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24 September 2014

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The island of Anuta is one of almost a thousand islands that make up the Melanesian nation of the Solomon Islands. Together, this group of islands cover a land mass of 28,400 square kilometres. Anuta island has been known as ‘te fatu sekeseke’, the slippery stone, due to it being such a small spot in the ocean - just half a mile in diameter and 70 miles from the next populated island, so hard to find and so easily ‘slid’ away from. Political and geographical circumstances have isolated Anuta and its Polynesian population throughout history.

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The first documented sighting of Anuta was in 1791. Over the centuries, Anuta has been visited by occasional ships. Currently, a cargo ship sets sail from Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands, on a round trip of the outlying islands. This is the only guaranteed contact the island has with the outside world. The cargo ship is infrequent and cannot be depended on as its course and timings are severely affected by the weather patterns that blow across the South Pacific Ocean.

It was a cargo ship that first brought Christianity to Anuta in 1916. Anglican missionaries arrived on the island, and to this day the church still operates and plays a vital part in Anutan life with church services twice a day. The church is believed to be responsible for protecting the island and its population from harm (such as epidemics, droughts and other natural disasters). Despite the strong Christian beliefs on Anuta, life is still shaped by tradition. Although the Christian God has replaced the ancient chiefs’ roles in many ways, chiefs and their close relatives maintain a sense of responsibility for the island’s spiritual welfare.

The chiefs are highly regarded on the island. Taboos exist surrounding behaviour in their presence: the Anutans think of the head as sacred and the feet profane, and therefore, physical height in rituals is important. When inside the chief’s hut, people must crawl; standing up and being higher than the chief is very badly thought of. Anutans often greet each other with a traditional Polynesian nose kiss or pikita.

When greeting the chief it is normal to press one’s nose against the chief’s knee. The chief then lifts his hand under the person’s chin and lifts their face so that both parties are pressing noses. Although Christianity has taken the place of many of Anuta’s traditional beliefs, certain practices such as this are still strictly followed.

Anutan Family Life

The resident population on Anuta is just under two hundred and fifty. Although Anuta is very isolated there is a steady flow of people and objects to and from the island. On Anuta young men in particular tend to come and go by cargo ships or visiting vessels. It is not uncommon for people who visit the island to become adopted into a family and end up staying.

On Anuta, everyone is recognised as being related to everyone else. Family members are related to other family members not only by genetics but also because of certain types of social behaviour. The realities of social life in a population as small as Anuta mean that it is impossible to stick to a simple model of family relationships. A relative who is classified on the basis of social rather than genetic ties is just as much a member of his or her family group. This is important on Anuta when a visitor to the island needs to be adopted into a family and made to feel that they belong.

Concern for others is the backbone of Anutan philosophy. 'Aropa' is a concept for giving and sharing, roughly translated as compassion, love and affection. Aropa informs the way Anutans treat one another and it is demonstrated through the giving and sharing of material goods such as food. For example, the land on Anuta is shared among the family units so that each family can cultivate enough food to feed themselves and those around them.

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Anutan Gardens

The gardens on Anuta are vital sources of food for the islanders. Every family unit is responsible for the production and maintenance of their own hill top gardens. The volcanic soils grow the main staples in the Anutan diet: manioc, taro and bananas. Taro, Anuta’s most highly valued crop, is fragile and needs care and attention to ensure its growth. Manioc, on the other hand is a lot hardier, providing the Anutans with a back-up in times of storm or drought. Crop rotation is practiced on Anuta; they rarely leave fields fallow, but rotate crops so that the soil is not exhausted. This way of farming is one of the most intensive in the whole of the Pacific, as it has to support the dense population of the island.

The threat of natural disasters leaving the island with little or no food is a reality for the Anutans. They regularly bury cooked manioc or taro in what is termed a maa pit. The food, wrapped in banana leaves, is allowed to ferment in a dark and air tight environment. There are maa pits dotted around the entire island and families will share whatever they have. In 2003, Anuta was badly hit by Cyclone Zoe and much of the island’s crops were destroyed. Maa food was essential in keeping the population fed after the cyclone devastated so much of the island's resources.

