Tapa or barkcloth made from the inner bark of certain trees is one of the most distinctive products of the cultures of the Pacific islands.
A Pacific identity
Other people around the world also made barkcloth, but it probably reached its greatest refinement and variety among the islands of the South Pacific. Even the name "tapa", which is now used world-wide, had its origins in Polynesia during the early years of European contact.
In several parts of Melanesia, in Fiji, and on most of the high islands of Polynesia, the manufacture of barkcloth is an ancient craft. Māori also made tapa, but flax products eventually replaced it.
Where tapa craft flourished, it became a major vehicle for women's creative expression. In some parts of New Guinea, in the Marquesas Islands and Easter Island, men also made tapa for ritual objects such as masks, figures and loincloths.
The source material
In the Pacific, the plant most commonly used for tapa is the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera). Originally a native of eastern Asia, the early peoples who populated the Pacific brought cuttings of this plant with them in their canoes. In the tropical Pacific, the paper mulberry plant does not flower or set seed, so it has to be propagated from cuttings or suckers and is cultivated specifically for tapa-making.
Another source of barkcloth in the Pacific is the breadfruit (Artocarpus), grown mainly for its fruit that are a staple food in many islands. Bark from various species of banyan or wild fig (Ficus) also provides a heavier type of tapa in some parts of the Pacific.
Tapa was being made in southern China and mainland South-east Asia more than 5000 years ago. From there, the craft spread into the eastern Indonesia where the techniques were developed and refined over some thousands of years. Then the skill and knowledge of making cloth from bark, and even some of the necessary plants, were carried out of Southeast Asia by the first peoples to move into the south Pacific islands.
Tapa-making was one of the ancient skills that the Lapita ancestors of the Polynesians brought with them about three thousand years ago, down through the islands of Melanesia and out into the wider Pacific. Named after their distinctive patterned pottery, the Lapita people possibly used similar designs in their body tattoo and on their barkcloth.
Ceremonial and everyday use
Tapa served a wide range of purposes. Clothing or at least a covering for basic modesty is the main use. Where large cultures met and traded, as in the Tonga-Fiji-Sāmoa region, patterns on barkcloth immediately identified their source.
Other Pacific cultures reserve barkcloth for ceremonial and ritual purposes, presenting it to honoured guests, wearing special tapa clothing for festivals, making masks of tapa to parade the spirits through the villages, using tapa to wrap the images of their gods, and even to make images of the gods themselves.
About 200 years ago, European travellers reached the Pacific islands. While these Pacific cultures responded to the European impact, village women in many areas continued to produce tapa cloth, adapting and innovating to suit the new conditions but still maintaining the basic craft.
This topic page is an excerpt from Tapa of the Pacific, published by David Bateman Ltd, in association with Auckland War Memorial Museum, 2001.
Cite this article
Pendergrast, Mick and Neich, Roger.
Tapa of the Pacific. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 18 August 2015. Updated: 5 April 2016.