Society Islands

Barkcloth in Society Islands

Polynesia > Eastern Polynesia > Society Islands

Map of Oceania highlighting the location of Society Islands (© Pacific Peoples' Partnership; edited to add location overlay)
Map of Oceania highlighting the location of Society Islands (© Pacific Peoples’ Partnership; edited to add location overlay)

Art Historical Description

The Society Islands may have been the first archipelago in Eastern Polynesia to be discovered by explorers from Savai‘i in Samoa, around 2,000 years ago. Certainly, several other peoples of Eastern Polynesia trace their ancestry to Tahiti, although the Societies have been in regular contact with the Cook and Marquesas Islands since their almost contemporary settlement, and with the Austral Islands for at least the last 1,000 years. This prolonged history of interaction means that we can no longer know in which nation certain technological innovations in Eastern Polynesian tapa-making were first made. That given, the remarkable technical complexity of Tahitian ahu manufacture in the late 18th and early 19th centuries makes it seem most likely that it was ancient Tahitians who first perfected the methods of a long retting soak and the fermentation of the bast to break down its pectin, allowing the production of large, even-textured single-layer fabrics. Some handmade Tahitian fabrics are as thin as one ninth of a millimetre and bear the finest linear beater mark with a gauge of 14 grooves per centimetre. Others are rebeaten and quilted into multi-laminar compositions which may be half a centimetre thick, and which had specific ceremonial purposes. In general, patterned decoration was much less important to Tahitian fabric art than other tapa traditions, and the development of diverse fabric types; those types documented here represent a small fragment of the evident range that was seen between the late-1760s and the 1820s. Given that many of the remarkable features of 18th-century Hawaiian kapa – most notably, a similar plethora of fabric types, mixed-material fabrics, the perfuming of barkcloth, and a concern for printing – only have analogues in Tahiti, it seems that many of these practices were developed in the Societies.


  • Oliver, D.L. (1974). Ancient Tahitian society. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press
  • Salmond, A. (2009). Aphrodite’s Island: The European discovery of Tahiti. London: University of California Press.
  • Ellis, W. (1829). Polynesian researches: during a residence of nearly six years in the South Sea islands. 1st ed. 2 vols. London: Fisher & Jackson


Outline map of French Polynesia showing Society Islands, Austral Islands and Marquesas Islands (credit: The World Factbook 2020. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2020)
Outline map of French Polynesia showing Society Islands, Austral Islands and Marquesas Islands

Making Barkcloth

Characteristic Materials

Characteristic Techniques

river-board cortex stripping; long retting bast soak; fermentation; initial beating – wooden anvil and square beater; mixed material composition; fusing composition; linear beater marking; crossed linear beater marking; immersion dyeing; rebeaten rubbed fabrication; rebeaten rubbed quilting; rebeaten pasted applique; hand painting; bamboo cylinder printing; Tahitian foliage printing

Characteristic Fabric Types

hopū; pūhiri (hiri); orā (aoa, a‘ia‘iaoa); ‘ahuapi; aati; pateatea; areva (aoareva, aorereva); apā; umati; ahiri; heapa; araia (uerai)


Entry created on 28 August 2020