Fijian Culture & Custom. -
A Weblog on the culture and customs of FIJIANS as the indigenous people of the FIJI ISLANDS
Monday, October 26, 2009
Drinking from a human skull
www.fijilive.com - 26 October 2009
In the old days defeated warriors were eaten and their skulls used as cups.
Back in 1800s, when cannibalism was still very much a part of Fijians' daily diet, human skulls were used as drinking cups.
Not much is known about these relics but there are historical accounts of rare occasions when the human skulls were used as drinking cups.
William Diaper in Erskine's book, 'A journal of a cruise among the islands of the Western Pacific' - talks of two human skulls used as yaqona drinking cups in a spirit house (bure kalou) in Mouta, Macuata in Vanua Levu.
It was only on rare occasions when a chief wanted to have part of an enemy's skull for a soup-dish or drinking cup - that orders were given not to strike the victim on the head.
The Roko Tui Dreketi's skull cup was handed over to Reverend David Cargill (a British missionary) in Rewa in 1840.
The skulls is that of a Fijian Chief seen as a threat to Kania and was kept as a symbol of "victorious revenge". In fact, the bones of cannibal victims were symbols of trophies.
Historical accounts record cannibalised skulls and bones wedged between tree forks in the Viti Levu highlands. Only the hill tribes of eastern Viti Levu and some coastal tribes of western Viti Levu did the practice.
(People in Bau and Rewa, on the other hand, didn't keep bones as trophies but used amputated sexual organs that were hung in trees near spirit houses and cannibal ovens.)
The bones were either wedged between tree forks or made into sail needles, comb handles, head scratching pins and ear-lobe ornaments. Human teeth were strung together to form necklaces.
And as a further insult, some people grounded the bones and mixed the dust into puddings, which they presented to the victim's unsuspecting relatives.
One of the main reasons for cannibalism in Fiji was revenge. For instance, in Nadroga, a warrior would keep the liver and hands of an enemy in a bundle over his fireplace so when he grieved over his relatives' deaths, he would take down the bundle of his enemy's flesh and eat some to ease his pain.
This, it is said, would go on for about two years until his vengeance was sated. An even greater form of vengeance was to cook the body and leave it in the oven marking it as unfit to eat.
A warrior who killed his enemy was seen as triumphant if he ate him too and would then be held in high esteem by his fellow villagers. But woe and humiliation befell the man to be eaten. The term used for the victim was bokola (cannibal meat) - it is a derogatory term that is considered a gross insult for a Fijian. During this time, when a famous chief or warrior was killed and cooked, parts of his flesh were sent all over the country. When the missionary Thomas Baker was killed at Navatusila in Central Viti Levu in 1860, a piece of his flesh was sent to almost every chief in Navosa.
Religion and habit were the other reasons for the practice in Fiji. There was clearly a religious (this was pre-Christianity) overtone to the practice.
It is initially thought to have begun as the highest form of offering to the gods following strict taboos and ceremonies with a haunting drum beat and a death dance. In Bau, the body was presented to the war god of Bau and priests in other parts of Fiji took part in these cannibalism ceremonies.
Men would eat after decomposition had set in, something they would not consider doing with other meat. Women, however, were forbidden to eat human flesh and those chiefly Bauan women who indulged in it, did so in private.
The cutting up and cooking of human bodies was done in a systematic way where bodies were in most cases dismembered before cooked. The actual dismembering was done with almost surgical precision - using sharp pieces of bamboo. And in some cases it was the priest (bete) who made the cuts. The type of cuts on the bodies deferred slightly from place to place.
Captain Richard Siddins, a sandalwood trader in Fiji between 1808 - 1809, writes about one such incident in his 1925 book describing the cutting up of the body of a chief of Naivaka, Navakasiga, Bua in Vanua Levu.
"The chief's hands were cut off at the wrists, his feet at the ankles, his legs at the knees and his things at the middle. The bone was divided with an axe bought from one of the ships that had visited the area.
The head was then cut off very low toward the breast and placed on some hot ashes.
These ashes had been specially prepared in a hole dug for that particular purpose.
The head was left there for some time and then the hair was removed with some shells. Then the head and all other parts of the body were placed in the hole and everything was covered up with hot stones. Not unlike the way a lovo is done today."
William Endicott in his 1923 book Wrecked among cannibals in the Fiji’s, tells of a similar experience (March 10, 1831) in Vunirara, Macuata, also in Vanua Levu.
In this case, "the head was cut off first and laid aside. It was set fire to and the flesh completely signed off.
The hair was burnt off and the flesh scraped white. This was necessary before the head could be considered for cleansing. The people of Vunirara had a very methodical way of cutting. Once the head was cut off, then they cut off the right hand and the left foot, right elbow and left knee.
And vice versa until all the limbs were cut off. The chief or king had his own special piece of meat - an oblong piece about eight inches wide.
This was cut from the body beginning at the bottom of the chest. This piece was especially reserved for him and nobody was allowed to eat it.
