On this mythical land, whose name sounds like a sensual invitation to discover the six inhabited islands out of the thirteen that make up the Marquesas archipelago, a handful of men and women are trying to reconnect with a past buried beneath the exuberant vegetation, engraved on stone or skin, or lurking deep in the collective memory. Ancient excavations have confirmed a human presence here dating back more than two millennia. Today, the Marquesans are trying to rediscover and protect their heritage, but the means are lacking.
The Marquesas archipelago was discovered in 1595 by the Spanish explorer Alvaro Mendana de Neira, who named it Las Marquesas de Mendoza in honour of the wife of the Viceroy of Peru, Don García Hurtado de Mendoza, Marquis of Cañete, as a way of showing his gratitude for the help he had given her in launching the expedition. The francized form has survived.
It is one of the archipelagos furthest from any continent, which is why it was reached and populated at a very late date by Austronesian sailors from Western Polynesia. The Marquesas, the last land in the Pacific when sailing eastwards, stretch over 350 km and are located 1,500 km from Tahiti. Born of recent volcanism, these islands have valleys delimited by an accentuated relief which enabled the inhabitants to define their different territories (fenua in the south, henua in the north).
Ua Pou has a relief of high, sharp ridges on which the clouds cling, and which cut deep valleys where the first inhabitants took refuge between 150 BC and 150 AD, the date of the first settlement still being debated by archaeologists. The islanders of this period were familiar with pottery, as were the inhabitants of the islands of Samoa and Tonga. In fact, the most recent archaeological and linguistic data suggest that this is where Marquesan settlement originated, some 2,000 miles from the Marquesas archipelago.
The houses, made of wood and branches, rest on a base of rectangular paving stones, the pa?epa?e. Even today, Marquesans still say "we're leaving the cobblestone" when they leave their land.
The first families settled in these valleys. "The development of the coastline, at the bottom of the valley, was determined in part by the constraints linked to basic human needs: food, shelter, and by the beliefs and knowledge of these peoples of the sea, as the Polynesians were known," points out Pierre Ottino, archaeologist and researcher at the Institut de recherche pour le développement.
It is still in these valleys - particularly in the middle areas - that archaeologists are concentrating their research today.
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The first archaeological work dates back to the 1920s, and was carried out by Ralph Linton. He inventoried numerous sites and surface structures based on the memories of the Ancients. His work still forms a basis for archaeologists today. Then an American mission led by Robert C. Suggs carried out excavations from 1957 to 1958 on the large island of Nuku Hiva. Other pioneers came from the 1960s onwards, such as Y. Sinoto (1979), who worked on the island of Ua Huka, the smallest island in the Northern Marquesas. Their research focused on the history of the settlement of the archipelago and the material and environmental past of the islanders. This research, which is still relevant today, is combined with an archaeology of surface structures and their development with the help of local populations.
Hiva Oa: Tohua Upeke ceremonial ensemble
Numerous lithic structures remain from pre-European times: pa?epa?e (platforms), tohua (ceremonial and dance areas), me?ae (religious ensembles) and tiki, anthropomorphic statues sculpted around the 15th century. Often buried under vegetation, they are relatively better preserved in valleys that have been uninhabited since European times, such as on the island of Hiva Oa, home to the great Upeke ceremonial centre. It covers more than 3 hectares and consists of a large tohua surrounded by pa?epa?e and two me?ae. The site was surveyed by Ralph Linton in 1925 and restored in 1991 by the Tahiti Archaeology Department.
Hiva Oa: the tiki of Puamau
The archaeological site of me?ae Lipona, in the Puamau valley at the north-eastern tip of Hiva Oa, is home to the largest known tiki outside Easter Island. This exceptional site, covering just under a hectare, includes lithic platforms, five tiki in a relatively good state of preservation despite the lichens and algae that cover them, and nine sculpted heads (one of which has been in Berlin since the end of the 20th century). The site was first surveyed in 1897 by Karl Von den Steinen of the Berlin Museum. It was restored by archaeologist Pierre Ottino in 1991. These tiki carved from volcanic tuff, a basalt that deteriorates, are now protected from the elements by shelters built in the traditional way.
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As well as preserving their archaeological heritage, the Marquesans are reviving their past and their traditions, which were undermined by both religious and civil authorities for several centuries. This cultural revival, which began in the late 1970s, is expressed in particular during the Marquesas Arts Festival, with traditional dances, tattoo competitions, sculptures, songs, culinary arts?
These events are an opportunity for the local population to rediscover and restore ancient sites (clearing away the abundant vegetation, which often prevents an overall view of the structures, reinstating fallen sections, reconstructing huts, etc.), while at the same time creating a link between the generations.
Tapu and Taboo
Tapu: this Polynesian word means forbidden and has a sacred connotation. Tapu can refer to objects, people or actions that must be avoided so as not to trigger the wrath of the gods or defile the person who transgresses. James Cook brought the word back to England after his expeditions to the South Pacific. Freud, in his book Totem and Taboo, popularised the expression, and ethnologists used it as a generic term to signify what is forbidden.
Numerous tapu governed Marquesan society, and some of them still do, explains Pierre Ottino: "This was probably one of the Polynesian archipelagos where this system was the most developed. It regulated everyone?s life, in a way similar to our laws. It delimited what was authorised, or feasible, from what was not. It placed fishing, harvesting and the consumption of plants and food under the protection of prohibitions, in a context where people had only themselves to rely on. In this way, abuses were avoided, but the tapu themselves could become a source of abuse. The lives of the women, their movements, their daily lives, their food, etc. were terribly complicated. Prohibitions apparently multiplied to the extreme. These ?laws?, as it were, accumulated for every possible reason, including abuse of power, the protection of privileged circles, and so on. Situations that are perfectly recognisable elsewhere".
Certain places were also tapu, in particular the me?ae, religious sites considered sacred and accessible only to priests and their assistants. Even today, Marquesans do not enter these areas. Other areas - ridge lines, torrent beds, banyan trees and their shadows - could also be tapu because they were used for defensive, protective or funerary purposes.
Text and Photos: Brigitte Postel
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Read more : Pierre OTTINO-GARANGER, 2006, Archéologie chez les Taïpi, Hatiheu, un projet partagé aux îles Marquises, published by Au vent des îles (Tahiti) and IRD Éd.