top of page

 Anthropology of the Marshall Islands 

 by Anthropologist Robert C. Kiste for Encyclopedia Britannica 

WorldMap - Marshall Islands.jpg
RMI map.gif
Eto 8.jpg
outrigger canoe.png
Jaluit Japan seabase.jpg
Libtu - Utrik - 1977-------SMALL.jpg
Eto 7 - Hessler1900_201.jpg
Eto 1--Women-in-traditional-Dresses-Likiep-atoll_1.jpg
Screen Shot 2021-07-28 at 9.56.02 AM-0-850-0-0.jpg
music 2.jpg

Marshall Islands, officially Republic of the Marshall Islands, Marshallese Majōl, country of the central Pacific Ocean. It consists of some of the easternmost islands of Micronesia. The Marshalls are composed of more than 1,200 islands and islets in two parallel chains of coral atolls—the Ratak, or Sunrise, to the east, and the Ralik, or Sunset, to the west. The chains lie about 125 miles (200 kilometres) apart and extend some 800 miles northwest to southeast. Majuro atoll is the nominal capital of the republic. Government offices are located in the town of Delap-Uliga-Djarrit, named for three islands that were once separated but were later joined by landfill.



None of the 29 low-lying coral atolls and the five coral islands in the Marshall group rises to more than 20 feet (six metres) above high tide. The islands are coral caps set on the rims of submerged volcanoes rising from the ocean floor. The island units of the Marshalls are scattered over about 180,000 square miles of the Pacific. The largest atoll in the group and in the world is Kwajalein, which has a land area of only six square miles but surrounds a 655-square-mile lagoon. The Marshall Islands’ nearest neighbours are Wake Island (north), Kiribati and Nauru (south), and the Federated States of Micronesia (west).
The climate is tropical, with a mean annual temperature for the entire group of 82 °F (28 °C). Annual precipitation varies from 20 to 30 inches (500 to 800 mm) in the north to 160 inches in the southern atolls. The wettest months are October and November. Several of the northern atolls are uninhabited owing to insufficient rainfall. Most of the Marshall Islands are true atolls, consisting of an irregular, oval-shaped coral reef surrounding a lagoon; the islets lie along the coral reef. The islands and islets of the Ratak chain tend to be more heavily wooded than those of the Ralik. Coconut and pandanus palms and breadfruit trees are the principal vegetation. Soils are generally sandy and low in fertility.



Namdrik Village


The native people of the Marshalls are Micronesians. The most populous atolls are Majuro and Kwajalein, which offers employment at the U.S. missile testing range; together they have almost three-fourths of the country’s total population. The rest of the population lives in traditional villages on the outer islands away from the two urban centres. American missionaries arrived in the Marshalls in the 1850s and had notable success. The Marshallese today are predominantly Christian. The Marshallese and English languages are spoken, but only a minority are fluent in the latter.

Ejema Kioto & baby, Utrik 1975



The republic’s main sources of revenue are substantial U.S. subsidies under a Compact of Free Association and the leasing of land for the U.S. missile testing range on Kwajalein. Employment and modern amenities at both Majuro and Kwajalein serve as magnets that draw people to the two urban centres.

On the outer islands, subsistence farming, fishing, and the raising of pigs and poultry are the principal economic activities. Coconut, pandanus, breadfruit, and taro are the major food crops. The production of copra is the chief source of income for the outer islands. The principal import is processed foods. Other major imports include machinery and transport equipment, manufactured goods, and fuels, primarily from the United States, Japan, and Australia.

Transportation among the atolls and islands is by boat or air. Government-owned ships make scheduled trips among the islands. Several commercial cargo lines also serve the islands. Majuro has a commercial dock complex, and many of the atolls have good anchorage within their lagoons. Majuro and Kwajalein have international airports, and domestic and regional flights link some of the other atolls and islands.


Government and Society


Under the constitution adopted in 1979, the government consists of a president elected by a unicameral, 33-member parliament known as the Nitijela. The Council of Iroij (Chiefs) has mainly a consultative function, concerned with traditional laws and customs.
Hospitals on Majuro and Ebeye (part of Kwajalein Atoll) and dispensaries on other islands provide health care. There are primary schools, both public and church-run, on the inhabited islands and islets. Majuro and Jaluit atolls each have a public secondary school. Majuro is also the site of the College of the Marshall Islands (1993), which grants certificates and associate degrees in a variety of programs.


