Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

By Polly Wiessner; Wulf Schiefenhövel | Go to book overview

13. OF HARVESTS AND HIERARCHIES SECURING STAPLE FOOD AND SOCIAL POSITION IN THE TROBRIAND ISLANDS

Wulf Schiefenhövel& Ingrid Bell-Krannhals

T here does not seem to be any other society where the bulk of the harvest, the yield of a family's hard work throughout the year, is given away. The Trobrianders do just that. Their harvest gifts (uligubu) consist of yam (tetu, Dioscorea alata), the staple food. After careful, strategic decisions, the harvest gifts are channeled to various recipients, who are mostly but not necessarily members of the nuclear or extended family. People who have been working together, preparing the soil by slash-and-burn technique, erecting elaborate fences as protection against feral pigs, and doing the time-consuming and demanding tasks of planting, weeding, and harvesting will live on yam they receive from other families. Why does this tradition exist? Why do the Trobrianders not follow common patterns of taking what they have harvested and then, as need or custom may make necessary, sharing portions of the supplies from time to time?

The Austronesian-speaking Trobrianders are unique in a number of ways, some of which were well portrayed by Malinowski ( 1922, 1929, 1935) after he had shifted his fieldwork from the small island of Mailu off the southeastern coast of mainland New Guinea to the inhabitants of the Trobriand group of islands in the Solomon Sea. The people there are proud of their very developed and sophisticated traditions, the spectacular elements of their culture like the kula with its many splendid events, the competitive harvest (kayasa),

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