Volume 58 1949 > Volume 58, No. 4 > The footprints of Tarawa, by I. G. Turbott, p 193-197
THE FOOTPRINTS OF TARAWA
WITH the passing of the present generation of “old men” of the Gilberts, many of the legends and customs of these people are also dying out; and there is growing up a generation of young men who are ignorant of all the wisdom and stories of their ancestors.
This short account is a factual report, without any personal comments or interpretations of the position, of two series of footprints appearing on Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, as shown to me and explained by some of the unimane (old men) of Tarawa, the location of the present capital of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony.
The exact location of the first series of footprints is on a piece of grey stone in a clearing in the bush on Eita Island, near Banreaba Village, Tarawa Island, on land called Te Aba n Anti (the Place of Ghosts) or Te Kananrabo (the Holy Place—see Map B). The stone clearing itself bears the local Gilbertese name Te Aba Ni Maneka (the Rock of Footprints) and is situated about 400 yards from the lagoon side of the island and some 100 yards from the reef side, the island being not much over a quarter of a mile in width at that particular point.
The largest footprint (A on Map B) is said to be that of Tabuariki, a giant who, according to the old men of Tarawa, was born and grew up on Tarawa. He was one of the original inhabitants and stories of his exploits are well known and often told in local circles. They also appear in the local vernacular in a London Missionary Society publication Rongorongo i Tungaru. He could pick the nuts from the coconut trees without climbing and was renowned as a fisherman, being particularly noted for his exploits in roaming Tarawa Lagoon on foot, fishing as he went, especially in the vicinity of tiny Bikeman Island (see Map A). Later in his varied life he seems to have settled down and selected - 194 Beru in the Southern Gilberts as his home island; Beru Lagoon being claimed by many to be Tabuariki's personal property.
This particular footprint is said to be his left foot—it sinks a good inch into the solid rock, a coral limestone, has 12 toes and measures 3 ft. 9 in. across the toes and 4 ft. 6 in. from the toe to heel—its counterpart, the right foot, is reported to be near the village of Tekanranga on Maiana, a separate island in the Gilberts some 20 miles to the southwest of Tarawa. There were various attempts by Hawaiian missionaries in the early stages of the Colony's history to try and disprove this locally accepted theory of giants' imprints. One Hawaiian missionary, Rutera, in about 1889, just before the Flag, tried to chip out a copy in the rock nearby but his attempt was a failure. The obvious resulted—the story of the giants' footprints became even more conclusive in the minds of the local Gilbertese. It would certainly be difficult without careful workmanship and the necessary tools, plus considerable weathering of the sun and wind, to make a print so smooth and perfect as these appear today. A more recent attempt at “sabotage” has been reasonably successful. Some years ago the owner of this land, “the Place of Ghosts,” planted a young coconut tree in the centre of Tabuariki's footprint. Today the tree is a good eight feet high but is growing cleanly into the rock so that the outer perimeter and shape of the toes, etc. still remain intact. It does, however, point out one fact, that the rock must be fairly hard but thin layer and that under it is the sandy soil, typical of the low-lying atolls of the Gilberts, on which the coconut thrives. Close alongside the large indentation presumed to have been made by Tabuariki is a smaller one attributed to Nei Teiti, the wife of Tabuariki. This is her right foot and is shown at A in Map B. She had six toes, the size of the imprint being 1 ft. 3 in. across the toes by 1 ft. 6 in. in length. Exactly where the print of her left foot is recorded was not known. The print above D in Map B is also supposed to be that belonging to Nei Teiti's right foot. Both these indentations sink about one inch into the rock and are exceedingly clear in outline and shape. E on Map B represents a basket carried by Nei Teiti in her many and varied travels with her venturesome husband. The unimane were very definite as to the contents- i - ii
Te Kabinimaribo, near Bikenibeu, where the second series of footprints is found. The old man is standing with his foot in one print.
of this particular basket and pointed out the pet lizards whose imprints appear around it—see E, Map B. Nei Teiti was never known to have travelled without these lizards and they are now automatically associated with her property. The basket also contained small hardened nuts of the coconut filled with oil from the same tree. This she rubbed, or had rubbed, all over her body, a habit not uncommon amongst the indigenous Gilbertese today.
