Cultural Overview

Tanna's 27,000 inhabitants (estimated in 2000) speak six related Austronesian languages. Despite this linguistic diversity, Islanders share basic cultural understandings, including constructions of gender. Voyagers in sailing canoes settled Tanna some 3,000 years ago. Most Islanders today have dark skin and tightly curled hair and are related, physically and culturally, to neighboring Melanesian peoples of New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, and New Guinea. Polynesian migrants from the east have also influenced the island's culture over the years. Although many men possess traditional chiefly titles, relations among adult men are generally egalitarian.

Islanders have been engaged with the global system for more than a century. Nonetheless, most people remain subsistence farmers and grow a variety of tropical staples including yam, taro, sweet potato, manioc, and banana. They earn cash on the side from coconut, coffee, and kava (Piper methysticum) plantations. Extended families live in scattered villages and hamlets, in houses made mostly of local materials—although those who can afford it will also build with cinderblock bricks and aluminum roofing. Men meet every evening on a clearing near their village to prepare and drink kava. These kava-drinking grounds are important points within the island's cultural geography. People also convene here to settle disputes, to exchange goods, to feast, and to dance in celebration of important events.

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