AN205      Half Unit
The Anthropology of Melanesia

This information is for the 2013/14 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Michael W. Scott, OLD 6.16


This course is available on the BA in Anthropology and Law, BA in Social Anthropology and BSc in Social Anthropology. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.


Undergraduates should have completed an introductory course in anthropology unless granted exemption from the course teacher

Course content

This course provides an introduction to the culture area in the southwest Pacific Ocean known as Melanesia through an examination of classic and contemporary ethnography of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji.

In the 1880s a hereditary Fijian priest named Dugamoi claimed to have acquired supernatural powers through initiatory out-of-body experiences and prophesied the imminent transformation of the Fijian social order: soon the European colonial rulers would become subject to Fijians and Fijian chiefs would serve the commoners. The wealth of Europeans – cloth, tinned goods, and other manufactured items – would all flow spontaneously and prodigiously to Fiji.

In 1919 the 'Vailala Madness' inspired the followers of Evara on the south coast of what is now Papua New Guinea with expectations that the spirits of their ancestors were about to arrive in a huge steamer bearing abundant supplies of flour, rice, tobacco, and knives and transferring control of trade in these goods from whites to blacks.

In the 1940s, Tsek instructed the people of the island of Espiritu Santo (in present-day Vanuatu) to prepare for the advent of cargo-laden Americans by killing their livestock, burning their villages, going naked, and living in communal antinomian anticipation of a new world order.

Collectively labelled 'cargo cults', such religious and political movements have, since the middle of the twentieth century, become iconic for many of the geographic and cultural area known as Melanesia. By tracking the classic ethnographic construction, late twentieth-century critique, and recent reassessment of this category, the course offers a thematically-centred survey of key themes in the anthropology of Melanesia.

Questions and topics considered include: what is 'Melanesia'? Is 'Melanesia' still a useful concept? The place of Melanesia in the history of anthropological theory; cosmologies, mythologies and religious practices; spatiality and emplacement; leadership and community formation; knowledge and secrecy; exchange; gender, race, personhood, and sociality; colonial histories; custom politics; indigenous Christianities; decolonization, nationalism and ethnogenesis; and Melanesian modernities.


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the MT.

Formative coursework

Students are expected to prepare discussion material for presentation in classes and are required to write assessment essays.

Indicative reading

I Bashkow, The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World; J Bonnemaison, The Tree and the Canoe: History and Ethnogeography of Tanna; K Burridge, Mambu; J G Carrier (Ed), History and Tradition in Melanesian Anthropology; R J Foster (Ed), Nation Making: Emergent Identities in Postcolonial Melanesia; H Jebens (Ed), Cargo, Cult and Culture Critique; M Kaplan, Neither Cargo Nor Cult: Ritual Politics and the Colonial Imagination in Fiji; R M Keesing, Custom and Confrontation; A Lattas, Dreams, Madness, and Fairy Tales in New Britain; P Lawrence, Road Belong Cargo: A Study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Madang District, New Guinea; J Leach, Creative Land: Place and Procreation on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea; J Robbins, Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society; M W Scott, The Severed Snake: Matrilineages, Making Place, and a Melanesian Christianity in Southeast Solomon Islands; M Strathern, The Gender of the Gift; H Whitehouse, Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity; M Tabani and M Abong, Kago, Kastom and Kalja: The Study of Indigenous Movements in Melanesia Today; P Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of 'Cargo' Cults in Melanesia. Detailed reading lists are provided at the beginning of the course.


Exam (70%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (30%, 2500 words) in the MT.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2012/13: Unavailable

Average class size 2012/13: Unavailable

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information