version of this paper was presented at the "South Seas Symposium,
Easter Island in the Pacific Context," Albuquerque, New Mexico
August 6-9, 1997. It was subsequently published in the Proceeding
of the Fourth International Conference on Easter Island and East
Polynesia in 1998.
ANCESTORS; STONE SCULPTURES OF THE MARQUESAS ISLANDS, FRENCH POLYNESIA
Archaeological Research Facility (ARF)
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720, USA
Stone and wood sculptures of the Marquesas Islands have been described,
admired, photographed, sketched, and painted since the arrival
of the European to the archipelago in the 1790s . They have not,
however, been systematically documented and analyzed until recently.
In this essay I present a summery of metric information and empirical
observation generated from data collected between 1984 and 1989
while working on the "Marquesan Rock Art Project". The
project was initiated by Maeva Navarro, former director of Département
d'Archéologie du Centre Polynésien des Sciences
Humaines "Te Anavaharau" (presently known as Service
de la Culture et du Patrimoine), Tahiti. All fieldwork was directed
by Edmundo Edwards, then chief archaeologist with the department,
in collaboration with the author. This paper presents some of
the results of field survey of eighty-one tiki, documented since
1985. We worked in seventeen valleys on five of the presently
six inhabited islands (Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Ua Huka, Hiva Oa and
Tahuata). Architectural association, gender, stylistic variation,
sculptural material, and applied decoration will be discussed.
A few statues on Hiva Oa and Tahuata remain undocumented. American
archaeologist Ralph Linton of the 1920 Bayard Dominick Expedition
mentioned several statues that we so far have been unable to locate
(e.g. Linton 1925:142,144-145,147,149. See also Linton 1925:photo
XI C). (Figure 1. The author with one of the tiki at paepae Paeke,
Taipi Valley, Nuku Hiva)
Fenua Enata Terre des Hommes (Land of the Men) as the Marquesan
now wish their islands to be named , are known for their archeological
art, especially the tiki. In general the word tiki refers to all
anthropomorphic depiction on mediums such as stone, wood, cloth,
and human skin (Dordillon 1931:384). It also refers to the large
stone and wood statues (Handy 1927:121f, 1923:265). In local folklore
the celebrated Tiki was the human creator and a legendary incestuous
god both in tradition and religion (Suggs 1966:144). But the images
do not represent Tiki, the human creator; according to historic
writings the tiki depicted deified ancestors (Tautain 1887:673-678;
Handy 1923:236; Delmas 1927).
The majority of the images, 65.5 percent, are found on the island
of Hiva Oa. In general, sacred sites are larger and more variable
on Hiva Oa than on any other island (Linton 1923:446, 1925:37).
The reason for this is unclear. Few statues are left on Fatu Hiva
and Tahuata, but several existed in the past (e.g. Von den Steinen
1928(2):75; Linton 1925:179, 180-180, 185, Plate XIC))
Forty-three tiki were documented in situ. The remaining thirty-eight
tiki have been relocated and the archaeological associations are
questionable. However, general provenience of some of these have
been traced through earlier publications (e.g. Ferdon 1965; Linton
(1925:Plate XI,E). But we will never know how many statues were
relocated in the past. For instance, Steward, a missionary who
visited the islands in 1828, described how members of the Haapa
destroyed a temple (me'ae) in Taiohae (Nuku Hiva) and stole the
idols during a skirmish between them and the Teiis tribe (Stewart
Based on morphology, 4 main categories are distinguished: I. Statues
carved in full round; II. Modified boulders; III. Rectangular
blocks; IV. Double figures. One seated figure and two "stretched
out figures" constitute the "other" category.
Considering that no systematic survey of the statues has been
undertaken, we were interested in knowing how prevalent the so-called
"classic tiki" was. We thus examined the most common
visual characteristics such as facial characteristics, protruding
stomach, arm placement and the bent knee stance.
The head, because it was considered tapu (sacred, forbidden) and
the seat of mana (supernatural power), was the most important
part of the statue, and it is carved with careful attention to
the smallest details. It may include intricate facial features
and tattoos and headbands, while the rest of the body is only
outlined. Typically, the size of the head is 1/3 or more of the
body's height. It is usually resting directly on square shoulders
lacking a neck. Round large and bulging eyes are often encircled
with a 1-2 cm wide raised rims under high arched eyebrows (Figure
2). Sometimes the eyes have a raised or incised curved line that
bisects them from the outer part of the eye to the inner corner
of each eye. Some tiki have circular indented pits indicating
the pupil .
A broad flat nose with wide nostrils fills out most of the center
of the face. The outlines of the nose go upwards and connect with
the eyebrows. High eyebrows reach down on the outer side of the
head and link with the ears - resembling the stem of eye-glasses.
