The Tolai: Habitat, History, Society

A. L. Epstein

in In the Midst of Life

Published by University of California Press

Published in print February 1992 | ISBN: 9780520075627
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520911642 | DOI:
The Tolai: Habitat, History, Society

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Like so many parts of Papua New Guinea, the island of New Britain, lying to the east of the mainland, is a rugged and mountainous region, thinly populated by a variety of small, scattered groups. Its northeastern corner, however, sealed off from the rest of the island by the virtually impassable Baining mountains, is a highly distinctive area: the Gazelle Peninsula. This is the home of a people known nowadays as the Tolai. Living for the most part in small local communities, none of which lies much more than twenty miles from the modern port town of Rabaul, the Tolai are a populous group by Melanesian standards—by most recent estimates about 120,000; by those same standards they are also an unusually affluent and sophisticated group who, despite the seeming marginality imposed by the remoteness of their location, had already in the colonial period made their mark far beyond the confines of the Gazelle Peninsula, and today continue to enjoy a prominent role on the new national stage. To understand how this has come about we have to take account of their complex history over the past hundred years and more; that history in turn must acknowledge the play of geographical as well as local environmental factors. Similarly, habitat, history, and the nature of their social arrangements and institutions must provide the background to any attempt to explore the modern world of the Tolai and the part that affect and ideation have in shaping it.

Keywords: Papua New Guinea; Gazelle Peninsula; habitat; social arrangements; social institutions

Chapter.  10619 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology

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