Tinputz is an Austronesian language most closely related to Teop and Hahon, with which it forms a family. At the time of Allen and Hurd’s survey, there were fewer than 1,500 speakers of Tinputz (including dialects). However, this figure may be misleading in view of the close physical proximity of Tinputz speakers to the other members of their language family, forming a greater concentration of related languages.
The Tinputz are fairly classed as a ‘saltwater’ people, oriented toward the sea. Taro and other root crops area are cultivated in the lowland and foothills, but villagers exploit maritime resources as well. Fishing for bonito on the open sea and in the lagoon is an important activity for men, while women operate near the shore, fishing with nets and gathering shellfish. This part of Buka is relatively densely populated. Kurtatchi, the village in which Blackwood lived, contained 27 dwellings plus a special house for adolescent boys, with a total of 107 individuals. These houses were built directly on the ground. Before pacification under Western government, villages might move because of warfare, or if sites were seen to be threatened by sorcery.
Matrilineal descent prevailed in Tinputz, forming lineages which were localised. Villagers also recognised a larger matrilineal unit, the clan that spread over all Tinputz territory, though clan ties are less strong than those of the lineage, especially since pacification has eliminated the need to rally members of the larger clan for warfare. Throughout the area, two clans are recognised as most important. They are called Naboin and Nakarib. However, Blackwood is at pains to say these are not moieties, or halves of a two-section social structure, since other, smaller clans exist and may vie for status in particular localities.
Within lineage and clan, strict matrilineality prevails; every child belongs to the lineage and clan of the mother. People are supposed to marry outside their clan, though this rule is not always strictly observed. In each village there is one lineage that takes precedence over all others. The clan to which the lineage belongs is considered the most important, and is generally the most numerous in the village. The head of this lineage is called tsunaun which Blackwood glosses as ‘person of rank’ or ‘person of importance’. The title is strictly hereditary in the female line.
By the time of Blackwood’s fieldwork, the authority of tsunaun had been affected by both pacification and government-appointed leaders. However, there was no question about the privileged status afforded the position and the deference shown by commoners. Every event in a tsunaun’s life, however minor, was marked by elaborate ceremonies. Both men and women could be tsunaun though males exercised more authority over lineage and village matters. Normally a tsunaun’s spouse would be of the same status.
On the other hand, tsunaun were not necessarily possessed of more property nor did they enjoy a lifestyle that was, in material terms, much different from that of commoners. Though male tsunaun usually had more than one wife, commoners might also have as many as they could provide for. When special group ceremonies occurred that called for large feasts, he contributed as much as he could but others were expected to provide food as well. Therefore, while a tsunaun definitely possessed higher status and prestige than an oboring, there were nonetheless limits on his power and authority.
Since parallel cousins (mother’s sister’s children and father’s brother’s children) were called by the same terms as siblings, marriage between them was forbidden. In addition, marriage between cross-cousins (mother’s brother’s or father’s sister’s children) was regarded unfavourably. A couple was typically betrothed as children, the boy’s father making initial arrangements with the girl’s mother. Exchanges of food took place between the couple’s mothers, but more important was the payment of bride-price. This was in the form of strings of currency made of porpoise or flying-fox teeth. The currency was amassed by the boy’s mother and her lineage, though the boy’s father might be called on to help. A much larger amount of currency was required for a girl who was tsunaun. Initially, the couple lived in the groom’s village, even in his mother’s house until one was built for the newlyweds. After that, there was a certain freedom of choice of residence, though the couple would always spend a certain amount of time in the village which was the home of the other partner.
A distinctive feature of Tinputz ritual life (shared by related Austronesian groups in North Bougainville) was the wearing of the upi. This conical headgear was prescribed for boys from about the age of nine into early manhood. Following a period of seclusion while the boys’ hair grew there were several further stages, each involving feasting and exchanges. During this entire time boys lived in a special house. Avoidance of women while the boys are wearing the upi was strictly observed; a boy was not even allowed to enter his own mother’s house. Upi wearers also underwent severe dietary restriction. The removal of the hats was marked with a major ceremony.
Spirits of the dead (urar) were thought to live in Mt Balbi. Although they could bring benefits, the living generally feared them. The same term was applied to spirits who had never been alive. Before western contact the dead were buried at sea, and this is still prescribed for tsunaun, though burial of commoners may take place on land today. Distinct from urar were bush goblins who were typically described as small in stature and usually seen as mischievous but not fearsome.
However much modern-day Tinputz might like to deny the practice, it seems clear that cannibalism was part of earlier life. The practice was generally performed in response to an insult or as punishment, or as a necessary part of certain ceremonies, rather than out of a desire for human flesh. The victims were typically enemies taken in war and, as a result, pacification meant the end of cannibalism.