The Trobriands consist of four main islands, the largest being Kiriwina Island, and the others being Kaileuna, Vakuta and Kitava. Kiriwina is 43 kilometres (27 miles) long, and varies in width from 1 to 16 kilometres (0.62 to 9.94 mi). In the 1980s, there were around sixty villages on the island, containing around 12,000 people, while the other islands were restricted to a population of hundreds. Other than some elevation on Kiriwina, the islands are flat coral atolls and "remain hot and humid throughout the year, with frequent rainfall."
The people of the area are mostly subsistence horticulturalists who live in traditional settlements. The social structure is based on matrilineal clans that control land and resources. People participate in the regional circuit of exchange of shells called kula, sailing to visit trade partners on seagoing canoes. In the late twentieth century, anti-colonial and cultural autonomy movements gained followers from the Trobriand societies. When inter-group warfare was forbidden by colonial rulers, the islanders developed a unique, aggressive form of cricket.
Although an understanding of reproduction and modern medicine is widespread in Trobriand society, their traditional beliefs have been remarkably resilient. For example, the real cause of pregnancy is believed to be a baloma, or ancestral spirit, that enters the body of a woman, and without whose existence a woman could not become pregnant; all babies are made or come into existence (ibubulisi) in Tuma. These tenets form the main stratum of what can be termed popular or universal belief. In the past, many held this traditional belief because the yam, a major food of the island, included chemicals (phytoestrogens and plant sterols) whose effects are contraceptive, so the practical link between sex and pregnancy was not very evident.
The Trobriand peoples speak Kilivila, though various different dialects of it are spoken amongst each different tribe. It is an Austronesian language, although has the distinction of having a complex system for classifying nouns. Foreign languages are less commonly spoken, although by the 1980s at least, Trobrianders occasionally spoke Tok Pisin and English. The term "Trobriand" itself is not Kilivilan: the islands take this name from the French explorer Jean François Sylvestre Denis de Trobriand who visited in 1793.
Drawing upon earlier work by Bronisław Malinowski, Dorothy D. Lee's scholarly writings refer to "non-lineal codifications of reality". In such a linguistic system, the concept of linear progress of time, geometric shapes, and even conventional methods of description, are lost altogether or altered. In her example of a specific indigenous yam, Lee explains that when the yam moves from a state of sprouting through ripeness to over-ripeness, the name for each object in a specific state changes entirely - the description of the object at different states of development relates to wholly different perceptions of the object. Ripeness is considered a "defining ingredient" and thus once it becomes over-ripe, a yam is perceived as a new object altogether. The same perception pertains to time and geometric shapes.
In Trobriand society, it is taboo to eat in front of others. As Jennifer Shute noted, "the Trobrianders eat alone, retiring to their own hearths with their portions, turning their backs on one another and eating rapidly for fear of being observed." However, it is perfectly acceptable to chew betel nuts, particularly when mixed with some pepper plant and slaked lime to make the nut less bitter. The betel nut acts as a stimulant and is commonly used by Trobrianders, causing their teeth to often appear red. In the Trobriand islands to boast of having food is one of Trobriand Islanders chief glories and ambitions because it was difficult to have enough food. Miamala is the time of the year when the subject of food is most discussed and that time food is more important because it is harvest time and it is time of feasting. But they can face hunger and scarcity at any time of year because of poor growing conditions. In the mid of 2009 the problem of food insecurity was brought to attention on national and international level by the media. The stories they reported were of more concern about population pressure which results as food shortage. Australian and International media highlighted the food shortage topic.
At seven or eight years of age, Trobriand children begin to play erotic games with each other and imitate adult seductive attitudes. About four or five years later, they begin to pursue sexual partners. They change partners often. Women are just as assertive and dominant as men in pursuing or refusing a lover. This is not only allowed, but encouraged.
In the Trobriand Islands, there is no traditional marriage ceremony. A young woman stays in her lover's house instead of leaving it before sunrise. The man and woman sit together in the morning and wait for the bride's mother to bring them cooked yams. The married couple eat together for about a year, and then go back to eating separately. Once the man and woman eat together, the marriage is officially recognized.
When a Trobriand couple want to marry each other, they show their interest by sleeping together, spending time together, and staying with each other for several weeks. The girl's parents approve of the couple when a girl accepts a gift from a boy. After that, the girl moves to the boy's house, eats her meals there, and accompanies her husband all day. Then word goes out that the boy and girl are married.
If after one year, a woman is unhappy with her husband, she may divorce him. A married couple may also get divorced if the husband chooses another woman. The man may try to go back with the woman he left by giving her family yams and other gifts, but it is ultimately up to the woman if she wants to be with that man.
Trobriands believe that conception is the result of an ancestral spirit entering the woman's body. Even after a child is born, it is the mother's brother, not the father, who presents a harvest of yams to his sister so that her child will be fed with food from its own matrilineage, not the father's.
