Kula Ring

The Conundrum of the Kula Ring in Papua New Guinea

Kula is a ceremonial exchange system conducted in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. Kula is also known as the Kula exchange or Kula Ring. The Kula ring was popularized by the father of modern anthropology, Bronisław Malinowski, in 1922. Malinowski, who first described the Kuku in the West, used this test case to argue for the universality of rational decision-making that is present even among the ‘natives. He went on to argue on the cultural nature of the object of their effort, reciprocity being one of the fundamental areas of his work.

Kula Ring

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In his groundbreaking work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), Malinowski directly confronted the question, “Why would men risk life and limb to travel across huge expanses of dangerous ocean to give away what appear to be worthless trinkets?” The anthropologist traced the network of exchanges of bracelets and necklaces across the Trobriand Islands. And, they established that the Kula Ring was part of a system of exchange, an exchange system that was linked to political authority.

Details of the Study

Malinowski’s study, however, became the subject of debate with the French anthropologist, Marcel Mauss, the author of The Gift (1925). Marcel Mauss produced some seminal observations in the gift. The contribution made by both anthropologists remains important in anthropology today. The Kula ring has become central to the continuing anthropological debate on the nature of gift-giving and primitive law and order, and the existence of gift economies ever since.

The objects exchanged in Kula are not particularly valuable in themselves. They, in fact, served to help forge social connections which are dependent upon an individual on various occasions throughout his life. The study of this practice has helped anthropologists and other scholars of social sciences to understand that many indigenous peoples have traditions that serve many purposes that are beyond basic survival functions. This fundamentalism has also enabled sometimes distant social groups to have harmonious relationships that benefit all members of their social groups.

A Basic Description

The ceremonial practice of the Kula ring spans well across 18 island communities of the Massim archipelago. This includes the Trobriand Islands and involves thousands of individuals living in that particular area. The participants, at times, travel hundreds of miles by canoe to exchange Kula valuables, which mostly consist of:

  • Red shell-disc necklaces ( known as veigun or soulava) that are traded to the north (circling the ring in a clockwise direction) and;
  • White shell armbands (known as mwali) are traded in the southern direction (circling counterclockwise).

The closing gift must be a necklace if the opening gift is an armband and vice versa. The exchange of Kula valuables is sometimes accompanied by trade in other items, also known as gimwali (or barter). The terms of participation may vary from region to region. On the Trobriand Islands, the exchange is monopolized by the chiefs. On Dobu Island there are between 100 and 150 people that are involved in the Kula trade, of which between one and two in each matrilineal lineage.

Kula Ring
Trobriand Kula

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The Meaning

The word Kula is derived from bita kuli, which means “to form in the likeness or image of another” and “to be formed as a likeness or image of the other.” This is the “reciprocity” Malinowski wrote about. Muyuw said that a good Kula relationship should be “like a marriage.”

According to Muyum, “It is a motion, an act of giving and taking between people—two people (partners) to begin with. This action results in the growth of participants.”

The Gift of the Kula

There are two types of Kula gifts and they are not in themselves remarkably valuable. As mentioned above, the first one consists of a shell-disc necklace (veigun or Soulava) and the other is a shell armband (Mwali). The white shell armbands or Mwali is given with the right hand, while the red shell-disc necklaces or Soulava are given with the left hand. It is first exchanged between villages, then from island to island. The trading of these gifts is purely for purposes of enhancing mutual trust relationships, securing trade, and enhancing one’s social status and prestige.

The armbands are used with a ring of shell cut from a giant cone snail. They should traditionally travel in pairs, but the Mwali today, are comparatively smaller in size and travel as a singular item. These Mwali or armbands are embroidered with colored trade beads, egg cowries, and sometimes even nuts. They are carried on with a rope since they are too small to be worn. The shell is first fished from the sea and then prepared.

Soulava necklaces are made from spondylus shells. There are two types of these depending upon the part of New Guinea and the color used. It is mostly red around Normandy Island, and further north on Trobriands Island, it is mostly available in white with only a little red. The quality of the Soulava lies in its richness, color, texture, cut, and polished shell.

Kula Rings

There are nine levels of grading or value for the Kula Rings. The grade shows the importance of the person who owns the Kula Ring. The highest grade of Mwali is yoiya. It is considered to be dangerous since the owner must have a content of character and status that can sustain the spiritual elements comparable to the value of the object. It is reviewed to be a bad fortune to possess a Kula item that is above one’s level of prestige.

Many of the Kula objects carry memories of death, magic, and poisoning. Every object is unique, so a person may decide to try to acquire certain ones. Each shell is said to have a unique history and story. The Kula objects are extremely difficult to obtain and they are often given to the Kula master (or chief).

Kula Object
Kula Object

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Kula Objects

There are two kinds of Kula objects- the Kunedawesi and the Kitom.

While the Kunedawesi is owned by the Kula ring and cannot be sold, the Kitom, on the other hand, is owned by the person who holds them and it can be sold. The person who owns a valuable such as Kitom has full rights of ownership over it. The owner of the Kitaom can keep it, sell it, or even destroy it.

