We the Tikopia

The island of Tikopia barely exists. It is a small conical extrusion above the Pacific Ocean. Situated at the far-eastern end of the Solomon Islands chain, it is home to just over 1,000 islanders. Its nearest neighboring islands are 140 km away, the isolation of Tikopia is almost absolute, and it is only rarely visited by supply ships and adventuring mariners.

From above, Tikopia is nearly elliptical in profile, being about twice as long as it is wide. The middle one-third of the island is covered by Lake Te Roto, an 80-m-deep freshwater pool that fills an old volcanic caldara. Rising a majestic 380 m above sea level, Mt. Reani dominates the far-eastern portion of the island, which has a total surface area of 4.7 km2. The population density of the island is presently a staggering 213 people per square kilometer; remarkably, the population density has been higher in the past, when perhaps as many as 1,500 people called Tikopia home.

The history of the Tikopia was first outlined by New Zealand-born ethnologist, Sir Raymond Firth, who lived on the island for a year beginning in July of 1928. His book We, The Tikopia, published in 1936, is a wonderful read.4 The title itself carries for us an important message since, as Firth notes, ''It is constantly on the lips of the people themselves; it stands for that community of interest, that self-consciousness, that strongly marked individuality in physical appearance, dress, language and custom which they prize.''

The people of Tikopia give us hope for the future. They have survived, even thrived, on their tiny island, with a population at any one moment of about 1,000 people, for the best part of 3,000 years. An incredible number of people have lived their lives on Tikopia, and yet the island still provides for its humble citizens, and the surrounding seas are still rich with shellfish and marine life. Here is one rare and happy example of how humans can live in harmony with their environment and (for once) not overexploit the surrounding land and sea, or destroy the local vegetation, or pollute the freshwater lake that supplies them with sustenance.

The whole island is micromanaged, and no plant, shrub, or tree is overlooked with respect to its possible utility. About 400 years ago, the islanders were brave enough and, indeed, farsighted enough to destroy all of the pigs that had been imported to their tiny island. Although viewed as animals that carried great social prestige, it was also realized that these prized animals were destroying the environment that otherwise nourished them. The people of Tikopia also actively monitor and control their own population level, and one of the most important traditional roles of the island chiefs is to promote the ideal of zero population growth within their various extended families.

Firth concludes his first chapter with the comment, ''In this state of isolation from the outer world, in a home of great natural beauty, adequate in the staple materials for a simple but comfortable existence, the Tikopia have shaped their life.'' Perhaps changing only the word ''simple'' to ''fulfilled,'' these same sentiments might apply to those human societies that will eventually live on new terraformed worlds, colonized asteroids and moons, and biosphere spacecraft. Tough lifestyle decisions will no doubt have to be made by all human societies in the future, but the Tikopia show us that difficult decisions can be made in light of and in harmony with external constraints. This book is dedicated to the humble and far-sighted people of Tikopia.

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