Today we hired a local named Pifa to give us an all-day tour of Hiva Oa. Pifa looks Marquesan, except that he has no tattoos. In fact his last name is O’Conner and his great-grandfather created a homestead here. Now he says he is related to about half the island’s population of 2500. Pifa studied in Hawaii for two years, so he speaks very good English, which of course helps with the tour. He also speaks Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish and perhaps a couple other languages, in addition to the mandatory French and Marquesan (plus the various dialects of French Polynesia — Tahitian and somewhat different from Marquesan).
We drove over the island to the north side. This entailed going up over the steep hills, down into a central valley, up over even steeper hills, and down to the ocean. Many of the roads barely deserve the name — 4 wheel drive is definitely a requirement, even when the weather is dry. Along the way we sampled various fruits direct from the trees (his own, or belonging to someone in his extended family). The views were spectacular. But also the homes that we visited of some of his relatives. The houses were simple, but the gardens were beautiful/bountiful. We stopped at one place that was growing vanilla as a cash crop; I’d never seen it growing before, nor did I even have a sense of what the plant was like. Quite beautiful.
We stopped for a special lunch of wild boar (the hunting of which is a major past time and topic of discussion here), goat in coconut sauce, fish ceviche, breadfruit, plantain, bananas, rice and starfruit juice. Wow. Despite Pifa’s help (and he’s a big guy, like most Marquesans) we could not finish it all.
Then back in the 4-wheel drive to go to a sacred ritual area of the Marquesans. Along the way we passed a large flat stone at the top of a high cliff over the water. This was where a beautiful young girl would be sacrificed to the gods every new moon! We learned that there used to be a community of 18,000 Marquesans in this area, in addition to another rival community on the other side of the island. We saw where the temple was located, where only the priest and the tribal leader were allowed inside. There were large stone tikis depicting the leader, a warrior in front of him, his younger brother behind him, and nearby the one who did sacrifices. Here men were sometimes sacrificed, supposedly voluntarily, so they could join the gods as servants. There was also a large stone tiki of a woman giving birth. There was a tattoo hut, where the first-born male of a family would be tattooed from head to toe over a period of 3 months, once he reached puberty. The tattoos on the chest depict his family history. Others told stories of strength and courage, etc. These tattoos were the only “written language” of the Marquesans, other than some petroglyphs. Being tattooed by primitive methods was a major trial; not all survived the ordeal.
Pifa told us more than I could retain about the old culture and of the history. The name ‘Marquesas’ comes from a Spanish explorer in the 1500’s. The pre-European name for the islands I did not retain, but it means “Land of MEN,” and in this case the “men” does not seem to refer to “our tribe” versus outsides, but instead to fierce male warriors. Cannibalism was practiced — eating slain enemies and also their own newborns if born with deformities/handicaps. In the mid-1800’s missionaries came and told the people they had to stop eating other people. Given the power of the European gods (that gave a soldier the power to kill a man as if by magic without even touching him) this had some sway. Plus with the natives dying off in vast numbers from the European diseases, Christianity took hold. This is Easter weekend, and many people are dressed up and in church, and most businesses are closed until Tuesday. But it is apparent that many Marquesans are very proud of their heritage. French is a second language to them, and they prefer speaking their own language. The tradition of tattoos remains even if most of the symbols have lost their meanings. And they love their homeland. The island is spectacularly beautiful, food and water are abundant, and the weather is always good!