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Phot0: by Thierry Ollivier.

Armour , Kiribati, milieu XIXe siècle après J.-C.

© Fondation Gandur pour l’Art.

Warfare History Blog

Weird Warriors: Kiribati's Shark-Teeth Warriors

Posted by B.Sparks

Jan 20,2013

Weird Warriors is an ongoing series of posts featuring obscure military units throughout the history of warfare. This series seeks to spotlight a variety of obscure and exotic units ranging from Micronesian warriors armed with shark-tooth weapons to the Italian "human torpedoes" of World War 2. Special attention is paid to the details of the units’ battle honors, tactics, weapons, and equipment. Kiribati, known formerly as the the Gilbert Islands, is a tiny stretch of islands and atolls in the expansive Central Pacific Ocean which make up the modern day Republic of Kiribati. This isolated island grouping is home to one of the most unique and curiously armored and armed infantry forces in the history of warfare. The Kiribati or I-Kiribati, developed a distinct warrior culture utilizing bizarre but effective materials to wage war, with weapons and armor forged from raw materials available in the islands and from the sea, combining the two for a unique approach to arms and armor.

Early 20th century depiction of the Kiribati Warrior Kiribati armor was made of coir, a hardy fiber material harvested from coconut trees and then woven forming a durable and firm material. Weapons were fashioned from seasoned coconut wood, affixed with dozens of shark tooth barbs, acting as blades for slashing and tearing enemy armor and flesh. Examples currently housed in natural history museums feature teeth from at least eight different species of sharks. The most common species sampled from these weapons were the Silver-Tip and Dusky. Two different species whose teeth were used, the Dusky and Spot-Tail, are not traditionally found in the region, puzzling natural historians who have studied the oceanic fauna of the Central Pacific. Kiribati islanders used impressive looking out-rigger canoes to sail the islands and to fish the reefs and atolls of the Gilbert Islands. It is a true testament to both Kiribati sailing skill and fishing ability that they were able to consistently catch such large and dangerous sharks in vast quantities. Traditional Armament of the I-Kiribati Warrior c.1925 The I-Kiribati "warrior" pictured above is dressed for ceremony and battle in coir armor, puffer fish helmet, and armed with a shark tooth weapon. Heavily armored, he wears a three piece woven jacket, vest, and trousers, all made from coir.* The thicker coir cuirass or vest, te tana, is also donned, acting as an additional layer of body army. A long woven back plate protects the warrior’s neck and back, while making him appear larger in stature than he truly may be. Some examples of the back plate and vest featured ornate hair and fiber designs or sea shell embellishments. Further examples illustrate the use of sting ray skin as a belt or ceremonial sash. Turtles, fish, and simple diamond or lozenge symbols were common motifs which were woven into the armor with fibers and human hair. Unquestionably, the most compelling piece of the I-Kiribati armor is the helmet, called te barantauti, made from the carcass of an inflated porcupine fish. After it was successfully caught, the fish carapace was then buried, dried, and stretched to fit. After forming, it was padded with coconut fibers, offering little protection to the wearer but projecting a fearsome countenance. Dozens of examples of coir armor and te barantauti can be found in museums abroad, most gifted or purchased from the islanders when whaling ships and European traders began traveling to the islands beginning in the 1840's. In the same photograph, the Kiribati subject is armed with a long pole or spear weapon, likely the trunun. See weapons reference, below. Forged from palm trees, these were utilitarian and long but not particularly hardy weapons. When the longer weapons broke in combat, then the shorter close combat weapons were wielded, like the tetoanea or tembo. Some of the spears must have required immense strength and dexterity to wield at close to 18 feet in length. The end's of these weapons including spears, swords, tridents, daggers, and throwing clubs, were inlaid with dozens of shark teeth woven in palm fiber and human hair, the latter for ceremonial purposes. [Riordan] There are even period examples of woven coir hand wraps with shark teeth which were strapped to the knuckles for hand-to-hand combat. Another commonly depicted weapon was the three pronged tataumanaria. This long trident-like weapon allowed the wielder to poke or disarm their enemy at a comfortable distance. Weapons of the Kiribati Warriors Like the Moari warriors of New Zealand, the Kiribati warrior favored close quarters fighting with melee weapons. Personal combat (dueling) was essential in order to protect one's honor and status, the coir armored warrior sporting the te barantauti would have been the chosen champion or paramount warlord of the Kiribati kainga (village). Each duelist had an auxiliary, similar to a squire from the era of the Anglo-French knight, who helped dress the champion for battle and bore their plethora of shark tooth weapons to the field of combat. Additional armed retainers fought on the periphery or before the single combat between the armored champions. The tataumanaria would have been useful to the auxiliary soldiers to disarm or to keep their opponents at bay in the lead up to the clash of the armored I-Kiribati champions. [Riordan] Weird Warrior: Kiribati warrior with porcupine fish helmet & shark tooth weapon The Kiribati fought most often to rout, injure, or humiliate his foe without killing them. Injuries and fatal wounds still would have been inflicted in combat, lightly armored retainers and squires would have bore this danger and could have been easily disemboweled or had a limb severed with a single stroke of the heavy club and sword hybrid, te toanea. The armored champions fought for honor and bragging rights rather than fatalities, a custom which was dictated by an established societal norm in which the family of a man killed in war or in a combative dispute could seek restitution from their slayer's family. Land was the only significant payment as it was scarce and precious in the Gilbert Islands.


