Yasawan fieldsite in Fiji

Primary Site Researcher

Joseph Henrich

Anthropologist Joe Henrich (PhD, UCLA) holds the Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition and Evolution and is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Economics at the University of British Columbia.

In 2004 he was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honour bestowed by the United States on young scientists. His theoretical and empirical research, which includes both experiments and ethnographic fieldwork, has been published in a wide range of journals, including Nature, Science, Current Anthropology, American Antiquity, American Economic Review, Journal of Theoretical Biology, and Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

He co-edited the volume Foundations of Human Sociality (Oxford University Press, 2004), and co-authored Why Humans Cooperate (Oxford University Press, 2007).

henrich@psych.ubc.ca | Website


Yasawa Island lies in the northwest corner of the Fijian archipelago, known as lat long. This long narrow island is roughly 20km long and is 2km wide at its widest point. The island experiences a distinct wet-hot season between October and March and a dry-mild season between April and September. Yasawa is probably the driest island in Fiji.


The inhabitants of Yasawa Island are divided between six villages, with between 100 and 250 people per village.

People outside a hut


The island's inhabitants speak a local village dialect of Fijian and also standard Fijian.

Group identity and ethnicity

The islander’s consider themselves to ethnically Fijian and Yasawan.


The official religion of Yasawa island is Christian Methodism, but there are also Churches for The Assemblies of God.

Social organisation

Politically, the villages of Teci and Dalomo comprise a single political unit, the yavusa, while the village of Bukama is its own yavusa. Yavusa are the largest kin-based political unit in the Fijian system. Yavusa are typically composed of several mataqali, or clans. Yavusa are governed by a hereditary chief, senior male members of his mataqali, and a council of elders, which typically includes the senior member (and leader) of each mataqali.

An elected turaga ni koro is charged with handling relations with governments and external organisations (outside the traditional systems of chiefs and clans). This official can have an important influence in political decisions within the villages, however he is usually subservient to the Chief and his council. Christian churches in these villages, and their pastors, often influence political decision-making, although in these particular villages at this time, churches appear to a play a minor role.

Social gathering - people sat on the floor

Social and economic life on Yasawa is largely organised by a complex kinship system that expands the nuclear into an itokatoka (extended household) and governs more distant relationships with a cross-parallel distinction. Each mataqali is composed of several itokatoka. The system expands the nuclear family by extending parental and sibling relationship and creates linkages of various kinds to other itokatoka.

One's father's old brother is 'big father' (tata levu) and his younger brother is 'small father' (tata sewasewa). The eldest brother is usually the decision-maker of the itokatoka. The head of the mataqali is the senior male member of the leading itokatoka. All parallel cousins are referred to as siblings, as are first degree cross-cousins. Parallel cousins are one's mother's sister's children and father's brother's children. Cross-cousins and second degree cross-cousins, are tavale, and represent preferred marriage partners.

Economic activities

Economically, Yasawan households subsist principally on horticultural production, marine gathering, fishing and some purchase foods such as flour, sugar and tea. Men from all households maintain subsistence gardens that supply yams, cassava, bananas, coconuts and other fruits, which supply the bulk of the calories consumed by the islanders.

Fish supply the bulk of the protein in the Yasawan diet. Men catch fish using hook-and-line, nets, and both surface and underwater spears. Underwater spear fishing is also a prime source of male prestige in Yasawan communities. Women on the other hand collect firewood, prepare foods, clean, and gather shellfish, molluscs, and the like on the littoral. In the villages of Teci and Dalomo all cooking is done on open fires.

The two yavusa are economically distinct due to the fact that Bukama leases some of its land to an exclusive luxury hotel, the only one on the island at the current time, which employs many of its villagers. Teci and Dalomo, in contrast, supply only three to six workers to the hotel at any one time, and these jobs seem ephemeral. In Teci and Dalomo, there is one phone (that works occasionally), no electricity, no vehicles, and no commerce, except for in-home 'stores'.

Most houses in Teci and Dalomo are made from traditional material are there are only two small motorised boats. Bukama has mostly concrete block houses, is serviced by a minibus from the hotel (to pick up employees), and hotel workers can access a small but expensive store. Some houses in Bukama have electricity, which is generated by the hotel.


Teci village has a primary school. The number of years of formal education among adults varies from zero to 12, with a modal education of eight years.

Children holding fish on a line


Teci village has a nursing station that is usually not staffed. In order to get alternative medical treatment a villager must travel a full day, at some cost, to the hospital in Lautoka.

Beach and sea view

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Natalie Henrich and Joseph Henrich (2007). Why Humans Cooperate: A Cultural and Evolutionary Explanation. OUP.

Joseph Henrich, et al. (2006). Costly punishment across human societies. Science, 312, 1767-1770.

Joseph Henrich, et al. (2005). 'Economic Man' in cross-cultural perspective: Ethnography and experiments from 15 small-scale societies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 795-855. [Target article with commentaries and reply]

Joseph Henrich, et al. (2004). Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence in Fifteen Small-Scale Societies. OUP.

Joseph Henrich (2004). Demography and cultural evolution: Why adaptive cultural processes produced maladaptive losses in Tasmania. American Antiquity, 69 .2, 197-21.

Joseph Henrich (2004). Cultural group selection, coevolutionary processes and large-scale cooperation. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 53: 3-35 and 127-143. [Target article with commentaries and reply]

Joesph Henrich and Richard McElreath (2003). The evolution of cultural evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology, 12.3 ,123-135.

Joesph Henrich (2001). Cultural transmission and the diffusion of innovations: Adoption dynamics indicate that biased cultural transmission is the predominate force in behavioral change and much of sociocultural evolution. American Anthropologist, 103, 992-1013.

Joesph Henrich and Robert Boyd (2001). Why people punish defectors: Conformist transmission stabilizes costly enforcement of norms in cooperative dilemmas. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 208, 79-89.

Joesph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White (2001). The evolution of prestige: Freely conferred status as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22, 1-32.

Joesph Henrich and Robert Boyd (1998). The evolution of conformist transmission and between-group differences. Evolution and Human Behavior, 19, 215-242.

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