Tikopia, a Polynesian community near the eastern border of the Solomon Islands, is arguably the most thoroughly documented small-scale society in the ethnographic record. That documentation exists primarily as a result of investigations by Sir Raymond Firth in 1928-29, 1952, 1966, and 1973. Based on those four field visits, he published nine full-length books and countless articles. In addition to Firth’s path-breaking research, studies of varying length have been conducted by social anthropologists James Spillius, Torben Monberg, Eric Larson, and Judith Macdonald; ethnobotanist Douglas Yen; and archaeologist Patrick Kirch.
Tikopia is a “Polynesian outlier,” meaning that its people are linguistically, culturally, and physically Polynesian, although their home lies outside of what we normally think of as the Polynesian heartland—a vast triangle bounded by Hawai’i in the north, Rapanui (Easter Island) in the east, and Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the west. It is located at 12° 18′ S by 168° 48′ E. Tikopia’s climate is tropical. Its yearly calendar is divided into two seasons, generally termed the “trade-wind” and “monsoon” seasons (in Tikopian, te tonga and te raki, respectively). The tradewind season, running from somewhere in April to October, is characterized by strong breezes blowing constantly from the southeast. It is relatively cool and tends to be the drier of the two seasons. The monsoon season is characterized by unstable weather. Blazing sun is interspersed with torrential rains, and extended periods of calm are interrupted by violent storms.
The island is approximately three miles from northeast to southwest and 1.5 miles from southeast to northwest. It is of volcanic origin and rises to a maximum altitude of about 1,200 feet. Tikopia’s nearest neighbor is Anuta, 70 miles to the northeast, which it resembles in language and culture. To the west, its nearest neighbors are the Melanesian islands of Vanikoro, Utupua, and Ndeno, the Polynesian island of Taumako, and the Reef Islands with their mixture of Polynesian and non-Austronesian speakers. Tikopia’s population at the time of Firth’s initial study was around 1,270. Owing to substantial out-migration since the 1950s, the current resident population is only slightly larger, but there are now large Tikopian settlements on Vanikoro, Makira, Guadalcanal, and in the Russell Islands.
According to oral traditions, Tikopia was pulled up from the ocean floor by the demigod Metikitiki. The original occupants, the Atua i Raropuka (the Deity of Raropuka) and the Atua Fafine (the Female Deity), introduced the prototypical male and female economic activities: preparing sennit cord and plaiting pan-danus-leaf mats. Several of the current descent lines claim autochthonous origin; others are said to have arrived from such diverse locales as Tonga, Pukapuka, Samoa, ‘Uvea, Rotuma, Ontong Java, Motulava, and Anuta. Tikopians speak a Nuclear Polynesian language, related to Samoan and Tuvaluan.
Kirch’s archaeological investigations indicate a period of continuous habitation spanning almost three thousand years, with tenuous suggestions of sporadic visits dating back close to another thousand. Kirch and Yen divide the island’s cultural history into four periods, each typified by a distinctive artifactual assemblage. The earliest, which they term the “Kiki Phase,” is characterized by Lapitoid ceramic ware, and it lasted from about 900 to 100 BC. The Kiki Phase gave way rather abruptly to the “Sinapupu Phase,” characterized by incised Mangaasi-style pottery, apparently imported from northern Vanuatu. The Sinapupu Phase lasted to perhaps the 15th century AD and gradually gave way to the “Tuakamali Phase.” The latter period is distinguished by a characteristically Polynesian artifactual assemblage and complete disappearance of ceramic ware. European contact began with Quiros’s visit in AD 1606. Kirch and Yen use AD 1800 as the date marking the end of the Tuakamali and the inception of the “Historic Phase.”
Over the period of human habitation, the natural environment evolved along with the cultural. Erosion was offset by shoreline aggradation, encouraged by a growing emphasis on arboriculture featuring Calophyllum, coconut, and Antiaris (the local bark-cloth tree). As a result, Tikopia’s land area has increased substantially over the past three millennia, with a corresponding reduction of the fringing reef. During the Tuakamali Phase, an open saltwater bay was transformed into a brackish lake. As early as the Kiki Phase, marine life and avifauna became less abundant, and wild animal protein was supplemented with domestic pig. Pig husbandry flourished briefly but was abandoned late in the Sinapupu Phase.
Through the entire sequence, contact with the isles of northern Vanuatu, Santa Cruz, and west Polynesia attests to a complexity belying the apparent isolation of this tiny dot of land amid the vast Pacific Ocean.
