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Search for Teimanais' Missing Skull

Skeletal remains found at Te Aka village site Banaba during archaeological dig

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as published in "Te Rii ni Banaba" For those interested in the search for Teimanaia's skull there is now a copy of Dr. Gould's BPC staff card while he worked on Banaba for the UK government and the BPC. 


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 The following article was written be Gerard Hindmarsh for distribution to newsletters of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), Pacific Island's Museum Ass (PIMA) and the American Museum Association in Washington.



Known for their great feats of sorcery, the te Aka clan regarded their island home of Banaba (known in modern times as Ocean Island, now part of Kiribati) as the centre of the world. Their oral history is pervaded with the legendary feats of Teimanaia, the great warrior who successfully defended his clan from successive invasions sometime around the 1500AD mark. 

In accordance with their kauiti (magic rituals), skulls of their notables were preserved and used to enhance rites and rituals. None more powerful than the skull of Teimanaia, said to be larger than all others and exceptionally long-jawed, kept in a bangota (ancestral shrine) in the hamlet of Teinangina. 

History turned forever here in 1900 when the British Phosphate Company, later the British Phosphate Commission (BPC), began stripping the island of it’s massive guano deposits in 1900. Over the next 80 years, they excavated and shipped off almost the entire 595 hectare Island to fertilise the paddocks of New Zealand, Australia and Britain. Dr Gould, BPC’s medical superintendent between 1918 and 1933, became fascinated with the story of Teimanaia’s oversized skull and used a Banaban who worked as a dresser to sneak it away from it’s repository in Teinangina and deliver it to him.  

According to te Aka clan spokesperson Ken Sigrah, co-author (with Stacey King) of Te Rii ni Banaba (The Backbone of Banaba) – pub. 2001 by University of the South Pacific), no permissions were ever obtained to take the skull from it’s bangota. He also claims that on his farewell night, Dr Gould allegedly used trickery to get Tekiera drunk enough to take the skull off the island. 

It is now believed Teimanaia’s skull resides in an American Museum, probably in several pieces as it was on Banaba due to it’s regular and reverential anointing with oil. The son of the landowner where the skull was kept had a well publicised dream in 1961 where Teimanaia visited him in spirit form, telling him about the removal of his skull to the United States and describing how tears fell from the eye sockets when he heard people say his skull looked like that of an animal. 

The lot of Banabans has not been a happy one in modern times: Japanese invaders, continued mining, inadequate compensation and relocation of most to Rabi Island in Fiji. It is easy to see why many Banabans believe that only when Teimanaia’s skull is returned to it’s rightful place will their prosperity return.

Teimanaia’s skull may well be sitting in the basement of some museum in the United States. It may likely be labelled as coming from Ocean Island or ‘Paanopa’, formerly part of the Gilbert and Ellis Island Group, and that it was collected by Dr Gould.

The following information was provided by:

Kathy Creely
Melanesian Studies Librarian
University of California, San Diego

Just out of curiosity I did a little research on Dr. Gould and discovered that he died in Melbourne, Australia on October 3, 1947.  I attach a pdf of a notice about his will from the Melbourne paper.  Since Gould died in Australia, perhaps it is more likely that the skull of Teimanaia would be found in an Australian museum?  The attached document lists the law firm which administered the will—if the firm is still in existence, that might be a place to start looking for further clues, assuming that Gould would still have had the skull (or pieces of it) in his possession when he died.
On a related note, I’ve also attached some photographs taken on Tabitauea in 1924 by Dr. Sylvester Lambert.  Lambert has a little passage in his book, Yankee Doctor in Paradise, about the circumstances under which the pictures were taken: “At Tabatauea [sic] on the Gilberts I made a postmortem examination of a dead king. … I was led to a palm-thatched shrine where the bones of Korave, heroic ancestor of the island’s chiefs, were held in veneration; legend tells of his gigantic size and heroic strength when he led the people of Beru to the invasion.  …   Hung to the ridgepole was a large basket decorated with white shells.  Two men carefully…lowered the great chief’s remains.  …  There was a remarkably fine skull, indicating that somebody had had a generous brain pan with plenty of room above the eyebrows. … I told them that he was a very big man indeed, much bigger than one of his very large descendants whom I saw in the audience.  Quite truthfully I praised the size of great Korave’s head; no commonplace man could have worn a skull like that. …”  
The complete passage from Lambert jokes about how many bones were in the basket, many more than could have come from one person.
The photographs are scans made from the original negatives.  Lambert’s papers are held here at UCSD and about half of the images, including many from his travels in Kiribati and Tuvalu, and a very few from Banaba, are available online here—just search within the Lambert collection on the term Kiribati:
Since Lambert and Gould were contemporaries, and both medical doctors, it’s possible that Lambert may have corresponded with Gould.  

DOWNLOAD - DR GOULD'S WILL NOTICE - The Argus - Melbourne, Australia 3 October 1947


Photographs taken on Tabitauea in 1924 by Dr. Sylvester Lambert

The following information was provided by

 Zachery Heath, Davis, CA, USA

He graduated Brown University (in Rhode Island, USA) in 1901, and went to Melbourne in 1905 to work at the Homoeopathic Hospital there. While working for the BPC he sent letters to the Brown alumni association from Ocean Island (Banaba) in 1933. In 1935 He went to London and then returned to Melbourne around October. In Sept or so of 1946 he was at Melbourne General Hospital (I think as a patient) and Victoria records list a death certificate for him in 1947.


Response 25 Jan 2011 from Anthropology Museum at Brown University, USA:

Dr. Eben C. Gould does not show up in our records and we have no materials in our holdings from Dr. Gould and no records of anything collected by him.  


If anyone has any information whatsoever, please contact Ken Sigrah at 



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