Where are our ancestors? Rethinking Trobriand cosmology

Sergio Jarillo, Allan Darrah, Carlos Crivelli, Camillus Mkwesipu, Kenneth Kalubaku, Nagia Toyagena, Gumwemwata Okwala, Justin Gumwemwata


Reincarnation has been a fundamental tenet of anthropologists’ representations of Trobriand cosmology since Bronislaw Malinowski published “Baloma; The spirits of the dead in the Trobriand Islands” in 1916. Yet, during recent ethnographic fieldwork, many Trobrianders repeatedly denied the possibility of rebirth. Faced with a potential major shift in this fundamental belief, we used a mix of quantitative and qualitative research methods to assess current Trobriand cosmological views. Drawing on a combination of structured and semi-structured interviews and focus groups, we tested the current validity of prior cosmological representations as found in the literature. In this article, we first analyze the results of the questionnaires. Second, we examine some of the implications that current beliefs have for Trobriand kinship and cosmology. And third, in light of the observed near universal negation of reincarnation, we discuss whether Trobrianders’ reported assumptions about the afterlife changed drastically in the last century or if Malinowski misrepresented them at the outset.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/709521