As a high volcanic island, Tikopia includes a variety of ecological zones and offers an assortment of foods. For centuries, the most important crops have included coconut, taro, breadfruit, and yam. Today manioc, papaya, and several varieties of banana have been added to the island’s list of staples. Other fruits and nuts include the Polynesian chestnut, Canarium almond, Burckella obovata, Malay apple, watermelon, and edible pandanus. Tobacco has become a major nonfood crop. Betel—a mixture of slaked lime, the leaf or stem of a pepper plant, and the nut of the areca palm—is a popular intoxicant. Turmeric is grown and valued as a ritually charged pigment and a flavoring for foods.
Domestic pigs have been only a minor source of nutriment. Animal protein is more commonly supplied by wild birds, domestic chickens, and, especially, seafood. Although Tikopia has no lagoon, it does enjoy a fairly extensive fringing reef, providing shellfish and assorted small reef fish. The island is large enough to offer calm seas on the lee side, enabling men to fish from small canoes using a number of techniques. The brackish lake provides a variety of resources rarely encountered on an island of Tikopia’s size.
While some foods are eaten raw, the most esteemed are cooked, either over an open fire or in an earth oven. The most appreciated of these are “puddings” made by mixing a starchy vegetable such as manioc or taro with rich, white cream expressed from the grated meat of mature coconuts.
Most houses even today are constructed from logs and thatched with sago and coconut leaves. They are built directly on the ground on or near the beach. Roofs are steeply pitched, and doors are only two to three feet high. The sandy floor is covered with coconut-leaf mats, and one typically crawls about on hands and knees while inside.
Tikopia is divided into two geographical districts, known as Ravenga in the east and Faea in the west. Within each district are a number of villages (potu).
In addition, the population is divided into four patrilineal descent groups called kainanga, which Firth originally glossed as “ramages” and later termed “clans.” The kainanga are ranked and named; in descending order they are the Kainanga i Kafika, the Kainanga i TafUa, the Kainanga i Taumako, and the Kainanga i Fangarere. Kainanga are nonexogamous, and they are geographically dispersed. They are led by chiefs (ariki), known as the Ariki Kafika, Ariki Tafua, Ariki Taumako, and Ariki Fangarere. The chief is the senior male of his clan; other people are ranked in terms of genealogical seniority and their proximity to or distance from the chiefly line. An ariki is normally succeeded by his eldest son.
Since the kainanga are territorially dispersed, a chief may not be physically surrounded by members of his own clan. One chief, the Ariki Tafua, traditionally resides in Faea, whose population is made up predominantly of his clansfolk, while the other three chiefs traditionally reside in Ravenga. A Tikopian is expected to respect and obey all four chiefs and not only the leader of his or her clan. When important decisions must be made that bear on the community at large, the four chiefs consult. They usually make decisions by consensus.
Below the chiefs in rank are their close male relatives. These men are termed maru, and they serve— to use Firth’s expression—as a chief’s “executive officials.” A maru advises his chief on matters of concern to the community, transmits the chief’s decisions to the rest of the population, and makes sure the chief is kept informed of popular reaction to his dicta.
Each kainanga is made up of several paito. The word normally means “house,” but in relation to descent Firth characterizes the paito as “patrilineal lineages.” Members of a paito share in ownership of gardens (vao), orchards (tofi), houses, house sites, and canoes. A paito normally makes decisions about what crops are to be planted in which garden, when they are to be harvested, and how the foods are to be prepared, and it allocates labor for completion of the various tasks. A chief may override a paito’s rights of ownership under certain limited circumstances, and he may even confiscate land or—in earlier times— punish an offender by exiling him to the ocean, a penalty considered tantamount to execution.
Virtually all of Tikopia’s land is owned by one or another lineage, and it is under constant cultivation. Tikopians practice a form of crop rotation, but rarely is a plot permitted to lie fallow. Any garden that is not in active use may be temporarily cultivated by another lineage. A lineage that plants on another’s land must compensate the owners by sharing a portion of the harvest. After a successful harvest, ceremonial first fruits payments traditionally were made to the chiefs. Today, such payments are likely to be offered to the church.
Kinship terminology in the parents’ generation is of an Iroquois type: the father and father’s brother are both called tamana or mmana; mother and mother’s sister are tinana or nana; the father’s sister is masikitanga, and mother’s brother is tuatina. In ego’s generation, kinship terminology approximates a Hawaiian system: all cousins of the same sex as ego are called taina, while those of opposite sex are kave. Unlike most of Polynesia, Tikopians do not distinguish terminologically between older and younger same-sex siblings. A man calls his own and his brothers’ children tama, while he calls his sister’s children iramutu. A woman calls all her siblings’ children by the same term that she uses for her own: tama. Grandparents and ancestors are all called puna or tupuna, while grandchildren and descendants are all makopuna. In the affinal system, “husband” is matua, “wife” is nofine, a sibling-in-law of same sex as ego is max, and a sibling-in-law of opposite sex is taina. Parents-in-law call children-in-law fongona and are, in turn, called fongovai.
