Mailu and Other Pre-contact Melanesian Trade Centers

Mailu is a small island about 5 miles (8 km) offshore from the southeastern coast of Papua New Guinea. Archaeology shows evidence of the islanders’ culture as far back as two thousand years. They have since spread up and down the coast to adjacent villages and to several nearby islands. This area lies about 165 miles (265 km) southeast of what is now the Port Moresby area. So Mailu does not share the same rain shadow, and precipitation on Mailu is relatively steady throughout the year. Consequently, unlike the Motu farther northwest, the Mailu enjoy an abundance of rain — and thus food — throughout the year. So, there was no imperative for them to travel west to gather sago as the Motu did. The Mailu still harvest sago from coastal swamps nearby. Nevertheless they became a prime example of what we call a pre-contact Melanesian trade center.

Like the Motu, the islanders of Mailu were also pottery makers and experienced seafarers who traveled long distances to trade their pots. The Mailu craft, called orou, had similar crab-claw-shaped sails but were much faster than the lagatoi that the Motu sailed on their famous annual Hiri. The lagatoi, built to carry tons of sago, were more like rafts than outrigger canoes. They sometimes had as many as a dozen hulls. The orou, on the other hand, had only one hull and one outrigger. They sailed well into the wind and performed more like canoes built in places farther eastward in the Pacific. This precipitates questions. Was a trading culture unique to Melanesia? Or did the greater mobility these eastern Pacific canoes offered lead to even more distant long-distance trade?

An unfortunate event

In his book The Emergence of Mailu, Geoffrey Irwin writes how the crew of two Spanish ships anchored offshore at Mailu on August 24th, 1606, and unceremoniously interrupted their prehistory. Like most coastal Indigenous tribes, they were headhunters. For them, taking a head from a member of a neighboring tribe was part of their youth initiation process. It was a rite of passage. When the Spanish approached, the Mailu showed their self-respect by brandishing their spears and shields.

Captain Don Diego de Prado y Tovar recorded the incident in his journal:

on coming within gunshot we made them signs of peace after their manner. They responded by brandishing their arms, namely lances and shields, which was a sign of battle …. Seeing that we were losing time by treating them with further consideration we knelt down and saying a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria, Cierra España [described in a footnote as the ancient Spanish war cry], we gave them a Santiago, and in that skirmish some fell dead, and we seized their gate and pressed on, shooting them as they fled … on reaching the village they embarked in twenty-six boats .. .. They had withdrawn their women, children and old men and put them on top of a cliff precipitous on three sides, with only a very difficult ascent on the one at the end of the village, and on the sides it was cut off by the sea, so that for our people to get to the ascent we had to pass below this fortress. We made the signs to them that they should come down and they replied with showers of stones … but it lasted only a short time, for twenty shooters and others with shields came up at once and made slaughter; the living and the wounded came down, they would be about three hundred, three parts were women and I was sorry to see so many dead children they were carrying in their arms. I selected fourteen boys and girls of from six to ten years and sent them on board; the rest I let go free and they ran up a hill like goats.

Nevertheless, despite such a disastrous event, the indomitable spirit of these people’s trading culture has persisted to this day.

Trade and the Austronesian language family

The Daga tribe lived on the foothills and slopes of what is now called the Owen Stanley Mountain Range. They mainly brought root vegetables and exchanged them for pots in the coastal villages. They also traded feathers and net bags for arm-shell ornaments fashioned by the Mailu. The Daga language shares similarities with Magi, the language of the Mailu. Both are what linguists call non-Austronesian languages. Most other coastal languages of New Guinea are Austronesian and are not indigenous to the island.

As a rule, Austronesian is the language family of the lighter-skinned sailing peoples populating the rest of the Pacific. The mostly darker peoples living inland speak hundreds of more loosely related or even unrelated non-Austronesian languages. This dichotomy of dual language families — one along the coast and another inland — replicates itself on other large islands throughout Melanesia. The Austronesians shared a sailing culture and settled along the shore, replacing the Indigenous Melanesians wherever they settled. The point is that the Magi language is an exception to the rule that the coastal languages of New Guinea are often derived from the Austronesian family and that Indigenous islanders do not share their sailing culture.

Aroma villages

The Mailu trading culture had two complementary trading systems. The first, described above, connected the islands and the coast of New Guinea with its interior. The second connected the Mailu with other ethnic groups up to 78 miles (126 km), both east and west, along the coast. Though these trades were for a variety of goods, the Mailu primarily traded pots. One pot was equivalent to one bundle of sago, one bunch of bananas, one basket of sweet potatoes or one bundle of sugarcane.

Their annual trading cycle began in July or August. The Mailu would sail west to Aroma villages about 46 miles (74 km) up the coast— their first of three trips to that area — taking pots to exchange for betel nut and unworked Conus shells. They would also collect these shells on the way back, eventually fashioning them into arm-shell ornaments and trading them back to the Aroma people and to the Daga. In a second visit around September, the Mailu would trade sago that they had made along the nearby shore for piglets and dogs. Then shortly thereafter, they would sail 30 miles (48 km) east of Mailu to the southern Massim region of New Guinea. There, they would trade their pots and the piglets and dogs from Aroma for arm shells, stone axes and adzes.

