At a time when economics implied the theories of either Karl Marx or Adam Smith, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski turned everything upside down; challenging conventional ideas about the nature of wealth and the purpose and meaning of exchange, even as he revealed the dynamics of a contemporary oceanic trading network, so vast and complex that it offered clues as to the very forces that ultimately led to the settlement of the Pacific Ocean.
Malinowski wanted to know how people could possibly maintain social connections across violent currents and an open ocean. While Polynesians drew their subsistence almost exclusively from the land, their commerce moved over water. On the face of it, nothing they produced could rationalize the risks even of a single voyage. Yet, they had a curious system of exchange in which nothing of evident worth or value moved at great risk and with the promise of immense prestige.
He discovered a trading network that linked scores of communities over thousands of square kilometers of ocean, small huddled clusters of humanity that clung to coral reefs and spread over the remains of sunken mountains.
Known as the Kula ring, it was a system of balanced reciprocity based on the ceremonial exchange of two items, necklaces of discs chiseled from red spondylus shells known as the soulava, and armbands of white cone shell, the mwali. These were strictly symbolic objects with no intrinsic or utilitarian value.
And yet, for at least five hundred years, men had been prepared to risk their lives to carry these jewels across thousands of kilometers of open sea. The necklaces moved clockwise through the years, while the armbands flowed in reverse, always travelling in a counter-clockwise direction. Each individual involved in the trade had at least two partners; relationships that like marriages were intended to last for life, and even be inherited by subsequent generations.
To one partner a voyager would give a necklace in exchange for an armband of equal value, and to the other he would pass along an armband and receive in return a necklace. Each contact had his second partner on another island, and thus there was a continuous distribution chain. The exchanges did not occur all at once. Once in possession of a highly valued object, one was expected to savor for a time the prestige it conferred; even as one made plans ultimately to pass it along.
As a single object made its way around the Kula, perhaps taking as long as twenty years to complete the passage, only to continue again, its value grew with each voyage; with each story of hardship and wonder, witchcraft and the wind, and with the names of all the great men whose lives it had passed through. Thus the sacred objects were in constant motion, encircling the scattered islands in a ring of social and magical power.
Malinowski understood and wrote of the functional purpose of the Kula ring. It established relationships over great distances among peoples of different languages, facilitating the ultimate movement back and forth of utilitarian objects, pigments and dyes, stone axes, obsidian, ceramics, polished ceremonial stones, woven goods and certain foods.
The Kula also provided the context for the display of prestige and status upon which the authority of the hereditary chiefs was based. Their names were associated with the most valuable armbands and necklaces, and it fell to them to organize and lead the voyages. Preparations were rigorous and costly. Men from widely separated villages had to be coordinated. Gardens had to be planted simply to grow the food to be consumed during the preparations for the journey.
Months went by and with each passing day the excitement grew about the voyage. As Malinowski so elegantly distilled in the title of his book, the voyagers really were as Argonauts sailing forth into the unknown, in search of honor and glory, uncertain whether they would ever again see home and family, driven by the thrill of adventure and the siren call of the open water.
It is this flash of the human spirit, that becomes the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. It forges, through connection, an integral bond between the past, present and future; making us, as a species, more than the sum of our parts. It brings into our activities connection, belonging and affirmation.