The Maritime Culture of Tikehau

The name Tikehau means, “to go and look for peace” and the island indefinitely evokes feelings of serenity.[1] The atoll of Tikehau is located in the northwest part of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia. According to current archeological estimates, the first occupants of the atoll likely arrived approximately at 800 AD.[2] Since this time, Tikehau’s inhabitants have relied on the resources provided by the ocean. The intimate relationship with the sea is the most significant factor that has shaped Tikehau’s culture. The customs that lead inhabitants to live close to the sea have begun to disintegrate due to globalization across French Polynesia. In terms of a longer time scale, sea level rise threatens the cultural existence of Tikehau. This is why it is essential to make an effort to understand the island’s cultural practices before they are lost.

In the early 17th century, voyagers in this region of the South pacific first documented Tikehau. No early discoverers made attempts to land on the island because of the limited knowledge of geographical hazards surrounding the island.[3] The earliest documentation of the population on the atoll was in 1851 when it was assumed it to be uninhabited.[4] The first record of inhabitants in 1852 estimated a population of ten individuals. A hypothesis explaining low populations suggests Pomare I’s warpath likely displaced early inhabitants in the late 1700’s.[5] Inaccurate population estimates may also reflect that Rahui seasonal movements discussed below.[6]

Although the validity of early censuses is questionable, populations have left archeological evidence of their existence. On the island there are several locations of early religious structures called marae. These constructions were used for worship, sacrifice and social ceremony. Marae played a significant role in ancient life. Fishing, travel, warfare, and resources were all linked with worship, which took place on a marae for a single village. According to archeologist Paul Niva, each site would serve as a location for several families, each made up of 10-15 individuals. There was thought to be approximately 40 individuals in each of the communities who would utilize a single marae. An archeological map of Tikehau presents eight separate maraes and provides evidence that pre-European contact populations could have been as high as 300 individuals if all were inhabited simultaneously.[7]

Ancient residents of the Tuamotus divided themselves into various island conglomerates, which shared the same religions, gods and basic social structure, but the only method of connectivity was ocean travel. Populations would not necessarily live in the same village or even on the same atoll, but they would interact during annual inter-island migrations called “Rahui. The people of Tikehau were a part of the Mihiroa region, which included eight islands in the northwest section of the archipelago. During the Rahui, the majority of atoll populations would travel to other Mihiroa islands for three to six months, which would allow resources on islands of origin to replenish.[8] This conservation practice was an effective method to promote sustainability among island communities. The migrations began to cease in the 1940’s, and as of 1983 only 21% of the population spent six or more consecutive months annually on a different island of French Polynesia.[9]

The life and culture of ancient inhabitants of the Tuamotus revolved around ocean resources and travel. It comes as no surprise that people of the Tuamotus had a reputation as some of the most talented sailors, fisherman and overall seamen. Mobility was crucial to seasonal migrations, fish harvesting and avoidance of attacks from hostile island groups. Transportation in ancient periods throughout the Tuamotu islands relied strongly on vessels constructed with available resources. Traditional sailing canoes or were made out of multiple sections of wood plank lashed together, mainly because large thick trees could not survive in the harsh atoll environment.[10] Holes were then drilled into these planks, which were lashed together with coconut-based sennit cord, and edges around the lashings, were plugged with tree resins to resist leaks.[11] The vessels were constructed in variable hull designs depending on their planned function, but harder woods, were typically favored for durability in rough seas. Adzes and chisels made from shells and rasps from shark and ray skin were both utilized in crafting vessels.[12] Boat crafting, like many of the early skills in the Tuamotus, was a highly respected, heritable profession. The practice was passed down through generations, and the privilege was typically granted to the eldest son, who would be trained to continue the occupation of his father.[13] Gods of the trees that canoes were built out of were worshiped, and vessels would often feature religious carvings constructed in them to protect those who used them.[14]

Figure 1.
Photo John Jinishian, February 2012.

In a similar fashion, canoes manufactured for warfare also carried religious symbols of gods of the seas and winds for protection. Many early weapons were made from ocean resources like fish jaws and sharks teeth.[15] Island groups would attack other islands to display power possessed from there ancestors. During times of warfare in Tikehau, Hina was a significant goddess worshiped for protection. The Parata group of the southwest corner of the Tuamotu chain had a reputation for attacking the Mihiroa. The Mihiroa peoples of Tikehau would make sacrifices to Hina. Their hopes were that Hina would bring large waves that would cause the Parata peoples canoes to be destroyed by the crashing on the sharp corals that surround the atoll.[16] War has been nonexistent on Tikehau for the last 150 years. The population is still slowly rebuilding itself, but ancient worship is still recognized, some for once war related gods. Forms of praise for certain ocean and weather gods are still recognized and shape the cultural meaning behind modern sea travel.[17]

Today Tikehau has a population of slightly over 500 individuals gathered almost exclusively on the motu of Tuherahera. Tepapamahina, a second village located adjacent to the main pass was documented as the second most populated in the atoll before the 1980’s, when population shifted to congregate around Tuherahera. Tepapamahina was used into the late 1980’s as a weekly dwelling for fisherman and their families to tend fishing traps located next to the village.[18]

The island still relies on water-based transport for necessities of life, and precise navigation is vital to safe piloting around the natural dangers of the Tuamotus. Tikehau has a unique and forbidding geographic composition. There is one pass into the lagoon at Tikehau, called Tuheiava. This pass is a navigational challenge because the channel is only deep enough to steer small vessels through. The pass lies between long strings of dangerous reefs, and strong currents flow through this “hoa,” or water passage. Because it is too shallow for large ships, the transport of food, people, fuel, medical products and material resources depends on small vessel and air travel.

