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Image Tabua (ceremonial whale tooth), c1800s

TLF ID R6105

This tabua, a kapkap (a forehead or shoulder ornament), is a large, cream-coloured whale tooth, originating from Fiji in the 19th century. It is perforated at the tip and the base for suspension. Its suspension cord is a tight, complex plait of sennit (coconut fibre) with ornamental knots at 2-3 cm intervals. Nine ornamental bands of pandanus leaf, about 1.0 cm wide, are dotted around the cord. The tooth measures 16.8 cm (h) x .70 cm (w) x 5.5 cm (d), and including the cord it measures 32.0 cm x 16.0 cm.

Educational details

Educational value
  • The tooth is an example of tabua, objects considered by Fijians to be kavakaturanga or 'chiefly things' - tabua are not worn but are presented at important ceremonies, such as births, marriages and funerals; they are also presented when personal contracts or agreements are entered into, and are used to represent an apology and symbol of reconciliation after a disagreement.
  • Tabua can be used to signal acceptance or rejection - if one is presented as a marriage token, acceptance would be spiritually binding; if a marriage proposal has been rejected, the girl's family must reciprocate with double the number of tabua presented by the prospective groom's family.
  • Some tabua were carved from wood, however the tabua pictured is made from a sperm whale tooth, and whale teeth were preferred - in both Fiji and Tonga, the teeth from the lower jaw of the sperm whale were especially prized; this tooth is from a male sperm whale that was probably more than 4 m long.
  • As a tabua made from a whale tooth, this asset is a rare object because whale stranding was relatively uncommon - the concept of whale teeth as valuable was first introduced to Fiji from Tonga at the end of the 18th century; however, long before whales' teeth were valued, Fijians placed special value on other objects, such as rare shells, for important presentations.
  • This tabua is an object of spiritual and moral value - its significance far outweighs its 'market' value.
  • As well as its historical value, the tabua still holds an indispensable place in social and economic life in modern Fiji - a tabua is featured on the Fijian 20-cent coin.

Other details

  • Contributor
  • Name: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Organization: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Description: Content provider
  • Address: Wellington, NEW ZEALAND
  • URL:
  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Organization: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Address: Wellington, NEW ZEALAND
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements