Tikopia (tik-o-PEE-a) is a wee island in the Pacific, quite close to the middle of nowhere, the remains of an ancient volcano. Its area is 1.8 square miles (4.6 km2), much of it steep rugged hillside. The closest neighbors live on Anuta, 85 miles away (137 km), a long and dangerous voyage in a dugout canoe. Tiny Tikopia is eleven times larger than Anuta.
Humans arrived in Tikopia maybe 3,000 years ago, and brought along pigs, dogs, fowl, rats, and the seeds of Polynesian foods. For a while, folks ate well, dining on the abundant birds, fish, and shellfish. As abundance faded, slash and burn agriculture gained momentum. Deforestation crept up the slopes, and eroded soils washed down, accumulating near the shore. Efforts were made to stabilize and expand the shoreline. As a result, Tikopia’s land area is now 40 percent larger, and the reef area is 41 percent smaller. There is much more land suitable for raising food.
The crater of Tikopia’s volcano used to be a saltwater bay linked to the sea, home to plentiful fish and shellfish. Soil deposits have now blocked the connection to the sea, turning the bay into a lake. This sharply reduced the marine life that formerly thrived in the bay. The villages that depended on this food were screwed. Around 1700, they exterminated a village having fertile land. Another village fled in fear, paddling into the ocean, almost certainly drowning. Conflict is hunger’s shadow.
The lake water is too salty to drink, as is the ocean. Drinking water is obtained from springs flowing out of the hillsides, coming from sources above the villages and latrines. Ashes, excrement, and kitchen wastes are used to return nutrients to the gardens and orchards.
Over time, folks planted more food-producing trees. Eventually, they developed a clever three-story system of arboriculture, mixing tall, medium, and short tree species. These included bananas, papaya, coconuts, sago, chestnuts, and almonds. On the ground, they grew root crops, like taro, sweet potatoes, yams, and manioc. This system maximized food production, reduced erosion, enriched the soil, was less vulnerable to cyclone damage, and did not require endless toil. Pigs swiped too much human food, and were eliminated before 1800, as were the dogs.
Nature kept life interesting by sending drought years and frequent cyclones. These could hammer the food supply. Because Tikopia was so far from anywhere, importing food from elsewhere was not an option. Folks preserved calories for famine years in two ways. (1) They dug pits and fermented taro, breadfruit, and manioc into glop called masi, which could be stored for several years. (2) The pith of the sago palm was dried and ground into storable flour.
Each house was assigned specific garden plots and orchards that comprised their primary source of nutrition. If you ran short, you starved. Carrying capacity expanded and declined in synch with food production. When conditions got tight, older males in the household would set limits on reproduction. The families complied, because everyone understood the painful consequences of having too many mouths to feed.
Because it encouraged social stability, population management was intelligent and ethical. It was done in several ways. Junior members of the family might be expected to remain bachelors or spinsters. Everyone practiced coitus interruptus. Efforts were made to induce miscarriages to end unwanted pregnancies. Newborns were promptly suffocated. It was usually OK to have two sons, but subsequent male offspring were strangled, to avoid conflicts over land inheritance. Unmarried males sometimes jumped into a canoe and never returned. Others swam out into the open sea and fed the sharks. When all options failed, it was time to fetch clubs and go on the warpath.
I invite you to watch The Island of Tikopia, a pleasant 53-minute video. It shows us cool people living in a tropical paradise. Tikopia is blessed by being tiny, isolated, unsuitable for industrial agriculture, and having no valuable resources. Hence, they have not been obliterated by modernity. They will never suffer from automobiles or cell phones. Even today, Tikopians live in functional communities, and enjoy an easygoing way of life that is unimaginable to frantic consumers thrashing through life in Crazyland.
The video does not focus on how contact with civilization has impacted their society. On a different island, the Sentineli welcome all visitors with a shower of arrows. They have learned from painful experience that outsiders can be bad juju. Tikopians had no fear of visitors, because anyone who paddled in was a mellow islander like themselves. Whites were different; following a visit in 1828, a quarter of the population died from disease.
Missionaries began to wash ashore in 1857, occasionally visiting the island. Within 50 years, they had made a few converts. Half were baptized by 1928, and by 1955, most were nominally Christian. Chiefs who agreed to be baptized were rewarded with metal axes, knives, adzes, and other amazing stuff. Heathens who preferred the ancient path were rewarded with self-righteous intolerance.
More destructive than dysentery, pneumonia, measles, and influenza was the deliberate introduction of European morality. Much of the traditional culture managed to survive, but Christians were especially uptight about sex, family planning, and which deity to worship. Naturally, the stern prohibition of premarital sex was disregarded by almost all youths, including horny young Christians.
Naturally, the mission’s opposition to population control had negative results. Population soared 37 percent from 1,288 in 1928 (too many), to 1,753 in 1952 (way too many) — just in time for a devastating cyclone, and a bloody plunge into helter-skelter. This drove anthropologist Raymond Firth crazy. Christian culture was obsessed with compulsory conformity, but disinterested in the predictable results. Tikopians had evolved a remarkably competent culture that adapted to the ecosystem and mindfully lived within limits. Leave it alone, he shouted.
Anyone who has studied European history knows that this irrational morality of unrestrained growth has, over the centuries, led to the death of hundreds of millions via wars, famines, and epidemics. Is this truly more ethical than intelligent family planning? The principles of carrying capacity and overshoot apply to both tiny islands and the entire planet, as we are now in the process of discovering.
When the first humans arrived in Tikopia, there were no mammals. There were no wild herbivores to freeload on their food supply. The only man-eating predators were sharks, which swam outside the reefs. In the absence of large predators, humans were the dominant animal. There were no lions, jaguars, or hyenas to provide essential population control services. Thus, a culture of mindful restraint was the preferred path to sustainability.
Today, Tikopia is one of 900+ islands in the nation of Solomon Islands, which is 95 percent Christian. The Tikopian population crisis has been addressed by sending folks to establish colonies on other islands — islands that have been depopulated via exposure to the diseases of civilization. Other Tikopians enjoy rewarding careers in manual labor at coconut plantations on larger islands. How much longer can the consequences of European morality be sidestepped? Sea levels are rising, cyclones are intensifying, and low-lying islands in the Solomons are vanishing. Good luck islanders!
Firth, Raymond, We, The Tikopia, American Book Company, New York, 1936.
Firth, Raymond, Tikopia Ritual and Belief, Beacon Press, Boston, 1967.
Kirch, Patrick Vinton and Douglas E. Yen, Tikopia — The Prehistory and Ecology of a Polynesian Outlier, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1982.