The fisheries are the most important natural-resource economy of Tikehau. Ancient life was reliant on the products provided by the ocean for survival. From the time of first habitation, subsistence fishing was carried on through a variety of methods and shaped daily life extensively. Even today, the fishing industry remains one of the primary contributors to the island’s economy. Pearl diving became a popular practice in the 1900’s when the mother of pearl shell market peaked. Tikehau experimented with the pearl farming, but the process was costly and the lagoon did not possess ideal conditions, so most projects were abandoned by the 1950’s.[19] Ancient fishing methods in Tikehau are spear, line, net and trap fishing, all of which are still in use with modified materials. Fishing knowledge was not just based on location, but functions of time as well such as moon phases, season and time of day.[20]

Hooks for line fishing were made out of various shells, woods and bones, but the modern industry has ushered in steel as a replacement. Spear fishing was one of the earliest fishing practices, and different length spears were used in different conditions.[21] Today, spear fishing still is used, but now goggles, flippers and stainless steel spear guns improve the efficiency and overall harvest. Net fishing was another practice utilized by the people of the Tuamotus. Sennit fiber was a popular material in the east, but in the western tuamotus, the ranga (pipturus incanus) was used.[22] This material was primarily used for dip nets in close range capture. Early seine net structures were constructed from woven cord and attached to bits of wood to make the top float and shells to sink the low edge of the net.[23] In the modern fishery, nets are derived from plastics materials and have a variety of uses.

Fish traps are by far the most common fishery at Tikehau. Traps were originally constructed from coral and rocks in shallow-water in areas of high current, but problems were frequent and yield low. Deep-water traps were possible with wooden stakes and sennit net systems.

Figure 2.
Photo John Jinishian, February 2012.

Modern materials came into use in fish traps from the beginning of the 20th century, when the phosphate industry on the nearby island of Makatea began to flourish. Industrialization on Makatea brought the use of modern materials like wire netting and iron stakes as more durable trap building materials, and this increased yields and efficiency.[24] But during this period, the majority of working-age men on Tikehau turned to mining in Makatea as a source of income. It was during this time that gender dynamics of the Tikehau workforce changed significantly. Fishing had been a male occupation, passed down through generations, but when many of the men moved to Maketea for work, some women took over the fishing practices of their husbands. Makatea’s work force demanded a steady supply of food, and much of the fish product consumed came directly from the fish traps of Tikehau.[25] The phosphate industry subsided in the late 60’s, and the market for Tikehau’s fish shifted to Tahiti.[26] Up until the late 80’s fish traps also served as pens for the fish to be kept alive for up to a month until cargo boats arrived to retrieve the fish. The only time nets were used regularly was to remove the catch from the retaining pens upon the weekly arrival of the commercial purchasing ships.[27] Large nets were used at times to direct fish into the traps.[28] But the possibility of daily shipments by air, starting in the 1990’s, influenced a change in the design of these traps that eliminated the retaining pen.

In the past, harvest of any product from the surrounding ocean was a sacred affair. The presence of the gods was essential to ancient atoll societies.. “Taaroa,” the god of the ocean, was worshiped in Tikehau, as across the Polynesian islands, whose geographical arrangement placed them at the mercy of pacific seas. Subsistence fishing practices in Tikehau were vital to survival, and Taaroa was respected at the marae prior to and following every trip. At the completion of a trip, a ceremony to the gods was held, which was only participated in by men. The first part of the catch was delegated to sacrifice; the second would be the prerogative of the chief, and the rest would go to the fisherman.[29] Early documentation suggests that canoes built for fishing may have also had engravings of respected oceanic gods to help promote a successful trip.[30]

Figure 3
. Photo John Jinishian, February 2012.

