3/20/13

Weird Warriors: Kiribati's Shark-Teeth Warriors

Weird Warriors is an ongoing series of posts featuring obscure military units throughout the history of warfare. This series seeks to spotlight a variety of obscure and exotic units ranging from Micronesian warriors armed with shark-tooth weapons to the Italian "human torpedoes" of World War 2. Special attention is paid to the details of the units’ battle honors, tactics, weapons, and equipment.

Kiribati, known formerly as the the Gilbert Islands, is a tiny stretch of islands and atolls in the expansive Central Pacific Ocean which make up the modern day Republic of Kiribati. This isolated island grouping is home to one of the most unique and curiously armored and armed infantry forces in the history of warfare. The Kiribati or I-Kiribati, developed a distinct warrior culture utilizing bizarre but effective materials to wage war, with weapons and armor forged from raw materials available in the islands and from the sea, combining the two for a unique approach to arms and armor.

Early 20th century depiction of the Kiribati Warrior

Kiribati armor was made of coir, a hardy fiber material harvested from coconut trees and then woven forming a durable and firm material. Weapons were fashioned from seasoned coconut wood, affixed with dozens of shark tooth barbs, acting as blades for slashing and tearing enemy armor and flesh. Examples currently housed in natural history museums feature teeth from at least eight different species of sharks. The most common species sampled from these weapons were the Silver-Tip and Dusky. Two different species whose teeth were used, the Dusky and Spot-Tail, are not traditionally found in the region, puzzling natural historians who have studied the oceanic fauna of the Central Pacific. Kiribati islanders used impressive looking out-rigger canoes to sail the islands and to fish the reefs and atolls of the Gilbert Islands. It is a true testament to both Kiribati sailing skill and fishing ability that they were able to consistently catch such large and dangerous sharks in vast quantities.

Traditional Armament of the I-Kiribati Warrior c.1925

The I-Kiribati "warrior" pictured above is dressed for ceremony and battle in coir armor, puffer fish helmet, and armed with a shark tooth weapon. Heavily armored, he wears a three piece woven jacket, vest, and trousers, all made from coir.* The thicker coir cuirass or vest, te tana, is also donned, acting as an additional layer of body army. A long woven back plate protects the warrior’s neck and back, while making him appear larger in stature than he truly may be. Some examples of the back plate and vest featured ornate hair and fiber designs or sea shell embellishments. Further examples illustrate the use of sting ray skin as a belt or ceremonial sash. Turtles, fish, and simple diamond or lozenge symbols were common motifs which were woven into the armor with fibers and human hair. Unquestionably, the most compelling piece of the I-Kiribati armor is the helmet, called te barantauti, made from the carcass of an inflated porcupine fish. After it was successfully caught, the fish carapace was then buried, dried, and stretched to fit. After forming, it was padded with coconut fibers, offering little protection to the wearer but projecting a fearsome countenance. Dozens of examples of coir armor and te barantauti can be found in museums abroad, most gifted or purchased from the islanders when whaling ships and European traders began traveling to the islands beginning in the 1840's.

In the same photograph, the Kiribati subject is armed with a long pole or spear weapon, likely the trunun. See weapons reference, below. Forged from palm trees, these were utilitarian and long but not particularly hardy weapons. When the longer weapons broke in combat, then the shorter close combat weapons were wielded, like the tetoanea or tembo. Some of the spears must have required immense strength and dexterity to wield at close to 18 feet in length. The end's of these weapons including spears, swords, tridents, daggers, and throwing clubs, were inlaid with dozens of shark teeth woven in palm fiber and human hair, the latter for ceremonial purposes. There are even period examples of woven coir hand wraps with shark teeth which were strapped to the knuckles for hand-to-hand combat. Another commonly depicted weapon was the three pronged tataumanaria. This long trident-like weapon allowed the wielder to poke or disarm their enemy at a comfortable distance.


Weapons of the Kiribati Warriors

Like the Moari warriors of New Zealand, the Kiribati warrior favored close quarters fighting with melee weapons. Personal combat (dueling) was essential in order to protect one's honor and status, the coir armored warrior sporting the te barantauti would have been the chosen champion or paramount warlord of the Kiribati kainga (village). Each duelist had an auxiliary, similar to a squire from the era of the Anglo-French knight, who likely helped dress the champion for battle and bore their plethora of shark tooth weapons. Additional armed retainers fought on the periphery or before the single combat between the armored champions. The tataumanaria would have been useful to the auxiliary soldiers to disarm or to keep their opponents at bay in the lead up to the clash of the armored I-Kiribati champions.

Weird Warrior: Kiribati warrior with porcupine fish helmet & shark tooth weapon

The Kiribati fought most often to rout, injure, or humiliate his foe without killing them. Injuries and fatal wounds still would have been inflicted in combat, lightly armored retainers and squires would have bore this danger and could have been easily disemboweled or had a limb severed with a single stroke of the heavy club and sword hybrid, te toanea. The armored champions fought for honor and bragging rights rather than fatalities, a custom which was dictated by an established societal norm in which the family of a man killed in war or in a combative dispute could seek restitution from their slayer's family. Land was the only significant payment as it was scarce and precious in the Gilbert Islands.

*This photograph actually depicts a college age student from Rongorongo, Beru in the southern Gilbert Islands, donning the ceremonial garb of the I-Kiribati warrior sometime before 1925. (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge)

Suggested Further Reading
An Ethnographic Analysis of a Kiribati Shark-Toothed Weapon By: Catherine Riordan.

Shark Tooth Spears of the Gilbert Islands, Bowers Museum Blog,  (May, 2019).

Kiribati: Aspects of History, University of the South Pacific (1st edition, 1979).

2 comments:

  1. I've seen some of these nasty shark-toothed clubs (swords?) in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Interesting article! I hope this is the start of a series on Odd Fighting Units of the World.

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    Replies
    1. It is already! There is one more feature on the Honolulu Hawaii (Militia) of the 1880's. But yes, more Odd Fighting Units of the World to come, so stay tuned!

      Thanks for commenting. Its odd but it seems that these were more like swords, though I originally believed the weapon to be a spear or pole-arm. Maybe even ceremonial.

      From what ive read on the Kiribati warrior & this picture it clearly denotes that the shark-tooth weapon is some sort of long-sword.

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