Fiji has a rich history of cannibalism until 1867. Until the 19th century, Fijian tribe members living in villages utilized the caves near their villages for multiple purposes - to protect their people from other tribe members, to conduct religious tribal ceremonies and to cook “their food” in a kitchen area in the caves. Naihehe is one such cave that was used by ancestors of the indigenous population in the village adjacent to the cave. The cave tours to Naihehe caves takes tourists to the place that is full of stories of cannibals from mid to late 1800s. Some of the stories also provide a glimpse into tribal wars and gruesome practices followed by the winning tribe to celebrate the victory over the losing tribe. If you want to learn about the history of the tribes and cannibalism in Fiji, the cave tours would be one of the top things to do in Fiji.
Things to know before you sign up for the cave tours
The cave tours of Naihehe involves a few gruesome stories while narrating the history of Fiji’s cannibalism and tribal wars. So, this tour is not for the faint hearted, especially who get thrown off easily by horrific narrations. The cave tours are expected to last about eight hours including pick and drop-off from the hotel. Lunch is typically provided in the village after the tour and is likely to be sandwiches and fruit juice. This safari cave tours do not require any special level of physical fitness. However, the entrance to the cave is through a small opening called pregnancy gap through which the tourists have to crouch and walk or crawl beneath the gap. It could be difficult for some people to crouch and walk through the small gap. The cave tour also involve about 15 minutes of hiking through a forest. One key aspect to note is that just because you signed up for the cave tours does not mean you are guaranteed entry into the cave. All tourists have to go through a welcome ceremony conducted by priests of the local tribe. The priests reserve the right to deny entry one or more tourists. So, it is a good idea to avoid drinking the night before and go on the tour with a hangover. A few tourists have been denied entry in the past as the priests thought the drinking and hangover were an insult to their Gods and would bring curses upon their tribe.
Ritual to welcome tourists to the tribe
After you arrive in the village, you are required to go through a welcome ceremony. The ceremony is symbolic of tribal members welcoming tourists into their group. The ritual begins when one of the selected tourists in a group carries a batch of dried pepper roots and hands it over to their priest upon arrival. The priest would accept the offering and hand it over to tribe members requesting them to crush the roots into powder form and make Kava drink out of it. The preparation typically lasts about 20 minutes. The drink is placed in front of the priest in a large bowl.
During the welcome ceremony, tourists are supposed to be seated in a particular order in front of the priests. Men are requested to be seated in the first row. Women, teens and kids are requested to be seated in any one of the rows behind men. This order of seating is meant to signify the tribal belief that men are considered warriors and are required to protect women and kids. After the prayer is completed, the priest drinks the first cup of Kava. Then, he serves the drink to the head of the village after which he starts serving it to all the tourists. The drink is considered safe and eases anxiety when consumed in small quantities. When tourists drink the cup of Kava offered to them, they are signifying acceptance of the priest’s invitation into the tribe.
Tour of Naihehe caves
After the ritual is completed, the tour guide takes you for a walk through the forest area for about 15 minutes. At the end of the hike, you would reach of the entrance of the cave. The entrance to the cave is called pregnancy gap. It is a small gap about a couple of feet tall and was designed this way to keep women who want to hide their pregnancy, out of the cave. As you crouch and walk or crawl through the entrance, you will enter a large chamber area. The chamber area has a secret access to the top and tribal members used to climb to the top using vines. The pregnancy gap and the secret access at the top played the role of protecting the tribe from other tribes who tried to invade and destroy them.
Inside the cave, you will find a few interesting aspects. One of the most interesting aspects was that of a sculpture of a lady lying down inverted in an inclined surface formed by the flowstones, stalactites and stalagmites in the cave. Hence, Naihehe caves are also known as limestone caves. The cave has a dedicated priest chamber where the priest conducts prayers. A ritual platform in front of the priest chamber is used to conduct marriages and other tribal ceremonies. The most horrifying part of the cave is the kitchen area. Our tour guide narrated stories about cutting of body parts and cooking them. The kitchen area is also where the tour guide narrated war stories. Tribal wars were such that the winning tribe would take complete control of the losing tribe and humiliate them. The chief of the winning tribe would capture and kill the chief of the losing tribe with a blow to his head or by twisting his neck. The skull of the killed chief of losing tribe would be used to serve Kava to all the members of the losing tribe as a symbol of dominance. The body parts of chief of the losing tribe would be cooked in the kitchen area and served to members of the winning tribe as a recognition of their contribution in the war.
Christianity and the path forward
As per the tour guide, the last known group of people who were victims of cannibalism in Fiji were Thomas baker and his seven Fiji followers. Thomas baker was a methodist missionary who tried to spread Christian gospel in Fiji. During one such visit, Thomas and his seven followers were killed and eaten by the tribe members. Eventually, the tribe came to regret this event and adopted Christianity. Since then, there have been no know casualties to cannibalism. You will also notice sign boards that read “Violence free community” in the entrance of a lot of villages as it is their way of communicating that they have embraced the values of Christianity and would not indulge in fighting with other tribes.
Over the last 100 years, education has played an increasingly important role in the development of these tribes. English is one of the officially recognized languages in Fiji. Most tribe members can speak English really well. It has helped them get jobs in the travel and tourism industry. Despite Government’s best efforts to improve education, some of the remote tribes still do not have easy access to good quality schools. For the tribe located near the naihehe caves, the nearest school is 4 to 5 kms away. The children have to walk the distance every day. They also have to carry an extra pair of clothing as the journey involves walking across a river to get to their school. In early 2000s, a couple from England chose to collect money instead of accepting gifts for their wedding and used the money to build a school for kids in the village. The school provides education up to 3rd grade for kids. Beyond third grade, the kids have to go to the school located on the other side of the river. The tribe members have to walk about 10 kms one way to get to the nearest bus station and go to work or to purchase any necessary items for their children. Despite these challenging circumstances, the villagers seem to be a closely knit unit supporting each other well.
With this post, I hope you got a glimpse into the history of cannibalism and the transformation of culture of Fijian tribe members. Naihehe caves is a reminder of gruesome times a couple of hundred years ago. The tribe members recognize its significance and has chosen to open up and tell their story through this tour to the rest of the world. Their hospitality during the visit was truly heartwarming. I hope you will enjoy this tour of cultural significance as much as our group of tourists.