A long, wide, and oval mouth, sometimes with a protruding tongue
or even teeth with great canines, covers the lower part of the
face. Breasts and nipples are often depicted. Some of the images
have the arms separated from the torso, while on others the arms
are barely indicated.
Hands with fingers are resting on a protruding abdomen. Ritual
knowledge and oral tradition were believed to be held in the stomach
(Tautain 1887), thus hands placed on a protruding belly, may have
been a way to protect these memories (Thornton 1989).
Wide rounded hips, short stubby and flexed legs rest on a pedestal.
Some images have the legs only indicated while other sculptures
are cut off below the waist. Raised circular knobs often indicate
ankles. Only a few images depict toes. The back is often carved
with spine and buttocks even when the statues are fitted into
a stone platform.
Large round eyes, arms placed over the abdomen and a bent-knee
stand are major common tiki attributes. For unknown reasons a
protruding stomach is less prevalent. We have thus validated the
Stylistically the Marquesan tiki are remarkable similar obviously
following certain social rules. However, numerous variations exist
suggesting that each tiki not only symbolized an important deceased
ancestor but may in fact, represented a specific progenitor.
The tiki vary in size from 13.7 to 250 centimeters above the ground.
The majority of the statues, or 50.6%, measure between 50 to 100
centimeters (Figure 3). To estimate the total height of the tiki
is impossible without excavation. Some statues have a pointed
extension below the pedestal in order to secure it in the ground.
Fifty-eight percent of the statues are carved of a volcanic tuff;
the red variety, or 38.27%, was especially preferred. Traces of
red pigment were noticed by Linton in protected parts of a statue
on me'ae Iopona, Hiva Oa (Linton 1925:162); we noticed pigment
on an image in Punaei Valley, Hiva Oa (Millerstrom and Edwards
ms 1985). This has led us to believe that basaltic stone statues
were periodically painted red as red was considered a sacred color
and was associated with high status throughout Polynesia (e.g.
Handy 1927; Burrow 1938; Firth 1967; Lee 1992).
Several red tuff quarries are noted in the islands (Linton 1925:8-9),
though undoubtedly there are others unknown to us. A red tuff
quarry are located in Puamau (Hiva Oa) near me'ae Iopona. In 1920,
Linton observed carved outlines of unfinished tiki (1925:74,).
Only a quarry at the northeast bay of Ha'ata'ive'a (Suggs 1961:66)
are known on Nuku Hiva. The red tuff horizontal stratum at Ha'ata'ive'a
is from 5 to 8 m (7.62 m) thick (Figure 4). Horizontal outlines
with undercuts of rectangular slabs, probably removed to carve
tiki are still visible on the northern side (Suggs 1961:66; Millerstrom
ms 1992). A yellowish tuff strata in the same area show three
vertical niches in the cliff face where slabs for statues were
removed (Millerstrom ms 1992) .
Carved headdresses (hei) are the most common form of decoration,
but wreath around the necks, tattoos, short mantles, and hair-knots
on each side of the head also occur. Some tiki have drilled circular
perforation in the earlobes for placement of earplugs. Takai'i,
at me'ae Iopona, Puamau Valley (Hiva Oa), the largest Marquesan
image, has tattoos on the chest and legs, what appears to be a
hair knot at the back, and some 27 vertical grooves in the eyes,
emphasizing their size (Millerstrom and Edwards ms 1985). Tattoos,
when they occur, are placed on the sides of the mouth, chest,
or on the thighs. Linton (1925:74) mentions ornamental grooves,
circles and chevron patterns on the abdomen and buttocks on some
images, but these are no longer visible.
We do not know if the neck wreath represents plant or marine material.
Perforated shell tabs, pearl shell pendant, fish, porpoise and
whale teeth are found archaeologically (Suggs 1961:134; Rolett
and Conte 1995:215). In fact, whale teeth were so treasured that
from AD 1100 onwards imitation whale teeth were carved from the
lips of Cassis shell (von den Steinen 1928(2):22; Suggs 1961:136).
Carved wreaths of perishable plant material are difficult to ascertain
archaeologically. Petard (1996:82), a French biologist, reports
that garlands were strung from the pandanus (pandanus tectorius)
fruit to decorate the body during feasts. The Polynesians, according
to the various parts the tree and the changing colors of the ripening
fruit, recognized several varieties of the pandanus. In the Marquesas
the red fruit ha'a kua, was reserved for hei to decorate the tiki
and hence tapu for commoners (Petard 1986:84).
Tiki were dressed in bark (tapa) loincloth (Dordillon in Handy
1923:238). These were ceremonially made. Stewart (1832) describes
old inspirational priests (tuhuka) beating loincloth for the gods.
The act was so sacred that the priests could only eat in the evening
(Steward 1832; Handy 1923:238). Offerings of human victims, animals,
fruit and vegetables were placed in front of the statue or hanging
in nearby trees (Stewart 1832:223; Handy 1923:238). Several of
the images we have documented have a flat head that may have been
a space to place decoration such as a crown of shells, teeth,
bones or plant material.
