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ETHNONYM: Nga Tikopia.


Identification. The name "Tikopia" (sometimes written "Tucopia" by early European voyagers), given to a small Island in the Solomon group, is also applied by the inhabitants to themselves. The expression, glossed as "we, the Tikopia," is commonly used to differentiate themselves from the people of other islands in the Solomons and elsewhere.

Location. Tikopia is a little, isolated, high island, primarily an extinct volcano with fringing coral reef, rising to a peak of 350 meters but extending only 4.6 square kilometers. It is in the southeast of the Solomons, at 168°50 E and 12° 18 S. Historically, until the mid-1950s, the Tikopia people occupied only this island. But then, stimulated by the pressure of the population on the food supply and by a desire for Experience of the outside world, Tikopia people began to settle in groups elsewhere in the Solomons. Now the substantial settlements abroad include Nukufero in the Russell Islands, Nukukaisi (Waimasi) in San Cristobal, and Murivai in Vanikoro. All Tikopia live in a tropical climate, with alternating trade-wind and monsoon seasons; during the latter their homes are subject to periodic hurricanes (tropical cyclones).

Demography. About half a century ago Tikopia had a dense population, about 300 persons per square kilometer. This density caused anxiety among the people's leaders, who feared food shortages. (In 1952-1953 a famine occurred as a result of a tropical cyclone.) In 1929 the population was about 1,270; by 1952 it had risen to about 1,750. But by about 1980, through emigration, the population on Tikopia Island had been reduced to about 1,100, while another 1,200 or so Tikopia lived in the external settlements and around Honiara, the capital of the Solomons. There is much interchange of population between the settlements and Tikopia Island.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tikopia are Polynesian in Language and culture, their language being assigned to a Western Polynesian grouping. But from neighboring peoples they have acquired some Melanesian loan words as well as other cultural items. Tikopia has no dialects. But as a result of external contact many Tikopia now speak English and all can use "pijin."

History and Cultural Relations

From recent archaeological research it appears that Tikopia has been occupied for about 3,000 years. Three phases of traditional culture have been distinguished. The earliest (c. 900 to 100 b.c.) used locally made sand-tempered earthenware of Lapitoid type; the second (c. 100 b.c. to AD. 1200) probably imported its pottery, of more elaborate style, from the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) to the south. In the latter part of the third phase (c. a.d. 1200 to 1800) no pottery was used at all. Diet changes were marked. In the first two phases pigs, fruit bats, and eels were eaten. By the end of the last phase, into the historical period (c. AD. 1800 to present) no pigs were kept and bats and eels were regarded with aversion as food. The third traditional phase was seemingly the result of a separate immigration and bore a more markedly Polynesian character. It is clear that over the whole period of occupation Tikopia people have had irregular, infrequent, but sustained cultural relations with Polynesian and Melanesian peoples in other islands around, by arduous, often dangerous canoe Voyages. European contact began with a sighting of the island by Spanish voyagers in 1606, and was renewed in the early nineteenth century by visits of Peter Dillon and Dumont d'Urville and by later calls of labor recruiters and missionaries. Only toward the end of the century did the British government claim control over Tikopia; this control was exercised only rarely until after World War II, during which Tikopia remained undisturbed. Since then both mission and government contacts have been fairly regular, though often interrupted by poor sea communication.


The population is distributed in more than twenty nucleated villages, situated around the sandy coastal strip at the base of the hills; there is no settlement on the rocky northern coast. Houses are still of traditional pattern, built directly on the ground in rectangular shapes, with low palm-leaf thatched roofs on a timber frame, and doorways to be entered only on hands and knees. Earth floors are covered with plaited coconut-palm-leaf mats. Houses in a village are set irregularly, in no formal pattern, with canoe sheds adjacent, giving easy access to the sea. In the settlements abroad, housing is often of traditional style, but modern types also occur.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. On the island, Tikopia are primarily agriculturalists and fishers. Crops include taro (Colocasia ), manioc (cassava, Manihot ), giant taro (Alocasia ), and sago (Metroxylon ). In the settlements abroad their occupations include agriculture, plantation labor, police and hospital work, and schoolteaching. Several Tikopia men have become priests in the Church of Melanesia, and one has become bishop in the diocese of Temotu, in the eastern Solomons. In general, Tikopia have not engaged in commerce.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, Tikopia men practiced crafts of canoe building and other woodwork, net making, and extraction of turmeric pigment, while women wove mats of coconut-palm leaf and pandanus leaf and beat out from the inner bark of a tree (Antiaris toxicaria ) the bark-cloth garments and blankets used by both sexes. A few such objects are now made for sale to tourists who travel on the rare vessels that call at the island, but there are no industrial arts of significance.

