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Archaeological evidence from Lakeba shows that cannibalism was common in Fiji from over 2,500 years ago, with butchered human bones being common in food waste middens up until the mid-1800s. By 1800 cannibalism was a normal and ritualized part of life, integral to Fijian religion and warfare. Eating human flesh was not done out of any need for food to avoid starvation, rather it was an act of vindictive vengeance reaching beyond the grave, cannibalism being the ultimate insult in a society based upon ancestor worship.
Generally those eaten were enemies killed in war, but other categories of people, such as conquered people, slaves or even the lower caste people of a community, could also be killed to acquire bokola at any time. This was necessary because certain regular events required human sacrifice – the construction of temples, chiefs’ houses and sacred canoes, or as part of the installation rites of a chief. The paramount chiefs had special assassins (including some Europeans) who would obtain victims for them, usually by ambush.
Cannibalism was a highly ritualised event and bodies were eaten as part of a religious ceremony, often accompanied by special chants and rituals. Consumption of a body was the critical act in the process of human sacrifice to the war god of the clan. Bodies of men, women and children were dragged to the bure kalou to the beating of the death drum, amid scenes of wild excitement, including men performing a cibi death dance and the obscene dele or wate dance of the women, in which the bodies, living and dead, of victims were sexually abused. Living captives were often severely tortured before being killed.
The bete offered the bodies to the war gods, the heads often being smashed against a stone pillar outside the bure kalou, sacrificing the brain to the gods. Bodies were generally cut up and prepared for the oven by a bete (priest) using a bamboo knife. If there was a large supply of bodies, then ordinary men and women helped in dissecting and preparing the bodies for the oven. The bodies were cooked in earth ovens and eaten inside the bure kalou by the men of the clan. Women and children would receive a share if there was excess. The whole body was generally consumed, but in times of plenty, particularly following massacres, the torso, head and hands were thrown away. Skulls of famous enemies were made into yaqona cups, while shin bones were often made into sail needles.
The eating of such victims by the bete and/or chiefs meant that the victim was being totally destroyed or annihilated, both physically and spiritually, hence the eagerness of warriors to bring back bokolas in order to wipe out their enemies. Also, in order to avoid having friends and relatives “wiped out”, bodies of clansmen who fell in battle were brought back wherever possible.