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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Material Culture

page 169

Material Culture


Fishing methods and equipment have a great similarity throughout the whole Polynesian area. In fishing and techniques of manufacturing fishing equipment, the Tokelau and Vaitupu cultures are almost identical. The fishing culture of these atolls is also closely parallel to the Samoan, but has Ruvettus and shark fishing with wooden hooks, a widely distributed eastern Polynesian method, completely absent in Samoa. Although Gudger (10) describes Ruvettus hooks from Tonga, doubt still exists as to their origin; Ruvettus fishing has never been described at Tonga.

The Tokelau bonito hook is the western Polynesian type, but, like the Vaitupu hook, varies from the Samoan hook in having three perforations in the base instead of two.


The Tokelau fishing canoe is fundamentally the five-piece canoe found in both eastern and western Polynesia. The lack of large timber on the islands has forced the canoe-makers to build the hull in many pieces, but the style is that of the round-bottom dugout. The sides are built up with small pieces called tafai instead of a single plank strake, widely known in Polynesia as oa. The terminology suggests that the many-pieced sides are not technically strakes. Complete direct lashing to secure parts of the hull is a detail of the eastern Polynesian type of construction. The sharp cutwater and flat bow and stern covers, ornamented with a row of small pyramids and shells, are similar to those of the Samoan plank canoe.

The outrigger float is a general eastern and western Polynesian type, but the indirect attachment of a straight boom by four connecting pegs set in V-form are taken from the Samoan fishing canoe. The socket rest for the bonito fishing rod is a feature of western Polynesian canoes, but the rectangular shape of the Tokelau socket is purely local.

The Vaitupu canoe shows the greatest number of similarities with the Tokelau type. It is a five-piece canoe having pyramid-ornamented bow and stern covers, direct lashings, straight cutwater, “fishtail” stern, and round-bottom hull, often built up of irregular sections of tree trunk. This canoe and the Nanumea type, also in the Ellice Islands, have one important difference—the outrigger attachment—which Kennedy (13) states is a late development. Elsewhere in Polynesia the direct attachment has been assumed to be early Polynesian, surviving in some islands, particularly Hawaii.

The Tokelau canoe and two Ellice Islands canoes are survivals, with modifications, of the type which Hiroa (28) designates as the early type in western page 170 Polynesia. Its Samoan affinities have been adopted from the plank canoe which was developed in later times by the Samoans and Tongans.

The triangular sail resting with its apex before the mast in both the single and double canoes is common to sailing canoes throughout western Polynesia.

The odd feature of reversing one hull of the double canoe is found elsewhere only in Manihiki canoes. The double canoe made of two undecked hulls of fishing canoes attached by cross booms is a type commonly found in eastern Polynesia (56). It is this type, which was both sailed and paddled, that Europeans have actually seen in the Tokelau Islands. The limited timber supply suggests that the larger, decked, double canoe with stepped mast was a rare type. Except for the reversal of one hull, the Tokelau double canoe conforms to a Samoan pattern. The indirect lashing of the seams is a western Polynesian technique. It is more than likely that these larger canoes were brought from Samoa by Samoan settlers in Tokelau and that the reversed windward hull was not characteristic of them.


The rectangular house form is widespread in Polynesia. Linton (56) has shown that it belongs to eastern Polynesia and particularly to the peripheral region, but Hiroa (28) has demonstrated that it is still preserved in the center framework of the poorer type of Samoan long house. The presence of the rectangular house in the Ellice and Tokelau Islands establishes it as definitely in the west, although not necessarily part of the distinct western Polynesian culture.

The Tokelau dwelling has its closest counterpart in the Manihiki type (30). The Tokelau house had no definite entrance and according to Bird's description (2), was entered on hands and knees. The Manihiki house had an entrance at one end. The ends of both houses were slightly inclined but the methods of producing the effect were not the same.

The house platforms of low coral mounds for drainage obviously can not be compared to the terraced platforms of eastern Polynesian houses, but the difference is due to environment. The porous coral foundations of atolls draw off rainwater as quickly as it falls, making the high platforms of volcanic islands unnecessary. In form the Tokelau platforms are roughly rectangular. The differentiation which Linton (56) makes between rectangular and oval platforms seems a bit illogical, for the shape of the platform usually follows the shape of the house.

No material boundary or permanent beds were made in the Tokelau houses, although the men and women had their own parts of the home for sleeping. Shelves and upper stories were built in both the Tokelau and Manihiki houses. This feature may be an introduced trait from Micronesia, for in the Gilbert Islands an upper story, reached by a ladder leading to a small opening, is a customary feature of the dwelling houses.

page 171

In furnishings, the stuffed mat or soft pillow, also made at Nauru (47) and Funafuti (12), is an eastern culture trait heretofore not associated with western Polynesia. It is certainly foreign to the household furnishings of Samoa and Tonga. Linton (56) gives the distribution of this article as New Zealand, Marquesas, and Hawaii, the main islands of peripheral Polynesia.

God House

The god house, as illustrated by Wilkes (pl. 6, B), is non-Polynesian in many features. The railing, the tying of the thatch in bunches at the eaves, and the peculiar curvature of the roof “like a Chinese pagoda” suggest Micronesian rather than Polynesian affinities.


The men wore a plaited malo or breechcloth, customary in the eastern Polynesian islands, but did not wear the bast shirt or titi, the ancient daily apparel of men in Samoa and the Ellice Islands. On festive occasions, Tokelau men wore a fringed mat kilt with braided belt of human hair, a dress also worn in Samoa and Tonga.

