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Monday, July 6, 2009

Lord of the Kula Ring: The Ceremonial Exchange

Trade has been a staple in archaeological civilizations as far back as any archaeologist or scientist can research. Of course, the objects of value and the ceremonial exchanges differed from culture to culture, depending on what was seen as a good trade.

One such fascinating exchange system was of the Kula Ring Exchange, which was a ceremonial exchange conducted in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea.

Image via Wikipedia

The exchange of the Kula ring includes thousands of individuals from several island communities of the Massim archipelago, just one of the Trobriand Islands.

Image via Wikipedia

Participants of the Kula ring exchange would trade red shell-disc necklaces that were traded to the north and white shell bracelets that were traded to the South. At first, if one of the individuals participating would display a bracelet or armband, what would typically follow was a necklace. Control of the ring exchange was usually handled by the Chief, however in Dobu all men can participate.

What's interesting about this type of exchange system is that the entire experience is meant to enhance the social standing of men in their communities. By providing an enjoyable experience to other parties, the individual participants develop a good working relationship, much like the practice of a small business today. The act of giving an object thats value is downplayed shows greatness and modesty, and therefore this act develops into somewhat of a marriage.

“The Kula ring exhange valuables never remain for long in the hands of the recipients; rather, they must be passed on to other partners within a certain amount of time, thus constantly circling around the ring.” In truth, the more significant you are in a community the more Kula valuables you have. It’s a process of borrowing and holding someone’s “precious”, and then passing it on. The original owner of the valuables is the only one than can sell or destroy their holdings.


The ownership of a particular valuable is, however, often not known. Kula valuables can be exchanged as kitoum in a direct exchange between two partners, thus fully transferring the rights of ownership.


Acquiring the Kula gifts takes money, and a person that seeks to hold a certain valuable must compete with others, offering pokala and kaributu (solicitory gifts) to the owner, thus seeking to persuade him to engage in a trade liaison involving the desired object.

Kula Boat


“The Kula, as Mauss wrote, is not supposed to be conducted like gimwali (barter). The former involves a solemn exchange ceremony, a "display of greatness" where the concepts of honour and nobility are central; the latter, often done as part of Kula exchange journeys, involves hard bargaining and purely serves economic purposes (1990:22-23). Kula valuables are inalienable in the sense that they (or an equivalent object) have to be returned to the original owner. Those who receive them can pass them on as gifts, but they cannot be sold as commodities (except by the one who owns them as kitoum).”


The rules of engagement are not discussed in this type of exchange; however the relationships maintained must be conducive to both the owner and the holder. If in fact the holder keeps the valuable without wanting to give them away, he is seen as shameful, thus creating a somewhat uncomfortable situation, or rather a bad reputation for themselves.

The Kula exchange is simply a way for man to show greatness, the ability to share his wealth while maintaining his social status, and a means to share cultural traditions with other communities.

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