Man vs atoll: what if Bear Grylls was marooned on Tuvalu?

If British ex-special forces soldier and survival expert Bear Grylls was marooned on a coral atoll, how would he survive? What resources would be available to him? What tools could he make, what would he make them out of, what would he eat? What challenges would face him?

bear grylls

The people of Tuvalu have spent generations perfecting the art of survival on the low lying coral atolls and reef islands they call home. For an outsider, trying to survive these environments would be a real challenge.  In this final blog marking Tuvalu language week, we look at some of the artifacts made by Tuvalu people from what they could find on the atolls and the oceans that surrounded them.

Lou palu (ruvettus hook)

There are many different kinds of islands scattered across the Pacific. They are formed in different ways, and offer different resources to the people who live there. In the past, for an island to be habitable by humans, it needed:
• a supply of fresh water
• soil in which food crops could grow
• plentiful marine resources, such as fish and other seafood, to provide a supply of protein in the diet
• raw materials for making tools.

Tuvalu: a low coral atoll
Some of the island formations found in Tuvalu are low coral atolls formed from coral reefs that have grown on top of submerged volcanoes. The actual land rises only a few metres above sea level and in the case of Tuvalu it rises only about 4.5 to 5 metres. This land consists of sand and coral that has built up on the surface of the reef. The best vantage points to look for passing ships in a survival situation would be coconut trees. No hilltops with signal fires here…

 

Tuvalu (click to view Cabot Institute article)

Food and water
Low coral atolls have no surface fresh water, no streams and no rivers.  The people had to dig wells to a lens-shaped natural reservoir of fresh water trapped beneath the sand. For food, Tuvaluans in earlier times depended on the native pandanus plant and coconut trees.  Swamp taro was also an important crop. Fish and other marine resources were vital.

Toolmaking
The only ‘rock’ in Tuvalu is coral, so the people used shell and bone to make tools. For many Pacific toolmakers, clam shells made a good alternative to stone. People used fibre from coconut shell to make ropes and binding materials. They split pandanus leaves and wove them together to make mats, garments and sails for canoes.

hafted adze with shell blade

The settlers of the atolls of Tuvalu found diverse and ingenious ways to use the few precious resources available to them.  While I’d say Bear Grylls could probably do a good job of looking after himself, he would perhaps struggle to match the craftsmanship and ingenuity of true atoll dwellers.

Here is a selection of items Tuvalu people have made of wood, bone, shell and fibre. Check out those reef sandals… and Bear Grylls might even look good wearing the last item. It’s very military….

Reef sandals made from coconut fibre

Fisherman’s box made from wood

water container made from coconut with coconut fibre covering

Climbing rope made from coconut fibre

Rat trap made from wood

Teke (coconut harvesting stick) made from wood and coconut fibre

adze blade made from turtle bone

 

Awesome jacket made from pandanus leaf and pearlshell. Click to learn more…

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