According to tradition, a valuable Kula or an equivalent item must be returned to the person who owns it as Kitom. The most important Muyuw men can own between three to seven Kula valuables like Kitom, while others may not own any. In theory, at least, the fact that all such valuables are someone’s Kitom adds a sense of responsibility to the way they are handled, reminding every recipient that he is only a keeper of somebody else’s possession. The Kula valuables can be exchanged directly as Kitom between two partners, thus transferring the rights of ownership, fully.

The Kula Exchange: Trading versus Commodity

The Kula season is celebrated with much anticipation and preparation. It begins in the garden by harvesting surplus yams in anticipation of the trading arriving. Taro is a staple with the highest status amongst yams and is a favorite item for the Kula trade.

The Kula trading period arrives in a period of trade of various commodities and games such as cricket feasts, catching up on the news, and different social events. It is not until the second visit that a Kula gift is exchanged for new trading partners. These elements are said to serve as the link between islanders and the Kula partners. An opening gift and a closing gift are presented within the familiar context of tradition and ceremony, linking the islanders and the partners also to the past.

Anthropology in Traditions and Cultures

The participants at times travel hundreds of miles in a ceremonial canoe (known as a waga) used specifically for this particular occasion. The men in the host village whose turn it is to give away the Kula often view the man who arrives to receive Kula valuables as aggressive visitors. The visitors are met with ceremonial hostility that they must charm away by giving lime spatulas and betel nuts. These are believed to carry magical spells to induce their hosts to return good pieces. The visitors present themselves as strong, brave, and as having immunity from danger, which is a beautiful physical character for the villagers.

The ceremonies are carefully prescribed with customs and traditions that accompany the exchanges, which establish strong, ideally life-long relationships between the exchange parties. The custom on Kula exchange is historically limited to male trading partners, but women are also allowed to participate in some areas.


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Social Networks and Hierarchies

The Kula exchange creates a two-way return of favors. In Kula, once you are a part of the circle, it becomes a permanent connection. There is a saying around Papua that goes “once in Kula, always in Kula”.

The right of participation in Kula exchange is, however, not automatic, rather one has to “buy” one’s way into it by participating in various lower spheres of exchange. The relationship between giver-receiver is always asymmetrical where the former is higher in status.

The valuables are ranked according to their value and age in Kula, and so are the relationships that are created through their exchange. The participants often strive to obtain particularly valuable and renowned Kula objects whose owner’s fame will spread quickly through the archipelago. Such competitions involve different persons offering Pokala (or offerings) and Kaributu (or solicitor gifts) to the owner.

Kula Exchange- What it Entails!

Kula exchange involves a complex system of gifts and counter-gifts whose rules are laid down by the customs of their community. This exchange system is based on the hallmarks of trust, as obligations are not legally enforceable. Strong social obligations and the cultural value system is liberality exalted as the highest virtue. Meanness is condemned as shameful in this system as it creates powerful pressure to “play by the rules.” All those who are perceived as holding on to their valuables and are slow in giving them away are easily marked by a bad reputation.

Anthropologists view the Kula system as reinforcing status and authority distinctions since the hereditary chiefs own the most important shell valuables. The chiefs also assumed the responsibility for organizing and directing the ocean voyages.

Anthropologist Frederick H. Damon noted that large amounts of Kula valuables are handled by a relatively small number of people. The movement of these valuables and the related relationships determine most of Muyuw’s political alliances. Most of the Kula relationships are fragile and are beset with various kinds of manipulation and deceit. Malinowski wrote of “many squabbles, deep resentments and even feuds over real or imaginary grievances in the Kula exchange”. The Kula ring exchange is a classic example of Marcel Mauss’s distinction between gift and commodity exchange. The Melanesians carefully distinguished the gift exchange from the market exchange in the form of a barter system. Both of these traditions reflect the different underlying values and cultural customs.

The Myth

Like any other mythical tradition, there is also a myth that connects to the origins of the Kula exchange. It was a long time ago, when the hero of the story named Tava, who sometimes appeared as a snake, would pass between certain villages. When he was present, good fortune and prosperity prevailed. Only one woman in each village would know about his whereabouts, know where he was, and she would feed and take care of him. It was crucial to treat him well, because if he felt mistreated or betrayed in any way, he would move on to the next island. Good fortune left with his departure.

Tava, however, left something behind as a trade for the goodness he received along the way. It could vary from a surplus of pigs and yams in the Trobriand Islands to fine pottery made in Amphlett’s. He left gifts of obsidian and betel nuts in other areas.

Anthropologists suggest that this story could be the origin of the Kula ring and the way it operates among the islands.

Significance in Anthropology

Even though the Kula exchange continues, naturally, the interaction with modern economic exchange and cultures has changed the course of events. In current times, there is much less ceremony and care in the preparation and execution of the events of the Kula exchange. Some women exchange Kula nowadays, and sometimes Kula objects are sold in the marketplace. But the majority in Papua New Guinea still practice and value this traditional social custom.

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