Trade. Archaeological and ethnographic records indicate that since archaic times Tikopia residents have engaged in sporadic trade with neighboring island communities, receiving items such as arrows and shell ornaments from Melanesian sources and fine pandanus mats from the closely related Polynesian people of Anuta in return for turmeric pigment. Trade with Western visitors was historically by bartersteel tools, fishhooks, calico, and tobacco being sought in return for local artifacts and food. But nowadays money is used freely, even in transactions among Tikopia themselves.

Division of Labor. Men do woodwork and go sea fishing in canoes. Women do domestic work, but both sexes tend the earth ovens for cooking. Both men and women fish the reef, men with spears and seine nets, women with hand nets. In agriculture, men do the heavy work of breaking up the soil, both men and women plant, but women do most of the weeding. Specialization was recognised particularly among men (e.g., in canoe building). Men alone could be priests in the traditional religion.

Land Tenure. All the land of Tikopia is divided into orchards (tofi ) of palms and fruit trees and into open gardens (vao ), marked off into plots for annual cropping. Every orchard and garden plot is owned as of ancestral right by a distinct lineage group, with titular supreme rights exercised by the clan chief. (A similar system operates in overseas Tikopia settlements that have agricultural lands.) Within the lineage land, rights to produce are held by individual cultivators. By ancient custom, vacant garden land may be used for a season by other than its owners, on payment of a proportion of the crop. Permanent transfers of land from one group to another were rare, but historically transfers sometimes occurred when a chief gave some land to a daughter on her marriage. Sale of land is unknown. No land on Tikopia is held by other than Tikopia people.


Kin Groups and Descent. Tikopia society has been Divided into a large number of unilineal named descent groups, determined genealogically and tracing ancestry back for up to ten generations. These groups are termed paito, a word with a wide range of meanings including "house" and "household." They can be conveniently called lineages. Over time, segmentation can lead to the formation of new lineages, while failure of male heirs leads to lineage extinction. For corporate kin group membership as regards land rights, marriage arrangements, and funeral rites, the principle of transmission is rigidly patrilineal. But the kin bond with mother and mother's lineage is also very strongly held, represented by formal and informal support in a variety of social situations. The importance of this bond is indicated by the term tama tapu (literally, "sacred child") applied formally to a child of any woman of a lineage. Members of a mother's lineage rally round their nephew or niece at birth, initiation, illness, or death.

Kinship Terminology. Tikopia kinship terminology is relatively simple with cousin terms of the Hawaiian type. Generation differences are marked: grandparent (puna); parent (matua); father (tamana ); mother (nana ); sibling (taina, of same sex; kave, of opposite sex); child (tama); grandchild (makopuna ). In general the system is "classificatory," putting all kin of the same general type under one term. But distinct terms exist for father's sister (masikitanga ) and mother's brother (tuatina ), who have special social roles.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Modern Tikopia marriage is solemnized by a Religious service in a Christian church. But traditionally it was initiated by elopement or abduction of a woman from her Father's house to that of her chosen or self-elected husband. Nowadays, as formerly, the crux of the marriage arrangement is an elaborate series of exchanges of food and other property between the lineages of bride and groom, occupying several days. The bride commonly goes to live with her husband, either in his parents' house or in a new dwelling adjacent to theirs. Entry into the married state is marked by assumption of a new name, often that of the dwelling where they live. So if they reside in the house "Nukuora," the husband is known as Pa (Mr.) Nukuora, the wife as Nau (Mrs.) Nukuora. Traditionally, polygyny was permissible, and men of rank did often have more than one wife. No woman could have more than one husband, however. Marriages seem to have been fairly stable. Divorce was rare and adultery by married women was not common, in contrast to the sexual freedom of both sexes before marriage. Infidelity by married men did occur, but if it came to the wife's notice it often seems to have elicited a violent reaction from her.

Domestic Unit. The core of a Tikopia domestic unit is a husband, wife, and children, but ordinarily a household is apt to contain additional kinan elderly widowed mother, an unmarried sister or brother, a youth or girl fostered from an allied kin group. Occasionally two brothers and their families share accommodations, forming a multiple-family Household. Adjacent, kin-related domestic units may share in the preparation of meals, using a common oven house.

Inheritance. Major property (e.g., land, canoes, houses, and house sites) is inherited patrilineally, with the eldest son acting as the main controller and his siblings sharing in rights of use and residence. But sometimes after a man's death his sons may dispute and decide to split the landed property. Smaller items, such as a wooden headrest or shell ornament, may be allocated personally to specific kin by a man before his death.

