SOLOMON ISLANDS ETHNOLOGY

           

Each of the islands in the Solomon Group has its own distinct culture and we can observe in the light plank-built canoes of Buka the same combination of carved and painted designs that are evident in New Ireland. Further south another and a very beautiful decorative fashion prevails: the production of glistening patterns of inlaid, pearly nautilus or other shell. Canoes, houses, and carved figures of men, birds and fish are all ornamented in this manner.

Solomon Islands canoe Prow with pearl inlay c. 1890.

Black wooden food bowls, both large and small, are in a form of a bird, with head, wings and tail simply outlined with inlaid shell. The bird frequently has a fish in its beak: surely an appropriate motive for the art of a coastal fishing community.  

The bird is a frigate bird, the same as that which is used for the basis of handicraft in New Guinea but in the Solomons it is treated much differently. It is carved in soft wood and is whorled and enspiralled into intricate and perplexing unrecognisability; but in the Solomon Islands pearl-shell inlay is reduced to the simplest outline, or even to the vestige of a wing, a head or an eye. It recovers its vitality and a measure of intricacy in the shallow, easily incised patterns on shell-disc pendants, but becomes angularly formalized again in the turtle-shell fretwork ornaments from Santa Cruz.   

160: Ornate carving of a frigate bird.
161 & 162: Shell disc pendants.
163: Frigate bird with pearl shell inlay.
164: Shell disc pendant from Santa Cruz.

Everywhere in the Solomon Islands there is lavish use of personal ornaments: combs for the hair, breastplates of pearl shell, plugs for pierced and much-distended ear lobes, and a necklace of teeth or small shell discs. The last were used for money as well for display.

Early image of a Solomon Islander.

The natives live, according to locality, in family hamlets, scattered over a hillside, or in larger villages with the houses spread along a straggly path or standing around an open square. There is a larger decorated house or chief's lodge, which is also used as a guest house, wherein women as well as men may live. It is therefore not a special men's sleeping quarters and club.

In coastal villages, the canoe house is the men's exclusive rendezvous which women are forbidden to enter and where manhood rite for youths are performed. Here young boys were kept for a long period of seclusion and preparations before being taken out in a canoe to be initiated into the art of bonito-fishing. Ceremonies for the opening of the bonito season were conducted in front of the house; sacred relics, as well as the tapu fishing rods, were kept within; trophies such as the heads of pigs and bonito decorated the walls, and the heads of enemies slain in battle were hung up outside.   

Solomon Islands coconut wood comb.

Inter-tribal fighting and head-hunting were as prevalent here as elsewhere in Melanesia. The chief motive for the latter was to secure a victim as a propitiatory offering for such occasions as the death of a chief, the building of a house or the launching of a canoe. Fighters carried a full equipment of bows and arrows, spears, shields and clubs, but the arrow and the thrown spear were most popular with the club being used for warding off spears or dispatching a disabled enemy.

The Solomon Islands area is rich in natural resources, material well-being, ceremonies and art, and along with Fiji, holds the living place among native cultures of the Western Pacific. This impression may, however, arise partly from the great variety of customs, arts, and crafts, which would be apparent in a close cluster of large islands. A high quality of workmanship and art can be seen in every aspect of handwork in the Solomon Islands. 

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 Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 1st December 2008)