The Trobriand Tower of Babel

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In late November 1978, a small plane went missing after it left Alotau, the capital of Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea. The plane was en route to Losuia, the government station on Kiriwina, the largest of the Trobriand Islands. Many people said that witches took control of the plane at the high-rising volcanic peaks of Goodenough Island in the D’Entrecasteaux group to the south. This explanation is anchored in Trobriand folklore, which depicted similar experiences at sea. Stories about the prowess of witches have long been a common stalk of tales among the Trobriands.

“The probable demise of the aircraft, according to the villagers,” writes ethnographer Shirley F. Campbell, “was not based on some whimsical musing but was in fact based on generations of rational deliberations about phenomena from the past recounted in legend, myth, and folklore. Indeed, this was a very ‘traditional’ yet contemporary explanation for what had happened, given that the plane and its cargo disappeared completely from view.”

The people of the Trobriand Islands are supremely confident in their own cultural perspectives and interpretations of events that come to their attention,” Campbell writes. “Jesus Christ was originally from a Trobriand Island. Mary, through spiritual conception, had been entered by a spirit child, just as ordinary women in the Trobriands have always found themselves with child.”

Campbell observes that Trobrianders displayed a refreshing ethnocentrism against the onslaught of early missionaries and the European penetration of their tight-knit society. As great storytellers, she writes, “Trobrianders themselves make a distinction between stories about things that happened in the past, Liliu, or libogwa, and stories recounting events that happened in the living memory, livau. These stories, both liliu and livau are understood to document real events.” It was the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who distinguished liliu, which are the sacred stories of the past, from Kukuwanebu, impossible events and deeds.

Most societies of Oceania were preliterate until the arrival of Europeans. The introduction of writing technologies impacted the continuity of storytelling and the transmission of vital knowledge and information. In a homogenous Trobriand society, living a life of fishing and yam planting, harvest, and feasting with yam exchange, the entire corpus of indigenous knowledge and ideologies must have been transmitted through various oral folk traditions.

The Tower of Babel myth, as most readers know, is a linguistic schema that explains the multiplicity and dispersal of languages around the world, appealing to the theories of language diversification and dispersal that are as old as any human society.

The Trobriand version of the Tower of Babel myth was translated from oral sources that date back prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the Pacific, and announces the existence of parallel knowledge in pre-literate societies, especially in the folktales and unwritten traditions of the world. Gibson Henry published the following folktale from the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea in the Wantok newspaper on November 1, 1972:

Long ago, in the Trobriand Islands [Milne Bay Province], the Tower of Babel narrative was used for various purposes, but mostly to teach people about respect of values that they hold: “We read in the Bible that the whole world had one common language for all people who became skilled in construction and decided to build a tower that would reach to heaven. “…and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do”. (Genesis, 11:5-6).

The ancient people built the tower to make the point that it was a monument to themselves. They wanted to reach heaven and become god themselves. However, “God disrupted their speech and split up their entire society. Their construction was not a temple for God but a monument to themselves, to reach heaven and become gods. The story is all about disobedience and arrogance.” The world became as diversified as the different languages themselves have become since the destruction of the Tower of Babel:

“One day, the men of one clan met together and decided to build a tower so tall that it would reach the clouds. They went to the forest and collected many kinds of trees and vines, then began to build this tower. They worked and worked until they came up to a cloud and then some of them climbed upon this cloud.

“When they climbed upon this cloud, the tower broke and fell down. The men were stuck on the cloud; they were tied together with the vines that they had used to build the tower. They tried to remove the vines but when they did this they twisted about.

“So now if you or I hear thunder, we are hearing these men inside the cloud trying to get rid of the vines entangled around their legs.

“The other clans of the island fell down with the tower to the ground. When they fell, they came down on all the other small islands near their original island. These men started new villages at all of the places that they landed. So now there are many other kinds of languages near this island.”

It mirrors the anthropological description of migrations outward from the mainland rather than inward from the ocean, since the only language spoken among the Trobriand Islands and Kiriwina Island is the Kilivila language. Even among the Woodlark Islands and Marshall Bennett Islands, the only language spoken is the Muyuw. This is not the case on bigger islands of Goodenough, Fergusson, and Normanby. The languages spoken on Goodenough Island, for instance, include Kaninuwa, Bwaidoka, and Diodio, and on the nearby Island of Fergusson the languages of Iamalele, Boselewa, Maiadomu, Galeya, Molima, Minaveha, and Koluwawa are all spoken. Adjacent to them is Normanby Island, where Dobu, Mwatebu, Duau, Auhelewa, Bunama, and Sewa Bay languages can be found.



The closer and bigger the islands are, this story explains, the more numerous the number of languages spoken—but with smaller numbers of speakers. The concentration of several languages along the northeastern coastline suggests that people moved along the coast to establish settlements, rather than venture into the ocean in search of opportunities to expand. In total, the Milne Bay Province has around 55 languages in common use. Straddling the Solomon Sea, the South Pacific Ocean, and the Coral Sea, the Milne Bay Islands and mainland form a path, as if the islands served as temporary habitations and shelters before the Austronesian speakers moved on further afield.