Historical Summary


The Marshall Islands were settled initially around the beginning of the Christian era by Micronesians who may have been influenced by early Polynesian (Lapita) culture. Radiocarbon dates from earth-oven charcoal samples that were excavated in Laura village on Majuro yielded dates of about 30 bce and 50 ce. The early Marshall Islanders were skilled navigators and made long canoe voyages among the atolls.
Sighted in 1529 by the Spanish navigator Álvaro Saavedra, the Marshalls lacked the wealth to encourage exploitation or mapping. The British captain Samuel Wallis chanced upon Rongerik and Rongelap atolls while sailing from Tahiti to Tinian. The British naval captains John Marshall and Thomas Gilbert partially explored the Marshalls in 1788, but much of the mapping was done by Russian expeditions under Adam Johann Krusenstern (1803) and Otto von Kotzebue (1815 and 1823). U.S. whalers frequented the islands from the 1820s, and U.S. and Hawaiian Protestant missionaries began efforts to convert the islanders in the 1850s. Germany established a coaling station on Jaluit Atoll by treaty with island chiefs and in 1886, by agreement with Great Britain, established a protectorate over the Marshalls. Japan seized the islands in 1914 and later (after 1919) administered them as a League of Nations mandate. Occupied by the United States in World War II, following heavy fighting at Kwajalein and Enewetak, the Marshall Islands were made part of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands under jurisdiction of the United States in 1947.

























               Observers of "Operation Hardtack" at Enewetak Atoll, 1958. There were 250,000

               Atomic Veterans who watched above-ground nuclear tests at the Pacific Proving

               Grounds [aka the Marshall Islands] and at the Nevada Test Site between 1945-63.

               For  more information please go here

               And here:


After their populations were removed to other atolls, Bikini and Enewetak served as an official testing ground for U.S. nuclear bombs (1946–58). The tests stopped in 1958 and cleanup efforts began in the late 1960s. During the trial resettlement of the Bikinians, however, their atoll was found to be too contaminated for permanent habitation, and by the late 1970s the people had to be evacuated once again. The Enewetak people were returned to their homeland, and a program to monitor Bikini was put in place.

After voting to separate from the other entities of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, in 1978, the Marshall Islands drew up a constitution that voters approved in 1979. It formed the republic and brought internal self-government. In 1982 the government signed the Compact of Free Association with the United States. This agreement, approved by the voters in 1983, requires that the United States remain responsible for defense and external security and that it provide financial assistance for the republic. The compact entitles the United States to use the missile testing range on Kwajalein Atoll, and provides for the republic to become fully independent and to alter its status with the United States at any time, subject to approval of the residents through plebiscites. In 1983 the islanders reopened negotiations on the compact’s provision regarding compensation for the people of the four atolls affected by the U.S. nuclear tests. The United States agreed to set up a separate fund for the people of the four atolls and established an open-ended fund to cover personal injury claims among the islanders; it also agreed to set up a joint U.S.-Marshallese claims tribunal. A further agreement set up a fund to improve living conditions on Ebeye island, where all Micronesians working on the Kwajalein missile range and base resided. The Trust Territory was dissolved in 1990 with the approval of the UN Security Council, and on September 17, 1991, the Marshall Islands became a member of the UN.

                                                                 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


                  From:  The Marshall Islands Story Project

                More here:


                                              Introduction to Marshallese Culture

by Tony Alik, James Boaz, Christine Domnick, Ransen Hansen, Jr., Obet Kilon, Benson Langidrik,Decency Langidrik, Misako Lorennij, Ayson Maddison, Jefferson Paulis, Isabela Silk


