Next stop on our tour of the Polynesian region of Oceania is the Tuamotu Archipelago.  Although the Tuamotu Archipelago is not a free standing nation (it is a part of French Polynesia) the fact that it is the largest archipelago in the world warrants a closer look.  Beyond its geographical significance, the Tuamotu Archipelago has a long and rich history with kava.  Before we get to that, let’s explore the archipelago further.

The Tuamotu Archipelago

The Tuamotu Archipelago, officially known by its French name, Archipel des Tuamotu, is a chain of atolls in French Polynesia.  Tuamotu means “islands on the ocean’s back,” and some romantic observers liken them to the backs of surfacing whales. Each is comprised of hundreds of little motus or islets, which are clumps of coral, sand, and limestone strung together to form circular or rectangular shapes of white enclosing blue lagoons. Fringed by white beaches and sprouting lush green coconut groves, the motu are the reality of most people’s South Seas paradise dreams.

The Tuamotu Archipelago forms the largest cluster of atolls (or an archipelago) in the world.  In total there are 73 true atolls, four low coral islands, one raised coral island and one large island-barrier-reef complex.  These atolls and islands span an area of the Pacific Ocean roughly the size of Western Europe yet only cover a land mass of approximately 345 square miles. The Tuamotu atolls exhibit a wide variety of forms, ranging from tiny circular-shaped atolls to the large elongated structures of atolls.  Some of the atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago are amongst the largest and most impressive of atolls found anywhere on earth.

The Tuamotu Archipelago Environment

The Tuamotu Archipelago’s climate is warm tropical, without much variation between seasons.  The annual average temperature is 79°F.  The Tuamotus have no water resources such as lakes or rivers.  The only source of fresh water is rain water.   Luckily the Tuamotus get around 5 feet of rainfall a year.  This rain comes at a relatively steady rate through the year (as mentioned before, they have very little seasonal variation in climate).  The sparse soil of the coral islands does not permit diverse vegetation. Unfortunately for the residents of the archipelago, kava is not native to the area.  Fortunately for the residents, early settlers to the region brought kava with them and it has been cultivated there ever since.  Beyond cultivation of kava, the Tuamotu people also grow local staples such as yams, taro, and breadfruit as well as the coconut palm, and vanilla for export.  The animal life on the islands consists mostly of seabirds, insects and lizards.  But most people come to these islands for the plants and animals found below the water line.  The underwater fauna however, is diverse. The beautiful reefs teeming with life make the Tuamotus one of the most scenic scuba-diving destinations in the world.

TheTuamotu Archipelago and Early History

The early history of the Tuamotu islands is shrouded in mystery. The archaeological record indicates that the Tuamotu Archipelago was first settled by explorers from the Society Islands in about 700 A.D.  This record is limited, as thee low lying islands are wiped clean by the oceans and little of the early cultures remains.  That being said, on three of the larger islands there have been found flat ceremonial platforms, or marae, made of coral blocks.  Their exact age is unknown.

Here the people of the Tuamotu lived in peace, out of contact with western man until Magellan discovered the islands during his global journey in 1521.   In no short order they were also visited by the Portuguese in 1606, the Dutch in 1616, the English in1765, the French in 1768, and the Germans in 1815.  There is some evidence that before any European sailors set foot on theTuamotus; the Inca arrived on their shores in 1480. Regardless, none of these “discoveries” had any political impact in the region as the Tuamotus were part of the Pomare Dynasty of Tahiti.

As with most of Oceania, it was only a matter of time before this all changed.  During the early 1800’s European missionaries began to show up on the shores.  These missionaries in time returned home, bringing with them gifts from their visits.  It was at this time that the region’s pearls became a coveted commodity all over Europe.  It was also at this time, that the islands became more attractive to foreign governments.
Between the lucrative pearl trade, and the fact that the last of the three great phosphate rocks was found in the Tuamotus, caught the eye of the French.  Because of this, following the forced abdication of King Pomare V of Tahiti, the islands were annexed as an overseas territory of France.  This has remained true to today.

The Tuamotus Today

At the 2002 census, the Tuamotus had a population of 15,862 inhabitants. The language spoken in the Tuamotus is Tuamotuan.  This is a collection of Polynesian dialects spoken everywhere except for in Puka-Puka and the Gambier Islands, where Puka-Pukan and Mangarevan are spoken, respectively.

On the economic front, the most important source of income in the Tuamotus is from the cultivation of black pearls and the preparation of copra.  Copra is the dried meat of the coconut that is used to feed both people as well as used in animal feed.  Agriculture in the islands is predominantly subsistence in nature.  Ecotourism related income remains sparse, especially when looking at the tourism industry of the neighboring Society Islands.  That said, a modest tourism infrastructure centered on snorkeling and scuba can be found on some of the larger atolls and this is the main driving force behind a resurgence of Tuamotu tourism.

Tuamotu and Kava

The people of the Tuamotus are famous for living “life in the slow lane”.  No one rushes there, as all things have their time.  We believe this is a mentality which directly correlates to the historical use of kava in all aspects of Tuamotu society.

When the first settlers from the Society Islands arrived they brought with them their drink of choice, kava.  This came in the form of 14 specific “cultivars” which they had developed over time.  The different cultivars produce slightly different variations of kava, be it in the affects of the root or in the plants appearance.  These different strains are then used in different ceremonies such as weddings, births, and ceremonies.  The Tuamotus have a strain of kava for each celebration of the stages in life-that’s a mantra we can get behind!