Vanuatu is a place with a rich history, lush topography and many cultural secrets that make it the perfect holiday location. Reef diving, amazing golf courses, gorgeous waterfalls, black magic and the happiest people on earth, the local Ni-Vanuatu, all coexist in Vanuatu and are waiting to share their secrets with you.
According to the Vanuatu Statistics Bureau’s 2005 report, there is a population of approximately 217,746 people, speaking 113 distinct languages and an even greater number of local dialects. For cultural diversity, Vanuatu is one of the most unique places in the world, thanks in part to 3,000 years of immigration as people from many Pacific countries flocked to this beautiful place. The majority of these immigrants came from Melanesia but the country has also been settled by the larger built, lighter skinned Polynesian people. Throughout the history of this country, these different groups have interacted in various ways, such as marrying between tribes or smaller groups being assimilated into the culture of larger and stronger groups. Sometimes this interaction was peaceful. At other times, it was violent. In either case, this interaction has created the amazing cultural diversity and history that draws so many visitors to Vanuatu today.
As these new settlers came to Vanuatu, they brought many things with them, such as food crops, tree seedlings and the pig. The introduction of pigs to Vanuatu is significant because life here is centered around this animal. In this country, pigs are not only a source of food but also a part of the localised customs and rituals, as well as being used as a measure of the wealth and power of particular tribes or cultural groups.
Even among people from the same ethnic origins, there is a wide cultural diversity in Vanuatu due to the presence of natural boundaries, including vast stretches of open water, lush jungles and steep mountains, which caused groups of immigrants to be isolated from the rest of the world and from each other. This isolation served to create the unique political and social systems we find in modern day Vanuatu as these smaller groups adapted to life in their particular regions of the country.
Unfortunately, diversity and isolation often breeds contention and these localised tribes were often involved in warfare. As the European traders came to Vanuatu, these warring factors were fostered and the European trade companies were known to use these tribal wars to benefit themselves.
In modern day Vanuatu, we find four main cultural areas with several smaller classes.
Northern Vanuatu Islands
The northern areas of the country are home to two social and political societies which allow men and women to ‘purchase’ positions of status and honour. These purchases are made using mats and pigs as gifts. The individuals value is determined by how richly they can afford to gift possessions to others with particular merit being awarded to gifts such as pigs with rounded tusks. These cultures do not place their concept of value on individual’s monetary worth but, rather, upon the individual’s ability to share their wealth with others. This ideal has given birth to ritual ceremonies, where large numbers of pigs are killed and gifts exchanged with members of an extended family. These displays are common in Vanuatu and can be very complex, especially when it is noted that publicly display of status using body decorations or other means is acceptable but there is no real authority attached to the status other than respect from others.
Central Vanuatu Islands
Central Vanuatu is heavily populated by people of Polynesian origins and these people have brought their own political and social cultures to the area. In this area of the country, a hereditary chief holds power and leads an entire class system which includes both nobles and commoners.
Southern Vanuatu Islands
In Vanuatu’s southern islands, and more precisely, the island of Tanna, status is achieved through the endowment of titles or names. These titles are reserved for a select group of men, who become chiefs upon receiving the endowment. This entitlement generally includes rights to the land and possessions of entire social groups. In this south Vanuatu society, women are often held in a very low status; although the reverse is true in regions like Ambae and the Shepherds, where women are allowed to achieve the rank of Chief. This already complex social structure has been further affected by the introduction of various religious sects, such as the John Frumm’s, the Half Halfs and a variety of other male-oriented secret societies, which have gained popularity with the people of Tanna, Santo and other south Vanuatu islands.
While these cultures have become very diverse and unique, they also tend to have certain constants that remain a part of the native people’s heritage. Life in Vanuatu is characterised by a fairly constant cycle of ritualistic events, celebrated by the individual’s extended family members, which can include hundreds of people who are related to an individual, even indirectly, through countless generations. To the Vanuatu people, every part of life is sacred and magical. These people celebrate birth, circumcision, initiation rites, the achievement of status, marriage and death with pomp and grandeur which is seldom seen anywhere else on earth. The dedication to tracing family roots and relations through even the most distant connections creates an environment where Vanuatu natives have many relatives. This, in turn, drives the local social system as there is always a ritual celebration of some sort occurring in the local area.
As the local people of Vanuatu have no formal written language, these ceremonies, which often include the retelling of ancient stories or the performance of culturally significant songs and dances, are a vital part of passing the Vanuatu history and legacy on to future generations. Art, including music, body decorations, piercings and tattoos, elaborate masks, hats and carvings, is respected by the Vanuatu people and is incorporated into the ritual celebrations and social life of the various villages, acting as an agent to preserve the history and culture of these people.
Just as the Aboriginal tribes of Australia relate stories of the Dreamtime, the great Maori legends of the past, Ni-Vanuatu culture proudly shares its own myths and legends with visitors. With the people’s great dependence on nature, these legends are forged to include the stories of how various natural formations, as well as the presence or causes of volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters, are connected to the people and history of Vanuatu.
The people of Vanuatu are reverent of nature and have a pervasive sense of superstition. Even modern Vanuatu residents tend to shy away from scientific explanations of natural events, such as earthquakes being caused plate tectonics, preferring to believe that these events are caused by spirits who have been offended in some way. These superstitions have occasionally resulted in violence and bloodshed over Vanuatu’s history, such as the tribal warfare that broke out following the eruption of Ambrym volcano in 1913.
The economic structure of the Vanuatu society is based primarily upon the produce of the land. Root crops, such as Yams, Taro and Manioc, provide the main food supply, while seasonal fruits, including the Breadfruit, are prized when in season. Farming is done by clear cutting a portion of the jungle or, in areas where water is abundant, complex hand-built terraces of earth and stone are used to grow Taro. The main source of meat is pork, which further explains the cultural significance and importance placed on pigs in Vanuatu tribal culture.
Vanuatu continues to retain its rich diversity of culture and history despite the invading European influences, religious missionaries and black-birders (slave-traders), as well as the the loss of native languages as a result of the development of Bislama as a universal language. The ceremonial rituals and legends, as well as the deep reverence for kinship and the natural world continue to make Vanuatu one of the favorite holiday destinations for tourists seeking a taste of the primitive world that can only be found on a visit to one of the many islands that form this country.
To fully experience and understand Vanuatu, any trip to this country should include a stop at the National Museum & Cultural Center. This attraction features magnificent ancient artwork, as well as rare artifacts and photographs of historical significance. While visiting the National Museum & Cultural Center, you may also choose to purchase items, such as the masks and carvings for sale in shops or audio and video recordings of the various cultural events and ceremonies that make Vanuatu so well known.