Volume 60 1951 > Volume 60, No. 2 + 3 > Anthropological problems in Fiji, by E. W. Gifford, p 122-129
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- 122

I am stimulated to present this brief paper because of the current interest in research in the Pacific Islands as manifested by the United States Navy's programme in Micronesia and because of the geographically greater interests of the Seventh Pacific Science Congress. Moreover, I conducted an archaeological investigation in Viti Levu, the largest island of the Fijian archipelago in 1947. This island, with its four great river systems, and slightly larger than the island of Hawaii, has the biggest concentration of population in the Crown Colony of Fiji, comprising Fijians, Indians, and Europeans. The population of the entire colony on December 31, 1948, was 277,372. As with many other Pacific island groups, the last fifty years have seen a large increase in native population. In Fiji the native population increased by 7,000 in the biennium ending December 31, 1948. In New Zealand the Maori population has grown from 40,000 to 110,000 in the last 50 years.

The programme for Fijian research which I am suggesting is in line with the recommendations of the Anthropology Section of the Seventh Pacific Science Congress, set forth as follows by Dean Knowles A. Ryerson in the issue of Science dated May 27, 1949: “Among the studies recommended jointly by this section and that of social sciences were ethnographical studies in those areas wherein detailed information is lacking. Pilot studies of the process of social and cultural change, and population studies and their relation to land, education, and economic future were especially urged.”


Viti Levu, just west of the 180th meridian, is, like Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands, one of the crossroads of the Pacific so far as modern traffic is concerned. It was probably in the - 123 past a crossroads in the interracial relations of pre-European times, located as it is at the eastern edge of Melanesia, and, according to geologist Ladd, once the eastern rampart of a former Melanesian continent. However, that continent, about which geologists disagree, if it existed, did so long before man's appearance on earth.

Fiji impinges upon western Polynesia and between the two regions a considerable interchange of peoples and cultures has taken place. Young Tongan nobles formerly completed their military education by a sojourn in Fiji where they participated in the wars of that country. Tongan political refugees often found haven in Fiji and certain parts of Viti Levu proudly boast of Tongan ancestors. In the mid-nineteenth century Tongan troops intervened in a Fijian war and saved the day for Thakombau, the king of Mbau. The Tongan general Maafu subsequently attempted the conquest of the whole archipelago, but was stopped by the British. The Lau Islands of eastern Fiji are peopled largely by Tongans.


My reason for stressing anthropological problems in Fiji, instead of somewhere else in the Pacific, is that the rapid development of inter-communication, especially in Viti Levu, is fast levelling ethnical differences, so that each passing year renders it more difficult to retrieve the data that will round out the picture of Fiji as it was when Europeans first arrived. On Viti Levu, in particular, travel by highways, railways, buses, river traffic, and coastal steamers threatens to wipe out the former local distinctiveness of populations. Increasingly, Fijians from distant villages intermarry and the oldsters who could serve as informants die off.

Thomas Williams, stalwart missionary, has left us a fine general sketch of Fijian culture as it was a century ago. Other writers, in part repeating Williams, have contributed details here and there. Among the most able of these writers have been Sir Basil Thomson and A. B. Brewster. Travel books, such as Miss Gordon-Cummings' At Home in Fiji, have painted pen pictures of Fiji in their day. In the late decades a few professional anthropologists have taken a hand in presenting detailed local studies. Notable among - 124 these are Laura Thompson, who wrote on the Lau Islands of eastern Fiji, Dorothy M. Spencer who lived in a village on Viti Levu Island, and Buell Quain who sojourned ten months in a village on Vanua Levu Island. These are excellent and much needed local studies, and it remains for other professional anthropologists to complete the picture before the opportunity has completely vanished.

The problems concerning the past, which should be solved without delay, are those of ethnography, linguistics, and physical anthropology. Those of the present and future, dependent for their proper solution on knowledge of the past, are in the field of acculturation, or culture change; namely, the study of the influence of local Fijian cultures on one another, and of the impact of European and Indian cultures on all of these. The archaeology of Fiji, buried safely in the ground, is the least pressing problem, though not the least interesting.


The physical characteristics of the living Fijian population should be recorded by a trained physical anthropologist. Although the native Fijians numbered 124,000 at the end of 1948, measurements of only 133 male and 13 female sub-adults have been published. These were school students who were measured by Dr. William L. Moss; the data were published by Dr. William W. Howells in the Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History in 1933. The title of the paper is “Anthropometry and Blood Types in Fiji and the Solomon Islands.”

