Moorea: Documentation

Moorea is Tahiti’s less-populous and smaller neighbor, the second island in the Windward group of Society Islands.  Though close in proximity to Tahiti and sharing much of the natural beauty, Moorea nonetheless retains a distinct identity.  In the pre-contact period the island had a vibrant population and at times dominated its larger neighbor.

Central to this population was the Opunohu Valley in Moorea, still filled with archaeological sites and with many excavations and reconstructions of old structures.  The sites are rich with information about population distribution, religious practices, and social stratification.  Roger C. Green studied the archaeological remains in the 1960s and found the Opunohu Valley to be an important center of the island's culture.[1]  Further, the number and type of the structures located in this valley suggest that Moorea was an important center of culture and religion across the Society Islands.

The subsequrent archaeological exploration of this center has significantly changed our perceptions of pre-contact Moorean society. The prevailing thought had been that the ari’i and ra’atira, the chiefs and people of higher rank, lived on the coasts while the manahume lived further inland.[2]  The presence of important architecture such as marae in the interior debunked this theory, as it showed that there were people of higher status living further inland.  This has changed our understanding of the traditional relationships between the ari’i, ra’atira, and manahune, and it also furthered understanding of land distribution customs.

Green found agricultural terraces, residential areas, religious structures, specialized structures, and “functionally unassigned constructions”[3] when he came to Moorea. Mooreans mainly built stone structures, and used untouched or shaped stones in their constructions.  Their mastery of stonework is evident, and even today the surviving stone structures—used for many generations—evoke a sense of permanence.

The religious structures were of particular importance to anthropologist Jennifer Kahn, who studied them in 2010 in a larger investigation of the cult of 'Oro, a very powerful religious sect at the time of the European contact. She wanted “to highlight what archaeological studies can tell us about ‘Oro style temples and their place in late prehistoric sociopolitical transformations in the Society Islands,” and to reveal the effects that the worship of ‘Oro had on the politics and society of Moorea. [4]  She used Moorea as a case study to understand larger themes within the Society Islands. 

The temples were built by the ari’i (nobility) and were used by chiefs to politically legitimize themselves and show their domination.[5]  Building a marae required manpower, material, and power, so by building these marae and claiming ownership of them, the ari’i and ari’i rahi were asserting their strength and godliness.  The temples were made with rounded stones meant to symbolize turtle heads, which could be substituted for human offerings in some Eastern Polynesian societies.[6]  Manipulating stones into this shape requires massive amounts of labor, further asserting the influence of the people building the temple.  This type of building using rounded stones was unique to Tahiti and Moorea.[7]

The newly excavated inland marae suggest that the chiefs were building these structures to show loyalty to the ‘Oro war cult, and by extension to the Tahitian Pomare lineage.[8]  The building of temples served both a religious and political function.  Because Moorea and Tahiti are so close, interactions between the two islands were frequent, and the ari’i wanted to align themselves with the powerful clans on Tahiti.

Although  many of these sites have already been excavated and studied, there is still more information to be obtained from them.  These sites can be used to establish the date of the introduction of the cult of ‘Oro to the Society Islands, but dating has yet to be performed with modern techniques.[9]  Though archaeologists have been studying  Moorea for a long time, much of the early studies were colored by presumptions based on previous Western images of the island. 

The journals of missionaries and explorers provide substantial and important firsthand accounts, although since their views are decidedly one-sided, it is crucial to view these sources with a critical eye. Captain James Cook visited Moorea on his third voyage, and detailed his experiences with the inhabitants of the island in his journal. One of Cook’s objectives was to observe and record the lands and peoples with whom he came into contact. The presence of his ships created a stir among the people and consequently made it difficult for him to record the people in their “normal” state; furthermore, as a captain, he tended to interact with the higher chiefs of the society, rather than the manahune, or commoners. [10]

Admiral William Waldegrave, captain of HMS Seringapatam, visited Moorea in 1830. Waldegrave arrived with preconvceived notions of Moorean “savages," and adjusted his experiences to his previous perceptions of islanders rather than the other way around. He described Moorean resources and workers in terms of an already developing global economy. “These islands could produce anything that will grow within the tropics, but until a change takes place in the habits and dispositions of the people, no trade can thrive,” he observed, further noting that earlier missionaries, who had attempted to set up a cotton farm could not coerce the natives to work on it.[11]  Waldegrave also commented on the morals and sexual habits of the natives, whose “lasciviousness” he found “disgusting.”  Observing a decline in population compared to the estimate of Cook in the late-eighteenth century, Waldgrave placed the blame not on introduced European diseases but on non-European practices. “The vices of the people were such that nothing but the abandonment of Paganism, and the conversion to Christianity, could have saved” the remaining population, he lamented, later specifically referencing apparently widely practiced infanticide as the apparent cause of the losses.[12]  Waldegrave applied his European moral and social system to a distant people who developed in a different time and place from his own, and was unsuccesful at assimilating the disparate culture into his worldview.

