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UPCOMING EXPEDITION: Maewo Island, Vanuatu

It's here - after 1.5 years of preparation, the Female Chiefs of Maewo Expedition is really here! I am about to leave for the Republic of Vanuatu in the South West Pacific, to document a tribe of female chiefs hitherto be documented!

I will represent WINGS WorldQuest and The Explorers Club on an anthropological expedition on Maewo Island. The purpose of the expedition is to explore an undocumented anthropological anomaly of female chiefs. While there are tens of thousands of chiefs across Melanesia (a region consisting of the island countries of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu), Maewo Island is the only country with female chiefs. Maewo is a long, narrow island, with four languages and a population of about 3600 living in small villages. Of these people, about 150 are female chiefs. The expedition marks the first and only ethnographic study of the Maewo female chiefs.

In August 2016, the female chiefs of Maewo will hold a multi-day festival to demonstrate their practices and powers, undertake grade promotions, engage in traditional dancing, and perform secret ceremonies. The team and I have been invited to attend the festivities and will meet, interview, film and document these unusual female chiefs. We aim to determine their hierarchy, customs, areas of jurisdiction, use of black and white magic, and reported instant disappearing acts.

Following the festival, I will visit nearby villages on Maewo to learn about disputes over jurisdiction, ceremonies, and privileges between the male and female chiefs. The major research goal is to compile evidence on whether or not the female chiefs of Maewo could qualify for membership in the National Council of Chiefs of Vanuatu, and compare this evidence with the structures and practices of the more usual male graded chief hierarchy.

This is critically important, as the Vanuatu National Council of Chiefs refuse to recognize the female chiefs as real chiefs, despite a formal request. Hence this study may catalyze the female chiefs gaining official status. Typically, this part of the world sees females play subservient roles in society with low rates of unemployment, education, and political participation, and extremely high rates of domestic violence.

Background Information:

Vanuatu is a country of 250,000 people, on 80 volcanic islands, spread over 600 miles in a large “Y” shape, west of Fiji. Vanuatu was known until its independence in 1980 as the New Hebrides. With an estimated 138 indigenous languages, Vanuatu has the highest linguistic diversity in the world. The national dish of Vanuatu is ‘lap – lap’, a vegetable porridge cooked in coconut milk.

Since 2005, more than 50 women have flown the WINGS WorldQuest flag during expeditions in over 35 countries and all of the world's continents as they pursue groundbreaking discoveries. The WINGS WorldQuest flag is recognized as a symbol of excellence in discovery and knowledge, and certifies the significance of its carrier's endeavor.

WINGS WorldQuestTM is a registered nonprofit organization founded in 2003 to recognize and support extraordinary women in science and exploration. It is the only organization of its kind, awarding unrestricted funding to women in scientific field endeavors. WINGS’ support knows no boundaries— women of all races, nationalities, ages, and cultures who show initiative, passion, and promise toward future scientific advancement have been granted funds that are often critical to seeing their ambitious ideas through. In return, they have become part of the WINGS community, and strengthen the organization’s mission to inspire the next generation of intrepid explorers and global problem-solvers through various outreach programs. For more information, visit

The Explorers Club is an international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore. Since its inception in 1904, the Club has served as a meeting point and unifying force for explorers and scientists worldwide. The Explorers Club promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air, and space by supporting research and education in the physical, natural and biological sciences.

For more than a century, members of the Club have traversed the earth, the seas, the skies, and even the moon, on expeditions of exploration. First to the North Pole, first to the South Pole, first to the summit of Mount Everest, first to the deepest point in the ocean, first to the surface of the moon—all accomplished by our members. For more information, visit

Photos by Lew Toulmin.

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