Part I: The Origin of the Marshall Islands


According to legend, the Marshallese ancestors migrated into the islands from Southeast Asia some two thousand years ago. Linguistic and archaeological evidence would seem to support the theory that the first migrants arrived in the northern part of the island group and gradually settled throughout the two chains of islands, the Ralik and Ratak (Asian 2). Their migration to the islands was inspired by a number of reasons: warfare, over-crowdedness, and sense of adventure may have played a role in these movements. According to oral traditions, the settlers named their far-flung domain, Lollelaplap, which means "large expanse of ocean." Lollelaplap basically encompassed the 29 atolls and 4 islands that make up the Republic today.
The atolls and islands were formed from volcanic eruptions hundreds of thousands of years ago that formed the parallel island chains called Ralik (Sunset) and Ratak (Sunrise). The islands had been truly well settled by the time outsiders touched on these shores. English captains John Marshall and Thomas Gilbert were but two of these visitors, albeit later ones. Their names are prominently intertwined with the history of these islands, and our Kiribati neighbors to the south because they had the audacity to name these islands after themselves.
























Marshallese society is matrilineal people and arranged by hierarchy. At he top of the social tier were the Irooj (Chiefs), with the Alap (Noblemen), and Dri-Jerbal (Laborer) occupying the second and third tiers respectively. All land belonged to the Bwij or clan. Rights to land were inherited through the mother. According to oral traditions, every person had a birthright of land through the bwij. However, it was not individual ownership of the land rights and the responsibilities of each person depended on the position of the individual within the bwij, and the position of their bwij within the social classes that developed.

The traditional classes in society were distinct chiefs and commoners. The irooj laplap were the ones with the most power. Then there were the irooj rik, the lesser chiefs, and finally the kajur, or commoner. The irooj laplap were considered almost sacred, godly. Others stooped over and approached on their knees to show respect, and always obeyed the orders of their high chief. The irooj laplap received the best food, had the right to the best land in the Island, and had as many wives as they wanted. In return for these privileges, they were responsible for leading the people in general community work as well as on sailing expeditions and in war. Their power was normally in one part or the whole of one atoll alone. If a particular high chief was successful in war he could conquer and control several atolls.
These low-lying islands hold a lot of remarkable treasures. Although now in decline, the native Marshallese was once able navigators, using the stars and stick and shell charts, and the waves. They are still experienced in canoe building and hold annual competitions involving the unique oceanic sailing canoe, the PROA.


Part II: Religion

Today most Marshallese base their faith and identity in Christian belief. Christianity was introduced by the Protestant missionaries in 1857; however, before this, the Marshallese people had a religion of their own. Nowadays, Marshallese people know little of their old religion because the ancient faith and worship had fallen to decay long ago. It's hard now to gather up some fragmentary accounts of these important aspects of the native life. However, there are stories told by the elders that give us a little explanation of the old religion. Like all religions around the world, the old Marshallese religion had a set of beliefs that defined their religion: gods, spirits, death, afterlife, rituals, and magic.
Instead of believing in one god, the Marshallese believed in many gods, but there was one God in particular that the people respected highly; a high God of all the other gods. According to James George Frazer, the Marshallese people respected this certain God, and offered him tributes: breadfruit, coconut, fish, etc. In their language, Iageach signifies "god." During war, or other important affair is to be an undertaken, solemn offerings were made, always in the open air (Frazier 81). Before a man would go out in search of food or fishing, he would have to offer something in his family's name to the gods. Other gods the people worshipped included spirits. Among these higher spirits are Wulleb, Lejman, Lajbuineamuen, Irojirilik, Lorok, Lewoj, and Lanej. It is believed that spirits like these would appear in dreams or sometimes they possessed a body of a human in order to be seen in the flesh. Some spirits were good and some were evil. The evil spirits were called Anjilik. These evil spirits were thought to cause sickness and sometimes possess the body of humans by stealing the souls out of their bodies. The people believed that when a person died, the soul may return and haunt the living. The deceased was enclosed in mats for burial, after which, a little canoe with a sail to it, and loaded with small pieces of other food, was taken to the seashore, or the leeward part of the island, and sent off, with a fair wind, to bear it far away from the island the spirit of the deceased; that if my not afterwards disturb the living.
























