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Solomon Islands: Skull island

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Skull island | Solomon Islands | Oceania

[Visited: November 2012]

As in many countries, the Solomon Islands changed a lot after the first missionaries arrived on its shores. Traditional, centuries-old customs were, sometimes forcefully, stamped out by the christian invaders. One of those customs was to not bury people, but to put them upright after their death, until the ants and others would have eaten the flesh, then separate the skull from the body (facilitated by putting it on a forked pole), and putting it in a shrine. Every village used to have its own such shrine. At the bottom of the shrine, were the skulls of ordinary people and slaves, and perhaps also those captured in raids on other islands, while at the top, the skulls of the Big Men, loosely similar to a chief of an area, were put. These Big Men had a lot of power, which showed also in their possessions; a complex system appointed the next leader when the previous one had died.

Picture of Skull island (Solomon Islands): Shrine on Skull Island with skulls in niches on the platform, and the skulls of chiefs in the small house on top

When coming to Munda, it was my wish to see Skull Island, or Nusa Kunda, and it turned out possible to do so in between two dives. So, after exploring one of the massive walls rich with magnificent coral and all the brightly coloured underwater creatures that live on it, we sailed to Skull Island, which turned out to be much smaller than I had expected. At the centre of it, we found a shrine built with coral; some of the skulls were visible from a distance. Our dive-master now turned into a capable guide, telling us about the history of the site, and the traditional ways the Solomons dealt with their dead. This is not one of the original skull sites, but rather a repository of skulls taken from the main island of New Georgia, when the christians came, to save them from destruction. It does, however, give an idea about how people were not buried in times gone by, but how their skulls were kept in a separate place.

Picture of Skull island (Solomon Islands): Small house with skulls of Big Men, or chiefs, on top of the shrine on Skull Island

At some of the niches in the coral platformed shrine, we saw shell money, finely carved clam that was (and sometimes, still is) used to settle disputes, and pay the father of the daughter your son wants to marry. Next to the skull shrine, there was another, smaller, platform, where fishermen used to come before going out fishing to ask for a good catch. Right next to it, was the tomb of the person who was the last to have been preparing dead bodies in the traditional way, severing the skull from the corpse. While some say Skull Island is an eerie place, I did not feel this at all to be the case; it gives an interesting insight into the local tradition and culture that has largely been lost with the arrival of the missionaries. Not all has disappeared, though: some argue that the practice to keep a family grave in the frontyard of a house, instead of having a cemetery, is one of the reminders of the old practice to keep skull houses. In any way, after our brief visit, we were off to another island for lunch, and another dive into the world of fish and corals oblivious of the traditions of the people living on the land above.

Picture of Skull island (Solomon Islands): Frontal look of Nusa Kunda, or Skull Island
Picture of Skull island (Solomon Islands): Niche with skulls on the shrine on Nusa Kunda, or Skull Island
Picture of Skull island (Solomon Islands): Skulls and shell money in a niche on the repository on Skull Island
Picture of Skull island (Solomon Islands): Three skulls in a small niche on Skull Island
Picture of Skull island (Solomon Islands): Conch shells once used for signalling
Picture of Skull island (Solomon Islands): Platform on Skull Island where fishermen used to ask for a good catch before sailing
Picture of Skull island (Solomon Islands): Tomb with the shrine where the skulls are kept on Skull Island

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