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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

The Austral Islands and Rapa

The Austral Islands and Rapa

The Austral Islands, about 400 miles to the south of the Society Islands, consist of the islands of Raivavae, Tubuai, Rurutu, and Rimitara, with the small uninhabited island of Maria (Hull) to the west. There is less published material about the early settlement of the Austral Islands than any other Polynesian group. However, the scraps which have been gathered indicate that settlement and culture came mainly from the Society Islands. The carving on ceremonial paddles from Raivavae resembles that on the ceremonial adz stands of Mangaia, but a careful analysis shows that they may have been developed independently. Coiled caps also occur in the Austral and Cook Islands, with certain differences in technique. Raivavae is rich in stone images, but none have been located in the other islands. Rurutu, however, had a wooden image of unique form which is now in the British Museum. Raivavae, Rurutu, and Tubuai had headdresses based on a coiled cap of similar technique, but the feather ornamentation that went with them was totally different in each island.

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Rapa, which lies farther to the east, is a mountainous island that appears to have had a culture distinct from that of the Austral Islands. A unique feature is the presence of hill villages formed by terracing the hill tops or ridges and using steep ramparts and ditches for protective purposes.

Captain Cook discovered Rurutu in 1769 and Tubuai in 1777. Raivavae was sighted by Gayanagos in 1775, but he merely passed by without seeing anything of the inhabitants. Vancouver discovered Rapa in 1791 and gave a good account of what he saw.

Of other writers, Ellis has some interesting notes in his "Polynesian Researches." The other material is scanty but is cited, as there is so little on record.

The Bishop Museum sent one Bayard Dominick Expedition to the Austral Islands in 1920, R. T. Aitken making a field study in Tubuai and J. F. G. Stokes working on Raivavae and Rapa. F. Alan Seabrook, who lived on Rurutu, wrote a manuscript on the ethnology of the island which was acquired by Bishop Museum. Through the generosity of Cornelius Crane, J. F. Stimson was financed through the Museum for field work in the Austral Islands, but his material has yet to be worked up.

Literature on Austral Islands and Rapa

Early Voyagers
  • Cook (1772-1775)
  • Vancouver (1791-1795)
Other Writers

Brown, J. M.Raivavai and its statues: Polynesian Soc., Jour., vol. 38, pp. 105-121, 1929.

Caillot, A. C. E., Histoire de l'Ile Oparo ou Rapa, Paris, 1932.

Douglas, A. J. A., andJohnson, P. H., The south seas today, London, 1926 [Rurutu, Rapa].

Ellis, William, Polynesian researches, vols. 1-2, London, 1829.

Hill, H. U., Wood carvings of the Austral Islands: Univ. Pennsylvania Mus., Jour., vol. 12, pp. 179-199, 1921.

Montgomery, James, Journal of voyage and travels by the Rev. Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet, Esq…., vols. 1-2, London, 1831.

Routledge, S.andK., Notes on some archaeological remains in the Society and Austral Islands: Royal Anthrop. Inst.Great Britain and Ireland, Jour., vol. 51, pp. 438-455, London, 1921.

Skinner, H. D., Three Polynesian drums: Polynesian Soc., Jour., vol. 42, pp. 308-309, 1933.

Bishop Museum Publications

Aitken, R. T., Ethnology of Tubuai, Bull. 70, 1930.

Seabrook, F. Alan, Ethnology of Rurutu, manuscript.

Seale, Alvin, Expedition to southeastern Polynesia in 1902, manuscript.

Stokes, J. F. G., Archaeology of Raivavae, manuscript.

Stokes, J. F. G., Ethnology of Rapa, manuscript.