Culture of the Marquesas Islands

Culture of the Marquesas Islands
Marquesans performing a Haka dance

The Marquesas Islands were colonized by sea-faring Polynesians as early as 300 A.D., thought to originate from Samoa. 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.




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

The Marquesas Islands have been noted for the sexual attitudes and behaviors of their native culture that are different than those of most Western cultures. Due to contact with Western societies these customs have changed and have become primarily historical.

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 became real penetration in some cases when boys were physically able. Adults found simulation of sex by children to be funny. As children approached 11 attitudes shifted toward girls. Premarital sex was not encouraged but was allowed in general, but 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 also been questioned in modern times. 20th century anthropologist Willowdean C. Handy 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]

Modern travel author Paul Theroux made his own journey to the Marquesas and was quite blunt in his appraisal of such claims:

I should say that so much written about the Pacific is inaccurate—indeed, most of it is utter crap.[6]

Contemporary period

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

  • 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.


  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[1]
  4. ^ Sexual Behavior in Pre Contact Hawai’i: A Sexological Ethnography from Milton Diamond[2]
  5. ^ Handy, Willowdean C. (April 1922). "The Marquesans: Fact Versus Fiction". The Yale Review: 769–786. 
  6. ^ Theroux, Paul (1993). The happy isles of Oceania: paddling the Pacific. [New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-449-90858-5. 

External links

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