Prehistoric Stone Monuments in the Northern Region of the Kula Ring

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During the twentieth century, explorers, ethnographers and geologists have recorded the presence of stone monuments in Papua New Guinea and hypothesised about their age, form and function (e.g. Riesenfeld 1950). However, in practice they have received very little detailed archaeological investigation. Those in the northern Massim area (Milne Bay) of Papua New Guinea (Figure 1), home of the famous Kula exchange system, have provoked a number of speculative papers seeking to establish their context and purpose (see e.g. Austen 1939; Damon 1979, 1983; Forth 1965). Underlying this interest are attempts to answer questions about the origins of settlement in the region, the presence of hereditary chieftainship in the Trobriands, and the development of the Kula.


The Kula regional exchange system was described by Malinowski (1984 [1922]: 510) as 'a sociological mechanism of surpassing size and complexity'. As recorded in modern times, the Kula involves the exchange of shell necklaces and shell armbands, creating and breaking relationships between people who carry out a range of craft and agricultural specialisations. These specialisations include adze manufacture and food production as well as the exchanges of shell valuables that represent the most formal expression of the system (see e.g. papers in Leach & Leach 1983; Damon 2002). While much has been written on the workings of the Kula, the debates surrounding its origins, whether during prehistoric times (e.g. Egloff 1978) or in response to European colonisation (e.g. Macintyre 1994), have not yet reached a consensus.

There is almost no evidence of long-term occupation anywhere along the south-east Papua New Guinea (PNG) coastline or in the Massim earlier than 2000 BP. Pottery appears from 1900 BP along the southern coast and throughout the Massim (Bickler 1997), but this is more than 1500 years after the earliest appearance of pottery in the Lapita sites of the Bismarck Archipelago and other parts of Melanesia (see e.g. Kirch & Green 2001). However, Irwin (1983) has argued for a rapid adaptation of the area by migrants, probably speakers of Austronesian languages, in a fashion reminiscent of the Lapita settlement of Melanesia (see also Ross 1988, 1998 for more information on the linguistic models).

Various local ceramic traditions developed in the 800 years following 1900 BP along the south coast of PNG and throughout the Massim, where surface pottery scatters have characterised most sites (Bickler 1998; Egloff 1979). This has generally been referred to as the Early (Ceramic) Period (e.g. Allen 1977, 1984; Bulmer 1975; Irwin 1983, 1991). Major shifts in pottery styles and settlement patterns occur after this initial period. They start around the Port Moresby region at c. 1200 BP (Bickler 1997; Irwin 1983, 1991) and end in the western Massim around Woodlark Island about 600 BP (Bickler 1998).

The last few hundred years of prehistory in the area are characterised by the growth of specialised trade systems (e.g. Allen 1984, 1985; Irwin 1985). In the Amphletts the islanders became specialist potters, supplying their wares throughout the western Massim (Lauer 1974) and perhaps as far as Woodlark Island (Egloff 1979; Irwin 1991). On Woodlark itself, the regional speciality was its fine-grained stone, used for axe blades throughout the Massim (Bickler & Turner 2002). The value of this stone was immense, and in the Trobriands it was intricately entwined with notions of chieftainship (Irwin 1983). Intriguingly, the Woodlark Islanders most directly involved with the extraction of the stone and probably the production of the axes, occupied the lowest rung in the local, loosely defined, hierarchy of villages (Damon 1990). The rise of the specialist traders in the Massim is mirrored along the south coast (e.g. at Mailu (Irwin 1985) and Motupore (Allen 1984)).

Egloff (1978: 434) argues that the Kula probably came into existence no earlier than 500 BP and that 'it is reasonable to postulate that the kula once extended outside its present boundaries'. …