The Tuamotu Archipelago or the Tuamotu Islands (French: Îles Tuamotu, officially Archipel des Tuamotu), are a French Polynesian chain of just under 80 islands and atolls in the southern Pacific Ocean. They constitute the largest chain of atolls in the world, extending (from northwest to southeast) over an area roughly the size of Western Europe. Their combined land area is 850 square kilometres (328 square miles). This archipelago’s major islands are Anaa, Fakarava, Hao and Makemo.

Tuamotu Islands
Native name:
Îles Tuamotu (French) / Tuamotus (Tuamotuan) / Paumotus (Tahitian)
Flag of the Tuamotu Islands.svg
French Polynesia-CIA WFB Map.png
LocationPacific Ocean
Coordinates18°47′S 141°35′W / 18.783°S 141.583°W / -18.783; -141.583Coordinates: 18°47′S 141°35′W / 18.783°S 141.583°W / -18.783; -141.583
Total islands78
Major islandsRangiroa, Anaa, Fakarava, Hao, Makemo
Area850 km2 (330 sq mi)
CollectivityFrench Polynesia French Polynesia
Largest settlementRangiroa (pop. 2,709 (2017[1]))
Population15,346 (2017[1])
Pop. density18/km2 (47/sq mi)
LanguagesFrench, Tuamotuan
Additional information
Time zone

The Tuamotus have approximately 16,000 inhabitants. The islands were initially settled by Polynesians, and modern Tuamotuans have inherited from them a shared culture and the Tuamotuan language.

The Tuamotus are a French overseas collectivity. The people of Tahiti originally called the islands the Paumotus, an exonym that means “the subservient islands" - and other outsiders tended to use this name as well, until a delegation from the islands convinced the French authorities to change their name to Tuamotus, which means the "distant islands".[citation needed]

Administrative divisionsEdit

Map of Tuamotus

French Polynesia is a semi-autonomous island group designated as an overseas country of France. The Tuamotus combine with the Gambier Islands to form the Îles Tuamotu-Gambier which is one of the five administrative divisions of French Polynesia.

The Tuamotus are grouped into sixteen communes: Anaa; Arutua; Fakarava; Fangatau; Hao; Hikueru; Makemo; Manihi; Napuka; Nukutavake; Puka Puka; Rangiroa; Reao; Takaroa; Tatakoto; and Tureia.

Electoral divisionsEdit

Satellite image of Tuamotus
Pearl farm in the Tuamotus

The communes on Tuamotu are part of two different electoral districts (circonscriptions électorales) represented in the Assembly of French Polynesia. The electoral district called Îles Gambier et Tuamotu Est comprises the commune of Gambier and eleven communes in eastern Tuamotu: Anaa, Fangatau, Hao, Hikueru, Makemo, Napuka, Nukutavake, Pukapuka, Reao, Tatakoto, and Tureia. The other five communes in western Tuamotu – Arutua, Fakarava, Manihi, Rangiroa, and Takaroa – form the electoral district called Îles Tuamotu Ouest.


Typical waterside view in the Tuamotus

At the 2007 census, the Tuamotus (including the Gambier Islands) had a population of 18,317 inhabitants (15,862 in 2002, 8,100 in 1983). Of these, 769 inhabitants live within a 215-nautical-mile (400 km; 250 mi) radius of Mururoa and Fangataufa, the sites of former French nuclear tests.

The common language spoken in the Tuamotus is Tuamotuan, except in Puka-Puka, where the Marquesan language is spoken. In the Gambier Islands, Mangarevan is spoken.


The islands' economy is predominantly based on subsistence agriculture. The most important sources of additional income are the cultivation of black pearls and the preparation of copra. Tourism-related income remains meager, especially compared to the income generated by tourism in the neighboring Society Islands. Modest tourism infrastructure is found on the atolls of Rangiroa and Manihi, which offer recreational scuba diving and snorkeling destinations.


Despite the vast spread of the archipelago, it covers a total land area of only about 885 km2 (345 sq mi). The climate is a warm tropical one, without sharply distinct seasons. The average annual temperature is a relatively continuous 26 °C (79 °F). Water sources such as lakes or rivers are absent, leaving catchments of rain as the only source of fresh water. The annual average rainfall is 1400 mm (about 55 in). Although average rainfall is lowest in September and November, it does not vary markedly throughout the year.