The increase of marriages between Fijians residing at a distance will render more difficult the determination of original local physical types, if such existed. Hence the urgency of inaugurating an anthropometric survey at an early date. Once an adequate sampling of the population of one or more islands has been achieved, attention can be turned to various problems.

Here are a few which anthropometric and anthroscopic research in Fiji may help elucidate: (1) presence of local physical types, which casual observation suggests; (2) the determination of whether there is a pygmy substratum in the Fijian population, as the shorter population of interior Viti - 125 Levu might indicate; the nearest pygmies are those reported, but not investigated, in the New Hebrides; (3) the determination of the extent of Polynesian, Veddoid, Indonesian, Australoid, and pygmy elements in the native population; (4) the physical relationship of the present Fijian population to the inhabitants of other Melanesian islands; (5) the physical relationship to the Negroes of Africa; and (6) with the aid of archaeology, the characteristics of population at different periods.

Besides employing the time-honoured anthropometric and anthroscopic techniques, the investigator should be equipped to determine blood types by the latest serological methods. The local hospitals and dispensaries and the efficient European and native staffs thereof would be able to co-operate very effectively in such an undertaking. Also the records in the Government hospitals and dispensaries might prove of some interest as they relate to health and disease problems in the population and their possible incidence in connection with one or more patterns of physical characters. In the same connection, it might be extremely useful to carry out somatyping. For any attempt at genetic analysis of data recorded genealogical information will be required.


The official native language of modern Fiji is the Mbauan dialect of eastern Viti Levu. Its use is tending to submerge other dialects and languages of the archipelago. On Viti Levu Island alone there is a variety of dialects and languages. Professor Capell and others have made a beginning at recording these, but what is needed is an intensive and far-reaching investigation and recording of texts before it is too late.

In 1947, I had a practical demonstration of the linguistic diversity of Viti Levu. My interpreter, a Mbauan speaker, understood with difficulty the dialect of Ra Province on the north-east coast. When we reached the north-west portion of the island, he could not understand the native language at all. On the south-west coast he had similar difficulty. There, due apparently to Tongan influence and immigration, the Mbauan “s” is replaced by “h.” However, my assistant was relieved of his embarrassment, because in conversing - 126 with him the bilingual natives used the official Mbauan tongue. Nevertheless, the experience demonstrated the linguistic diversity of Viti Levu. No doubt the differences are being levelled and the time to complete the record of dialects and languages and their distribution is now or the near future. These languages and dialects may be the clue to the geographic source of immigrant groups, of which there are doubtless several. Legends of one important group of immigrants seem to place their arrival about fourteen generations ago.


A thorough record of Fijian culture in all its local variations would form the foundation for comparison with other Melanesian cultures, as well as Polynesian, Micronesian, and Malaysian, and no doubt help to reveal relationships. Also it would supply the pre-requisite material for an understanding of the process of acculturation now in progress. Besides, it should reveal the interrelations of the local varieties of Fijian culture and the extent to which they have borrowed from each other.

On Viti Levu Island there is considerable local diversity of culture still observable today. Even to a casual observer, local styles of houses and fish weirs obtrude themselves. Nevertheless, much has been lost or replaced by new forms, as elderly informants can testify. With the levelling process of acculturation at work the recording of the old local cultures is urgent. To understand properly the acculturation steps it is a prime necessity to know the old structures. However, quite apart from the dynamic aspect of acculturation, a record of the old local cultures for their own sake and for comparative purposes is a prime desideratum. The influence of local groups upon each other, the effect of local geographical and biological factors, the age differential of various cultural features, and other problems would be elucidated by a thorough record of the local subcultures.

