Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture


Tikopia lies in the southwest Pacific, part of the Solomons but in fact a Polynesian outlier with an inhabited history of two thousand years. The island in only 1.8 square miles but has a stable population of 1,200. Tikopia was one of several outliers that were too small to attract the interest of missionaries in the 19th century and remained non-Christian well into the 20th Century. The island has been quite well studied by the New Zealanders Raymond Firth in the 1920,s and Mike Predergast in the early 1970's.

An unusual aspect of Tikopia was the population's decision to exterminate pigs on their island because of the damage done by the animals and the fact that the pigs were ineffictient, consuming 10 pounds of vegetables to produce one pound of pork. Population control was a key to the island's stability and survival.

Mike Predergast's book was a valuable study of tattoo patterns on the island conducted just before the practice died out. The main surviving artistic endevoures of the islanders are song and especially dance, though Predergast also recorded interesting geometeric carvings mainly of house posts.

Visit of Two South Sea Islanders
This desciption is by Augustus Earle in 1827 of a meeting with two Tikopians in New Zealand

When our brig left Tikopia she brought away two natives of that island, who had most earnestly entreated the captain to take them off, and leave them upon any other land he pleased, as, according to their statement, Tucopea was so overstocked with inhabitants that it was scarcely possible to find subsistence; and the scarcity of food had become so general, that parents destroyed their children rather than witness their sufferings from famine. Captain Kent, therefore, from motives of compassion, received them on board his ship; and, not having touched at any inhabited spot, brought them with him here. Their extraordinary appearance excited a great deal of surprise, both among Europeans and New Zealanders. They appeared simple, timid creatures, though stout and comely, but their hair was unlike anything I had before beheld, as in length it reached below the waist, and was so abundantly thick as completely to conceal their faces. By some curious chemical process which the natives of Tikopia have discovered, they render their hair a bright sulphur colour; and, as this mass of yellow hangs over their faces and shoulders, they bear the most striking resemblance to the lion monkeys of the Brazils.

These poor creatures, upon landing, shook with fear, and trembled greatly when they beheld the New Zealanders, whose character for cannibalism had reached even their remote island: when our friend George went up to them, and lifted up (in order to examine closely) the curious mass of hair in which they were enveloped, they burst into a passionate fit of tears, and ran up to us for protection. The New Zealanders, with characteristic cunning, perceiving the horror they had created, tormented them still more cruelly, by making grotesque signs, as if they were about to commence devouring them; and, at the same time (like most savages), evincing the most sovereign contempt for them, from their apparent pusillanimity.

This image is fasinating because it shows that while the facial aspects of Tikopian tattoo survived well into the 20th century, some chest designs did not.

After they had been some days on shore, we had a very diverting scene with them, which exhibited strongly the great difference there is in the nature of the two classes of savages we now had such opportunities of observing. I had brought my violin from Sydney, on which I used to play occasionally. The New Zealanders generally expressed the greatest dislike to it; and my companions used to rally me much on the subject, saying it was not that the savages did not like music, but it was my discordant playing that frightened them away, which might be true. It was, however, a useful discovery for us all, as I often took that method of civilly driving them out of our house when we grew tired of their company. But when I began to play before the Tikopians, the effect it had instantly upon them was ludicrous in the extreme. They sprang up, and began dancing most furiously; at the same time, so waving their heads about as to keep their long hair extended at its fullest length: as I played faster, they quickened their pace. A lively Scotch reel seemed to render them nearly frantic; and when I ceased playing, they threw themselves down on the floor quite exhausted, and unable to articulate a word. I have observed (generally speaking) that savages are not much affected by music; but these two Tikopians were excited to a most extraordinary degree.


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