It is not just the hill top gardens that provide the Anutans with food. The sandy soils of the beach areas provide prime growing for coconut palms. The coconut has many uses on Anuta. People drink the juice and eat the flesh. It is also common to shred coconut flesh and extract the cream from it, to be used in cooking. Coconut shells are used as bowls and cups and the dried coconut husks are used for wiping dirty hands and starting fires. Coconut leaves are also used to thatch roofs and cover canoes, and they can be woven to make mats, fans and baskets.

Fruit trees such as banana and papaya are scattered all over the island and add variety to the Anutan diet, as does sugar cane which is popular with the children. The slopes of the hills are also home to breadfruit trees, a variety of palms as well as turmeric, which the Anutans use to make their ritually important dye (turmeric is also used as a spice in flavouring certain types of foods).

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Fishing and Navigation

The land provides Anuta with a great deal of its food, but the island’s most productive source of protein is the sea. The islanders catch a variety of small reef fish close to the beach, either by communal fish drives where everyone works together to trap fish in pools in the reef system, or by snorkelling or net fishing at low tide. Tuna, wahoo, bonito, sail fish, marlin and other bigger fish are caught in deeper seas, normally on sea-going canoe trips.

Anutan fishermen know the reef system well and have a great understanding of the waves. Today, the Anutans are among some of the last Polynesians to make sea journeys in their traditional canoes using navigation techniques that have been in practice for centuries.

When travelling at night Anutans use the stars to navigate. The bow of the canoe is pointed towards a succession of stars, each star is followed when it is low in the sky and as it rises up overhead it is discarded and the course is reset by the next one in the series. It is not only the stars that are used for navigation: the clouds, the directions of the waves and the ocean swells all provide the Anutan fishermen and voyagers with important messages.

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Outside Influences

Fishermen are the only Anutans who earn money. If they catch shark, they cut off the fins and dry them. The fins are then sold to passing cargo ships or in the capital city, Honiara, when the fishermen get the opportunity to leave the island.

It is common for men to leave Anuta in the pursuit of wage labour overseas. This time away, often throughout the Solomon Islands, can range from a few months to years. Wage workers occasionally send money or goods to relatives back on Anuta, and those returning to live on the island often bring back a supply of manufactured goods.

One of the major effects of overseas contact is a dispute between the generations over health care. Anutans who have lived off the island often get a taste of western medical care, but there are no modern medical facilities when illness strikes back on the island.

In the late 1990s the chiefs on Anuta and their advisors refused to accept western medicines on the island. They argued that such a move would indicate a lack of faith in the church. It is thought by many of the Anutan elders that medicines on the island will attract more disease.

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The Future

The young people of Anuta do not share all of the chiefs' opinions, but Anuta is one of the most isolated communities on earth so change happens slowly. At the moment the island is stable and balanced both socially and environmentally. The resources are sufficient to satisfy the population, and the attitude that the Anutans share for one another, aropa, promotes co-operation and sustainability.

If this balance of life is upset the future for the island will become less certain. Epidemics, natural disasters, climate change and the encroachment of the modern world are all potential threats.

Due to its remote geographical location, Anuta's environment, traditions and culture have been well preserved. The Anutans value their traditional practices such as travelling in their hand-carved outriggers. The island provides an abundance of crops, fish, and a high quality water source from a natural spring; Anuta has successfully supported the dense population for centuries and will hopefully continue to do so.

Further Reading

Feinberg, R (1988)
'Polynesian Seafaring and Navigation: Ocean Travel in Anutan Culture and Society.' Ohio: Kent Sate University Press.

A. Strathern, P. Steward, L.M. Carucci, L. Poyer, R. Feinberg, C. Macpherson (eds) (2002)
'Oceania: An Introduction to the Cultures and Identities of Pacific Islands.' NC Carolina Academic Press.

Feinberg, R (2004)

'Polynesian Life ways for the 21st Century. Prospect Heights,' IL: Waveland Press.

Paper discussing socio-political change on Anuta, Feinberg, R (1982)
(PDF document)

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