Micronesian Shark Tooth Weapons Micronesian Shark Tooth Weapons Nicolas Py Within the realm of Oceanic art, Micronesia—including the Marianas and Guam, Palau, the Carolines, Marshall Islands, Kiribati or Gilbert Islands, and Nauru—still remains less well known. This is due, in part, to lack of specialists, even though important public collections exist, especially in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and notwithstanding exhibitions that highlight this region of Oceania, such as the exhibition in 2009–2010 at Stuttgart’s Linden Museum in Germany. Global situation of Micronesia in the Pacific, © Pacific Arts du Pacific from WikiCommons Perhaps this is also due to art productions that some may consider less impressive than others displaying Pacific culture: Micronesian objects are often modest and come from ordinary life—jewellery, seacraft (navigation, fishing), or cookery. Thus, our knowledge about Micronesian arts and material production is sparse. But one type of Micronesian art that is famous and particularly well known—not only in ancient literature but also by private and public collections and some academic works—are the Kiribati’s shark-teeth weapons “Kiribati” is a local translation from the English name “Gilbert,” which was the name of the E.I.C. Captain who was the first European to travel through the archipelago. Now the word is part of the country’s name, the “Republic of Kiribati.” I prefer using the old name, Tungaru, out of respect for the inhabitants and to avoid confusion with the name of the modern state. The Tungaru atolls lie from North to South around the Equator line, as we can see on the map below. Map of Tungaru, © WikiCommons The Tungaru art of war is famous thanks to weaponry made with three elements: sennit, palmwood, and, of course, shark’s teeth. Indeed, a lot of us have seen pictures of one of these weapons, like this photograph of a fierce warrior wearing a complete set of coconut-fibre armor, another famous item from Tungaru. Fierce Tungaru warrior, photo: George Hubert Eastman, © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge These shark-teeth weapons, called “betia” in the local language, were used throughout Tungaru, but their names vary from Northern, Central, or Southern regions. Commonly, the names most used are the Central ones. Tribal war and feuds were ritualized. Before the fight, important warriors might engage in abstinence. Just before the confrontation, they applied coconut oil on their bodies, covered themselves with fresh leaves, and, helped by a kind of squire, donned the fibre armor. Then the warriors and their opposites confronted each other using polearms—long-shafted weapons. Around the important warriors, henchman (and sometimes the rest of the village), less protected but fully armed, engaged in the fight using various swords, sabres, and daggers. The wounds caused by shark’s teeth are very painful and leave deep scars. Warriors display them as marks of courage. Polearms are represented in collections, and are well known in photographs, especially these taken by Augustin Kraemer, the German anthropologist. But few polearms survived, perhaps because they had been destroyed during fights between the armoured warriors. Polearms were called “Te Unun,” and they measured 3 or 4 meters of length (12–13 ft). Ritualized fighting, photo taken in 1906 by Augustin Krämer, extracted from “Hawaii, Ostmikronesien und Samoa” Very well known are the various swords, sabres, and daggers. The construction for all of them is the same: a staff made from a palm tree, or sometimes from a mangrove tree, on which shark’s teeth are bonded and used as a blade. In the two existing dictionaries of Gilbertese language, the generic term of “sword-like” is “kaba(a)ng.” Depending upon the length and the shape of the wooden staff, teeth could be attached in two ways. In the first case, the staff is round, and teeth are linked together by a sennit rope around the staff and then caught between two thin shafts. Thanks to this technique, the blade of the sword could contain four rows of teeth. Four-rows weapon, in sword shape, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum / Melanie Herrschaft—CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 The typical length of these swords is 70 cm (3 ft). The trident sword, very well known by collectors, seems to be derived from the four-rows sword. According to some witnesses, this weapon was used during close fighting to wound the opponent’s arms or legs. But other sources describe the trident as a spear and point out that the word “mangai” (or “mangau”) designates a fork spear or a spear with branches. It’s not impossible that the earlier trident was a polearm, cut shorter by Europeans for ease of transport. When Tungaru people observed this, they made reduced-length weapons which are now referred-to as three-pronged swords. Trident (FMNH 99071) credits Field Museum of Natural History Trident from British Museum (Oc.LMS.10), © The Trustees of the British Museum In the second case, the staff is flat and it has been pierced, so that teeth can be firmly attached with sennit. This makes the weapon smaller, and it contains only two rows of teeth. According to dictionaries and other sources, these are called “rere,” and the word’s meaning is also “sword” or “dagger.” Daggers from Ethnologishe Museum, Berlin Short sword from Brooklyn Museum (CUR.35.2190), © Brooklyn Museum The length of the “rere” is between 20 and 50 cm (1–2 ft). Again, dictionaries can clarify the differences between weapons that at first sight seem similar. If the teeth used as a blade come from a tiger shark, this weapon is called an “arawa.” Until now all these weapons discussed were used by men. But there is also a category of women’s weapons: These are smaller (15–20 cm) with only a dozen teeth. One source gives the name “Te Ui n aine,” which may translate as “weapon of women” (“aine” means “women”). These weapons have a similar cousin in Wuvulu, a Micronesian outlier off New Guinea. Women’s weapon from British Museum (Oc1894,-.235), © The Trustees of the British Museum Another very strange weapon is also known. Its particularity is that it has only one shark tooth. “Butu” is its name, and it was said to be used by jealous women. Sometimes it was described as a scarification tool, but this seems unlikely. Two “butu,” drawn by Otto Finsch, the German ethnologist This discussion of Tungaru weaponry is not complete without talking about the war club: the elegant, heavy, and dangerous staff called “batiraku.” Sometimes made from heavy wood, occasionally from whalebone, it was not only a weapon but also a tool for killing sharks. It is the only war club known in Kiribati and the second known in Micronesia, where slings are the most important weapon. Two war clubs from Ethnologishe Museum, Berlin Tungaru weaponry is a vast domain for collectors, who usually have only seen shark-teeth weapons because those are the more common and better documented. Tungaru weapons are fascinating, due to their technique, their shape, and their deadly power. Many of the weapons in museums or in private collections were given after conversion to Christianity, as a gesture of peace. Missionaries, whalers, and traders were the main providers of weapons during the nineteenth and the early-to-mid twentieth century. Nowadays, only weapons for the tourist trade are still made.