The exclusive use of the titi by the women is an eastern Polynesian trait. The prodigious thickness of the women's titi, described by Wilkes (34) as a great bundle of straw, was also characteristic of the Tongarevan titi, described by the first European resident on the island as “a mass of hay”.

Ornaments And Tattooing

Wilkes (34) alone has reported the men's custom of wearing a band of false hair across the forehead. According to Stair (27) “frontlets of human hair plaited to a kind of network” were worn by Samoan men at dances or in war. This ornament must have differed greatly from the wig worn by Fijian warriors. A kind of wig was also worn in the Society Islands, but had braids of hair attached to a piece of tapa (56). In Micronesia, false hair was worn at Truk (55) and wigs were traded in the Gilberts (34).

The peculiar practice of the Tokelau natives of perforating and then dilating the lobes of their ears, by inserting larger and larger pieces of wood, is not so typical of Polynesia as of Micronesia. Bone or turtle-shell rings, slipped over the loop of the distended ear lobe, are worn at Nukufetau, Nauru (47), the Marshall Islands (44), and some of the Caroline Islands (42).

The pearl-shell lei, a strip of shell shaped either like the shank of a bonito hook or like a fish with incised eyes and fins, is an ornament found at Tikopia, Tonga (58), and in Micronesia.

The description of Tokelau tattooing probably does not include all the designs formerly employed, for the sudden decrease of the population due to slave raids, followed by a missionary ban on the practice of tattooing, took page 172 away most of the evidence. From what knowledge remains it is readily apparent, however, that the style had no connection with Samoan tattooing. Although the exact appearance of the fish design is not given, it suggests an affinity with the Micronesian and the semi-Polynesian islands along the east coast of the Solomons. The anthropomorphic figures are a local development as far as can be ascertained. The line tattooed on the cheeks of the men is like the tattooing still practiced upon the women of Anuta Island; the pattern varies but the position of the marking is identical. Tattooing of the lips of the women also occurs in the Marquesas and New Zealand, but the Marquesan pattern is a series of vertical lines. Also like the Tokelau women, the women of Tahiti had a girdle tattooed around the waist (56).


The limitations of atoll environment and the original absence of agriculture and swine make it impossible to compare fairly food and food preparations with those on volcanic islands. The Tokelau islanders used the fire plow, wooden bowls without legs (kumete), fire tongs, coconut graters, water bottles, and the ground oven—all familiar equipment throughout Polynesia. The water bottle net was made by the same technique used at the island of Nukuoro (42) in Micronesia. It is not described by Hiroa (28) for Samoa. The Tokelau Islands coconut grater was four-legged like the eastern Polynesian type.

Sacred Food

The whale was sacred to Tangaloa in Tahiti (53), but was not sacred in Samoa. The Tokelau custom of fighting between the people who discovered the whale and the villagers suggests a mock combat between a foreign group landing on the island and the autochthons. A people worshipping the whale, or holding it sacred to their group in some semi-totemic way, may have once had their arrival at the Tokelau Islands contested, an event which is still celebrated when a whale drifts upon the reef.


It is impossible to draw any conclusions upon the Tokelau adzes from the two specimens collected, both made of material not indigenous to the island. The basalt adz is of a type not uncommon to Samoa (28). Basalt tools were undoubtedly much sought after by Tokelau men who traveled the sea, and voyagers to Samoa probably returned with a fair supply.

The appearance of a tanged quadrilateral adz, however, is remarkable in face of the distribution of this type in Polynesia. Both Linton (56) and Hiroa (28) have noted that the tanged adz is found in the central and marginal cultures of eastern Polynesia, and Hiroa has commented on Linton's page 173 statement that such adzes are rare in Samoa as incorrect, adding that tangs in Samoan adzes are due to accident and not intentional technique. Since publishing his work on Samoa, Hiroa (30) has found quadrilateral adzes at Rakahanga and Nassau Islands on the border line between eastern and western Polynesia. Burrows (38) has found in Uvea two tanged adzes, one of which has two lugs, closely resembling the Rakahanga and Nassau adzes. With the Tokelau adz, these establish a western distribution for the type, but as the specimens are few and the adzes of Tokelau, Rakahanga, and Nassau—all coral atolls—were introduced from volcanic islands, the more logical explanation is that all four of these adzes were brought from the east.

Wooden Fishing Buckets

Hiroa (30) has noted that a tuluma or wooden fishing bucket, brought to Manihiki from the Tokelau Islands, had ten short legs, an interesting observation, for legged tuluma are not at present made in Tokelau and there is no information that they ever were. The tuluma at Manihiki is not unique, for the Funafuti tuluma (12) also had short legs. Otherwise the Funafuti tuluma are identical with those of the Tokelau.

The tuluma of Sikaiana are small cylindrical boxes with four legs and either tight-fitting wooden covers or coconut shell caps. These differ from the Tokelau boxes in being much higher in proportion to their width and circular instead of elliptical in cross section. The Sikaiana boxes are approximately 8 inches high. The same type of tuluma is also made at Liuaniua (61). Boxes with tight covers but without legs or handles are made at Rongelap in the Carolines, Nukuoro, Nukumanu, and Tauu.

Linton (56) shows that the distribution of these boxes, with tight-fitting covers and the same rim and flange, includes the Marquesas, Hawaii, Society Islands, and New Zealand in eastern Polynesia; he adds Samoa, a statement which Hiroa has since disproved. Round, covered boxes appear in Hawaii, but the boxes of the Marquesas and New Zealand are oval like the kumete and sometimes in the Marquesas made in bird form with a tail at one end of the cover, overlapping the rim. Linton believes that these covered boxes originated in eastern Polynesia, but the Micronesian distribution shows that it was a trait probably introduced into eastern Polynesia.