The guts and vitals were also taken out and cleaned for cooking. They cut the flesh through the ribs and right to the spine, which was then broken - having the body. The cleansing and preparation of the body took about two hours.
A large fire was made in the lovo (earth oven) and small stones were heated in the fire.
As the body was cut, the pieces were thrown in to the fire. And again like in the first incident mentioned above, the skin is scraped white after being completely signed. The stones are removed and the oven cleaned out.
The flesh was then wrapped in plantain leaves and placed in the oven. The stones are also wrapped in leaves and placed among the flesh. Everything is covered with plantain leaves and several layers of earth to keep in the heat.
There are instances, however, when the body was not dismembered but cooked whole.
This was particularly the case when bodies were being presented to chiefs. In these incidences, the bodies were first disembowelled and the cavities stuffed with red-hot stones before being placed in the earth-oven.
The well-done flesh was either peeled off with fingers, gnawed off or cut off from the bone with a bamboo knife. This was also done to dismembered body parts cooked on the bone".
Historical accounts point out that the joints were scorched prior to scraping. The muscular flesh tended to shrink into lumps, which then split and separated from the bone.
The boneless meat was scraped and packed into leaves for baking. Repeated boiling and baking as in the case of the Nadroga warrior aforementioned also preserved human flesh.
But the cannibals had their own reservations about eating human flesh. They were afraid of touching the meat with fingers or lips and usually used a special fork, which had special names.
Forks were never used in eating food; even food offered to the gods but was used solely for cannibalism.
It was thought that human flesh had some sort of "quality" in it that made it taboo to touch with fingers or lips.
Only the owner of the fork could use it - it was taboo to everyone else. And forks of chiefs were always specially named.
Probably the most infamous of Fiji's cannibals was Ra Udreudre of Rakiraki, on the North Eastern side of Viti Levu.
His victims were called lewe ni bi (contents of the turtle pond). It is thought that his fork was called Udroudro (meaning small person carrying a heavy load or burden) but Udroudro actually belonged to his son Ra Vatu.
His sons showed a missionary in 1849 a line of stones representing the numbers of his victims. There were 872 stones in all but this was not the true number because some stones had been removed by then.
Ra Udreudre also practiced torture (vakatotoga) to avenge the death of a relative. Vakatotoga was a form of punishment where the victim was mutilated before death. In most cases it was done for revenge and it was practiced in ancient revenge and it was practiced in Tonga.
Ra Udreudre ordered a woman from the offending village to be laid alive in a wooden trough and dismembered so that none of the blood was lost. And it is amazing that Fijians who were victims or prisoners of this type of torture did not even try to escape or even resist.
There were many other examples where different ways of cruelty were practiced for revenge. One such example is of a whole village in Namosi, Viti Levu, who were punished by being doomed to be eaten household by household.
The chief commanded them to plant a taro bed, which they did. But as soon as it was harvested, a household was clubbed and the family eaten with the root crop.
No one knew who was going to be eaten next because the executioners chose at random. Most people would have fled if such a fate awaited them but these people did not.
In those days, Fijians did not look to the future but lived for the day. And they believed life on earth was just temporary, a place of abode until they passed to the other side - where hopefully better things awaited them.
Each part of the body had a symbolic name, which was only used in terms of cannibalism. The trunk was eaten first and was called na vale ka rusa (the house that perishes): the feet, dua-rua (one-two).
Fijians did not eat their aged relatives. They believed that they would lose their teeth if they ate the flesh of a relative or ate or drank from the vessel of a man who had done so.
Although relatives were not eaten, no one escaped the cooking pot - whether male or female, young or old, if you were targeted, you ended up as the main course.
The flesh of young people (particularly the heart, thing and upper arm) aged between 16 and 20 was considered a great delicacy.
But warriors slain in battle were usually not eaten and chiefs were often spared this insult. If a friend of the deceased happened to be one of the victors, he would probably intervene to save the body from the oven.
A truce was then called and the deceased's relatives were allowed to come and bury the body. There was also a custom where mourners at the funeral cut out their thumbnails and fixed them on a spear.
This spear was kept in the temple as a reminder of what was done for them - the body of their relative being spared the humiliation of the cannibal's oven. And when the war ended, they paid their debt to the warrior by presenting him with valuable presents.
It makes one squeamish to think of women and children being killed and eaten. But for the children of old, moku na katikati (club the women and children) was done for a reason.
The whole aim of war was to inflict pain and suffering on their enemies. And to spare women (the bringers of life in the world) would mean a new breed of enemy warriors to fight against.
And this was one risk they did not want to take - hence the killing of women and children.
Habit became a reason for cannibalism later on during the 19th century Fijian wars, when warriors would kill people to satisfy the tastes of some chiefs who had developed a fondness for human flesh.
Some places you might want to visit to see remnants of Fiji's dark past are in Sigatoka. Take a trip with Waterfall tours - they run guided tours to the Naihehe Cave - a place steeped with mystery and intrigue.
The cave was last bastion of the Nabuavatu Tribe, one of the last cannibal tribes in Fiji. They held on to this practice even after most of Fiji had converted to Christianity.