of Melanesiaover a hundred people per square kilometer at first contact. Over the past twenty-five years the population has been growing at an explosive ratein some communities at about 4.5 percent per annum. Tolai are Presently estimated to number about 120,000. Given an area of some 910 square kilometers, population density is exceedingly high, creating many social problems.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tolai call their language tinata tuna, meaning the "true word" or the "proper word." It is also known as "Kuanua," or nowadays simply "Tolai." As an Austronesian language, it is more closely related to the languages of southern New Ireland than to those of other parts of New Britain. Formerly dialectical differences were important, but missionary influence has encouraged the present homogeneity as well as its spread to the Duke of York Islands, New Ireland, and elsewhere.

History and Cultural Relations

Traders, missionaries, and others began to converge on the Gazelle Peninsula in the 1870s, and in 1884 it was annexed to form part of the German empire in New Guinea. Climate, soils, and the magnificent natural harbor offered by Blanche Bay combined to make it ideally suited for the establishment of a colony built around a plantation economy. By 1914 the Tolai had come to experience great changes in their way of life. Much of their land had been expropriated, but they had also prospered through the sale of copra and other produce as well as the provision of schooling that had opened up to some Tolai a range of occupations outside the village. After World War I the area came under Australian rule by mandate of the League of Nations. The period between the wars was characterized by much stagnation, though in the later 1930s there were signs of economic recovery and improved standards of living for those Tolai in villages close to Rabaul. During World War II the Gazelle Peninsula became in effect a vast Japanese garrison, and when their supply lines were cut as a result of U.S. naval victories, life became increasingly harsh for the Tolai: many died from maltreatment, malnutrition, and lack of medicines. The Australian administration was restored after the war, but quite a different approach was now adopted leading to major developments in the fields of local government, the economy, health, and education. Yet, through the 1960s, despite the evidence of growing affluence, there were also clear signs of mounting social tensions at work. These tensions were to culminate in the emergence of the Mataungan movement, which came to play a prominent part in bringing about self-government and a little later national independence for Papua New Guinea.


Local communities, referred to as villages, with populations about 300, are the typical units of settlement. Villages, in the past the main territorial units, were and still are divided into tiny hamlets each consisting of a few households. In the more remote rural parts, houses are more likely to be built of traditional materials, but nearer Rabaul they are often costly two-story structures with copper roofs, louvered glass windows, and their own water tanks. Many villages have their own churches and schools, sometimes very substantial buildings, designed and built by the villagers themselves.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The household is the basic unit of production and consumption, with swidden horticulture as the subsistence base. Fertile soils encourage the growing of a wide range of crops. In inland Communities taro, yams, and sweet potatoes are all grown in abundance; bananas, reported to be known in seventy varieties, are grown everywhere as another major staple. In coastal communities there are also seine and basket fishing, depending on the season. The bush turkey deposits its eggs in the warm soil close to the base of the volcanic craters, and these are a particularly prized item of the local diet. Above all there is the coconut palm, serving a variety of needs: the nut itself is food and drink as well as a basic ingredient in cooking, while husks can be used for fuel, and fronds for shelter and the weaving of mats. Very quickly too, following the arrival of the first European traders, the palm became the prime source of a new cash income through the sale of copra. In the 1950s cocoa was introduced and soon came to rival copra as a source of revenue. In addition to horticulture, Tolai have also been engaged in wage labor for many years. In the immediate post-World War II period, Tolai emerged as an occupational elite. They served as teachers, worked in administrative offices, and worked at carpentry and other trades in many parts of the country materially much less developed than their own. Nowadays many have received higher education and have earned professional qualifications as doctors, lawyers, architects, and the like; others serve in senior posts in the administration in Port Moresby, the nation's capital, or other urban centers.

Industrial Arts. Items produced include canoes and the huge basketlike fish traps known as a wup, as well as a wide variety of mats and baskets of coconut and pandanus leaves. Finely carved and painted staves and specially designed masks are made for particular dances.