Kiribati has a history of contrived and ritualized duels. The armor was made of thickly woven sennit, a kind of coconut fiber. The duelists wore helmets made of blowfish remains. The helmets were resilient and, due to the structure of blowfish, covered with many points, which had the ability of damaging weapons. The weapons resembled broadswords with a serrated edge created with many shark teeth. The duels were performed mostly for the purpose of settling disputes and maintaining honor. The practicality of the duels is debatable. Due to the difficulty of moving in this armor, falling over and becoming unable to get back up was common enough that duel assistants were required.

Kiribati has been known for its traditional martial arts which were kept within the secrets of several families for generations. The Kiribati arts of fighting as opposed to Asian martial arts are not often mentioned or even advertised to be known by the general public. Though, there may be some noticeable parallels in principle to that of Asian martial arts, they are merely really different. For instance, generally, there is no kicking as in Karate kicks or Kung Fu kicks, and speed is more important than power. A list of some of these traditional martial arts is as follows: Nabakai, Nakara, Ruabou, Tabiang, Taborara, Tebania, Temata-aua, Te Rawarawanimon, and Terotauea.

The essence of Kiribati traditional martial arts is the magical power of the spirits of the ancestral warriors. All these martial arts skills share one thing in common. That is, they came from an ancestral spirit.

"Nabakai" is a martial art from the island of Abaiang originated from the person named Nabakai. Nabakai was a member of the crab clan called "Tabukaokao". The three ancestral female spirits of this clan "Nei Tenaotarai", "Nei Temwanai" and "Nei Tereiatabuki" which usually believed to manifest themselves with a female crab came to him and taught him the fighting art.

"Te Rawarawanimon" was believed to be originated from three women namely Mwangataba, Nei Wanre and Nei Karaoia who played different roles in the performance of magical rite related with the martial art, including their brother Teroa. The grave yard for Teroa is on the land named Terawarawanimon in the bush side and remains of the three sisters which are in the form of stone, cramp shell and made hole in the ground are in the village side of the same named land,Terawarawanimon. "Nabakai" and "Te Rawarawanimon" show similar resemblance of techniques except that "Nabakai" usually works with one hand and basically uses only one stance while "Te Rawarawanimon" works with two hands and has more than a dozen different stances. "Te Rawarawanimon" is a martial art from the island of North Tarawa.

"Tabiang" is a martial art from the island of Abemama. It is called "Tabiang" because it belongs to every member of the village called Tabiang on Abemama island. It uses speed and accuracy to take over an opponent. The common formula used in this form of martial art is "you give me one punch I give you four punches". It was originated from an ancestral spirit called "Terengerenge" commonly known in other versions of oral traditions as "Teraka". He became manifested by a person called "Karotu-te-buai" from Abemama island and this was the birth of "Tabiang". According to oral traditions, this ancestral spirit traveled to Asia and was a source of origin for what is now known as "karate", a reverse written form of the name "Teraka". Oral traditions state that "Kaitu" and Uakeia" conquered the whole of the southern Gilbert islands and of the northern Gilberts. Mwea, the warrior from Nikunau, he conquered Abemama prior the arrival of Kaitu and Uakeia and that is why Kaitu and Uakeia were not very serious about Abemama. They came to confirm the ownership of Mwea, whom his siblings started the kingdom of Abemama, and claimed more prior leaving the island. This explains why the king there owns a lot of land. In fact, the name Tabiang originates from Beru such as Taboiaki and Aotukia in Nonouti. "Nakara" and "Ruabou" were originated from the island of Niutao in the Ellice Islands(now called Tuvalu). Oral traditions stated that "Nakara" and "Ruabou" were adopted from the styles of "Lupe" in Niutao who derived his martial arts from his ancestral spirit, through Tikitiki who gain came from Beru.

The basics of "Nakara" and "Ruabou" work mainly on wrestling techniques. "Ruabou" applies more of wrestling and hand combat combination while "Nakara" mainly develops focus on wrestling techniques as a common saying in Kiribati states "when fighting a "Nakara" expert, never come in close contact with him." The two forms of martial arts are practiced throughout the southern Gilbert islands but originally began on the islands of Tamana and Arorae.

In 1963 Gerd Koch filmed self-defence techniques of kaunrabata (wrestling), rawebiti (defence of attacks with stabbing weapons) and rawekoro (armed attacks) on Nonouti and also filmed kaunrabata (wrestling defence), oro (defense of unarmed attacks) and rawekai (defence of armed attacks) on Onotoa.

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