Friday, June 25, 2010

The Marquesas Islands

The soaring heights of Nuku Hiva

After a 3,000 mile voyage across the worlds largest ocean, we arrived in The Marquesas. Called Henua Enata, or Land of Men, these islands are a bastion of Polynesia culture. They were never subjected to blackbirding (a practice of abducting indigenous people, then taking them to Australia or South America), and some of the most spectacular stone sculptures and sites can be seen in these islands. Tattooing is also alive and well, and is considered to be one of the most intact and refined of all the Polynesian islands.

There are several types of stone construction in the islands. The names often have the type of place included in the name, which makes it easier to identify what the sites use was. Tohua are large rectangular spaces used for dances and ceremonies. Me'ae are temples, and can range from expansive complexes, to platforms that are hard to distinguish from houses. Paepae are house platforms, and are easily the most prolific. They can be found in towns or up in the hills.
These constructions and sculptures are not considered ancient, but are old. They were made somewhere between 1600s-1700s. The larger sites really do stand as a testiment to the ingenuity and skill of the indigenous inhabitants, as well as a healthy population prior to contact.

Cultural Artforms:

Authentic Tiki at Pa'eke Me'ae
One of the most easily identied aspects of Polynesia culture is the iconic Tiki. Old tiki are often found on or around me'ae, but more modern renditions seem to be far more prevelent. Old Tiki are considered tapu, or sacred, and are generally treated with respect.

Modern tiki at Taiohae

These modern renditions of tiki in the Marquesas are prolific, sometimes even being places on historic sites. Tourists often take these to be authentic, as there is no plaques or signs stating otherwise. Most however were made for the Marquesas Festival in the late 1980's, actually borrowing inspiration from tattoo, wood sculptures, and existing artifacts, to produce a modern idea of a tiki.

With an abundance of available surfaces to inscribe symbols and figures, the Marqueseans left petroglyphs all over the archipelago. On our visit we did not visit many of the more prominent petroglyph sites, but we did find this one curious figure near a river in Fatu Hiva.
There have been studies done on the correlation of petroglyphs to tattoos, which share many designs.

Tattoo ("Patau'i Te Tiki")-
Derived from the Tahitian word "tatau", tattooing is currenty undergoing a renaissance. The people of the Marquesas are actively reviving this art form, which is considered to be the most refined and intact out of all of French Polynesia.
It was not uncommon for Marquesean men to be entirely tattooed, and over 400 different styles of design have been identified in the Marquesas. Traditional materials and tools for producing tattoos were the use of candle nut soot for ink, and sharp combs that were struck with a finely decorated mallet to puncture the skin. The small combs used have extremely fine needle-like points, and are often only an inch or so in size.
Men are most often seen tattooed, with their legs and arms heavily decorated with traditional designs.

Notes on tattooing in French Polynesia(courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme):
Society Islands: " and women wore tattoos on their shoulders, arms and legs but never on the face. Their buttocks uniformly blue, were enhAnced from the lower back to the hips by several rows of designs....More stylized designs based on human, vegetal, or animal shapes were also used."

Austral Islands:
"...marked their differenece by the use of hand-width tattooed bands below the armpits. In Tuamotu, tattooing was widespread in the west, and much less practiced in the east. The men of Rangiroa could be tattooed from head to toe with irregular designs such as curved lines, concentric circles, or with checkerboard designs."

Gambier Archipelago:
" was compulsory. The archipelago's special mark was circle tattooed under the armpits of teenagers."

Basalt adzes-
The primary source for lithics in these volcanic islands is basalt, and the Marqueseans were masters at knapping and grinding the stone into finely made adze blades. Though useful as a woodworking tool, perhaps to build the impressive oceangoing catamarans for example, they may have also used them as a weapon like the natives of Mangaia, another Polynesian island west of the Marquesas.
These deeply grooved stones, a common sight around the islands, were used as building material for the church in Taiohae, but their original purpose was to shape and sharpen the adze blades. They are often associated with the deep, pecked holes also found on large stones or around stone platforms.

Pecked holes

The Sites:
Arguably the most impressive of Marquesean sites are the Me'ae and Tohua. During our time in the islands, we found the most unique and impressive in the Island of Nuku Hiva, considered to be the first island to be settled in the archipelago.