Trade. Despite its tiny size, the Gazelle Peninsula is marked by a high degree of ecological diversity. Production is thus often highly localized. This combination of diversity and specialization has provided the basis for a complex system of internal trade. Even in precontact times a series of markets crisscrossed the area, goods passing by way of intermediaries from the coast to inland villages and vice versa. The economy, moreover, was highly monetized: all transactions were conducted through the medium of a shell currency called tambu. Nowadays the main markets are at Rabaul and the other township in the area, Kokopo: the Rabaul market is now open daily, offering a colorful and varied array of produce to a cosmopolitan clientele. Most market transactions are for cash, but tambu is still legal tender.

Division of Labor. The pattern of cooperation varies with the task. In general, however, where men cooperate, as in housebuilding or helping to launch a fish basket, those assisting have to be rewarded either by payment in shell money or by a small feast given by the person who has called them together. There is a fairly clear-cut division of labor along sexual lines. Broadly speaking, the heavy work of preparing a new garden falls to the men, with women following later to do the weeding and collecting. But husbands and wives are often seen working together in their gardens. Only men fishthe beaches set aside for activities connected with fishing are taboo to womenbut women quickly gather when a catch is landed in order to buy: they cook the fish and sell it at the market. Women also accompany men when they go digging for megapode eggs: they sell snacks to the men and also buy eggs, again for sale at market.

Land Tenure. In theory all land is "owned"that is, it is vested in perpetuity in the group called a vunatarai, a matrilineal clan whose members may be dispersed through many villages. In practice, effective control vests in a local segment of the clan or local matrilineage also called vunatarai. The estate is owned jointly, but the leader of the group may subdivide or grant rights of use to individual members of the lineage. In fulfilling his duty to care properly for his children, a man is also entitled to make a gift of matrilineal land to a son. The land is supposed to revert to the matrilineage on the father's death, but it frequently happens that with the passage of time details of the arrangement are forgotten and heated disputes are commonly generated in this way.


Kin Groups and Descent. The dual division is the pivot of Tolai social organization. Every Tolai belongs to one of two matrimoieties, the chief function of which is the regulation of marriage. Sexual relations within the moiety constitute the most heinous of offenses, which in the past called for the death of the guilty parties. By birth every Tolai is also affiliated with the clan of the mother. The clan is a dispersed unit, associated with a place (or places) of origin, from which members scattered over the course of time to form separate branches or local matrilineages elsewhere within the area. The clan (or segments of it) provides an elaborate network of kin relations covering many different local communities, and to this day it continues to provide a basis for cooperation in a variety of economic activities and above all in ceremonial affairs.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Iroquois type. In the context of everyday social interaction, personal names are generally used and kinship terms are rarely heard save in dealing with affines.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally polygyny was an important feature of Tolai marriage, but it is only rarely encountered nowadays. A proper marriage has always required bride-price in the form of payment in tambu, and this practice continues even today. Postmarital residence is expected to be virilocal, but there is no strict rule in the matter and a certain proportion of unions will be uxorilocal or involve some other arrangement. In legal terms, divorce in the case of customary marriage is easy; in practice marriages are very stable, though recent evidence suggests things may now be changing in this regard.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic and economic unit is the household, ordinarily composed of a nuclear family.

Inheritance. Inheritance is in the matriline, but nowadays there is increasing pressure to recognize the claims of a man's wife and children in respect to personal property and money.

Socialization. In the upbringing of children Tolai lay great stress on obedience, and those who disobey are punished in a variety of ways. Schooling is another major concern of parents. Large numbers of Tolai children have received their education away from home, thus affecting their knowledge of village ways and local culture.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social relations are highly localized and most everyday interaction takes place within the hamlet or in some larger communities within the village section. However, through the clan system each hamlet in a village maintains friendly relations with hamlets in other villages. These links are maintained and perpetuated through intermarriage, trade, and ceremonial activities. Today, because of the large number of motor vehicles owned by Tolai and the fact that surfaced roads run throughout the Gazelle, this aspect of traditional social organization has been buttressed, rather than undermined, by modern conditions.