It is generally assumed that all the tiki represent men. This
is not the case. The majority - 72.8 percent - are genderless.
Of the remaining statues 19.8 percent depict male while 7.4 percent
depict females. For example, at paepae Paeke, Taipivai, 4 of the
12 tiki represent females and 4 are males. The sex of the remainder
is un-determined. Linton, however, writes that all the images
represent females (1925:116).
Documentation of the sculptures show that the size of the male
genitalia are not exaggerated nor is there evidence that they
have been deliberately mutilated as some literature suggests.
It is possible that some of the male statues were re-carved from
male to female; but at present we have no clear evidence to support
The majority of the images are associated with shrines, chief's
platforms or temples located within public tribal complexes (tohua).
In Nuku Hiva the statues are placed on or in the walls of platforms
usually located on one end of the ceremonial plaza. Some are directly
associated with chief's house platforms. A chief's house is sometimes
referred to as a me'ae in the historic literature. It is conceivable
that a chief's house became so imbued with mana that after his
death the site became tapu. This is the case in Tikopia, a Polynesian
Outlier (Kirch 1996). The sculptures then, appear to have been
part of the upper-class stratum, and a visual display of status
and political authority.
The age of the images is uncertain, as none has been dated directly.
It appears, however, that the statues were developed in the late
prehistoric period and that they continued to be carved into the
late historic times. According to informants in 1880s who could
recite approximately 25 generations, von den Steinen (1928(2):84-86),
calculated that Iopona me'ae, with numerous sculptures, was constructed
circa AD 1700-1750. Excavation at the same site by Heyerdahl (1965:123-150),
leader of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition in 1956, yielded
three significantly earlier radiocarbon (uncalibrated) dates for
the site. Ferdon Jr. (1965:117-121), also a member of the Norwegian
Archaeological Expedition, collected early radiocarbon dates at
Paeke, Taipivai. While these dates indicate the occupation of
the sites, is uncertain if the dates reflect the age of the sculptures.
Suggs archaeological work on Nuku Hiva in the late 1950s, wrote
that sculptures are most often associated with megalithic structures
(paepae), which developed after approximately AD 1400 (Suggs 1961:155).
Suggs furthermore, opined that sculptures of volcanic tuff or
basalt were first made around AD 1600-1700 century (Suggs 1961).
This suggested time-period for the sculptures is more in line
with Von den Steinen's genealogy account discussed above.
It appears, however, that the conventional image face was first
developed in the petroglyphs and later extended in the sculptures
(Suggs 1961; Millerstrom 1997). Stone slabs with a mata komoe
or face motif, so common in the Marquesan petroglyphs repertoire
(Millerstrom 1997), was excavated in the lowest level of a fire
pit by Suggs on Ha'ata'ive'a beach, Nuku Hiva. The valley was
first occupied around AD 1100 (Suggs 1961:155).
*Mata, a Proto-Polynesian taxeme refers to eye and face in Tonga,
Samoa, the Cooks, Easter Island, and among the Maori (Walsh and
Biggs 1966). Maka is a Hawaiian cognate. Other glosses for mata
includes genealogy, tribe or status lineage (Millerstrom 1997).
These words still retained in Polynesian dialects indicate that
the face motif are connected with concepts that go far back in
prehistory (Millerstrom and Allen 1994).
The pervasive mata komoe motif expressed on the surface in most
media e.g. images on stones and wood, on calabashes, canoes, tattoo,
house-posts, bone carvings and so forth identify and intensify
the ideology of a group of people (Figure 4). A pervasive art
system also promote and reinforce social solidarity in order to
maintain a belief systems that bolstered the political position
of the hereditary chief, priests or warriors. Pervasive decorative
organization experiences a much less rate of change than for example
an opposing partitive art systems (DeBoer 1991:157). This theoretical
perspective has important implications regarding changes in the
Marquesan art system and how these changes reflect social transformation.
This brief essay present metric data rather than offer adequate
interpretation. Several issues remain to be examined. For example,
although the Marquesan tiki are remarkably homogeneous, attribute
variations occur. Are these stylistic variations due to regional
or chronological differences or are the differences due to the
type of material used? Furthermore, is it possible to identify
the sex of the 72.8 percent genderless statues by isolating specific
characteristics of the male and female images? These are only
some of the questions we will address in the future.
I wish to acknowledge Maeva Navarro, former director of C.P.S.H.
(now Service de la Culture et du Patrimoine) Tahiti, for initiating
the Marquesan Rock Art Project, for allowing us to conduct research
in the Marquesas, and for her support and encouragement. I also
thank the people of the Marquesan archipelago who graciously contributed
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