Rethinking agency in hiri exchange relationships on Papua New Guinea’s south coast: Oral traditions and archaeology

Chris Urwin, Lara Lamb, Robert John Skelly, Joshua A. Bell, Teppsy Beni, Matthew Leavesley, Bruno David, Henry Arifeae

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


The maritime hiri exchange system spanned up to 350 km of Papua New Guinea’s south coast, connecting ceramicist Motu with Papuan Gulf villagers who produced large quantities of sago palm (Metroxylon sagu) starch and rainforest logs. Archaeological and ethnographic evidence for the development of the hiri derives mostly from the Motu end of the exchange system. As a result, the Motu are often typecast as adventurous protagonists and Papuan Gulf peoples as passive “recipients” of specialised trade goods (pottery and shell valuables). We trace historical understandings of the hiri and outline the dynamic transformations that took place in this exchange network from the early colonial era to the mid-1950s. We introduce oral traditions recorded in Orokolo Bay in 2015 and ethnography from nearby communities which provide a Papuan Gulf lens through which to see the exchange network. Papuan Gulf peoples assert that their ancestors initiated the hiri in the cosmological past and helped maintain it through reverse-hiri (bevaia) voyages in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Inter-generational exchange partnerships were cultivated and sometimes cemented through temporary adoption. We conclude by drawing out some under-appreciated social dimensions of the hiri’s history and avenues for future research.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101484
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Anthropological Archaeology
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023


  • Exchange networks
  • Oral traditions
  • Ethnography
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Late Holocene
  • Pacific

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