Sursurunga fieldsite in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea

Primary Site Researcher

Alexander H. Bolyanatz

Anthropologist Alex Bolyanatz (PhD UC San Diego) is in the Department of Anthropology at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He has conducted ethnographic research among the Sursurunga of New Ireland Papua New Guinea since 1989. His research has focused on the dynamics of matrilineal descent, which is described in Mortuary Feasting on New Ireland (2000).

In the wake of his critique of particularism in anthropology (Pacific Romanticism, 2004), he has engaged in research projects that focus on human universals and their origins. | Website


New Ireland is the north-eastern-most province of Papua New Guinea. Tekedan village, which serves as the research base, is located at 3° 53' 16'' S, 152° 45' 59'' E.

Beach view


There are between 3,000 and 4,000 speakers of Sursurunga inhabiting 24 (19 on the east coast and five on the west coast) nucleated settlements in southern New Ireland. The people are Melanesian, and human settlement in the Sursurunga region extends beyond 30,000 years ago.


Sursurunga is a member of the Austronesian language family; it is one of the handful of the world's known languages that has a quadral pronoun form, ie the 'us' would take a different form if a speaker were to refer to the three of us as opposed to the four of us. All Sursurunga are completely bilingual in Neo-Melanesian, and, given Australia's role in Papua New Guinea's colonial history (independence came in 1975), a smattering of English is spoken by many people.

Ethnic identity and history

People identify themselves as Sursurunga, in contrast to Patpatar, the language group to the north and Tanglament, the group to the south.

Sursurunga group

Political and social organisation

Papua New Guinea's national and provincial governments have been well-represented by the Sursurunga region. Sir Julius Chan, whose mother is Sursurunga, is a former Prime Minister of the country. Local government is organised on the basis of village committees and counselors. These institutions exist in tandem with matrilineal descent groups that include exogamous moieties. Much of what is considered traditional life - rites related to traditional spirit beliefs, as well as birth, marriage, and death - is structured by membership in matrilineal descent groups.

Schooling and literacy

Over 80% of the population has completed six years of primary education, and that figure is higher for those under the age of 40. Literacy is estimated at 75%. Primary education in many parts of the language group takes the form of two years of pre-school in Sursurunga followed by six years of schooling in English.

Economic practices and daily life

Most people in the region are subsistence farmers, growing tubers such as sweet potato, taro, and cassava. Copra and cacao are widely grown cash crops, with the average annual per capita income at US $289. Roughly one-third of a typical household's calories come from cash, primarily in the form of rice. Other purchased foods include tinned fish; subsistence fishing is relatively uncommon.

People farming


Virtually all Sursurunga self-identify as Christian, and the vast majority adhere to the United Church, a 1960s amalgam of Congregationalists and Methodists, although many older people still refer to themselves as Methodist. There are a handful of Roman Catholics in the southern third of the language area, and a small but growing number of Pentecostal and Evangelical groups throughout.


Malaria is endemic in the region and constitutes the single biggest health concern. Clinics and aid posts are plentiful enough - at least on the east coast where there is a road - that medical help is within a day's walk. A hospital in Namatanai town, two hours' drive to the north, is available for the more pressing needs.

Locals near a beach

Explore this fieldsite with Google Earth

Google Earth allows you to explore sites anywhere in the world using satellite images of those sites. Navigate the fieldsite and explore it in detail using the files below:

Google Earth files for New Ireland (KMZ, 641B)


Bolyanatz, Alexander H. (2001). Gender and residence in southern New Ireland. Notes on Anthropology 5:61-73.

Bolyanatz, Alexander H. (2000). Mortuary Feasting on New Ireland: The Activation of Matriliny Among the Sursurunga. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey.

Bolyanatz, Alexander H. (1998). Economic cooperatives, development, and matriliny in Papua New Guinea. Notes on Anthropology 2:31-49.

Bolyanatz, Alexander H. (1998). Where is Claes Pietersz Bay? An episode in the history of the Sursurunga of New Ireland. Ethnohistory 45:319-347.

Bolyanatz, Alexander H. (1996). Musings on matriliny: Understandings and social relations among the Sursurunga of New Ireland. In Gender, Kinship, Power. M. J. Maynes, A. Waltner, B. Soland, and U. Strasser, eds. pp. 81-97. London: Routledge.

Bolyanatz, Alexander H. (1995). Matriliny and revisionist anthropology. Anthropos 90:169-180.

Bolyanatz, Alexander H. (1994). Defending against grief on New Ireland: The place of mortuary feasting in Sursurunga society. Journal of Ritual Studies 8:115-133.

Bolyanatz, Alexander H. (1994). Legitimacy, coercion, and leadership among the Sursurunga of southern New Ireland. Ethnology 33:53-63.

Hutchisson, Don (1995). Sursurunga conjunctive elements. Language and Linguistics in Melanesia 26:33-88.

Hutchisson, Don (1986). The pronomial system in Sursurunga. In Pronomial Systems, U. Wiesemann, ed., pp. 1-29. Tübingen: G. Narr.

Jackson, Stephen Alexander (1996). Remembering to forget: Memory, burial, and self-similarity in Sursurunga, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. Anthropology and Humanism. 21(2):159.

Jackson, Stephen Alexander (1995). Exchanging help: Death, self-similarity, and social responsibility in a New Ireland community, Papua New Guinea. PhD dissertation, University of Virginia.

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