Bridewealth Project

Bridewealth payments in the Pacific Island countries of New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea are to a large extent similar. However local and regional variations exist between these countries and between different cultural groups within them. Below, we are giving short examples of the variations. 

In New Caledonia, cash, food crops such as yams, taros and manioc, bananas, sugarcane, pandanus mats (woven using the palm-like leaves of the pandanus tree), pieces of fabric, (known locally as "manou"), dresses and food products such as rice and sugar constitute the bulk of bridewealth. On the island of Grande Terre, shell money, known asâdi in the Paicî language and as thawé in Pinje, is also added to bridewealth payments. An ethnographic notice written by the Tjibaou Cultural Centre describes shell money in the following way: «In the Paicî language of New Caledonia, âdi refers to the shell money. […] This kanak money represents the Ancestor. The head of the money is carved in wood. Its body is made of shell beads and its foot is made with the hair of fruit bat. The money is kept in a case in order to be transported easily. […] This shell money symbolizes the blood, the life flowing between the ancestors and the living and the Word which travels across the Kanak country. Its value is primarily spiritual: offering or receiving money is a sacred act. The âdi is now, with yams, the most highly valued traditional currency. » (Centre culturel Tjibaou n.d.)

In Vanuatu, bridewealth includes cash, pigs, cows, food crops such as yams, taros and manioc, sugarcane, bananas, kava, pandanus mats, rolls of fabric, bags of rice and sugar as well as consumer goods such as household utensils, plates and plastic buckets. The Swiss anthropologist Felix Speiser, who conducted research in Vanuatu in the early 1910s, wrote that bridewealth payments differed from island to island: in the Bank Islands bridewealth consisted of shell money (10 fathoms being the average given for a young girl) while on Erromango, bridewealth consisted of clubs (navilahs) (1996 [1923]: 263). On Erromango, the Anglo-American anthropologist Kirk W. Huffman also noted that fossilized giant clamshells or quartzite clan-money functioned as currency for bridewealth payments in the past (1996: 139).

Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world and accordingly, the specificities of bridewealth vary from place to place. Cash, pigs and yams figure centrally among bridewealth items in almost all of the regions. Among the Tolai people of the Gazelle Peninsula of East New Britain, shell money called tambu also formed an important part of bridewealth. The English anthropologist A.L. Epstein spoke about tambu in the following terms: «Tambu […] consists of tiny shells threaded together on rattan vine. The standard unit of measurement was the fathom - equivalent to two outstretched arms - and this in turn was divisible into smaller units, each with a distinct name. […] Tambu […] was necessary for marriage; at each stage of the frequently elaborate preliminaries there were public presentations and exchanges of shell-money, while the bride wealth itself consisted of shell-money. [… ] [T]he central aim of acquiring tambu was to accumulate it in the form of large coils containing anything from 100 to 1000 fathoms» (Epstein 1963: 185).

Among the Motuans people of Central Province, cash, pigs, yams, bags of rice and flour and the famous bilum constitute the bulk of bridewealth. Bilums are string bags made of vegetal or store bought yarn and string that are used to carry a wide range of items, from shopping goods in large bilums to personal items in purse-sized varieties. Mothers often carry their babies in bilums. The Chimbu people in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea represent another example of diverse goods exchanged in bridewealth payments. According to Paula Brown, an anthropologist who conducted research among these people from the 1950s to the 1980s, bridewealth payments among the Chimbu included cash, pigs, metal goods such as axes and knives, shells (gold-lipped mother-of-pearl shells, bailer shells, cowries) and feathers, particularly bird of paradise, hawk and Pesquet parrot feathers (Brown 1970: 109).

For further details on the goods that constitute bridewealth and are exchanged at marriage in these three countries, the readers are invited to consult the specialized bibliography.

Fabienne Labbé


Brown, Paula. 1970. "Chimbu Transactions." Man 5 (1): 99-117. doi:10.2307/2798807.

Centre culturel Tjibaou. "Âdi, monnaie kanak." Ethnoclic

Epstein, A. L. 1963. "The Economy of Modern Matupit: Continuity and Change on the Gazelle Peninsula, New Britain." Oceania 33 (3): 182-215. doi:10.1002/j.1834-4461.1963.tb00801.x.

Huffman, Kirk W. 1996. "The 'Decorated Cloth' from the 'Island of Good Yams': Barkcloth in Vanuatu with Special Reference to Erromongo." In Arts of Vanuatu, edited by Joël Bonnemaison, Christian Kaufmann, Kirk Hauffman, and Darrell Tryon, 129-40. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawai'i Press.

Speiser, Felix. 1996. Ethnology of Vanuatu: An Early Twentieth Century Study. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.