At Home in Vanuatu
About the Exhibit
Sounds of Tanna interactive player
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Regional map of Melanesia with inset of Vanuatu
The nation of Vanuatu, formerly known as the New Hebrides, is an 83 island archipelago located west of Fiji, northeast of New Caledonia, and southeast of the Solomon Islands.
Tanna from space
Island of Tanna as imaged by the Space Shuttle on October 4, 1994. Note plume from Yasur volcano on the lower right side of the island. Aniwa island is visible in the upper right.
  Flag of Vanuatu
Map of Tanna Vanuatu flag


Islands Born of Fire

Thousands of islands dot the Pacific Ocean. Many were created by volcanoes associated with the movement of Earth's tectonic plates. Vanuatu is a line of more than 80 islands, found in a region of the southwestern Pacific known as Melanesia.

Emerging volcanically from the sea floor, these islands originally were devoid of life. All of Vanuatu's plants and animals were carried there, on wind or water, in the recent geologic past.

Rugged mountains are found on many islands. Rich volcanic soils cling to their slopes and support a variety of plant communities: lowland rainforest, montane cloud forest, seasonal forest, scrub, grasslands, and coastal mangroves.

The islands' diverse plant communities offered rich habitat for colonizing animals—including humans! Vanuatu is best known for animals that arrived by air: birds, bats, and flying foxes. Some species are endemic, or unique to these islands: Isolated for a few million years, they developed specialized anatomical features through independent evolution.

Island People

Humans arrived on these islands more than 4,000 years ago. Sailing in outrigger canoes, they brought pigs, dogs, yams, and taro—staples of Melanesian culture. Today's ni-Vanuatu are descendants of those first colonists.

Portuguese explorer Pedro Ferdinand de Quiros, landed in 1606 on the island of Espiritu Santo. He was followed by Frenchman Louis Antoine de Bougainville in 1768 and Englishman James Cook in 1774. 150 years of exploitation followed as colonists and opportunists arrived—traders, whalers, planters, and missionaries.

Native islanders, with no immunity to settlers' diseases, suffered and died. Their forests were stripped bare of sandalwood. Labor recruiters ("blackbirders") lured some 50,000 ni-Vanuatu to Australia and Fiji as contract laborers; most never returned. There were about one million ni-Vanuatu in the early 1800s; in 1935 there were 41,000.

During World War II, Vanuatu was a supply base for the Allied Forces, including the U.S. 7th Naval Fleet. The military's impact was remarkable, especially on Tanna. Led by John Frumm, a "cargo cult" formed around the memory (and hoped-for return) of American soldiers and equipment.

Vanuatu in the Year 2000

Until its independence in 1980, Vanuatu was called the New Hebrides, the name Captain Cook gave it. After World War II, the New Hebrides was jointly administered by France and Great Britain.

Almost four hundred years after its "discovery," Vanuatu is a vibrant young republic. Its 160,000 people, mostly Melanesian, speak more than 115 different languages. English, French, and Bislama (the Melanesian pidgin) are the official languages.

Agriculture continues to sustain many ni-Vanuatu. Even city families cultivate small gardens. Gardening is an art in Vanuatu, and humans' relationship with the lands they inhabit and nurture extends back for thousands of years.

Port Vila is the nation's capital, where businesses rely on computers and telephones. But deep in the forests of some islands, a few ni-Vanuatu communities choose their ancestors' lifestyle. Even in remote areas where tradition prevails, steel knives and cooking pots have entered every household.


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