Their final trip for the year was around late December. The Mailu would return to Aroma one more time to trade the arm-shell ornaments they had made themselves, together with those they had gotten from the Massim, for full-grown pigs. These pigs would all be consumed during the annual Govi Maduna, the central ceremonial occasion of Mailu life trading culture. This occasion included an annual payment of pigs by the family of a prospective groom to the bride’s kin and brought together people from many villages.

Murik & Manus

Pre-contact Melanesian trade was not limited to the southwest coast of New Guinea. The Murik Lagoon (now called Murik Lakes), just west of the mouth of the great Sepik River on the north coast, was also a prominent trading center. The women there made woven-reed carrying baskets that were much in demand. The Murik people called themselves the Bar Nor, which means “mangrove man,” due to the miles of mangrove forests that line the hundreds of square miles of saltwater lakes they inhabit. The Murik speak a non-Austronesian language that originated in the inland’s East Sepik area. However, their language has many Austronesian words borrowed from the offshore islands where they historically traded.

The Manus people spoke Titan, an Austronesian language. Their trading culture was recorded by Margaret Mead in her book Growing up in New Guinea. Periodically, the Manus would visit the Murik Lakes on trading missions from 210 miles (338 km) across the Bismarck Sea. The Manus lived in offshore houses built on stilts. They were fishermen and traded fish for food staples onshore. They had no gardens of their own and sailed some of the longest distances to trade their wares. According to Thomas G. Harding’s paper “Precolonial New Guinea Trade,” the Manus imported forty-six items of trade from neighboring archipelagoes. They re-traded thirty-four of them. The Manus were New Guinea’s most avid traders.

Sio & Siassi

Harding wrote extensively about the people of Sio, a very small island off the coast of New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula that was originally called Sigaba in pre-contact times. Their neighbors called the people of Sio “the Kunai” after the tall grass that grew on the plains and rolling hills directly inland of their island. The Kunai made pottery but didn’t sail. They traded their pottery inland for vegetables but were middleman traders for voyagers who visited their island from various places. One of which was the island of Siassi, across the Vitiaz Strait. The Siassi traded canoes and vegetables for Sio pottery and, according to Harding, eight other items of trade.

The Kunai had gardens on the grassy plains inland of their coastal island and would plant them in March and April. In May and June, they would clear firebreaks around the gardens and then set fire to the grasslands to hunt feral pigs. Left unchecked, the pigs would destroy their gardens. The Kunai would begin harvesting yams from their gardens in November and December. The preceding months they called “hungry times” — before they harvested these first yams but after they had eaten all the yams from the prior year’s harvest. This period, which coincided with the last months of the trade wind’s “dry season,” was when trade was most important to the Kunai.

During this time, they would set up seven meeting places up and down the coast where “trade brothers” would periodically meet and exchange pottery for mountain taro and sweet potatoes. Their trading culture exhibited an honorary trade-brother system between the Kunai and the inland Komba was similar to, though less formal than, that between the Trobrianders and the Dobu, 62 miles (100 km) to the west. This system required trade brothers to protect each other from the normal head-hunting culture that pervaded both societies.

Four other Melanesian trading societies

In addition to the Motu, Harding identifies four other prominent pre-contact Melanesian trading societies. (These are discussed elsewhere.) He labeled them “agriculturalist” societies, which, like the Kunai, supplemented their gardening with trade: the Mountain Arapesh, who lived inland of Murik; and the Wogeo, Busama, and Manam. These villages imported an average of thirty-one items, exported an average of seven items and re-traded an average of eight items. The Wogeo people lived on Vokeo Island, in the Bismarck Sea north of Murik. Busama is in Morobe, on the north side of New Guinea — across the mountains from Port Moresby and inland and west of Salamaua Island. Manam is an island in the Bismarck Sea, off the coast of northern New Guinea.

It is evident that pre-contact trading developed along the entire coast of New Guinea. This was true not only for the nearly universal beach-bush trade but also for long-distance trading between well-established trading centers by seafaring canoe.

What happened to these trading societies as they migrated north and east across the Pacific? Certainly, their canoe designs became more advanced as they traveled upwind over longer distances. What about their trading culture? For example, what influence might it have had on the development of the city of Nan Madol, nearly 1,000 miles (1,609 km) away? This is one of the fictional themes I explore in my upcoming book The Forbidden Man.

The Austronesian language of these migrating societies became the root of many Pacific island languages. As we shall see, their oral literature migrated with them.

