Date: early 19th century
Geography: French Polynesia, Austral Islands
Culture: Austral Islanders
Medium: Wood, sharkskin, fiber
Dimensions: H. 51 3/8 in. (130.5 cm)
Classification: Wood-Musical Instruments
Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1969
Accession Number: 1978.412.720
Although there are no historical descriptions of their use, drums in the Austral Islands, as elsewhere in Polynesia, almost certainly formed part of the ritual paraphernalia of marae (sacred sites), where they were played to accompany songs, dances, and religious ceremonies. Only roughly a dozen examples survive, several of which are attributed to the island of Ra'ivavae, although they may also have been made elsewhere in the archipelago. These elegant drums, called pahu, consist of tall, thin-walled cylinders of hardwood with heads of sharkskin, which were kept stretched to the correct tension by lengths of fiber cordage secured to a series of lugs.
While the upper portion of the drum was frequently undecorated, Austral Island pahu are distinguished by their elaborate openwork bases typically adorned, as here, with rows of stylized female figures, possibly representing ancestors or dancing women. The beauty of Austral Island drums (a concept that likely encompassed their sound as well as their ornamentation) was apparently appreciated well beyond the archipelago prior to Western contact. A sketch made by the English artist John Webber in 1777 shows what are almost certainly imported Austral Island drums in use on a marae in Tahiti, some 400 miles away. If so, these instruments would have been brought there in sailing canoes as part of a centuries-old network of exchange relationships that linked the peoples of the Austral and Society Islands.