Mourning of death of an eight month-old baby born to

"Bravo" radiation exposed parents, Utrik Atoll, 1975

In the old religion, death was believed to be another passage to the island of the death, known as Eorerok and to another world with a different form of existence. People believed the deceased took along many of their personality characteristics with them after death. The dead continue to interact with the living, though their physical features change. They appear in other forms at times, with some appearing just the way they were when they had their last breath. It was believed that the dead like to stay nearby, often sanctioning those who misbehave. It was also believed that certain people are protected by the dead, probably close relatives, or the dead who favored an individual living person, but other ancestral spirits can frighten people. The most dangerous spirits were believed to come to an atoll from outside the Marshall Islands, often bringing misfortune, illness, or death.

Before the first missionaries stepped foot on these islands, the Marshallese believed in sacred rituals before going to war, burying of high chiefs or high Corps, before the marriage of male and female and before getting a tattoo. The village would give a feast for the warriors before they would be send to war, and the chiefs would say few words of advice and words of encouragement for the warriors. The people would prepare foods for the ritual. A special kind of lei called, Ulej in Kainemon, was prepared by the women for those going to war as a sign of peace and a safe return.

Rituals were also performed when a chief died. The people gathered for about seven to ten days with the chief's family. During this time, the people stayed with the family, preparing the body to be wrapped in traditional Marshallese mats before the body was laid to rest in the ground. This was also when the family chose an individual to be buried alive with the chief. The body was then carried on the ocean side to the burial side. It was believed that if the body were carried over lawns or near food gardens because everything would die or the trees would not bear fruits. After burial the people chose their new chief and welcomed him in celebration.

Sacred rituals were performed before a person would have a tattoo. A celebration was ordered by the chief for worship and to ask the god of tattoo if it was okay for the person to get a tattoo. Tattooing was prohibited when it rained by the chiefs, it was believed might bring bad luck, such as storms and misfortune. Prayer and offerings to gods was conducted to seek permission from the god to continue the tattooing process during the rain. Each tattoo was different for everybody.  High ranking such as a chief had their own special tattooing design. As for the middle class, who are called Alap(s), also known as the landowners, and the lower class, which were called the Ri-Jerbal or the workers, also had their own tattoo designs. Women and men had separate designs.






















​​Catholic Church, Likiep Atoll - 1975 [L] and 2003 [R]

Though Marshallese people are no longer using the old religion, there are some who still look to those ancient practices today, and some even continue to perform black magic, and taboos. Today, most Marshallese still respect their chiefs, but not as strongly as in the old days. The customs and manners of both the chief and the people have changed. Before, when a high chief died, the family chose a person who will be buried with the chief alive, but today, as people are Christians, it would be considered suicidal. Nowadays the Marshallese worships only one God.

Of the estimated 100,000 Marshallese alive today, roughly 90% are Protestant and the remainder are Catholic.  Likiep and Ebon atolls are known as Catholic outposts in the RMI.

Recently an Islamic mosque has opened in Majuro supported by a small Muslim community new to the Marshall Islands. 

[From Wikipedia:]

Islam is a minority religion in the Marshall Islands. All Muslims in the country belong to the minority Ahmadiyya sect. The Ahmadiyya mosque in Uliga, first constructed in 2012 in the Marshall Islands is the only mosque in Oceania's subregion of Micronesia. According to a 2009 report there were about 10 Muslims in the Marshall Islands, although more recent reports indicate about 150 believers in the country.


Islam entered the country in the 1990s when Fijian missionaries were sent to the country by the Ahmadiyya movement. In 2001, the religion was officially recognized by the country and in 2012, the community built the Marshall Islands' first mosque, named Baet-Ul-Ahad Mosque, in the town of Uliga, in the east coast of the Majuro atoll. While Majuro has the only mosque in the Marshall Islands, Ahmadi Muslim communities exist in atolls around the country.

Ahmadi Muslims have had a growing presence in the Marshall Islands for a number of years. However, it was not until 2012, when the Muslim community decided to construct the Marshall Islands' only mosque, that it began to draw attention from religious and political figures. In light of unfavourable public opinion about Islam in general, the Muslim community's right to exist in an overwhelmingly Christian Marshall Islands, was questioned in a number of live broadcast sessions in the Marshallese parliament [Nitajela]. This was despite the Marshall Islands' constitution that guarantees religious freedom.


The Ahmadi Muslims play an active role in the life of local Marshallese, by working with local youth groups, the Ministry of Health and through the international charitable trust Humanity  First.