The Trobrianders practice many traditional magic spells. Young people learn spells from older kin in exchange for food, tobacco, and money. Spells are often partially or fully lost because the old people give away only a few lines at a time to keep getting gifts. Often, the old person dies before they finish passing on the spells. Trobrianders believe that no one can make up a new magic spell.
Sometimes a man gives a woman magic spells because he wants to give her more than betel nuts or tobacco. People also buy and sell spells. Literate villagers write their magic spells in books and hide them. A person may direct magic spells toward heightening the visual and olfactory effects of their body to induce erotic feelings in their lover. Some spells are thought to make a person beautiful, even those who would normally be considered ugly. The beauty magic words are chanted into coconut oil, and then a person rubs it onto their skin, or into flowers and herbs that decorate their armbands and hair.
Trobrianders use yams as currency, and consider them a sign of wealth and power. Western visitors will often buy items from the Trobrianders using money. There is also a Kula exchange, which is a very important tradition among the Trobriand Islands. The women also use bundles of scored banana leaves.
Each year, a man grows yams for his sister, and his daughter if she is married. The husband does not provide yams to his wife. The more yams a woman receives, the more powerful and rich she is. The husband is expected to give his wife's father or brother a gift in turn for the yams they give his wife. When the woman is first married, she receives yams from her father until the woman's brother thinks his sister and her husband are old enough for him to give the yams.
At the beginning of the yam harvest, the yams stay on display in gardens for about a month before the gardener takes them to the owner. The owner is always a woman. There is a great ceremony for this every year. The yams are loaded into the woman's husband's empty yam house. Young people come to the gardens dressed in their most festive traditional clothes early on the day the yams are delivered to the yam house. The young people are all related to the gardener, and carry the yam baskets to the owner's hamlet. When they get to the owner's hamlet, they sing out to announce the arrival of the yams while thrusting out their hips in a sexually provocative motion. This emphasizes the relation between yams and sexuality. A few days later, the gardener comes and loads the yam house, and the man is now responsible for the yam.
The yam house owner provides the gardener and young people with cooked yams, taro, and pork. Sometimes, no pig is killed, perhaps because the yam house owner did not have a pig to spare. The yam house owner also may decide not kill a pig for the gardener because he is unsatisfied with the number of yams, or is angry with the gardener for another reason. Once the yam houses are full, a man performs a special magic spell for the hamlet that wards off hunger by making people feel full. The women also use bundles of scored banana leaves as a type of currency between themselves. As many days of work are required to make bundles each one has an assigned value and can be used to buy canned foods as well as given away in exchange for other goods.
When a person dies, mourning continues for months. The spouse is joined in mourning by female kin and the dead person's father's sisters. These villagers stay in the house and cry four times a day. If someone who did not attend the funeral comes to the village, he or she must immediately join in on the mourning that is taking place. Other workers observe many of the mourning taboos. Most of them shave their heads. People closely related to the deceased avoid eating "good food." Those more distantly related may wear black clothes. Before this, however, everyone receives a payment from the owners for the part they had in the burial process.
The first set of exchanges takes place the day after burial and involves yams, taro, and small amounts of money. The spouse, the spouse's matrilineage, and the dead person's father or father's representative, and members of his matrilineage get the largest distribution.
The first European visitor to the islands was the French ship Espérance in 1793. The ship's navigator, Bruni d'Entrecasteaux, named them after his first lieutenant, Denis de Trobriand. The first European to settle in the Trobriand islands was a Methodist minister who moved to the island of Kiriwina in 1894. He was followed a decade later by colonial officers from Australia who set up a governmental station nearby, and soon a small colony began to be set up by foreign traders on the island. Then in the 1930s, the Sacred Heart Catholic Mission set up a settlement containing a primary school nearby. It was following this European colonisation that the name "Trobriand" was legally adopted for this group of islands.
The first anthropologist to study the Trobrianders was C. G. Seligman, who focused on the Massim people of mainland New Guinea. Seligman was followed a number of years later by his student, the Polish Bronisław Malinowski, who visited the islands during the First World War. Despite being a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was at war with Australia which then controlled the Trobriand Islands, he was allowed to stay (provided he checked in with authorities every now and then). His descriptions of the kula exchange system, gardening, magic, and sexual practices—all classics of modern anthropological writing—prompted many foreign researchers to visit the societies of the island group and study other aspects of their cultures. The psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich drew on Malinowski's studies of the islands in writing his The Invasion of Compulsory Sex Morality and consequently in developing his theory of sex economy in his 1936 work Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf.
In 1943, Allied troops landed on the islands as a part of Operation Cartwheel, the Allied advance to Rabaul. In the 1970s, some indigenous peoples formed anti-colonial associations and political movements.