The only UNESCO World Heritage site in French Polynesia

is the Marae at Taputapuātea on Ra’iātea Island.  It doesn’t really look like much now to be honest.  The only other people there on a visit last spring were a few white tourists getting what sounded like a pretty tedious lecture in French.  Two guards were chilling under a tree.  When I sort of tentatively started to walk on the marae’s volcanic rock base, one of the guards gave me a whistle and like a don’t do that gesture, but didn’t bother getting up.

But that’s 2019.  We have to picture the marae as it was, when it was at its most magnificent.  Covered with vines, when the great drums sounded:

Marae became fearful places.  They were dark, shaded by groves of sacred trees… People spoke of these places as the jawbones of the gods, biting the spirits who passed into the dark underworld where they were consumed by the gods while the stone uprights on their pavements were called their niho or teeth

High priests told the early missionary John Osmond:

Terrible were the marae of the royal line, their ancestral and national mare!  They were places of stupendous silence, terrifying and awe-inspiring places of pain to the priest, to the owners, and to all the people.  It was dark and shadowy among the great trees of those marae.

After raids:

canoes beached by the marae, wailing conch trumpets sounded, and the heads and genitals of their most high-ranking victims were tightly bound with the multi-coloured plait sennit of the god, destroying the mana (ancestral power) and fertility of their lineages and districts.  Some of these corpses were hung up in the sacred trees, while others were used as canoe rollers

So tells Dame Professor Anne Salmond in her book:

I looked forward to reading the rest of Dame Professor Salmond’s book, it’s incredible.  She makes the point that when Europeans first made contact with Tahiti, they tended to think of it as like this unspoiled paradise.  But Polynesia was in the midst of its own turbulent history, the Europeans arrived at a particular moment in Polynesia’s development.  There’d just been a violent takeover by islanders from Bora Bora.

They weren’t waiting around for guys in ships to show up.  There was a whole scene!



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