Part III: Education

In the past, there was never a written language to record events. Any passed down skills, knowledge, and histories were done orally. Stories, chants, and songs were the most common methods used to educate anyone regarding the past, the people's history, and survival skills. One of the first things that people needed to do in order to survive was learn how to reap a living from the sea and land. Harvesting was one of the most important skills that ensured survival of each person. Since there weren't any imported foods; people had to rely on natural resources. Such foods that people had to rely on included breadfruit, papaya, pandanus, banana, coconut, taro, arrowroot, and many more.
There is a Marshallese saying that goes, Unare Peim loosely translated "heap the labors of your hands." An important labor was fishing. All men were required to learn how to fish. Since it was not a woman's job, they did not need to learn how to fish. Instead of using modern fishing lines, fishermen had to make their own from coconut husk (Bweo) by weaving the strands together to make the line called Ekkwal. For the hook, they had to use sharpened seashells from the Kaboor or giant clam, since there was nothing else more compatible to use for fishing. For most of the fishing methods, a certain kind of bait was used for fishing, called Karruk, a small land crab and Om, the hermit crab. These two things are certain kinds of crabs that are used for bait. Line fishing during the moonlit nights is called Totto, while the name for line fishing on moonless nights is called Junbon.

Other than using fishing lines and seashells, there have been 25 fishing methods identified, which means there is more to traditional fishing methods than we will ever know. Out of the 25 identified methods, we can describe five that were commonly used. One of these methods is called Alele, a technique often performed with large group of men. They weave coconut palm fronds together into a long net called mwieo. They force the fish to gather until the tide goes out and the fish can be easily speared. This method is often performed on Jaluit and other outer islands. Another method is called Kabwil, a technique often used at night. Fishermen weave a torch from old coconut palm fronds to attract fish at shallow areas. Once they are close enough, the fishermen spear the fish. This fishing method is also used a lot at outer islands. Still another method being used at night is called Bobo. The use of fire (now flashlights) is also included, but instead of using spears, fishermen use nets that are wovenfrom coconut stinnets (tree fibers). Once the torch is lit, a large number of flying-fish start flying out of the water, and the only thing the fishermen has to do is to catch them with the nets. Two similar fishing methods that are still being performed today are called Urok and Ilarak. Urok is a term that describes when fishermen are fishing within the lagoon. Ilarak is a term when fishermen are fishing on the oceanside. For both fishing methods, the use of Eo Jolok was mostly useful for fishing.





















One of the most important lessons taught to men was navigation. Navigation was certainly the most difficult skill to learn since there was never any compass to help navigate from one island to another. Instead, they had to spend years memorizing hundreds of stars courses between the atolls and sea-ways, marks, cloud shapes, winds, and the flight of birds. The use of stick charts was also essential to understand as it showed sea-ways, marks, and islands. Only few men were able to master the navigational skills. Any man who mastered navigation skills was awarded a high title, or rank by an Iroij. This title is called Kajur or Kaben. A land parcel was also awarded to the Kajur or Kaben for his high achievements. Navigation was essential to help fishermen and people migrating from one place to another within the "Ralik" and "Ratak" chains.

In the past, an art form of fighting -- called Maan Pa -- was taught to a few chosen men. This kind of fighting was taught secretly to few men who displayed good behavior and were mellow in heart. It was essential to learn how to fight in order to protect others from invading clans. If necessary, a clan might also invade other clans. So it was always good to be prepared. This art form is still being taught even to this very day, but only in few numbers as there are only a few who remember the art.

Before entering a battle, a chant would be sung by a woman to bring good luck to the men or to curse the opposing clans. Weapons used in battle included spears, clubs embedded with shark teeth, sling-shots, rocks, sharpened shells, and fire.

The last educational and survival method that was taught is weaving. Weaving was a common job among women, though men needed to learn how to weave in order to make their sails and nets. Since there wasn't any imported clothing or building materials in the past, people had to make their own. Clothing and mats were usually made by weaving together pandanus and hibiscus leaves. Women also learned to make handicrafts and tools to use for everyday use. Weaving required a lot of work and concentration.

Resources Consulted:

Aea, Hezekiah. History in Ebon Atoll. Honolulou: February 7, 1863.
Frazier, James. Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead. Vol III. The Belief Among The Micronesians. London: Macmillan and Co., 1924.

