Among the first islands to be settled by the Polynesians during the great South Pacific migrations, the Marquesas served as a dispersal point for the whole Polynesian triangle from Hawai’i to Easter Island and New Zealand. Estimates of the islands’ colonisation vary from prehistory to between AD 900 and 1100.
The Marquesas’ isolation was broken in 1595 when Spanish navigator Don Alvaro de Mendaña y Neyra sighted Fatu Hiva by pure chance. Mendaña’s fleet then sailed along past Motane and Hiva Oa, and anchored for around 10 days in Vaitahu Bay on Tahuata. Mendaña christened these four islands Las Marquesas de Mendoza in honour of his sponsor, the viceroy of Peru, García Hurtado de Mendoza.
In 1774, James Cook lingered for four days on Tahuata during his second voyage. Joseph Ingraham, the American commander of the Hope, ‘discovered’ the northern group of the Marquesas in 1791, arriving slightly ahead of Frenchman Étienne Marchand, whose merchant vessel took on fresh supplies at Tahuata and then landed on ‘Ua Pou. In 1797, William Crook, a young Protestant pastor with the London Missionary Society (LMS), landed on Tahuata, but his attempts at evangelism were unsuccessful.
French interest in the region grew as a means of countering English expansion in the Pacific. After a reconnaissance voyage in 1838, Rear Admiral Abel Dupetit-Thouars took possession of Tahuata in 1842 in the name of French King Louis-Philippe.
Under the French yoke, the Marquesas almost fell into oblivion – the French administration preferred to develop Pape’ete on Tahiti, which they thought had a more strategic value. Only the Catholic missionaries, who had been active since their arrival on Tahuata in 1838, persevered, and Catholicism became, and still is, firmly entrenched in the Marquesas.
Upon contact with Western influences, the foundations of Marquesan society collapsed. Whaling crews brought alcohol, firearms and syphilis. In a stunning decline, the population plummeted from around 18,000 in 1842 to 2096 in 1926.
In the 20th century the Marquesas were made famous by Hiva Oa residents Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel. Slow but sure development of infrastructure has helped lessen the archipelago’s isolation, while archaeological surveys are uncovering a culture that was lost only a comparatively short while ago.
Pierre Ottino, Archaeologist
French archaeologist Pierre Ottino has supervised numerous restorations in the Marquesas over the last two decades and was involved in all Marquesas Arts Festivals.
Why are the Marquesas so special? Most archaeological sites are still untouched, and there’s exceptional diversity. We have statues, gathering places, ceremonial centres and houses, all set within powerful landscapes. And there’s not a soul in sight.
What are the not-to-be-missed archaeological sites? The Kamuihei-Tahakia-Teiipoka complex on Nuku Hiva is a must-see as it’s the most comprehensive site in the Marquesas. On Hiva Oa, I recommend Taaoa and, if you want to admire massive tiki, Iipona in Puamau.
What’s the best way to learn about local culture? Visit the archaeological museum in Hatiheu and take a tour with a knowledgeable guide.
Good multiday trip in the archipelago? You would want to spend three to four days exploring Nuku Hiva before heading to Hiva Oa – allow another three to four days to make the most of the island.
Archaeology In The Marquesas – Learn Your Basics
You don’t need to have a PhD to appreciate the archaeological remains that are typical of the Marquesas, but a few explanations will greatly enhance your trip.
Tohua are paved rectangular platforms with several tiers of basalt block rows on either side. The tohua were used as meeting places and also hosted festivals and dance performances.
The me’ae is the Marquesan equivalent of the Tahitian marae. Me’ae are religious sites built from basalt blocks placed side by side and piled up. Generally found in the valleys and away from secular places, the me’ae was a place of worship, burial and human sacrifice. Access was restricted to a few priests or chiefs endowed with mana (spiritual power). Me’ae were also used for cannibalistic rituals. They were generally built near a banyan, a sacred tree.
Pae pae are platforms of stone blocks, on which ha’e (human habitations) were built from native plants and wood. The pae pae was divided into two sections. The front level was reserved for daily activities, while the back section, which was covered and slightly raised, served as a sleeping area. The roof was made of leaves from the uru (breadfruit) tree and coconut palm.
Foundations of pae pae are ubiquitous in the Marquesas. Some modern houses are even built on them!
Enigmatic tiki are carved humanlike statues, the height of which varies from a few dozen centimetres to almost 3m. Since they were generally erected on or near a holy place, experts believe tiki had a religious and symbolic function, possibly representing deified clan ancestors. They also marked the boundaries of places that were tapu (forbidden). Sculpted in the form of statues, tiki were also carved in bas-relief, on weapons, paddles and dugout canoes. According to many locals, some tiki are still possessed of mana and have a potential for evil that can manifest itself if they are moved or handled.
Petroglyphs are designs carved on stones. They feature sharks, turtles, whales, outrigger canoes, facial features and geometric patterns… Ancient works of art? Possibly, according to local experts.