The French Polynesian islands of the Marquesas, make up the archipelago farthest from any continent in the world, lying more than 3000 miles from Mexico. Being so remote and isolated for so long, the islands are home to rare flora and fauna. The archipelago was first colonised by people in about 100 AD, probably by Samoans. The people remained neolithic – that is, without metal tools – until the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century. During their long isolation they developed a culture as unique as the islands’ species.
Moth and I visited the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in early February 2009, arriving on a tiny Twin Otter at Jacques Brel airstrip outside Atuona, the island’s main settlement (population about 1,500).
There are two reasons why I wanted to make the long trek out to this remote and savagely beautiful volcanic island. One was the artist Paul Gauguin who lived, worked, died and is buried here. Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti and the Marquesas are largely responsible for the way we perceive French Polynesia today and I wanted to see for myself how much of his vision was fact and how much was fantasy. Gauguin couldn’t help but to include in his paintings the mountains, the sea, shady pandanus trees, fruit, dark-skinned women and the giant Marquesan tikis – large stone carvings of humanoid forms.
Some archaeologists believe it was Marquesans who originally colonised Easter Island, taking with them their habit of erecting giant stone tikis, but on Easter taking it to frenzied, massive extremes. Certainly the tikis on Hiva Oa are the largest in the Pacific outside of Easter, and to my eyes have stylistic similarities.
Our first taste of Marquesan archaeology were the Tehueto petroglyphs, maâ€™ae (sacred space) and pae pae (traditional meeting platform or stone floor). It was a powerfully hot and humid walk down a muddy trail through the lush Faakua valley where trees dropped their fruit uneaten to the ground and up a steamy hillside.
Despite the vagueries of the map we’ been given and my doubts about walking into the forest without a guide, on a slope beneath towering volcanic cliffs, we managed to find a massive boulder 5ms long and perhaps 3ms tall and thick on which were carved seven or more large bas-relief lizards or some such creatures – a totem animal perhaps?
A little further up the track we arrived at the overgrown maâ€™ae, once the site of a large bustling community. All that remains are monumental dry-stone platforms of huge volcanic stones, arranged into platforms which were once the bases of houses.
Banyan trees and a dense tangle of roots, branches and leaf litter made the site difficult to interpret, but we spotted stones which had once been used for polishing stone axes and knives…
…cup marks, used in the preparation of oils and tattooing dyes; and behind a huge tree trunk, a carved face peeped out:
I never did find out the Marquesan name of the smiling tiki, but our host guided us there down a narrow track in the steaming forest just outside Atuona.
It’s a small stone rather phallically-shaped in a tiny valley clearing flanked by banana plants. The carving on the face is crisp and clear.
Strangely, it looks like it’s wearing specs. He had little hands around his waist and attractive Marquesan style swirls on his face, probably representing the tattoos that Marquesans are so fond of.
The archaeological site at Taaoa is vast.
It’s a complex of rectangular enclosures, platforms of large volcanic black stones…
…terraced walls and ritual areas, testament to the advanced civilisation which built it, which was killed off by European diseases in the 18th century.
The rainforest is doing what it can to reclaim the site: great banyans and huge breadfruit trees, as well as grapefruits, papayas, avocados and palms surround the site, though the central marae is cleared and felt to me like a sports pitch. We noticed a number of stones which had clearly been used as polissoirs, with deep grooves for sharpening stone tools. We also noticed lots of cup-marks:
These little pits had been made over generations for preparing inks for tattooing, our guide showed us how leaves and the ash extracted from certain fatty nuts were used to prepare the inks.
Climbing up through the site on stoney paths we headed towards the well-preseved tiki at the back of the site.
Unfortunately as I was preoccupied in trying to avoid getting eaten alive by evil Marquesan nono flies I forgot to ask the guide about the human skull that according to my guide book was hidden in a stone structure near the tiki. The tiki face is not as well preserved as the smiling tiki’s but you can see a smile nonetheless.
Iipona tikis at Puamau
Twelve miles from Atuona, is the tiny village of Puamau, on the east of the island, looking out towards the great blue vastness of the Pacific ocean. It takes two dramatic, hot and bumpy hours in a four-wheel drive to get there. The dirt roads are treacherous, winding around impossibly spiky volcanic headlands with sheer drops on either side, through the rainforest, over peaks and around ridges. It’s no wonder that until very recently, the only way to get anywhere in the Marquesas was on horseback. With resources on the island so scarce (everything except fruit, fish and chickens has to be imported) we were lucky to get there; the island’s one petrol station was almost out of fuel and the supply boat wasn’t due in for 48 hours.
The reason for our trip to Puamau was to see the Iipona archaeological site in which five giant tikis stand facing east, among a rubble of pae paes (stone platforms), standing stones, stone steps and ceremonial terraces. I have to tell you that this site blew my mind.
A giant polissoir stone for sharpening stone tools stands at the side of track which leads you up to the site.
The first tiki you reach is the so-called ‘flying tiki’ (proper name Maki Taua Pepe) which is supposed to represent a woman lying on her stomach giving birth -though as a mother I can tell you that lying on one’s front to give birth is a very silly idea. On the tiki’s pedestal is a carved a strange creature perhaps a dog, though to me it looked more like a llama, but what this meant I couldn’t begin to guess.
The largest tiki here, called Takaii, is the largest in Polynesia except for Easter Island’s moai. It stands 2.67m tall and dominates the site.
There are 3 other tikis here too, standing in this hot jungle clearing. Our driver/guide and a French couple we were travelling with saw our enthusiasm and left us while they went off elsewhere. For an hour and half not a single other visitor came to this spectacular and wild place. This gave us time to think about the complexity of the site: the skill in carving these stones, laying out the vast site, and what did it all mean? Were the tikis the effigies of real ancestral warrior chiefs? Or perhaps god or spirits? How were they used? Did people make offerings? Were the stones sacred? Did they have special powers or were they taboo? Despite being used until a few centuries ago until Europeans came, no one seems to know.
On a nearby pae pae a number of disembodied tiki heads had been placed, lost from their original location indicating that at one time perhaps there were very many more complete tikis here.
A tiny glimpse perhaps, of an early obsession to replicate giant humanoid statues which became out of control on Easter eventually causing its civilisation to collapse?
Our driver collected us and took us down to nearby pension Chez Marie Antoinette for lunch. She had cooked us a delicious vegetarian lunch of rice, avocado and lime, starfruit, fried bananas in coconut, an unidentified glutinous vegetable and fried breadfruit chips. I particularly wanted to try breadfruit as I have long been fascinated by the story of HMS Bounty which came to Tahiti in 1787 to collect breadfruit saplings.
In Marie Antoinette’s beautiful garden stood a finely built pae pae and four tombs, including the tomb of the last chief of the Puamau valley who died early in the 20th century.
His tomb was decorated by two small tikis standing guard – clearly they were much older that the tomb. As we travelled through Hiva Oa, we saw many randomly placed giant ancient carved stones, some just lying at the roadside, or reclaimed in people’s gardens; one even had a horse tethered to it.
A copra worker burned coconut husks in the forest nearby and a pall of blue smoke crept through the trees. It was very atmospheric. This place took four flights on planes which got ever smaller, nine and half time zones, hours of research and months of saving my pennies to reach. It’s so remote and isolated that it doesn’t even appear in many atlases.