Juumemmej: Republic of the Marshall Islands Social and Economic Report, 2005. Asian Development Bank, 2006.
Jumon, Honseki 2008 Interview
Komen, Juramen 2008 Interview

Lajuan, Newton 2008 Interview
Navigation & Stick Charts:
Marshallese Traditionalist Fishing Methods. RMI History Preservation Office Project.


Evidence suggests that around 3,000 years ago successive waves of human migrants from Southeast Asia spread across the Western Pacific populating its many small islands. The Marshall Islands were settled by Micronesians in the 2nd millennium BC. Little is known of the islands' early history. Early settlers traveled between the islands by canoe using traditional stick charts.[1]

The Spanish explorer Alonso de Salazar landed there in 1529. They were named by Krusenstern, after English explorer John Marshall, who visited them together with Thomas Gilbert in 1788, en route from Botany Bay to Canton (two ships of the First Fleet). The Marshall Islands were claimed by Spain in 1874.

Following papal mediation and German compensation of $4.5 million, Spain recognized Germany's claim in 1885, which established a protectorate and set up trading stations on the islands of Jaluit and Ebon to carry out the flourishing copra (dried coconut meat) trade. Marshallese Iroij (high chiefs) continued to rule under indirect colonial German administration.

At the beginning of World War I, Japan assumed control of the Marshall Islands. The Japanese headquarters was established at the German center of administration, Jaluit. On January 31, 1944 American forces landed on Kwajalein atoll and U.S. Marines and Army troops later took control of the islands from the Japanese on February 3, following intense fighting on Kwajalein and Enewetak atolls. In 1947, the United States, as the occupying power, entered into an agreement with the UN Security Council to administer much of Micronesia, including the Marshall Islands, as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

From 1946 to 1958, it served as the Pacific Proving Grounds for the United States, and was the site of 67 nuclear tests on various atolls. The world's first hydrogen bomb, codenamed "Mike", was tested at the Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands on November 1 (local date) in 1952, by the United States.

A significant radar installation was constructed on Kwajalein atoll.

On May 1, 1979, in recognition of the evolving political status of the Marshall Islands, the United States recognized the constitution of the Marshall Islands and the establishment of the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The constitution incorporates both American and British constitutional concepts.

There have been a number of local and national elections since the Republic of the Marshall Islands was founded. The United Democratic Party, running on a reform platform, won the 1999 parliamentary election, taking control of the presidency and cabinet.

The islands signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1986. Trusteeship was ended under United Nations Security Council Resolution 683 of December 22, 1990. Until 1999 the islanders received US$180M for continued American use of Kwajalein atoll, US$250M in compensation for nuclear testing, and US$600M in other payments under the compact.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Namdrik - 1991.jpg
ejema kioto and baby - utrik - SMALL.jpg
Utrik funeral 1 wake.jpg
Marshall-islands-stick-chart    1.jpg

A Marshallese "stick chart" [L] used as a traditional navigational aid. These charts were not created with the exact configuration of the islands in the Marshalls chain. Instead they were designed to designate the major currents of the open Pacific Ocean. The Marshall Islanders were known throughout the Pacific Islands for their ingenious method of traveling over vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean. 

Jaluit tipnol.jpg

The beauty of the wonderful Marshall Islands!

Likiep Catholic church - Militobi - May 1975--SMALL.jpg
Muslim RMI 1.jpg
Muslim RMI 2.jpg
Morning Star ship - 1857.jpg

Descending from a long line of Congregationalist missionaries, Hiram Bingham Jr. [L] sailed the ship"Morning  Star" [R] throughout the Pacific & Micronesia between 1857-68 spreading the   Christian Gospel.  Go here:             And here:   And go here for the complete book "Morning Star":    
This man on this ship introduced Christianity to the people of the Marshall Islands in 1857.


Dennis O' Rourke-NPR-Half LifeArtist Name
00:00 / 06:09

     Listen to this 6-minute 1986 NPR interview with Dennis O'Rourke      
  re: "
Half Life" and the enigmas surrounding the 1954 "Bravo" H-Bomb 

bottom of page