King Kong Anthropology: The Kina Shell Necklace of Papua New Guinea's Bride-Price Tradition

Mr. Taylor's homeroom, 9:14 am

Good morning, class. Settle down quickly, please. Hey, yo, this is the first and last time I'm going to ask you to put that comic book away, Mr. Darrell. If I see it on your desk again it's going to go into my own personal comic book collection. (Even though I already have that one.) Now, please put it away until recess. Thank you, young sir.

All right, class. Today we have a very special treat. As you know, this is the day of the week that we reserve for show-n-tell. I can already see that those of you whose turn it is this time around are eagerly awaiting your chance to tell us about the items you've brought to share. As usual, I'm looking forward to seeing what you've brought.

Uh, Mr. Hardeep? Please put that...wow, vintage Jet Jaguar figure in your bookbag until it's your turn a little later for show-n-tell. Thanks.

To start the session today, class, I thought we'd do something different. Our good friend Professor Paco has come in at my request to tell us about one of the many impressive items in his collection of rare cultural artifacts from Oceania. Let's give him our undivided attention, okay?


Thanks, Mr. Taylor. Good morning, class. It's really great to see all your brilliant faces again. I am going to try my best to make this short visit equally as exciting as the last one. So, to that end I'm going to start this lil' presentation with a video clip from the movie King Kong.

[Low groans from the class]

Hold on, now. Don't declare mutiny on me just yet. The clip is not from that Peter Jackson remake. I've already been informed that many, if not most of you, disliked that one just as much as I did. And for some of the very same reasons: Actors wearing blackface make up...in the 21st century? Pretty flippin' lame, right?

And how horrendous was the film's portrayal of the 'black islanders' overall? It's ironic that Merian C. Cooper, the creator of the original 1933 Kong film, was, in fact, a certifiable racist. Writings penned in Ethiopia by Cooper make this clear (The Sea Gypsy, p. 133). And, yet, that director still delivered a fairly handsome portrayal of the Skull Islanders–which starkly contrasts Jackson's astoundingly ugly one.

You do the math.

No, this clip comes from the 1976 remake. In it, the character Dwan, played by actress Jessica Lange, has been kidnapped by Skull Islanders, played by African-American actors and extras – like in the original – and whisked back to their high-walled village. There she is prepared and dressed in the traditional garb of the sacrificial 'bride of Kong'. And afterward, the dazed and confused offering is bound to the village altar.

Pretty cool, huh? But what I found most cool – on the geek tip – is the level of detail paid to Lange's attire. Especially when considering how much of it's significance would be lost on unknowing audience members–including the once very young me. Despite this, the costume designer did their homework and brought a very under-appreciated level of authenticity to the costume. Before detailing what I mean specifically, let's first look at this subject in its broader context.

The last time I was here we talked briefly about the brothers and sisters of Papua New Guinea. As you'll recall from that discussion, we learned the surprising fact that the Melanesians (literally "black islanders") of Papua and the other islands of the South Pacific make up 80% of all Pacific Island peoples. And also that the far more frequently exampled people of Polynesia and Micronesia make up the remaining 20%. Right, class?


And who can still tell me the names of some of those islands and territories that make up the South Seas region?

"Papua New Guinea."


"The Solomon Islands!"


"New Caledonia."

"West Papua!"

"FREE WEST PAPUA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Geniuses. A class filled with geniuses. You all should be doing this presentation. I'll just sit my butt down.

[Youthful laughter]

Drawing our attention now specifically to Papua New Guinea, we know from still another discussion that West Papua has been struggling since 1969 to free itself from the oppressive and often brutal grip of the Indonesian Government. In the semi-fictional world of Kong, Skull Island is a make-believe landmass that is situated somewhere in the Indian Ocean, off the western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. In addition to a geographic nearness to Papua and the rest of Melanesia in the east, there's another intellectually sound reason for Skull Island's placement in this part of the world.

Before making the leap to science-fiction/fantasy filmmaker with King Kong, Cooper functioned in the decade prior as a explorer and documentary filmmaker. During this period he visited Ethiopia, and Southeast Asia's Andaman Islands, and the Melanesian islands of the South Pacific as well. And his exposure to the physiologically similar peoples found in all three of these regions inspired and informed the look and culture of the Skull Islanders.

A similar approach to the people of Skull Island was also taken in Dino De Laurentiis' 1976 remake. Aside from the people themselves chosen to portray the islanders, the ethnicity of the fictional islanders is made more evident through the clothing and the accoutrements worn, which indicate a mix of Melanesian and African cultural elements. With specific regard to the Melanesian influence, the crowning example can be found in the crescent-shaped, mother of pearl oyster shell adornment that hangs from Dwan's neck during the sacrifice sequence.

[Opens briefcase]

The necklace she wears is very similar to the one that I have brought to the class for show-n-tell today today (see figure A).

[Ahhs and Oohs from the class]

In PNG, this very valuable form of tribal adornment is known as the kina (keena). Say the word with me, class.


Excellent. You are all now honorary Papuans.


In PNG, kina shells are worn both by men and women as a sign of wealth and status. The shells can be displayed singly, as seen here, or layered in multiples–which frequently occurs when the wearer wants to show that they're living hella' large. Kina shells are used not only for wealth displays, but also as a form of currency in the resolution of blood feuds, or as part of the customary bride-price ceremony.

In this Kong film, the "bride-price" kina necklace worn by the Dwan character represents – albeit to unappreciated effect – a legitimate ceremonial item from the marriage traditions of PNG. And, like the previous 'brides', who presumably would have been adorned in a similar fashion, the gold-lip mother-of-pearl pendant indicates her elevated status as a lavish offering to the island's big, black, fear-inducing demigod.


Since 1975, when it was introduced to replace the Australian dollar that had previously been in use in the country, the paper currency of Papua New Guinea has been called the kina, in observance of the ancient shell tradition. And, in addition to the kina shell necklace that I brought to show and talk about, I have also brought in a fifty-kina banknote (fig. E), which features on its reverse a portrait of the legendary New Guinean Prime Minister Michael Somare.


Okay, class, this concludes my show-n-tell presentation. Now, make sure this PNG banknote doesn't get "lost" while it's being passed around the room today–so that everyone can get an up-close look. As that well-known saying goes, kinas do not grow on trees.

[Youthful laughter]

Details: A. Contemporary kina necklace by Anna Holland. Shell from the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, dating from the late 19th to early 20th century, combed with Venetian wound beads (also known as Cornaline d'Aleppos), from the African Trade period. Image © Anna Holland • B. Dwan in the grip of Kong, from King Kong. King Kong © Copyright 1976 by Dino De Laurentiis Corp. • C. King Kong theatrical promo poster (1976). King Kong © Copyright 1976 by Dino De Laurentiis Corp.D. Man of the Solomon Islands wearing a mother of pearl shell "dafi" necklace, similar  to the kina necklace of Papua  New Guinea.E. Bank of Papua New Guinea, fifty-kina banknote (2010). Prime Minister Michael Somare featured on reverse.

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