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The birth of cannibalism in Fiji

Avinesh Gopal
Tuesday, March 04, 2014

IT is claimed cannibalism started somewhere in the Nakauvadra mountain range in the early 1800s and was related to tribal wars.

From the stories passed down to some villagers in Rakiraki by their forefathers, the place where it started in the mountains was called bole.

But there are documented reports stating cannibalism existed in Fiji well before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Some things documented about cannibalism in the country cannot be published for various reasons.

A research by the Fiji Museum reveals cannibalism existed in Fiji about 400 BC and was the major cause of bloodshed.

The Yalo i Viti: Shades of Viti - Fiji Museum Catalogue 1986 also has a section on cannibalism in Fiji, detailing what it was.

"Archaeological evidence from Lakeba establishes that cannibalism was firmly entrenched in Viti from 2500 years ago until the mid to late 1800s, butchered human bones forming a common relic in food waste middens throughout that time," it says.

The revelation in the book that cannibalism was practised in Fiji 2500 years ago to the late 1800s raises questions about who came to Fiji first and when.

"By 1800, cannibalism was a normal, properly-ritualised part of life," the Fiji Museum catalogue states.

"The drive behind consumption of human flesh lay not in nutrition or in any naïve belief that the living qualities of the eaten would be absorbed by the eater, but in pursuit of vindictive vengeance beyond the grave, cannibalism being the consummate insult of a society founded upon ancestor worship.

"Enemies taken or slain in war â€" and in times of Pacific want, the enslaved relics of earlier triumphs â€" were, regardless of age or sex, offered to the war god of the clan before being butchered, baked and consumed on his behalf by his descendants.

"Many corpses were consumed on the battlefield, but where feasible, the clans composing a war party strove to take home the fruits of victory for sacrifice at their respective spirit houses."

The catalogue states that those destined for the ovens were offered at the war god's spirit house and accepted by his chief and priests, with a favourite portion being set aside on the god's behalf.

It says the dead were then butchered and baked, dissected or entire, in pits near the spirit house before being eaten by the men of the clan, with women and children receiving an informal share when there was an excess supply of it.

Furthermore, the catalogue states that captives were routinely humiliated and often tortured before being clubbed or cast alive.

Special wooden forks were also used to eat the baked human bodies. The forks were consecrated or tabu and were kept as sacred relics in the spirit house.

"In the highlands of Viti Levu, the bones of cannibalised enemies were placed as trophies in the forked branches of trees but on the coasts, where leg bones were needed for making sail needles, these were replaced by less durable prizes in the form of sexual organs, and foetuses cut from the corpses.

"As well as made into sail needles, slivers of leg bone made useful thatching knives and were treasured as heirlooms recalling past triumphs, more personally gratifying mementoes, including smoked snacks which could be nibbled on whenever a particular hated victim came to mind."

The Fiji Museum catalogue states that yaqona cups were made from enemy skulls, enemy teeth were used for a necklace or to stud the head of the fatal club and earlobe ornaments or hairdressing pins were fashioned from long bones.

In his book Fijian Weapons & Warfare, which is a bulletin of the Fiji Museum, Fergus Clunie also gives a detailed description of cannibalism in the country.

Clunie wrote that cannibalism or veikanikani was an integral part of Fijian religion and warfare, with the captured bodies of enemies slain in war offered to the gods, cooked and eaten on their behalf.

"It is often claimed, more sensibly and honestly but equally wrong, that cannibalism in Fiji developed out of all proportion and became much more common and widespread than it had been previously once firearms had been introduced to Fiji," he wrote.

"This assumption that firearms consistently caused for far heavier battle casualties is largely unfounded and the earliest sandalwood trade journals clearly prove that cannibalism was present on a large scale when the first Europeans landed in Fiji, and was not grossly perverted by the introduction of firearms but continued in its traditional pattern."

Clunie wrote that the most notorious of the cannibals, Ra Udreudre, whose personal tally of eaten foes ran into the hundreds, was to emerge later in the 19th century.

Furthermore, he wrote that captives destined for the ovens were clubbed down before being offered to the gods in sacrifice or were bled at this stage and their blood drunk before being executed.

"Sometimes, however, they were deliberately stunned and cast alive into the fiery ovens, their agonised thrashings as the flames revived them then burnt them to death, delighting the vengeful spectators.

"These captives had often been subjected to such prolonged cruel tortures that death came as a welcome release; it being a common practice to taunt, stone, bite, blind, burn with firebrands and pull out the hair of captives, who were also repeatedly speared in the arms and legs, and riddled with arrows.

"The extent of these mutilating tortures can be judged from the fact that of two Tahitian seamen rescued by Lockerby (Imthurn & Wharton 1925:18) after a day and night in captivity, one was 'so much disfigured that his shipmates did not know him'." Clunie also wrote that the bodies were generally cut up and prepared for the oven by a priest using a bamboo knife, simply splitting a new edge whenever it got blunt.

He also wrote that feelings ran high while the flesh was slowly cooking, with men and women dancing.

"When human flesh was in good supply, such as after a large massacre, the less desirable parts of the body including the hands, feet and heads were sometimes thrown away or fed to the pigs, as was the entire fast-rotting trunk if it had putrified too far.

"When the meat was in short supply, only the chiefs, priests and elders got a share, the feast usually taking place in the temple of the war god on whose behalf the body was being eaten.

"If in ready supply, however, the warriors all got cuts according to their social standing. The chiefs and priests received the choicest pieces.

"Women were not generally permitted to eat human flesh, it being tabu to them but women of rank were reputed to eat it surreptitiously and if there were a very large supply, even common women ate it quite openly."

Clunie wrote that the religious aspect of cannibalism was clearly evident in the offering of the bodies to the war gods and other things related to the act.

He wrote that the heads of the enemies were shattered against a club or stone.

"On taking a particularly notorious enemy, a chief might decide to keep him all for himself in supreme sacrifice to the war god, the body being cut up and only lightly cooked then preserved by daily light cooking until it had been entirely consumed.

"This was done more in vengeance than to gain the mana or spiritual virtue of the slain, for the Fijians did not generally believe that this could be absorbed by eating the body."

Clunie wrote that most bodies eaten were those of enemies taken in war but if bodies were required for religious and feasting purposes and no war was in progress, slaves or low class people might be killed or even presented as live offerings or ambushes were set for unsuspecting neighbours of low class.

"Sanctioned and indeed demanded by Fijian religion, cannibalism allowed revenge and vindictiveness to be carried past an enemy's death.

"Some of the principal chiefs and priests of Fiji were fond of human flesh almost to the point of addiction but in being so were serving their religion and society," Clunie wrote in his book.

NEXT WEEK: A naturalist's look at cannibalism in Fiji

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