May 29, 2023


Digital Art Community

Chiefly Objects – Tanoa and Other Valuables


Yaqona is a species of pepperbush (Piper methysticum) whose roots are used to make an important drink known generally in the Pacific as kava. The pounded or powdered root is mixed with fresh water in a large wooden bowl, then served with respectful formality to guests in coconut-shell cups. It is nonalcoholic, but has relaxing properties and is now consumed socially at gatherings of relatives and friends. Tanoa, circular multilegged bowls for yaqona, are made on Kabara Island in eastern Fiji from prized vesi hardwood trees (Intsia bijuga). Since the late eighteenth century, bowls circulated via gift exchange throughout Fiji and Tonga, the largest ones usually ended up in chiefly households where they were used on major formal occasions. Prior to that, pottery bowls or large leaves were used. The presentation of fresh, dried, or powdered roots to hosts is regarded as an appropriate gift and act of respect, called sevusevu. In the past, yaqona was only consumed to honor or entertain chiefs and guests on formal occasions.

Other forms of chiefly regalia include finely carved clubs, often with multiple ivory inlays, elaborate headrests, and implements known as “flesh forks.” These tools, named icula ni bokola (“fork for human victim”), have achieved a certain notoriety because of their assumed reputation as utensils for human flesh. Although human sacrifice and cannibalism did take place as part of pre-Christian ritual practice,these forks were used by chiefs and priests for any kind of cooked meat, especially pork, when they were in a consecrated tabu state, and needed to be protected from the polluting effects of handling cooked food. Sensational stories of cannibalism were abundant in Fiji in the nineteenth century, and led to the production of rough copies of these forks to supply an eager curio trade.