Pa'eke Me'ae, Taipivai
The valley of Taipivai's claim to fame is that in the 1840's, the would-be writer of the famed book "Moby Dick", jumped ship with a shipmate Toby Green, and was subsequently taken in by the Taipi tribe of the valley. He eventually went on to write a now out of print book called "Typee", which chronicals his time there.
Though the Marqueseans, indeed if not all of Polynesia, had a healthy reputation of cannibalism, the Taipi were said to have been particularly cannibalistic. Of course, Melville never was eaten by his hosts, and neither was his shipmate, so it's hard to say if their intent in helping him was out of friendliness or if they had a different fate in mind, one possibly including the impressive me'ae site of Pa'eke.
Boasting 11 tiki, this site is perched atop a bluff that is accessed by an unmarked path that actually starts in someones front yard! On the way up, you will notice the ever present paepae, house platforms.
During it's heyday, the site must have been even more impressive. One unusual aspect of it is the seemingly haphazard placement of tiki around the platforms.

Anahao Bay, Nuku Hiva

After our stay in Taipivai, it was time to move to the secluded and well sheltered bay of Anaho. From here we hiked over the pass and into Hatiheu valley, where two more sites waited.
In much of the Marquesas, each valley is home to an individual tribe, and the valley of Hatiheu belonged to the Api Papua people. These people build an impressive tohua in the highland, dedicated to the goddess Tevanaua'e. Here they would have primarilly held dances and ceremonies.

Hikoku'a Tohua:
If it weren't for the sign, this site could have easily been missed.
It's about as big as Pa'eke, but it is edged with low platforms for many people to sit and observe the ceremonies. There is only a couple tiki associated with this site, one of the goddess herself, which is unique because the tiki also forms part of the wall.

Modern Tiki

A number of modern tiki, noticably more detailed than their historic counterparts, were added in 1989 for the Marquesas Islands Festival.

Uniface tool made of basalt

Archeological material is very common in these islands. Some stores even have large collections of locally found tools on display, and the museums (when they're open), have impressive collections of bone, stone, shell, and wood artifacts.

Te I'ipoka Me'ae

The final, and most stunning, site of the day, is the expansive Te I'ipoka Me'ae. The size and reputation of this site is hard to convey in mere words and pictures. It has many me'ae and paepae platorms, a large petroglyph gallerey nearby, and a tohua that dwarfs the Hikokua site.
However, size is not the main draw to this site. Te I'ipoka is a documented sacrificial site. Not only were many people sacrificed and eaten here, but it also played host to one of the last human sacrifices of the 19th century. It is said that a member of the Ha'apa'a tribe was lured to the site, under false pretenses, where he met his fate.

The pit is roughly 7-8 feet deep

As a physical testiment to the cannibalistic rituals practiced here, two massive pits, one situated directly under a sacred Banyan tree, were built into a huge platorms, for the purpose of holding the victims before being brought out for sacrifice.

The Great Banyan of Te I'ipoka Me'ae

Pits are not uncommon at me'ae or tohua, but the Te I'ipoka Me'ae pit is by far the largest we have seen in the islands.

Efforts have been made to restore and preserve this site, and a traditional structure has been rebuilt atop one of the platforms.

A note on cannibalism in the Marquesas, through talking to locals, I was informed that it was not a widely practiced act amoungst the general populations of the islands. The Marquesean societies operated under a caste system, with only the upper echeleon of the community (priests, priestesses, chiefs, prominent warriors, etc) permitted to eat sacrificial victims, and even then it was only the thighs. Cannibalism was practiced or ritualistic reasons, as opposed to a means of sustenance.

Not all Marquesean sites are dedcated to gods, goddesses, and eating your tribal enemies, however. An interesting site we came across in the island of Ua Pou (pronounced oo-ah poe), was the agricultural settlement of Tetahana. This area was used up until the 1980's to cultivate taro and breadfruit. They used an ingenious system of terraced fields along the two converging streams, and were able to dam the streams and divert the flow into these terraces to irrigate their crops.

Sources and recommended reading:
Exploring The Marquesas by Joe Russel-Cruising guide to the Marquesas
Moon Handbook: South Pacific- very useful travel guide to the South Pacifc
Te Patu Tiki: Le Tatouage aux Iles Marquises- a superb French book on Marquesean tattoo
Typee by Herman Melville

Thanks to Tahiti Tourisme for their informative pamphlets!

No comments: