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Malekula, Vanuatu


  • Principal Investigator: Heidi Colleran
  • Research started: 2015

Big Nambas men performing a customary dance at the Vanuatu National Arts Festival in Malekula, August 2019

Site details

Malekula (also spelled Malakula) is the second largest island in Vanuatu, an island nation in the south western Pacific and part of the Melanesian cultural sphere. Measuring approximately 120km by 20km, and with approximately 24,000 inhabitants, two major cultural/ethnic groups - known as the Big Nambas and Small Nambas -  and approximately 40 distinct languages, Malekula is one of the most linguistically dense places on earth. The territory ranges from a densely forested and rugged interior to coral fringing reefs and experiences a wet (November - March) and a dry (April - October) season. Most people practice slash and burn horticulture (growing yams, taro, banana and manioc as staples) along with hunting, fishing and gathering. This is supplemented by cash-cropping, mainly of copra and cacao, and sale of fruits and vegetables at local markets.

The early history of Vanuatu is obscure. The archipelago of over 80 islands sits just over a boundary between what is called Near Oceania (the area including New Guinea and its surrounding islands) and Remote Oceania (the vast area stretching from Vanuatu to Easter Island-Rapa Nui). The very first inhabitants – arriving around 3,000 years ago – were Proto-Austronesian speakers associated with the Lapita pottery culture that had developed in the Bismarck Archipelago around 500 years earlier. All of the approximately 138 indigenous languages spoken in Vanuatu today are part of the Oceanic sub-group of the Austronesian language family. Genetic research shows that the initial Lapita arrivals in Vanuatu were closely followed by secondary population migrations from the Bismarck Archipelago in Papua New Guinea. The islands were sporadically visited by European explorers starting in 1606, and in 1774 Captain Cook named them the New Hebrides. Christian Missionaries (Roman Catholic and Protestant) started arriving from the 1840s, followed in more recent times by Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, and many other Pentecostal and Evangelical groups. In the 1860s, a long-term indentured-labour trade called ‘black birding’ was instigated by planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia and the Samoan islands. Many ni-Vanuatu were captured or deceived into working on foreign plantations. Settlers also came to establish plantations on the islands and to trade natural resources such as sandalwood. Between 1906 and 1980 the New Hebrides islands were jointly colonised and administered by Britain and France. An independence movement began in the 1960s, in large part a response to widespread land alienation, and led to the creation of the Republic of Vanuatu in 1980. In the post-colonial context, both English and French, along with Bislama (an English-based creole) are the official languages of the country, although Bislama is the lingua franca of choice for the vast majority of inhabitants.

I work with a number of different communities in Malekula, but I spend most of my time working with members of the Big Nambas (Nav’ei-ilil) ethno-linguistic group in north west Malekula. Big Nambas communities are organised into patrilineal clans each with distinct origin histories, and though they share a common set of customs and a common language (V’ënen Taute), they do not claim a common ancestor. The Big Nambas practice a combination of hierarchical and egalitarian politics: a stratified and strictly inherited socio-political structure with paramount chiefs, and a robust egalitarian ethos. Earlier anthropological surveys of the New Hebrides drew attention to historical Big Nambas practices such as cannibalism and ritualised homosexuality: they also became a global sensation when they were featured in the 1918 movie “Among the Cannibals of the South Seas”  by the American explorers and filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson. Despite this dubious and selective fame, there has been little extended ethnographic writing on Big Nambas history and culture. What has been written has mostly focused on men’s lives.


My research in Vanuatu focuses on customary and contemporary reproductive dynamics, how these relate to the demography of communities, and how ‘cultures of reproduction’ influence the generation, maintenance and loss of cultural and linguistic diversity, especially in the context of the emerging demographic transition to low fertility. I work most often with women, and on issues related to women’s reproductive lives, but of course these questions affect men’s lives too.

My work is based on a combination of participant observation, survey work and some experimental techniques drawn from across the social sciences. I document customary practices, oral histories and personal testimonies through video, audio, and photographic recordings, on request by and in collaboration with community members and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, with whom I work closely.

I am also involved in a number of collaborative projects in Vanuatu that span the social and biological sciences. Between 2016 and 2019 I managed and co-directed the “Vanuatu Languages and Lifeways” project out of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. This involved drawing together linguists, geneticists, archaeologists and psychologists. Since 2016 I have also been collaborating with external partners in anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science and political science.

Selected Publications

Posth C., Naegele K., Colleran H., [24 co-authors], Gray R., Krause J., Powell A. Language continuity despite population replacement in Remote Oceania, Nature Ecology and Evolution, 2(4), 731

Posth C., Naegele K., Colleran H., Gray R., Krause J., Powell A. Response to: Ancient DNA and its contribution to understanding the human history of the Pacific Islands (Bedford et al. 2018), Archaeology in Oceania, Vol 00: 1-5

Colleran et al (in prep). Spitting images: ethnographic insights from a recent population-genetic study in Vanuatu.