The most expeditious and least costly method of rapidly recording the local cultures is the culture-element-distribution method employed extensively by the University of California for western North America. This method gives comparable data as to presence and absence of culture traits in short order. As many as 7,631 culture elements have - 127 been recorded for contiguous groups within a limited area, for instance in the Plateau Region. This method applied in Viti Levu Island would yield in a few months a vast mass of data as to the local cultures. I employed this method in a study of sixteen Pomo villages in a small area in northern California, the results of which have been published. No one would dream of publishing sixteen separate Pomo monographs, but this method records the data in comparative tables which may be published. The method has the advantage of localizing data, thus making it possible to correlate local differences with both natural and social environments. Many old style ethnographies neglect to do this, because they present synthetic pictures of the cultures of tribes or regions, thus ignoring minor local differences. Furthermore, the non-mention of traits in the older ethnographies leaves the reader in doubt as to whether the traits were absent or merely not inquired about. The culture-element method makes inquiry about all expectable elements and records their presence or absence.

In preparing for a culture-element survey, the investigator compiles a working list based on the literature to date. This is an elastic affair into which new elements discovered in the field may be introduced in their proper context. In the course of field work the original list may be doubled in size before the task is finished.


In 1947 Mrs. Gifford and I spent about six months in Viti Levu in archaeological reconnaissance and excavation. Thirty-nine sites were examined and two of these selected for excavation, since they seemed to give promise of considerable depth and stratification, for primarily I was seeking sites that would reveal earlier horizons of culture.

The two sites excavated were capped with shell midden material representing the latest horizon and yielding quantities of late type pottery with incised decoration. Below this layer shell virtually ceased, but potsherds continued to a depth of twelve feet in one site, ten feet in the other. The pottery of the lowest horizon was of a type with low relief decoration, apparently applied with a stamp. Between these two horizons was a middle horizon with plain ware predominant. Thus three cultural horizons were - 128 demonstrated. The earliest settlers at these two sites were already potters. No pre-pottery horizon was found, though there may be such somewhere in Viti Levu. A long ton of artifacts, mostly potsherds, was brought home. The archaeology of Fiji has only been scratched. On Viti Levu alone there are hundreds of sites.

My own excavations demonstrated that cannibalism was an ancient practice, not merely a late development. The introduction of the pig and chicken was ancient, but no bones of these were found in the lowest levels. Shells brought home yield a list of many species used by the people of the Late Period. Present-day Fijians are extensive eaters of molluscs, too. A puzzling problem is that of the apparent non-use of molluscs by the early inhabitants. It could be that they arrived from overseas with a farming and fishing economy in which molluscs had no place. The late comers would appear to have been the introducers of shellfish to the Fijian dietary. River mussels as well as marine molluscs are eaten. Vertebrate fishes were used throughout the whole occupancy of our two excavated sites. I saved all fish bones excavated. Several species, hitherto unreported in Fijian waters have been identified. Thus it is apparent from my sampling that the archaeological field is one which will richly repay further exploitation.

Fijian archaeology remains unrecorded in the literature save for a few passing references to the more obtrusive objects such as the canoe docks at Mbau, the rock pictures here and there, and a few deposits in the Lau Islands mentioned by Laura Thompson, but not excavated.


Professor Coulter, geographer at the University of Cincinnati, has called Fiji the Little India of the Pacific because of its large Indian population, now outnumbering the native Fijian population. Hindu, Moslem, and Sikh live peaceably side by side in the limited confines of these islands, and do not conflict as only too recently their mainland co-religionists were doing. This situation poses a problem of high practical political value to mainland India. In Fiji may lie the key to the peaceful living side by side of those discordant elements of Mother India and Pakistan. Apart from these intra-India problems, for which the Indians of - 129 Fiji might form a model solution, there is the matter of acculturation between the Indian groups themselves and between them and the Fijians and the Europeans. A richly equipped sociological and political laboratory lies here awaiting the arrival of the researcher to make use of it and apply his findings to practical purpose. Anthropometry could well engage in a comparative study of the Fijian Indians and the relatives in the homeland, a type of study exemplified by the works of Boas and Spier on descendants of Europeans and Japanese immigrants in the United States. Here is a golden opportunity for applied anthropology to profit by a study of the Indians of Fiji.

Symbolic of the peaceful Indian situation in Fiji was the exchange of the flags of India and Pakistan by the respective flag-bearers during the parade on August 15, 1947, the day dominion status was established.

The Indian population in Fiji on December 31, 1948, totalled 129,761.


The intent and purpose of this brief account have been to sell the idea of priority for anthropological research in Fiji instead of somewhere else in Melanesia. To rescue the remnants of the Fiji that was we must make haste. The hour is later than you think.

1   Read at meeting of the Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, at University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., June 13-18, 1949. Slight additions have been made.