It is possible the Austronesia speakers hopped through these islands before settling down in the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa: “Historical linguistics and archaeology,” according to Ron Crocombe, “provide compatible evidence indicating that the peoples who developed and carried out Lapita pottery were Austronesian speakers who evolved in the New Britain/New Ireland area and subsequently spread throughout island Melanesia (but not most of the New Guinea mainland), Polynesia, and parts of Micronesia. This set of Austronesian languages was associated with Lapita pottery, domesticated animals, quadrangular adzes, large villagers, tattooing, pearlshell knives, and other artifacts of distinctive shape and style.”

Perhaps the distribution of many languages in the mainland is consistent with the linguistic evidence that the main island of New Guinea itself is a modern day linguistic museum, boasting the greatest linguistic diversity in the world.

There are three main kinds of Oceanic languages: Australian (Aboriginal), Papuan, and Austronesian. Australian (Aboriginal) languages exists primarily in the Australian continent, exhibiting no close relations “to any languages in the Pacific or elsewhere,” most “became extinct in the past 200 years, and the less than 50 still spoken now receive the support which small languages of minority populations need if they are to survive in association with a large national language.”

The Papuan languages are mostly spoken in the island of New Guinea, mostly in Papua New Guinea. “A few Papuan languages,” says Crocombe, “are scattered as far west as Timor, as far as Santa Cruz in Solomon Islands, and as far south as the Torres Strait Islands.” Earlier languages were replaced by the Papuan language speakers, yet the intriguing explanation for this language dispersal and development is that Papuan languages originated from Indonesia but are “vastly different from most languages spoken in Indonesia today,” which result from more recent migrants from Asia who swamped the earlier people.

According to the best evidence, the first of the three main waves of Papuan languages seem to have reached New Guinea more than 10,000 years ago; the latest arrived about 5,000 years ago. Most Papuan language groups contain fewer than 1,000 people. “But there are exceptions, the largest being Enga in the Papua New Guinea highlands, with about 175,000 speakers.”

The Papuan languages survived because the small populations of speakers began the processes of adaption and isolations, leading to language maintenance and support in the face of adversity and environmental challenges.


This migration pattern explained through linguistic evidence points to the Tower of Babel folktale that the Trobriands tell about the origins of language. The Trobriand language, Kilivila, and other Milne Bay languages all belong to the Austronesian group. One could describe these as the languages descended from those spoken by relatives left behind in South China-Taiwan down to Southeast Asia. They’re up in the sky, so to speak, scattered around Oceania, especially Papua New Guinea.

The Trobriand story also suggests the Melanesian influence in the language distribution and dispersion. According to the Atlas of the World’s Languages, Melanesia served as an important landmark in the history of language development and growth in the Southwestern Pacific. Linguist Maria Polinsky and anthropologist Geoffrey Smith write:

Human society is very ancient in Melanesia. Radiocarbon dating of prehistoric sites such as Kosipe in Papua have indicated 26,000 years of settlement, with some estimates ranging up to 40,000. This timespan corresponds to dates suggested for the peopling of the Australian continent.

In Melanesia, dominated by the main island of New Guinea, people lived in isolation for a long time before the arrival of the Lapita language group around 3500 years ago. “Indeed, until about 6,000 years ago,” Polinsky and Smith write, “a land bridge connected New Guinea and the Australian land mass, where populations were then continuous, and it is likely that the original migrations to Australia followed this route. Linguistic evidence supports this hypothesis, as links have been found between the languages of the Central Highlands and Proto-Australian.”

Once the bridge was broken, the languages remained intact without much linguistic growth for many thousands of years.

Melanesia serves as a linguistic hub, boasting one of the most linguistically diverse populations in the entire Oceania region. The island of Vanuatu, for instance, averages one language for every 1,500 speakers, with a total population of only 150,000 people. The other Melanesian countries exhibit similar characteristics, and the most linguistically diverse among the Melanesian countries is Papua New Guinea. Polinsky and Smith again:

According to the Summer Institute of Linguistics’ latest survey, in Papua New Guinea there are over 860 languages in a population of around 4 million. Many of these are still undescribed or incompletely known to outsiders, so for this reason alone care must be taken when making universal generalizations about human language.

The caution they take here is critical to understanding the linguistically complex make-up of the Pacific. So much is yet unknown. Papua New Guinea, the largest island in landmass and population, is also home of one-sixth of the world’s languages.

“Instead of wondering why Melanesia has so many languages,” wondered the late linguist and anthropologist Don Laycock, “maybe we should ask why the rest of the world has so few, or how some languages become established over such wide areas.”


Photo: traditional indigenous Papua New Guinea ceremonial paint and garb

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About Steven Winduo

Steven Edmund Winduo is a Papua New Guinean poet, short story writer, and scholar who teaches at the University of Papua New Guinea. He is the author of the poetry collections Lomo’ha I am, in Spirits’ Voice I Call (1991), Hembemba: Rivers of the Forest (2000), A Rower’s Song (2009), and Detwan How? Poems in Tok Pisin and English (2012) and a short story collection, The Unpainted Mask (2010). He was the founding editor of Savanna Flames: A Papua New Guinea Journal of Literature, Language, and Culture, and he speaks several languages, including English, Tok Pisin (PNG Pidgin), Nagum Boiken (mother tongue), and some Japanese.