Identification. In 1853, the brig Chatham ran aground on a reef off the southwest coast of Tongareva (Penrhyn Island), marooning fourteen crew members and passengers, some for more than a year. This event heralded dramatic and traumatic changes in the island's demography and culture, and it marks what commonly is considered the contact era. Its single virtue was the account of atoll life written by one of the castaways, E. H. Lamont, that quite properly has been described as "one of the best narratives of first-hand contact with a group of Polynesian people before they were influenced by Western culture" and forms the basis of the contact-era ethnography that follows.
Location. Tongareva, lying at 8°59′45" S and 157°58′50" W, is a rhomboid-shaped atoll of more than 100 islets, with a total land area of 9.73 square kilometers. Annual rainfall is 195.5 centimeters. The atoll is subjected to occasional droughts and hurricanes, often with disastrous effects on subsistence.
Demography. Tongareva's contact-era population was Between 1,500 and 2,500, giving a contact-era population density somewhere between about 150 and 250 persons per square kilometer, one of the highest on any atoll in the Pacific. One early visitor commented that the population appeared "so numerous, in proportion to the island, that I cannot, even now, think how so many can find subsistence."
Linguistic Affiliation. Beyond the fact that Tongarevan is a Nuclear Polynesian language, a lack of data coupled with several idiosyncratic linguistic features leave its precise affiliation unclear.