The interactional tone of kin relationships varies as significantly as terminology. Children treat their fathers with respect. One follows one’s father’s instructions; refrains from uttering the father’s name; abstains from rough joking, practical joking, or conversation about sex; steps aside when meeting the father on a path; and avoids turning one’s back on the father. Like the father, the mother is treated with respect, but the relationship is also characterized by unambiguous affection and a degree of freedom. The mother’s brother and sister’s child treat each other with easygoing warmth; they joke with one another and may discuss romantic concerns. The father’s sister is treated with respect and is thought of, in certain respects, as a female father. The grandparent-grandchild relationship is warm and supportive.
Siblings of the same sex are expected to share relations of solidarity. They may tease each other and confide in one another about sexual affairs. If a question of ritual honor or political authority should arise same-sex siblings, the younger sibling normally defers to the elder, but under most circumstances, they refrain from using formal markers of respect.
Relations among siblings of opposite sex also tend to be friendly and relaxed. They respect one another, but the extreme brother-sister avoidance found in much of west Polynesia and some of the Polynesian outliers is absent on Tikopia. Brothers are expected to look after their sisters’ interests, but they are not preoccupied with protecting their sisters’ virtue as has been reported, for example, in Samoa. Indeed, Firth notes that a brother and sister may spend time together in the same house without a third party present to chaperone, and they are even permitted to sleep on the same mat, under the same covers. However, unlike Hawai’i, where a man of high rank might marry his sister, sexual relations between siblings or close cousins on Tikopia would be regarded as incestuous.
The relationship between a husband and wife is expected to be close and informal, although differences in rank, should they become relevant, favor the husband. In general, in-laws of adjacent generation and siblings-in-law of the same sex treat one another with extreme respect. One does not use the other’s proper name and does not stand while the other is seated in his presence. They do not turn their backs on one another, do not tease each other, avoid discussing subjects relating to sex, and do not raise their voices near each other’s homes. In speaking to each other, they express respect by using the dual form of the personal pronoun—a word that means “the two of you.” Siblings-in-law of opposite sex are called by the same term ( taina) as siblings of same sex and, like siblings, are expected to have a warm, close, informal relationship. They may talk about romance, may joke sexually, and are appropriate marriage partners.
Tikopia has a fairly clear gender-based division of labor. Men build houses and canoes, and they do most of the fishing beyond the fringing reef. Women devote a larger proportion of their time than men to child care. They prepare bark cloth for sheets and clothing, and they plait mats. Older children care for younger siblings, but girls play a more active role than boys in that regard. Both men and women work in gardens, but men are more likely to clear the brush, while women devote a somewhat greater proportion of their time to weeding, mulching, harvesting, and food preparation. Both men and women collect seafood on the fringing reef, but men are more likely to spear fish while women devote more of their time to combing the reef for shellfish.
Men tend to be politically and ritually dominant. Only men are chiefs and maru. Within the house, the highest-ranking male sits in the most ritually prominent spot. In decision making, a wife is supposed to defer to her husband’s judgment. In church, only men are priests or catechists. And congregations are segregated according to gender, with men sitting on the ritually superior right side while women sit on the left. However, Tikopians say that men should treat women with respect, and they even say that a married woman is tapu—”sacred.” A good husband considers his wife’s feelings and takes her judgment into account when making decisions. A man treats his father’s sister with the utmost respect and has a close, affectionate relationship with his mother.
Relations between boys and girls are generally relaxed, and differences in rank are not marked. Girls and boys might play together when very young. As teenagers they meet at dances, which occur on ceremonial occasions as well as more casually on the beach on moonlit nights. Firth reports that in pre-Christian times men of high rank practiced a kind of ritual marriage by capture. That, however, ended with establishment of the church.
The traditional Tikopia religion recognized several kinds of spiritual being. The generic term for spirit is atua. Some of these were ghosts of deceased neighbors or kin. Others were believed never to have been human. Powerful gods of nonhuman origin were called tupua. The great pan-Polynesian deities, known by such names as Tu, Tane, Rongo, and Tangaroa, were recognized on Tikopia but assumed less prominence there than in the major archipelagoes. The most important gods were spirits of deceased chiefs; paramount among them was the Atua i Kafika, an ancestor of the premier chief, the Ariki Kafika. During life, this man was an important cultural hero who introduced many elements of the island’s historic social structure.
