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A Fijian villager presents a Tabua to a chief during a traditional ceremony.

Nobody knows when Fijians began using the tooth of the sperm whale as a precious gift and item of exchange, but it was certainly before sustained contact with the west began around 1800, and may even date back to the earliest occupation of the islands over 3,000 years ago.

The name for a whale's tooth, tabua, is the same throughout the Fiji Islands, and may have originally meant 'sacred object'.

Fijians have no traditions of whaling, so it seems that tabua have always come from stranded whales, either in Fiji, or in nearby Tonga.

Tongans used the relative abundance of sperm whales in their waters to great advantage, bartering tabua for Fijian products as diverse as sandalwood and enormous voyaging canoes, a trade that lasted well into the nineteenth century.

The usual manner of preparing a whale's tooth is to polish it, stain or smoke it to give it the highly esteemed rich color, drill a small hole at either end, and attach cord of plaited coconut fibre or pandanus leaves. After being thus prepared, it is suitable for use in formal ceremonies of welcome, funeral gatherings, requests for marriage or land, formal apologies, installation of a chief and so on. When being presented or accepted, it is held in one hand with its cord in the other.

Like fine mats to Samoans and shell money to Solomon Islanders, tabua are the supreme token of esteem, and if accompanying a request, the recipient is honour bound to comply. A request accompanied by a tabua can only be declined by counter-presentation of another tabua.

Whale's teeth have also been made into ornaments in the past, such as necklaces of smaller teeth, or larger teeth split into long thin pieces, or carved ear ornaments.

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