Stories of Andena and Jebro

More than 1,800 miles (2,897 km) of ocean and dozens of societies separate these two cultural heroes. Similarities in their stories and the identical characteristics of each appear to show a common root. Andena travels in the Sea Eagle (his outrigger canoe), magically creating the stands of wild sago along the banks of the lower Sepik with his spittle and founding the male cult. He gives yam-digging sticks to some gardening villages, sago mallets to others. Other communities receive from him magical stone axes for carving slit-drums, pottery-making paddles or drills to make shell rings. At each village, Andena comes ashore decorated from head to toe in his regalia. His skin is painted flaming red. A net bag with cassowary feathers hangs on his chest. He wears a bark cummerbund around his waist and plaited wicker bands on his wrists and ankles. According to David Lipset, in his book Mangrove Man, the image of Andena is an Indigenous representation of the Austronesian “colonization” of the region.

Far away, on the eastern border of Micronesia, Jebrọ — through loyalty to his mother — wins the race to become chief of Ailinglaplap despite being the youngest of twelve brothers.

Jebrọ paddles his canoe, following the current from Jeh all the way westward to Woja. He is looking for a suitable woman but finds only Linkar, who has been cooking and is covered with ashes. When it starts to rain, she gets his canoe dirty, and he tosses her overboard.

She drifts up on Jibke’s islet all clean and beautiful. They take each other but are soon called to Jeh to help thatch Jebrọ’s new house. Once there, Jebrọ meets Linkar again in all her beauty. Desirous to take her, he orders Jibke to set the corner post. Suspicious of Jebrọ’s plans, Jibke digs down and off to one side so, when Jebrọ orders the post set before Jibke climbs back out, he survives being crushed. But Jibke’s end is not a happy one. When he does manage to crawl from the hole, Jebrọ banishes him by ordering him to retrieve the wind. Jibke dies out in the open ocean, and his soul washes west to its ancestral homeland, Eb. There, like all cultural heroes before him, his soul is promptly eaten by the spirits.

Stories of Arena and Jibke

Arena’s story is surprisingly similar to Jibke’s. Arena is Andena’s younger brother. Andena is married first and decides to initiate his age-grade into the male cult. Andena sails to the offshore islands to gather the goods necessary for the feast. He leaves Mwed, his wife, with his younger brother, and the two set to work preparing food for the initiation ceremony. Mwed drops lines a little downriver from where Arena is pounding sago. After a while, he finishes his work and, to pass the time, begins to engrave a design into a piece of white sago bark. Later he throws it away, and it floats downstream and reaches Mwed.

The woman greatly admires the design. Later she asks him, “Is this yours? Would you tattoo it upon me?” She places the bark in several places over her body, but it doesn’t feel right. Then she wedges it squarely between her legs. “Would you put it here?” After having sex with her, he tattoos the design across her vulva.

When Andena returns from the islands, Mwed doesn’t come to meet his canoe. Being a spirit-man, he knows everything. He invites men from the surrounding villages to carve designs into the center post of the cult house. The design his brother carves matches the design on his wife’s vulva, but Andena isn’t quick to accuse him. When work on the frame of the building is completed, he has his brother dig a deep hole to sink the center post. Suspecting what Andena is up to, Arena digs a place in the hole off to one side, to hide himself. When it’s time to set the pole, Andena tells his brother to go to the bottom of the hole and guide the pole. Then he announces, to everyone’s surprise, that his brother has raped his wife and tells the men to fill in the hole. Like Jibke, Arena survives his ordeal. There are other stories in which he gets even by tricking his brother. Then, like Jibke, he disappears into Pacific prehistory.

Legends and history

True, these are very different stories. According to Lipset, the Andena story seems to concern sibling authority while Jibke’s story demonstrates the capricious nature of chiefdom authority in the Marshall Islands. Clearly, these stories have no Christian theme and are most certainly pre-contact.

This later theme of capricious authority is echoed successively in Pohnpeian oral literature, predominantly in the story of Jatokauai. He angers the Lord of Teleur, or paramount chief, by eating a large tuna without offering firstfruits. As punishment, he is told to retrieve the malpur shell. This is a nearly impossible task because the animal that makes this shell lives at the bottom of the sea. Nevertheless, Jatokauai retrieves it successfully. However, instead of the happy ending expected, he gathers his family into his house, sets it on fire and burns all to the ground.

This story foreshadows the ultimate demise of the Saudeleur monarchy. However, we know that the Saudeleur system managed to survive for hundreds of years of prehistory and must have thrived while it built the miraculous city of Nan Madol. Is it possible that this system managed to combine the trading culture of the western Pacific with the more-centralized authoritarian culture of the eastern Pacific? This is a theme of the second book in my prehistoric Pacific series The Legends of Ḷainjin.

Harding, Thomas G. “Precolonial New Guinea Trade.” Ethnology 33, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 101-125. Accessed June 11, 2021.

Irwin, Geoffrey. The Emergence of Mailu: as a central place in coastal Papuan prehistory. Canberra: The Australian National University, 1985.

Lipset, David. Mangrove Man: Dialogics of Culture in the Sepik Estuary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997[GK1] .


  1. A very interesting piece of work, being from Aroma with roots tracing back to the Mailu Islands this has been a good eye opener for me in learing about my culture. Great work!

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