Population on the island of Tikopia

From We the Tikopia by Raymond Firth, Chapter Xl – A Modern Population problem.

(From the Beacon Press paperback version. The book was first published in 1936)




The small size of the island of Tikopia and its isolation has meant that for generations past the maintenance of an adequate relation between quantity of land and population has been a problem of fundamental importance in the economy of these natives. In olden days they appear to have attained a rough equilibrium, and kept it by various mechanisms of adjustment; in recent years this has tended to be upset as a result of contact with European civilization.



Page 373 – under a section titled Mechanisms of Population Control


It can be safely said that until recent years the population of Tikopia was normally in a state of equilibrium with its food supply. ….


The relation of population to natural resources is not expressed in purely individual terms, but in terms of family equilibrium. The division of land is on a “house” basis, and the older men, the responsible heads of the house, exercise a considerable amount of control over the number of relatives and descendents who will share the land. For this purpose there are several mechanisms available.


Celibacy, – The younger male members of a family, especially if it is not a rich one in lands, are expected to remain single. The head of the house may issue an injunction to them to refrain from marriage on the grounds that the offspring of their elder brothers will occupy all the food resources at command. Extra-marital satisfaction is not denied these men, but their sex activities rarely result in children. Deference to family interests is strong, and the choice of celibacy is quite often voluntary.


Prevention of conception, – By the method of coitus interruptus sex gratification is obtained by these natives without resulting in conception. This applies to unmarried people, and is used also by the married in order to limit their families. ….


Abortion, – this is not common, but is sometimes practised by unmarried girls who desire to avoid giving birth. Married women do not practise it; they have no need.


Checks on population of a more radical order comprise infanticide, sea-voyaging and war.


Infanticide, – The face of an unwanted child is turned down at birth and it is allowed to smother. This lies at the discretion of the father, and the motivating factor is said to be primarily the comparison with potential food supplies, though is some cases bastardy may be responsible. …..


The incidence of infanticide varies considerably from one family to another, in some a preponderance of girls being actually preferred. Again, it is common for a father to ignore the suggestion of the midwife or other older woman present and allow the child to live, from pity or affection for it.


Sea-voyaging, – The practice of men, especially the young and unmarried, of setting out on overseas voyages tends to reduce their numbers very considerably, since so many of them are lost. …..


War, – When the pressure of population on the land becomes severe the last resort is to drive out a section of the people. This has happened twice already in the history of the Tikopia, and the possibility of some similar action being necessary in the future has recently been discussed. …..


page 374 – section title European contact causes a unique problem


As the result of European contact these checks are no longer operative to the same extent as formerly. Fear of the Government forbids the overt expulsion of any considerable section of the people, and though it has not yet occurred, the time can be foreseen when the government may forbid the emigration of the young men in canoes, as been done in other parts of Polynesia.


The other checks are also affected. Owing to the attitude of the mission towards extra-marital sex relations, celibacy is being virtually discouraged. ……


The result is that the former equilibrium is being upset, and there is a threat of congestion of population on the lands of many families. This has been counteracted to some extent by the adoption of European tools and the introduction of new foodstuffs, but the temporary expansion of resources thus induced seems now to have ceased, and intensive cultivation has a limit. Moreover, there has been a tendency to plant more crops in the woods, with the result that the reservoir of supply which these afforded in time of drought has been diminished. Among the more thoughtful natives, as the chiefs and other men of rank, there is a very real fear for the adequacy of the food supply. They are honestly perplexed to find the solution, though because of their comparative wealth in land the matter not such a pressing one for them as for their people. At the present time there is no acute pressure, nor may there be for another generation; but if the present rate of increase continues, it will surely come, and in case of hurricane or drought, there is no possibility of of imports from outside.


What are the remedies for this situation? The most obvious would seem to be the adoption of improved means of utilizing the soil. Something might be done along these lines, particularly in the direction of the introduction of new plants, but any radical change would have to rely on entirely new methods of agriculture. This would involve such a disturbance in the social life of the people that is difficult to predict its effects. It might be argued that a solution could be found in migration. But the removal of a section of the people to another island would involve subjecting them to considerable risks from novel diseases, the effects of which upon individuals have proved fatal only too often in the past. …. A wider sex education and the issue of a plentiful supply of contraceptives would meet the case to some extent, but is not practical for economic reasons alone, even could the natives adapt themselves to the mechanics of the operation, and Europeans to the idea of its introduction.


The really regrettable feature of the situation is that but for the moral preconceptions of the interpreters of the Christian religion the old checks would act in a perfectly satisfactory manner. A celibacy in which chastity was not enforced, and a discreet infanticide, would serve to maintain the population in equilibrium, and would be in accord with the feeling of the people themselves. …. Bit I felt then as I do now, the injustice of enforcing our European moral attitudes on a people who before our arrival had worked out a satisfactory adjustment to the population problem – particularly when we can offer them no adequate solution to the maladjustment which we thus create.


The commercial interest of Tikopia is negligible; its people interfere in no way with the life of those in the other islands of the territory. They are contented with their own institutions, comparatively free from disease, and are a peaceful, hospitable and law-abiding folk, with a religious system which does no violence to our basic concepts. It might be thought that the so-called sanctity of human life is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, to the preservation of society. And just as in a civilized community in time of war, civil disturbance or action against crime, life is taken to preserve life, so in Tikopia infants just born might be allowed to have their faces turned down, and to be debarred from the world which they have merely glimpsed , in order that the economic equilibrium might be preserved, and the society maintain its balanced existence. This is the argument which a dispassionate sociologist may put forward, when he sees the harmony of life of the Tikopia disturbed, their social and economic equilibrium threatened, entirely against their will. In doing so he ignores of course the thirst of our pseudo-Christian culture to make other people conform to our standards, irrespective of the effect of what that conformity may mean.



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