Kula, also known as the Kula exchange or Kula ring, is a ceremonial exchange system conducted in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. It involves a complex system of visits and exchanges and was first described in the west by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in 1922.
The Kula Exchange
The objects exchanged in Kula are not particularly valuable in themselves, but rather serve to help forge social connections which are depended upon at various times throughout an individual's life. The study of this practice has helped to show that many indigenous peoples have traditions that serve many purposes beyond basic survival functions, enabling sometimes distant social groups to have harmonious relationships that benefit all.
More About the Kula Ring:
“The Kula gifts are of two types and are not in themselves remarkably valuable. One consists of shell-disc necklaces (veigun or Soulava) that are traded to the north (circling the ring in clockwise direction) and the other are shell armbands (Mwali) that are traded in the southern direction (circling counter-clockwise). Mwali was given with the right hand, the Soulava given with the left hand, first between villages then from island to island. If the opening gift was an armband, then the closing gift must be a necklace and vice versa”.
“The Kula ring spans at least 18 island communities of the Massim archipelago, including the Trobriand Islands and involves thousands of individuals… It begins in the garden, harvesting surplus yams particularly in anticipation of the trading to come. Although taro is a staple, the higher status yams are a favorite item for the Kula trade. The yams will be displayed competitively and are also used in the feasts to come. They provide one of the ways a village can show hospitality to their visitors, old and new partners”.
"Kula creates a two-way return of favors. This is not a form of trade where once you trade items the commitment is absolved. Rather, in Kula, once you are a part of the circle it is a permanent connection. The saying around Papua is ‘once in Kula, always in Kula’... The right of participation in Kula exchange is not automatic. One has to ‘buy’ one's way into it through participating in various lower spheres of exchange… The giver-receiver relationship is always asymmetrical: the former are higher in status. Also, as Kula valuables are ranked according to value and age, so are the relationships that are created through their exchange”.
“A long time ago, a hero named Tava, who sometimes appeared as a snake, would pass between certain villages and when he was present, good fortune and prosperity were there as well. Only one woman in each village knew where he was, and she would feed and take care of him. It was important that he be treated well because if he felt mistreated or betrayed in any way, he would move on to the next island. When he left, the good fortune left with him. Still, thankful for the goodness he received while he was there, he left something behind as a trade. It could be a surplus of pigs and yams in the Trobriand Islands or perhaps fine pottery made in the Amphletts. In other areas he left gifts of obsidian and betelnuts. This story could be the origin of the Kula ring and the way it operates among the islands”.