Today, the trap fisheries of Tikehau serve as one of the chief exports of the island, and a plane is flown to Papeete daily with two tons of catch.[31] Only a select few with specific skills are granted the right to manage the sea concession traps funded by France. Licenses to fish in government-controlled areas are provided at a cost of 500 CFP annually. Even today, the “Most productive fish parks are located in the Tuheiava pass.”[32] The Tuamotus are a significant contributor to Tahiti fish markets and consistently supply approximately 50% of the fish sold in Papeete and roughly 350 tons annually. Since the early 1980’s, Tikehau has provided roughly 25-50% of the fish production for the Tuamotu islands.[33] The most productive harvest months are August to January, with peaks around the new moon. Poor weather does not deter fisherman from tending their traps daily, but currents can make harvests extremely difficult.[34] Cyclone events can cause serious disruption to reef and fisheries health and destroy fish traps. There is a threat to the loss of this fish trap culture, as the number of individuals using fish traps and applying for concessions has decreased.[35] Many younger members of the population are more concerned with academic education than with the preservation of the culture of there ancestors.[36] Numbers of trap fisherman have dropped from 14 to just 6 individuals in the last 30 years.[37] Interfamily education has nearly ceased, and if the profession is not revitalized it could be lost completely.

For hundreds of years the culture of Tikehau developed around marine resources. Many of the original practices have subsided as they have become obsolete. Some of this knowledge lays dormant in the elders of communities, suppressed by the lack of interest and incentives. Marine harvesting practices and sustainable use of resources have been superseded by the availability of imports with the improvements of modern transportation. Teriiatetoofa, the mayor of Tikehau, manifested some disappointment that even with the abundance of the marine food sources available, the atoll still imports 80% of its food product. To keep the hope of a sustainable future in site, it may well be useful to draw on the practices that grew up in Tikehau’s maritime environment. Indeed the survival of world communities big and small may depend on learning from the efficiencies developed by early cultures. In this way the maritime culture of Tikehau can help in the world’s own search for peace.

John Jinishian, University Of Vermont


[1] Mireille Harmelin-Vivien, "Tikehau Atoll: Tuamotu Archapelago," French Polynesian Coral Reefs: Reef Knowledge and Field Guides, ed. B. Delesalle, R. Glazin, and B. Salvat. (Tahiti: Fifth International Coral Reef Congress, 1985): 214

[2] William R. Dickenson, “Pacific Atoll Living: How Long Already and Until When?” GSA Today,19.3 (2009).

[3] A. Intes and Caillart, B. “Environment and Biota of the Tikehau Atoll,” (Plouzane, France: Centre ORSTOM de Brest, 1987). Web. 11.

[4] F. Sodter, “Eléments d'une histoire démographique” Océanographie: Contributionàl 'étude de l'atoll de Tikehau (Archipeldes Tuamotu, Polynésie Française). 24 (1985) 127.

[5] Sodter. “Eléments,” 134.

[6] Paul Niva, Archeologist. Personal Interview. 24 Feb. 2012

[7] Tikehau : “Prospections et Releves” [Map]

[8] Niva, Personal Interview. 24 Feb. 2012

[9] Intes, and Caillart, “Environment and Biota,” 12.

[10] Tara Hiquily, Musée de la Tahiti. Personal Interview. February 2, 2012

[11] Douglas L. Oliver, Polynesia In Early Historic Times (Honolulu: Bess, 2002): 116.

[12] Kenneth P. Emory. Material Culture of the Tuamotu Archipelago. (Honolulu: Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, 1975): 140.

[13] Oliver, Polynesia In Early Historic Times, 121.

[14] Oliver, Polynesia In Early Historic Times, 123.

[15] Emory, Material Culture of the Tuamotu Archipelago, 132.

[16] Teriiatetoofa Paroe, Mayor of Tikehau, Personal Interview, 6 Feb. 2012

[17] Harrys Mauei, Trap Fisherman, Personal interview,February 6, 2012.

[18] Paroe, Personal Interview, 6 Feb. 2012

[19] Paroe, Personal Interview, 6 Feb. 2012

[20] Oliver, Polynesia In Early Historic Times. 91.

[21] Oliver, Polynesia In Early Historic Times. 89.

[22] Emory, Material Culture of the Tuamotu Archipelago, 191.

[23] Jan Witting, Oceanographer, Personal interview, 13 Jan. 2012.

[24] B.Caillart, R. Glazin, E. Morize, and Mireille Harmelin-Vivien, “Reef Fish Communities and Fishery Yields of Tikehau Atoll,” Atoll Research Bulletin 415 (1994).

[25] Niva, Personal Interview, 24 Feb. 2012

[26] Caillart et al., “Reef Fish”

[27] Harmelin-Vivien. "Tikehau Atoll,”214

[28] Paroe, Personal Interview, 6 Feb. 2012.

[29] Niva, Personal Interview, 24 Feb. 2012; Oliver, Polynesia In Early Historic Times, 93.

[30] Oliver, Polynesia In Early Historic Times, 119.

[31] Paroe, Personal Interview, 6 Feb. 2012.

[32] Harmelin-Vivien. "Tikehau Atoll,” 245.

[33] Harmelin-Vivien. "Tikehau Atoll,” 245.

[34] Mauei, Personal interview, 6 Feb. 2012.

[35] Harmelin-Vivien, "Tikehau Atoll,” 262.

[36] Mauei, Personal interview, 6 Feb. 2012.

[37] Harmelin-Vivien. "Tikehau Atoll,” 262

How to cite this page:
John Jinishian. “The Maritime Culture of Tikehau,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2012. Web. [Date accessed]