Central to Tikopian religion is the pan-Polynesian concept of mana or manU; Tikopians treat the two words as synonymous. Firth translates manu as “power” or “efficacy.” Tikopians cite manii to explain unusual success or good fortune. A person who has (or is) mama can affect the weather, crop fertility, success or failure in military combat, and the health of those around him. Persons of high rank, particularly chiefs, are believed to possess an abundance of manu- and are expected to use it to ensure the community’s well-being. Tikopian religion, as is true in much of Polynesia, was concerned more with assuring economic security for the living than with questions of abstract morality or rewards after death. Possession of manu- is associated with genealogical seniority and direct descent from the most powerful gods.
As in much of Polynesia, Tikopian chiefs (ariki) are not only political leaders but served in the old religion as high priests. They were responsible for communication with the most important spirits and led the community in worship activities. Tikopia’s most important worship activity involved an elaborate semiannual ceremony known as te fekau o nga atua— “the work of the gods.” Worship ceremonies themselves were termed fai kava—”performing kava.” Kava ( Piper methysticum) is a type of pepper plant, and it was the most widely used intoxicant in Polynesia prior to the introduction of alcohol. It remains a ceremonially important beverage on many islands. Tikopians, however, prefer to ingest betel and reserve kava for the gods. Certain ritual practitioners poured kava liquid onto the ground as an offering during worship ceremonies.
While chiefs were ultimately in charge of worship, their jobs were largely administrative. Much ritual performance was handled by pure or matapure, a term that Firth glosses as “ritual elder.” Mata-pure were the leaders of religiously important lineages, and their ceremonial role could be as prominent as that of the chiefs themselves. Maru—”executive officials”— might also assist the chiefs in carrying out religious activities, but their major responsibilities were in the mundane realm.
In addition to chiefs and ritual elders, whose functions could be described as “priestly,” Tikopia recognized spirit mediums (vakaatua, literally “spirit vessel”) who communicated with spiritual beings by going into trance states. A medium would be possessed by spirit familiars who spoke to the community through the vakaatua’s mouth. Tikopians often depended on spirit mediums to explain misfortune, to discern the fate of kinsfolk lost at sea, and to answer a variety of other perplexing or disturbing questions. Mediums might be either male or female and of any social rank.
Attempts to convert Tikopia to Christianity began in the 19th century but met with little success until the 1920s when Ellison Tergatok, an Anglican mission teacher from Vanuatu, settled on the island. Tergatok, who later was ordained as an Anglican priest, convinced the Ariki Tafua, Tikopia’s second-ranking chief, to convert, and when he did, virtually the entire Faea district—where the Ariki Tafua made his abode—converted with him. Still, at the time of Firth’s initial field study, approximately half of Tikopia’s population, including three of the four chiefs, continued to practice the traditional religion.
The ensuing two and a half decades witnessed an ongoing rivalry between the island’s Christian and pagan communities, with the Christians slowly but inexorably winning converts. Finally, during the early 1950s, Tikopia was struck by a powerful hurricane, followed by a drought and famine, and finally an epidemic that decimated the already-weakened population. Islanders perceived that pagans suffered more than Christians from these natural disasters, and they took that as a divine message. As a result, the last of the chiefs converted to Christianity and, with him, the remaining holdouts among the general population entered the fold.
At the start of the 21st century, Tikopia is a thriving devoutly Christian Polynesian community, and Tikopians have achieved a level of national prominence in the mostly Melanesian Solomon Islands that far exceeds their numbers in the population. Almost all Tikopians continue to be loyal Anglicans. Several have been ordained as priests, and two have served as bishops. A number of Tikopians have taken prominent positions in the civil service at the national and provincial levels. Particularly noteworthy was Sir Fred Soaki (Pa Nukuriaki), a long-time commissioner of the Royal Solomon Islands Police. On February 10, 2003, Sir Fred was assassinated while working to resolve an inter-island conflict that had torn apart the country over the previous four years. That, however, is another story.
- Firth, Sir R. (1936). We, the Tikopia: A sociological study of kinship in primitive Polynesia.London:
- Allen & Unwin. Firth, Sir R. (1959). Social change in Tikopia: Re-study of a Polynesian community after a generation.
- London: George Allen & Unwin. Firth, Sir R. (1961). History and traditions of Tikopia. Polynesian Society Memoir Number 33. Wellington, New Zealand: The Polynesian Society.
- Firth, Sir R. (1991). Tikopia songs: Poetic and musical art of a Polynesian people. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Kirch, P. V., & Yen, D. E. (1982). Tikopia: The prehistory and ecology of a Polynesian outlier. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin Number 238. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press.