Socialization. Social control by public opinion has been strong in Tikopia. Although raised permissively, children are very aware of the discipline of their parents and are also trained much by other kin and by peer-group association. Formerly, the educational process was smooth and uninterrupted from birth to maturity; nowadays many children go abroad to school for a period and are exposed to a range of alien influences.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. A major social division in Tikopia is into four kainanga (clans), each an aggregate of half a dozen or so paito (lineages). Each clan is headed by a hereditary chief, with an order of precedence based upon former Religious ritual: Kafika, Tafua, Taumako, Fangarere. Crosscutting the clan organization is a local grouping into residential districts. Between the two largest of these, Ravenga on the east side of the island and Faea on the west, there is traditional rivalry, most notably in dancing and political prestige. The Tikopia social system has been asymmetrical in the relative status of men and women. Men have held all positions of political and ritual power, though the influence of women has been strong domestically and in general social affairs. Modern developments, especially in the overseas settlements, have tended to modify, and not necessarily improve, these relations.

Political Organization. Traditionally, Tikopia chiefs held absolute power in extremity over their people, especially over their own clanmembers, though this power could be modified by conventional methods of constraining a chief to respond to public opinion. Chiefs were and still are tapu (sacred) and treated with great respect. Formerly, chiefly families tended to form an intermarrying class, but nowadays unions between commoners and the children of chiefs are frequent.

Conflict and Social Control. According to tradition, conflict between individuals and between groups has been Common in Tikopia in struggles for land and power, resulting in slaughter or expulsion of sections of the population. Nowadays external government sanctions and the influence of Christianity make such extreme solutions most improbable, and social friction seems to be held in check by a sense of common purpose in the advancement of Tikopia against the outside world. Internally, chiefs exercise their control through executives (maru ), their brothers or cousins in the male line who act in the chief's name to keep public order. In overseas settlements, men appointed by the chiefs serve as leaders and advisers. In modern times especially, public assemblies (fono ) are called by maru to hear the instructions of chiefs.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Until the early present century all Tikopia were pagan, practicing a polytheistic religion. They believed in spirit beings called atua, a term including ghosts of the dead, ancestors, and spirit powers that had never assumed human form. (These last beings were sometimes termed tupua, a word now applied mainly to the Christian God.)

Religious Practitioners. The major practitioners in rites, as priests, were the chiefs of the four clans, assisted by ritual elders who were the heads of the most important lineages. By about 1923 about half the Tikopia population became Christian, under the aegis of the Melanesian mission of the Anglican communion (now the Church of Melanesia). This conversion led to friction in the Tikopia community, but the new religion gained ground till in 1956 the last pagans, led by their chiefs, joined the church, thus radically changing ceremonies and practitioners.

Ceremonies. The major spirit beings were worshipped in elaborate rites, with offerings of food and bark cloth. The validating feature of every rite was the pouring of libations of kava, a liquid formed by chewing up the root or stem of a pepper plant (Piper methysticum ). Every six months ceremonies were performed in which canoes, crops, temples, and people were rededicated to gods and ancestors for protection and prosperity.

Arts. The Tikopia traditionally have had little competence in graphic arts. Their sculpture consisted of simple geometrical forms applied to woodwork. Their great performing art has been dancing, which has inspired a profusion of songs and which is of great social and (formerly) religious importance.

Medicine. Tikopia medical practices were rudimentary, consisting of massage and external application of coconut oil and leaf infusions. These practices were linked with appeals to spirit forces, usually held responsible for illness. The trancein which a medium, man or woman, explored the cause of illness and suggested remedy, in alleged spirit guisewas a common mode of treatment. Such practices still persist, but modern Tikopia rely largely on Western medicine and hospital treatment.

Death and Afterlife. A death is an occasion for great mourning. Tikopia funeral ceremonies continue after burial of the body with periodic wailing and massive exchanges of food and other goods between the kin groups concerned. Traditional conceptions of the afterlife were vague but involved a notion of a series of heavens on different levels or in different wind points (sources of prevailing winds), each controlled by a major god. There was also an image of a "rubbish pool," into which would be thrown the souls of those who had consistently misbehaved on earth. Life in the afterworld followed much the same pattern as on earth, but with dancing as the main activity. Nowadays,conceptions of the afterlife follow a Christian model, but elements of traditional belief may still persist.

See alsoAnuta


Firth, Raymond (1936). We, The Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia. London: Allen & Unwin.

Firth, Raymond (1939). Primitive Polynesian Economy. London: Routledge.

Firth, Raymond (1970). Rank and Religion in Tikopia. London: Allen & Unwin.

Firth, Raymond (1985). Tikopia-English Dictionary. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

Kirch, Patrick V., and D. E. Yen (1982). Tikopia: The PreHistory and Ecology of a Polynesian Outlier. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin no. 238. Honolulu.