Tolai - Orientation

Identification. "Tolai" is the modern name for the indigenous people who live within a radius of about 32 kilometers of the port town of Rabaul in the northeast corner of New Britain known as the Gazelle Peninsula. In the past they had no inclusive name for themselves, and early Roman Catholic missionaries introduced the name "Gunantuna" (meaning the "true land" or the "proper land"), a usage that is no longer followed. "Tolai" itself (from a local greeting akin to "mate," "buddy," and the like) appears to date back to the 1930s.

Location. The Tolai live at 151°30′ E and 4°30′ S on the Gazelle Peninsula. The peninsula was in the past effectively cut off from the rest of New Britain by the Baining Mountains. It is a highly tectonic area, its chief physical landmarks being the volcanic craters that ring Rabaul Harbor. A major eruption in 1937 brought massive loss of life and virtually destroyed Rabaul. The volcanic ash deposited for centuries across the land has given the soils an unusual fertility. The year falls into two seasons: the taubar, the time of the Southeast trade winds (roughly May to October); and the labur, the northwest monsoon or rainy season.

Demography. Estimates place the population at contact at about 30,000. This is one of the most densely populated areas of Melanesia—over a hundred people per square kilometer at first contact. Over the past twenty-five years the population has been growing at an explosive rate—in some communities at about 4.5 percent per annum. Tolai are Presently estimated to number about 120,000. Given an area of some 910 square kilometers, population density is exceedingly high, creating many social problems.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tolai call their language tinata tuna, meaning the "true word" or the "proper word." It is also known as "Kuanua," or nowadays simply "Tolai." As an Austronesian language, it is more closely related to the languages of southern New Ireland than to those of other parts of New Britain. Formerly dialectical differences were important, but missionary influence has encouraged the present homogeneity as well as its spread to the Duke of York Islands, New Ireland, and elsewhere.

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