Political Organization. There was no central authority or hereditary leadership in the traditional system. Within local communities certain big-men were acknowledged as leaders. A big-man achieved his position by entrepreneurial flair. This flair was demonstrated in his ability to command considerable resources in the form of shell moneyresources he put to use in organizing large-scale ceremonies or, in the modern context, in running a business enterprise. Since the 1950s the Tolai have been organized within local government councils, which continue to be based to a considerable degree on earlier local divisions.

Social Control and Conflict. Through their command of wealth in the form of tambu, big-men wielded considerable authority within their own communities. In the past the tubuan, a central figure in the male cult, was said to act as an agent of social control. Disputes between members of the local community were brought before the village assembly or moot; fines might be imposed or compensation awarded, in either case to be paid in tambu. In the past conflicts between different Tolai groups were also compounded by the payment of tambu. Until recently arranging for the hearing of disputes was a primary responsibility of the village councillor, but the village moot or varkurai has now given way to hearings before village courts, while disputes over land are heard by newly appointed land mediators.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Tolai cosmology includes a vast assortment of spirits usually referred to collectively by the term tabaran. "Spirits of the air" are benign and their help is sought by those seeking inspiration in the composition of a new song, the design of costumes, or the choreography for a dance to be performed at a ceremony. Others, denizens of the bush and sometimes of grotesque form, are malevolent and much feared. The spirit of the tubuan lies at the heart of their religious system. The tubuan is "raised" to dance at a variety of festivals or balaguan, but the great climactic rite is the matamatam, a ceremony to honor all the deceased of the clan, when the masked figures of tubuan and dukduk (a central spirit figure of the secret male cult) both appear.

Religious Practitioners. Experts, or melem, are still required for the "raising" of the tubuan, but knowledge relating to garden and fishing magic and the like seems to have disappeared and the rites are now rarely, if ever, performed. By contrast, the reality of sorcery is still almost universally acknowledged.

Ceremonies. Despite the efforts of the earlier missionaries, the balaguan and matamatam continue to be performed very much as Richard Parkinson, an early planter in New Britain, observed them a century ago. At the same time, the vast majority of Tolai acknowledge a profound commitment to Christianity, and congregational matters are intimately woven into the daily life of the village. In addition to the ceremonies associated with the tubuan and those that follow a death, Tolai nowadays also celebrate with ceremonies to mark the completion of a new house, the installation of a new water tank, or even a birthday. However, all of these take a traditional form in that they involve exchanges of tambu.

Arts. Ceremonies are occasions of great pageantry, and much of Tolai artistry is invested in these events. Dancers wear colorful, specially designed costumes, and some of them carry carved and ornamented staves prepared for that particular occasion. The artist, whether carver or composer, enjoys very high prestige.

Medicine. Individuals with a knowledge of the properties of particular plants may be consulted as healers for particular complaints. But healing is another area in which the indigenous culture has been much eroded. Nowadays, Tolai regularly consult Western-trained practitioners, some of whom are themselves Tolai.

Death and Afterlife. In former times, coils of tambu had to be cut up and distributed so that the deceased would be able to enter the "Abode of the Spirits." To die without having tambu "cut" for one was not only shameful for the surviving members of lineage and clan, but it also condemned the deceased to an existence of everlasting misery in the land of IaKupia. Such a set of ideas underlay the whole tambu complex. After more than a century of Christianity, much of the traditional ideology touching these matters has been lost, but tambu has retained its ritual and symbolic significance, providing the link between present and past generations.

See alsoLak, Lakalai


Epstein, A. L. (1969). Matupit: Land Politics and Change among the Tolai of New Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Epstein, A. L. (1979). "Tambu: The Shell-Money of the Tolai." In Fantasy and Symbol, edited by R. H. Hook. London: Academic Press.

Epstein, A. L. (1988). "Matupit Revisited: Social Change, Local Organization, and the Sense of Place." Journal de la Société des Océanistes 86: 21-40.

Epstein, T. S. (1968). Capitalism, Primitive and Modern: Some Aspects of Tolai Economic Growth. Canberra: Australian National University.

Parkinson, R. (1907). Dreissig Jahre in der Südsee. Stuttgart: Strecker und Schroder.

Salisbury, R. F. (1970). Vunamami: Economic Transformation in a Traditional Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.