Culture of the Marquesas Islands

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Marquesans performing a Haka dance

The Marquesas Islands were colonized by seafaring Polynesians as early as 300 AD, thought to originate from Tonga. The dense population was concentrated in the narrow valleys, and consisted of warring tribes, who sometimes cannibalized their enemies.

Much of Polynesia, including the original settlers of Hawaii, Tahiti, Rapa Iti and Easter Island, was settled by Marquesans, believed to have departed from the Marquesas as a result more frequently of overpopulation and drought-related food shortages, than because of the nearly constant warfare that eventually became a prominent feature of the islands' culture. Almost the entire remainder of Polynesia, with the exception of a few areas of western Polynesia as well as the majority of the Polynesian outliers, was colonized by Marquesan descendants centered in Tahiti.


An 1890 etching showing a Marquesan man in his tattoos


Native Marquesan culture was devastated in the period following the arrival of European explorers. While the decline in Marquesan culture can in large part be attributed to the activities of Christian missionaries, the primary cause of its collapse can be directly linked to the catastrophic effects of alien diseases, especially smallpox, which reduced the population by an estimated 98%.


The Marquesas have a long history of complex geometric tattooing, covering the whole bodies of both men and women.[1][2]

Sexual mores[edit]

Early European explorers to the islands reported that children slept in the same room as their parents and were able to witness their parents while they had sex. Intercourse simulation allegedly became real penetration in some cases when boys were physically able. Adults were reported to have found simulation of sex by children to be funny, and both boys and girls were claimed to be initiated into sex at a very young age by older adults, with the children becoming eager participants. As children approached 11 attitudes shifted toward girls. Premarital sex, although not encouraged, was allowed in general, although it was forbidden for firstborn daughters of high-ranking lineages. Upon reaching puberty, both females and males underwent rites of passage, including tattooing and for males, genital surgery known as superincision.[3][4]

However, the accuracy of such claims has been questioned. Willowdean C. Handy, an anthropologist who lived on the islands from 1920, hypothesized that early explorers may have had ulterior motives for painting the Marquesas as "sexually liberated" due to their isolation from cultural mores of western society. She says of much of the debauchery reported, "They are white-man-made." In her examination of pre-white Marquesan culture, she adds "Never, in those days, did such [sexual] relationships occur before puberty, and they were regulated to after marriage." [5]

Similarly, the American anthropologist and President of the National Association of Scholars Peter Wood (formerly provost of The King’s College in New York City and a tenured member of the Anthropology Department at Boston University) criticized Western idealizations of the Marquesas Islands as a haven of free love:

Those Marquesan Islanders, made famous by Herman Melville’s captivity narrative, Typee, stand out as especially exceptional. When European ships began to arrive in these remote Pacific islands, they were often met with swarms of young girls attempting to climb aboard to have sex with the sailors. Though our knowledge of the Marquesans is limited, it appears that, for them, virginity—or chastity—was not a social construct. But Marquesan life was no sexual free-for-all. These islanders were part of strictly hierarchical tribal groups governed with their own elaborate kinship obligations. The sexual openness of Marquesans shocked and sometimes appalled Westerners, as did Marquesan full-body tattoos. The sexualization of young girls was notable. Older women stretched the labia of little girls to make them more attractive. Both boys and girls were initiated into sex at a very young age by older adults, and the children became avid participants.

Behind this exotic surface, the Marquesans were governed by strong rules on rank and privilege, sexual segregation, and birth order. Only a woman of high rank could have a second husband, for example, and he was a commoner subordinate to her. Men and women ate separately. And, as in Europe, the oldest son inherited family property. Sex for the Marquesans was not outside of meaning. It was fraught with meanings, some of which are now obscured behind the shroud of a dead culture. But the general picture is clear, and it is the usual thing: Attraction. Pleasure. Attachment. Reproduction. Fulfillment. To which we can add power, prestige, danger, purity, control, and the other relational overlays that typically attach themselves to sex. But there are also culturally specific meanings that were never easy for outsiders to comprehend and that have now been lost to history.[6]

Contemporary period[edit]

Today, Marquesan culture is a mélange created by the layering of the ancient Marquesan culture, with strong influences from the important Tahitian culture and the politically important French culture.

In western culture[edit]

  • Famous French painter Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel spent the last years of their lives in the Marquesas, and are buried there. Brel composed a famous song, Les Marquises, about the Marquesas Islands, his last home.
  • The Marquesas provided inspiration to American novelist Herman Melville, whose experiences in the Marquesas formed the basis for his novel Typee.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson visited the Marquesas in 1888, and wrote about his experiences and impressions there in 1900, in a book called In the South Seas.
  • Thor Heyerdahl wrote his book Fatu Hiva during a year-long stay on that island.
  • The island group is also mentioned in passing in the Crosby, Stills & Nash song, "Southern Cross".
  • The Marquesas Islands temporarily received an international spotlight in the United States when the reality TV show Survivor: Marquesas was filmed there. It was the fourth installment of the TV series Survivor.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Tattooing in the Marquesas" by Willodean Chatterson Handy, Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1922.
  2. ^ "Die Marquesaner und ihre Kunst" Primitive Sudseeornamentik, I.Tatauierung,", by Karl von den Steinen, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1925.
  3. ^ the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality in volume 1, French Polynesia (Anne Bolin, Ph.D.),5. Interpersonal Heterosexual Behaviors, A. Children, edited by Robert T. Francoeur publish by Continuum International Publishing Group"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-12-27. Retrieved 2008-12-13.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ Sexual Behavior in Pre Contact Hawai’i: A Sexological Ethnography from Milton Diamond"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-12-27. Retrieved 2008-12-13.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ Handy, Willowdean C. (April 1922). "The Marquesans: Fact Versus Fiction". The Yale Review: 769–786.
  6. ^ [1]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]