The Tubuai Islands and Kava

Next up on our tour of the Polynesian region of Oceania is the Tubuai Islands.  Much like their cousins to the north in the Tuamotu Archipelago, the people of the Tubuai Islands are technically part of French Polynesia.  This being the case, they also have their own unique culture and relationship with kava-as we will discuss below.  First let’s take a closer look the Tubuai Islands.

The Tubuai Islands

The Tubuai Islands are an archipelago of islands within the Austral Islands chain which in turn is part of the overseas collectivity of France: French Polynesia.  Located on the southern most tip of French Polynesia, these islands are located southwest of the Cook Islands and cover over 800 square miles of the Pacific.  The islands themselves, small in size and number, sustain a year round population of around 6500 Polynesian descendants.

The Tubuai Islands are an extension of an enormous underwater volcano field which runs from the Austral Islands to the Cook Islands.  This volcano field gave birth to the island chain in much the same way the Hawaiian Islands were born.  The archipelago consists of 5 major atolls.  These atolls are Iles Maria, Rimatara, Rurutu, Tubuai, and Raivavae.  Let’s take a closer look…

Iles Maria – Originally known as Nororotu, the island is commonly referred to as Maria or Hull Island.  The modern name of Maria is taken from the name of the first whaling vessel, piloted by the American Captain George Washington Gardener, to site the island in 1824.  Maria is the oldest of the islands in the Tubuai chain, and its former volcanic peak has been reclaimed by the sea.  This has left four small, densely forested, islets surrounding a shallow lagoon.  Although currently uninhabited, the island once served as a penal colony.  Today it serves as an occasional source of copra harvesting-one of the region’s number one exports.

Rimatara – Rimatara is the western most island in the Tubuai chain.  Unlike Maria, its neighbor to the East, Rimatara is populated (albeit sparsely) with approximately 800 residents.  The island is an ancient volcanic plateau.  This plateau, over eons of erosion, sea level shifts, and volcanic uplifts have left Rimatara completely encircled with an expansive reef in areas as high as ten feet above sea level.  This reef provides a small but brisk eco-tourism/dive business as well as a natural defense against the rising tides.  The last island in the chain to welcome European settlers, the island was not discovered by western whalers until Captain Samuel Pender Henry made landfall in 1811.  The good captain was shortly followed by Protestant missionaries a decade later in 1821.

Rurutu – Rurutu is the northern most island in the Tubuai Chain and it has taken quite a journey.  As most islands in the area of Oceania, it was originally born from a volcanic hotspot.  The volcanic rift in question is known as Macdonald hotspot.  After migrating away from the Macdonald hotspot, Rurutu fell victim to erosion.  Luckily for the juvenile island, it eventually found its way to another hotspot-the Arago hotspot.  The time spent above this volcanic vent raised the island by nearly 500 feet, giving it the height we see today.  This surge in height exposed a system of sea caves which eventually became home to the Rurutu’s cave dwelling people (making them unique in French Polynesia).  Rurutu has a year round population of approximately 2100 resident.  Every year between January and July, the young men and women of each village prove themselves in a show of strength. Following a custom called “amoraa ofai”, unique to Rurutu, they attempt to lift huge volcanic stones to their shoulders.  The village champions hoist one sacred stone that weighs 330 lbs.  This accomplishment is followed by exuberant feasting and dancing.

Raivavae – Raivavae is one of the central islands in the chain, and is quite similar geographically to its neighbor Rurutu.  Another small atoll, Raivavae subsists on the bounty of the sea, copra exports, and eco-tourism.  The sixteen square miles is home to approximately 800 year round residents.  Like Rimatara, it is completely surrounded by and coral reef which protrudes from the ocean floor.

Tubuai – Tubuai is the main island in the Tubuai chain.  It is both the seat of power for the regional authority and most heavily populated island (home to over 2100 residents).  Like the rest of the chain, the island exists on sustainable farm, the gifts of the Pacific, and eco-tourism (which is a growing business in the region).  An interesting side note; the island was depicted as an island of cannibals in Mutiny on the Bounty.

Tubuai Culture

As with the rest of French Polynesia, the Tubuai Islands were settled thousands of years ago by the Lapida people from Taiwan.  They were great sailors, exploring the ocean in search of new territories.  These future Polynesians had remarkable knowledge of the stars, winds, and ocean currents.  According to some linguists, archaeologists, anthropologists as well as some geneticists, Polynesian ancestors did originate from East Asia but migrated slowly through Melanesia.  They interacted with and mixed extensively with Melanesians, leaving behind their genes and incorporating many Melanesian genes before colonizing the Pacific.

The Tubuais are famous for their arts; elaborate woodcarvings and enormous stone tikis.  Unfortunately, missionaries succeeded in destroying the ancient techniques and today there are almost no traditional artisans. They are also known for their ancient, atonal singing style, said to be the purest representation of pre-contact Polynesian music in French Polynesia

The Tubuai Islands are quite varied and feature limestone caverns, ruined temples (maraes) and hilltop fortresses (pas).  Far removed from the distractions of civilization, these hard working fishermen and farmers live quiet, contented lives in their villages often built of coral limestone.  So isolated from the rest of the Polynesian empire, the Tubuai Islands have developed their own language Tubuai-Rurutu.

Tubuai and Kava

The people of Tubuai drank kava traditionally until it was irradiated by Protestant missionaries in the early 1800’s.  Before that time kava was used in ceremonies to ask forgiveness of a family when and individual has injured someone in that family, to settle disputes (often mediated by the tribal chief), and when asking for a woman’s hand in marriage.  Kava was the societal glue which held the culture together through food times and bad.  It came to symbolize respect for oneself, one’s family, and one’s culture.  Thankfully, with the resurgence of the kava culture as well as nationalist pride, kava has returned to the Tubuai Islands.  Kava has returned to help cement Tubuai’s ancient culture-and we couldn’t be happier.


Kava and Medicine:
Historical Kava use:
Historical Kava Use:
Historical Kava Use:

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