The archipelago is geologically highly stable, because it was created by the action of the Easter Fracture Zone, which is only weakly active. There have been no volcanic eruptions during recorded history.

Flora and faunaEdit

Coconut palms, Takapoto

The sparse soil of the coral islands does not support diverse vegetation. The coconut palm, which is the basis of copra production, is of special economic importance. On a few of the islands, vanilla is also cultivated. Agriculture is generally otherwise limited to simple subsistence. Fruit and vegetable staples include yams, taro, breadfruit, and a wide range of tropical fruit. Pandanus leaves are traditionally woven together to make mats, hats, and roof thatches. However, many of the roofs nowadays are made of corrugated sheet-metal.

The species-rich reefs are home to a diverse range of underwater fauna. The surface creatures are primarily seabirds, insects, and lizards. The Tuamotus have 57 species of birds, ten of which are endemic, including the Tuamotu kingfisher, the Tuamotu reed warbler, and the Tuamotu sandpiper. Thirteen species are globally threatened, and one has gone extinct.[2]


All of the islands of the Tuamotus are coral "low islands": essentially high sand bars built upon coral reefs. Makatea, southwest of the Palliser Islands, is one of three great phosphate rocks in the Pacific Ocean. (The others are Banaba in Kiribati, and the island nation of Nauru.) Although the Gambier Islands are geographically part of the Tuamotus because they lie at the southeastern extreme of the archipelago, they are geologically and culturally distinct.

The ring-shaped atoll Taiaro, which lies in the northwestern portion of the archipelago, is a rare example of a coral reef that has a fully enclosed lagoon. Taiaro has been officially designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1977.[3]


The early history of the Tuamotu islands is generally shrouded in mystery. Archaeological findings lead to the conclusion that the western Tuamotus were settled from the Society Islands by circa 700 CE/AD. On the islands of Rangiroa, Manihi and Mataiva, there are flat ceremonial platforms (called marae) made of coral blocks, although their exact age is unknown.

The first known European encounter with the Tuamotus was with the Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan, during his circumglobal voyage in 1521, undertaken in the service of the Spanish Crown. His encounter was followed by visits from several other Europeans, including:

None of these visits were of political consequence, as the islands were within the sphere of influence of the Pōmare Dynasty of Tahiti.

The first Christian missionaries arrived in the islands at the beginning of the 19th century. By the late 19th century, traders had begun offering pearls from the islands for sale in Europe, and they became coveted possessions there. France forced the abdication of King Pōmare V of Tahiti and claimed the islands, but did not formally annex them.

Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Stevenson travelled among the Taumotus (then called the Paumotus) on the yacht Casco in 1888; an account of their journey was published as In the South Seas.[5] Jack London wrote a story, "The Seed of McCoy", based on an incident in 1900 in which a burning ship, the Pyrenees, had been safely beached on Mangareva. In the story, London has the ship sail past Mangareva and all through the Tuamotus before beaching on Fakarava.[6]

The Tuamotus made headlines around the world in 1947, when the Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl, sailing from South America with a crew of five others, reached Raroia on his raft Kon-Tiki. The islands were in the news again somewhat later, when France conducted nuclear weapons testing on the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa.

Island groupsEdit

The Tuamotu archipelago consists of eight groups of small islands and atolls:

Related island groups include:

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Population". Institut de la statistique de la Polynésie française (in French). Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  2. ^ Blanvillain, C; Florent, C & V. Thenot (2002) "Land birds of Tuamotu Archipelago, Polynesia: relative abundance and changes during the 20th century with particular reference to the critically endangered Polynesian ground-dove (Gallicolumba erythroptera)". Biological Conservation 103 (2): 139-149 doi:10.1016/S0006-3207(01)00112-4
  3. ^ "Biosphere Reserve Information". Unesco.com. 2008. Retrieved 11 November 2011.
  4. ^ a b Salmond, Anne (2010). Aphrodite's Island. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 34. ISBN 9780520261143.
  5. ^ In the South Seas (1896) & (1900) Chatto & Windus; republished by The Hogarth Press (1987)
  6. ^ London, Jack (2006). Gary Riedl; Thomas R. Tietze (eds.). Jack London's tales of cannibals and headhunters: nine South Seas stories by America's master of adventure. UNM Press. pp. 33–37. ISBN 0-8263-3791-0. Retrieved 2011-09-28.

External linksEdit