“Why would men risk life and limb to travel across huge expanses of dangerous ocean to give away what appear to be worthless trinkets?” This was the question the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski posed in 1922 in his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific – a field study on the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands, located West of Papua New Guinea. The question referred to a ritual that is practised in the above region and which is to an extent still practised up to this very day: the Kula ring.
Swap a bracelet for a necklace
For centuries the inhabitants of the islands of the Milne Bay Province, which are positioned in the form of a circle, have been travelling long and dangerous distances in canoes over the open sea to carry out a ritual exchange with the inhabitants of the neighbouring islands that is governed by strictly laid down rules: Necklaces adorned with small red shells (Soulava) are traded as gifts to the north (in the clockwise direction), and white shell bracelets (Mwali) are traded in the anti-clockwise direction. The ritual is indeed mostly accompanied by actual barter transactions, whereby the participants make a clear distinction between gifts and the exchange of goods, inasmuch that the necklaces and bracelets have a sacred character and have to be exchanged again after a while, so that they are constantly in circulation.
Giving and taking
Not everyone is allowed to participate in the Kula ritual, whereby anybody who has taken part once, remains part of the cycle throughout his entire life: He has to pass on the items he receives to someone else within the ring after one or two years at the latest and after receiving a gift he has to offer appropriate countergifts. If the opening gift is a bracelet, the countergift has to be a necklace and vice versa.
However, the individual items vary considerably in value, since each has its own respective, orally transmitted history. This also has an influence on the status of the gift-giver, who is always of higher standing than the recipient. Anyone who does not pass on an item risks losing his reputation and perhaps also the break-down of existing relationships, because “generosity” is of great importance within the Melanesian culture.
Whereas Malinowski’s contemporaries dismissed the ritual as a “useless past-time of savages, the ethnologist identified a purpose behind the exchange system: It strengthens the economic and social relationships and creates an environment of political authority. So, the exchanged bracelets and necklaces were everything but “worthless trinkets“. Malinowski’s cognition that an economy could exist without profit influenced the entire economic anthropology, as well as the economic thinking of the West.
Incidentally, the people, who participate in the Kula ring, are considered to be extremely peaceful – something that is without doubt partly attributable to the ritual, which also serves to secure peace. So, as you can see, we have found the answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph.