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Date Posted: 23:51:55 08/29/03 Fri
Author: Anonymous
Subject: http://www.tribalsite.com/articles/marque.htm

The Marquesas Islands lie between 400 and 600 miles south of the equator and approximately 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti. They fall naturally into two geographical divisions: the northern group centered around the large island of Nuka Hiva and the two smaller islands of Ua Pou and Ua Huka, and the southern group of Tahuata, Moho Tani and Fatu Hiva, clustered around the main island of Hiva Oa. With a combined area of some 807 square miles, the Marquesas are among the largest island groups of French Polynesia and were formerly a major center of east Polynesian civilization.
The islands are of volcanic origin, the eroded and partially submerged peaks of extinct submarine volcanoes. Craggy mounts and peaks transverse the interior with jagged spurs and spines rising toover 4,000 feet. From these lofty central mountain ridges, deep valleys cut by mountain streams flanked by precipitous cliffs sweep down to the sea. Narrow strips of black volcanic sand beaches form at the valley mouths while on flanking sides, sheer ridges plunge steeply into the sea. The Marquesan coast has no fringing reef or coral-clad lagoons, and the sea, although rich in resources, yields its bounty unwillingly.

Click for larger version of map

The climate of the Marquesas is subtropical and much affected by the prevailing winds and vagaries of seasons. Moisture-laden clouds carried by the southeast winds water the coasts on the south and east sides of the islands, nurturing a dense mantle of exotic vegetation. The northwest coasts are relatively arid with scattered groves of stunted trees, dry grass and patches of struggling ferns.

Original population estimates for the Marquesas made by early European navigators vary but 100,000 is generally considered to be fairly accurate. Other smaller islands in the group supported settlers from time to time who were generally transient in nature, for reasons of conflict or famine on the main islaands.

Recent archeological findings (see R.C Suggs) suggests that the Marquesas were settled some 2,225 years ago by people probably of a western Polynesian origin. The route they took or their exact homeland will perhaps never be firmly established. In all probability, settlement of the Marquesas was by more than one group and from more than one direction. The golden age of Polynesian exploration extended over many centuries, giving ample opportunity for diverse groups to establish a Marquesan presence. Suggs' excavation of the Ha'atuatua dunes of Nuka Hiva's arid northeastern tip indicates a settlement pattern not dissimilar to other high eastern and western Polynesian islands. Coastal marine resources were exploited over a considerable period of time before an expanding population and diminishing resources required a shift to a more fertile environment that would support a larger scale of agriculture and animal husbandry.

Although the sea remained an important resource, it was the natural fecundity of the land that provided the economic surplus necessary for the continued expansion of the early Marquesans' technological and cultural base. In the fertile valley bottoms, people built their houses amongst the trees and planted their gardens. As their numbers and wealth increased, they spread throughout the valleys, building houses on elevated stone platforms and expanding their agricultural efforts.
Breadfruit was always the main sustenance for it flourished easily, even on the valleys' steep slopes. Its fermented fruits could be preserved for long periods in stone and leaf-lined pits. Taro (although it never achieved the economic importance that it did in Hawaii) was grown in stone-walled terraces along the banks of streams and rivers. Bananas, sugar cane, yams and kava grew abundantly and added to the cornucopia that sustained a thriving community. Severe drought did at times bring suffering and death, but in general the Marquesans enjoyed a life that provided ample opportunity for leisure, pleasure and creativity. (click on photo for larger version).

Geography profoundly influenced the Marquesans and their culture. The isolation of the different groups hidden away in deep valleys and separated by precipitous ridges and stretches of no-man's land discouraged the development of political unity and fostered a more egalitarian, albeit territorial society than was to be found in the Hawaiian islands.

Whether by right of descent or personal prowess, there arose individuals who elevated themselves above the others and whose ambition drove them to conquer and establish a hierarchy of professional priests, artisans, warriors and advisors. A large agricultural surplus under the control of these petty chiefs gave them the means to promote their own power and prestige. This led in turn to the creation of elaborate religious and ceremonial structures and the general enrichment of material culture, both religious and secular.

As the powerful expansionist chiefs sought the domination of neighboring groups, inter-tribal skirmishing and cannibalism became common, and weak or defeated groups were frequently forced to leave the islands in search of a new home. By approximately 1300, the Marquesans had probably already reached the estimated population maximum of 100,000. Huge fortification complexes were built on the central plateaus of the islands. Earthworks, wooden and stone palisades and other defensive structures commanded high observation points, and massive ditches and channels rendered access between the individual valley difficult.

Although the adaptation of the Marquesans to the rugged and unforgiving nature of their islands led to the development of a proud, independent people given to conflict and tribal exclusivity, a basic unity and underlying stability was nevertheless maintained throughout the islands.

Communication and cultural exchange between hostile groups was sustained through great fetes and important ceremonial occasions to which all were invited and animosity (at least to a degree) was put aside. Traveling craftsmen such as tattooers and canoe builders, certain high-ranked individuals and groups of performing artists were all free to travel unmolested throughout the land and were instrumental in maintaining cultural homogeneity. In this milieu of cultural interchange and competitiveness, Marquesan craftsmen developed great skill in carving and decorating wood, stone and bone, and developed a rich repertory of surface designs and patterns, some of a type to be found throughout Polynesia, others distinctively Marquesan in origin and concept.
The original settlers from the western Polynesian islands brought with them a cultural legacy which remained woven through the fabric of Marquesan society. As certain myths, legends and beliefs were carried throughout the Polynesian world, so were distinctive images, implements and aesthetic ideals. Of these, the image most favored by Marquesan artisans was that of the wise and potent ancestor Tiki, recognized generally through Polynesia as the creator of the human race. Frequently found carved in large freestanding wood and stone figures and in high relief on clubs, bowls, dishes, canoe paddles, stiltsteps and many objects of personal adornment, Tiki Ke'a, as he was known to the Marquesans, was most frequently portrayed as a squat, heavy figure of inscrutable mien and menacing power. Carvings of a type found (with local variations) throughout Polynesia invariably show the Tiki figure with hands clasped over a protruding stomach, with large round eyes, a flat but prominent nose and a elliptical mouth. The complete Tiki figure is rarely found in flat low relief decoration, but the face or head alone was frequently used and often incorporated with other nonrepresentational designs on a large variety of Marquesan utensils and artifacts. These abstract design elements which were apparently derived from natural forms, i.e. flora and fauna, became dominant in the decorative repertory. Decorative lashings for canoes and houses, tattoos, wooden utensils and numerous other objects all displayed multiple permutations of these basic forms.
Click for larger version of photo

Click for larger version of photo
By the 15th century, the islands of the Marquesas had entered into a period of rich cultural growth and diversification. Extensive ceremonial activity and increasing rivalry amongst secular and priestly individuals had led to the construction of increasingly massive stone terraces for house and temple structures. Although these structures followed in basic form those of an earlier era, they were now larger and more elaborate. Widespread use was made of cut tufa slabs in the construction of platforms, and monumental stone sculptures also made their appearance. The largest and most important of these stone structures were the Tohua, enormous multi-terraced platforms which were accessible to the common people and used for functions of a community nature or of hierarchical importance. The Tohua Vahangekua, which stands today on the island of Nuka Hiva, is probably the largest, measuring 600 by 80 feet and containing an estimated 240,000 cubic feet of earth fill. On these massive stone platforms funerary, deification rites, harvest and magical ceremonies were celebrated with enormous feasts, elaborate religious performances and rites, stiltwalking, dances and sacrifices.
Marquesan society placed great emphasis on sexuality in both secular and religious spheres. Sexual prowess an important element of religious ritual and everyday life. Public sexual play was an important part of many ceremonies, particularly those concerning the fertility of the land, circumcision and the tattooing of young males. Sexual orgies were held to stimulate the ancestors' spirits to their own sexual activity, which in turn was believed to increase the fertility of the land.

The first European to visit the Marquesas was Alvaro de Mendana, who arrived in 1595, named the islands Las Islas de Marquesa de Mendoza and claimed them for Spain. Although de Mendana's journal described the natives as friendly and welcoming, nevertheless, over 200 of them were killed in separate incidents with the Spaniards.

Nearly two centuries were to pass before the next white visitor, Captain James Cook, arrived in 1774. Although this visit was less traumatic, blood was still spilled. More disastrously, Cook's expedition had the effect of opening the Marquesas to the outside world. Within a relatively short time, other exploring voyages were made and by the early nineteenth century merchants, whalers and missionaries came in numbers to the islands in search of adventure, wealth and/or destiny. With little respect or comprehension for the people upon whom they had intruded, the early European visitors had a dramatic and destructive effect on the Marquesans and their culture. The introduction of firearms, alcohol, and a multitude of diseases decimated the local population and contributed to an element of self-destructive anarchy.

Prior to 1840, missionary influence was slight, but eventually both Protestants and Catholics recognized the possibilities of the Marquesans as converts and each made great efforts to ensure dominance. To further these aims, missionary groups did their best to destroy the traditions of singing and dancing, the use of Marquesan musical instruments, wearing of native dress, kava-drinking, the use of turmeric (it led to immoral ways) and of course, tattooing, which was viewed as a heathen practice. This effectively nullified the power of the priestly and artisan classes and drove yet another nail in the Marquesan coffin.

In their endeavors, the Catholic missions were enthusiastically supported by the French government, which had formally taken possession of the islands in 1842. With neither side interested in compromise, conflict became a significant component of interaction between the Marquesans and the French. Gratuitous violence which occurred beyond the norms and controls of Marquesan culture engendered a legacy of fear and mistrust and this, coupled with disease, apathy and demoralization resulted in a birth rate that was appallingly low. By 1872, fewer than 6,000 Marquesans were still living. The situation continued to deteriorate until in 1923 only an estimated 2,000 Marquesans remained. Thus, one hundred years of sustained contact had resulted in the almost complete destruction of the Marquesans and their culture.

Today, the Marquesas are still hauntingly beautiful. The great valleys are silent, but imbued with the presence of a once-powerful people. Everywhere the remains of great stone platforms, walled house sites and terraces provide silent testimony of a culture that no longer exists. Exquisite artifacts and tools of daily living (those that remain) are found only in European museums and collections, far from the homeland where they were created and used.

The French still maintain a presence in the Marquesas, although there is little left to govern. Dreams of a thriving commercial and trading center proved illusionary, and although the local birthrate is gradually increasing, the current population numbers are impacted by out-migration to Tahiti and France.

Recommended Reading - The Marquesas

For those with a particular interest in tattoos, Marquesan in this instance, one could hardly do better than "Die Marquesaner und ihre Kunst" Primitive Sudseeornamentik, I.Tatauierung,", written by Karl von den Steinen, published in Berlin by Dietrich Reimer in 1925. This is a very complete, informative and well illustrated work on the art and supporting culture of Marquesan tattoos. Unfortunately its also quite difficult to find; your best bet would probably be the library of a major university or other library system or for your own copy refer to any of the antiquarian book dealers appearing in these pages.

Example of Tattoo Illustrations, including two from the above book, can be found here

My second recommendation would be "Tattooing in the Marquesas" by Willodean Chatterson Handy, originally published by Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu 1922, reprinted in 1971 by Kraus-Periodical Service Co. ; 11 Main St. Germantown; New York, N.Y. 12526 There may be possibly later editions available. Contact Kraus-Thomson Periodical Service Co. ; 11 Main St. Germantown; New York, N.Y. 12526 for further information. Although this is by no means such an opus as von den Steinen's work, it does have numerous illustrations and some good photographs. The text is quite short but packed full of solid information on tattoo designs, tattoo implements and their use, as well as good cultural and historical background information. Best part is of course that this particular publication is still readily avaible.

For a general sense and feeling of what the Marquesas were like before they were totally overwhelmed I would suggest reading Herman Melvilles's "Typee." I realise of course that that it has been criticised as an overly romantised version of the Marquesans as noble naked savages. Perhaps so, but take a look at the photograph on page 130 of the National Geographic from November 1996 and tell me if Melville didn't know what he was talking about. From my own experience living on a number of remote Polynesian outliers (not untouched but still largely hewing to the old ways), Herman Melville succeeded in capturing the essence of a people who were in fact noble, naked and savage. I wish I could have been with him!

Another excellent reference, particularly for those with an interest in the material culture of the Marquesas, is the publication "Tresors des Iles Marquises" available from the Reunion des Musees Nationaux, 1-31, allee du 12 fevrier 1934, 77186 Noiesiel, France. Approximate cost F.F 184.

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