D on Map B shows some smaller, yet complete, footprints. These indentations are said to have been made by the giant children of Tabuariki and Nei Teiti. They do not have any regular pattern because, like the children of mortals, they would run here and there at their whim and fancy. It is not certain how many children there were, or whether they in their turn grew up into the majestic figures that their father and mother appear in legends and myths. But the footprints certainly are clearly set into the stone: others are scattered more lightly at various places over the clearing but have not been specificially marked on this map.
C on Map B represents a small drawing in the stone of a canoe, complete with sail and outrigger as is the case with normal Gilbertese canoes. The size per scale in comparison with Tabuariki's footprint gives some indication of its minuteness. But again no imagination is needed to see exactly what it is meant to represent. The canoe is said to belong to Nareau, the chief of Ghosts, a clever wizard who lived at Bonriki Village, some ten odd miles further north along the Tarawa atoll from Banreaba. He was a relation of Tabuariki and was capable of making himself as small as a midget or as large as a giant at will. He was in the habit of appearing as a small man and if by chance a mortal was unfortunate enough to insult him or in any way upset him he would forthwith fill out to giant stature and punish, in an extremely forceful manner, the terrified human. He also made a habit of leaving his mark in some form or other on all the places he visited, so that this canoe, said to be the one in which Nareau voyaged, is his sign that he visited this land, “the Place of Ghosts”—probably, judging by the canoe's size, as a midget. B and F on Map B are a series of well-formed footprints slightly larger than those of human beings. Some have six toes and some five but all, including F, which are prints of a person walking, represent the - 196 indentations made by the ghosts of the owners of this land. It was the playground of the late landowners and all other prints on the clearing are attributed to this source. Some are lighter and less clearly marked and these have not been shown on the map. These prints certainly look more like those of a human and are embedded about one inch into the rock, although the toes clearly sink in and are shaped while the instep is raised and the heel set slightly deeper.
The location of the second series of footprints is some five miles further north along Tarawa Atoll, near the village of Bikenibeu (see Map C). The imprints are on the lagoon side of the island, in fact in a low mud area which is covered each high tide. Mangrove trees grow profusely all around and except for the particular rock area on which the impressions are, the environment is typically that of the bottom of a swampy, muddy, crabholed lagoon reef. The actual rock itself, a lime-cemented coral sand, in which the footprints are embedded, is slightly raised above the level of the surroundings. Unfortunately, U.S. Military personnel engaged in the occupation of Tarawa during the war ran a tractor or some heavy vehicle over this area and many footprints were thus destroyed. As in the case of the stone in which the first series of imprints were found, so here the actual rock was found to be only a few inches in thickness, set over the top of sand beds.
The raised rock area on which the imprints are found is called Te Kabinimaribo, “the keel of the canoe of Maribo.” Maribo is a ghostly island supposed to exist “somewhere over the sea to the north” of Tarawa. From here came this canoe containing people from that island. One of the ghosts—exactly which is not known—from Tarawa, when he saw the canoe arrive, went striding towards it and seized it, killing the occupants ... It is his footprints which are embedded on the land “Te Kabinimaribo.” It measures over one foot across the toes and two feet in length, sunk about one inch into the rock.
There is still one smaller footprint remaining: B in Map C, complete and perfect in shape with five toes. This is said to be the imprint of one of the young giants of the Uma-n-Roronga (The House of Youths). It is said that before the area was damaged many similar imprints could be seen in the rock, made by the young giants as they- iii - iv - 197
watched and learnt their lesson as the elder giant seized the canoe from Maribo and killed its occupants. The imprint is well sunk into the rock with the instep and heel very definitely formed. In size it is approximately 9 in. across the toes and 1 ft. in length.
Other reports of similar imprints in rock come from various parts, not only on Tarawa, but also on other islands in the Gilbert Group. Near Noto Village (see Map A) is an imprint in rock said to be a Tabuariki relic. Others appear at Buariki on the extremity of Tarawa (see Map A). As earlier mentioned the other footprint corresponding to that described on the land known as Te Aba n Anti, near Banreaba, Tarawa, is found near Tekanranga Village, Maiana, twenty miles south-west.
Reports also indicate that footprints of either Tabuariki or another legendary giant, Teweia, occur on Beru in the Southern Gilberts.
It is more than likely that on a more exhaustive and wider investigation of the islands in the Group, numerous similar indentations, each with their particular and peculiar story, could be unearthed.
The accounts, myths and descriptions of such imprints would undoubtedly vary a little in the telling, for each raconteur has his own conclusions and his own particular explanations of each mark in question.