In 1890, the artist John LaFarge and his good friend Henry Adams traveled to the Moorea, enticed by the pervading image of Polynesia as a tropical paradise. Adams wrote, “in thus imitating Robert Louis Stephenson[sic] I am inspired by no wish for fame or future literary or political notoriety, or even by motives of health, but merely by a longing to try something new and different.”[13] Likewise, LaFarge felt the influence of the past Europeans when visiting the island. On Moorea he wrote: “My impressions of to-day become confused and connected with these old printed records of the last century, until I seem to be treading the very turf that the first discoverers walked on, and to be shaded by the trees.”[14] The legacy of the people that came before him, such as Cook, Herman Melville, and Stevenson, drew these men to the South Seas, and their presence was felt by both of them throughout their journey.  The South Seas held a special allure to artists and writers.  A few years after LaFarge and Adams visited, Paul Gauguin traveled to Polynesia.  Gauguin was drawn by the same idea of an untouched land and culture whose inhabitants lived as “noble savages.” For LaFarge, the innate natural beauty of the island, free from the corrupting influence of people and the West, was captivating.  

LaFarge’s first sight of Moorea was from Tahiti.  He describes the view, saying “It made an enchanted vision of peaks and high mountains, as strange as any which you may have seen in the backgrounds of old Italian paintings, far enough to be vague in the twilight haze and yet distinct in places high up, where the singular shapes were modeled in pink and yellow-green.”[15]  La Farge was primarily a landscape painter, and it was the landscape of Moorea that captured his imagination.  Adams, though not a painter, was also captivated by Moorea’s physical beauty, describing his arrival at an island, where “the mountains, in peaks and with outlines as unreasonable as a theatre drop-scene, rose around us, more like the Lake of Como than like a respectable Polynesian island. The scene was impressive: the finest we have yet struck.”[16]  

Several of his LaFarge's paintings of Moorea are as viewed from Tahiti.  Its untouched nature and physical beauty, in contrast to the hustle and bustle of Papeete, is a powerful image.  When he actually arrived on the island, LaFarge continued to paint landscapes, but in a different fashion.  He usually did studies of particular views, painting the same image or place in different times of day to see how it changed, and he did this on Moorea with the peak of Maua Roa.[17]  The changes in weather, perspective and time of day all interested LaFarge, and the peak of this mountain anchored his studies of the island. 

Many of his other paintings from this trip depict the people of the islands dancing, or going about their lives, but there are no paintings of the people of Moorea.  The physical beauty of the island, not its culture or people, was the primary attraction for LaFarge.  His primary medium is watercolors, which gives images of the island a dreamlike, unreal quality. 

LaFarge and Adams, artist and writer, provide a European view of the island of Moorea, typical of  their time.  Moorea was (and is) a physically beautiful place, its disengagement from the busy island of Tahiti holding, then as now, the most allure.  Whether by taking a scientific study of the structures and ruins there, or by putting the beauty of the island down in paintings, there have been many attempts to understand the island and its landscape. 

Much of the modern documentation available on Moorea focuses on tourism, particularly in popular media such as newspapers and websites. 46 of the first 50 websites one finds on a Google search of Moorea are advertisements for hotel rooms or other tourist packages, or blog entries describing one’s tourist experience. Additionally, coverage of Moorea in major newspapers in the US such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times is limited to the travel section – the former's “Moorea’s Sumptuous Sands” is one of the only feature articles on record of the island, while the latter's coverage of Moorea is limited to “World’s Most Romantic Places to Propose.”[18]  Because there is such a dearth of information on Moorea outside of these few portrayals, one gets the idea that Moorea is something of a tourist hotspot. However in reality, tourism is a much less significant part of the island’s life than one would gather. Moorea has no obvious urban center, or even a true central village; it has no gift shops or markets and few restaurants or even stores, and the tourist that leaves the hotel finds little that caters to his interests. Upon arriving on Moorea one finds beautiful but rubbly coral beaches, small-scale agriculture producing mainly tropical fruits such as pineapple, scattered horse ranches and a good deal of jungle. While tourism is a feature of the landscape as well – there is at least one five-star hotel, a Sheraton, and the few shops and restaurants that exist are happy to serve visitors – it is clear that this is not an economy or society dominated by tourism the way many tourist spots are.

Another prominent feature of the island community is marine research, as two major research stations, the University of California at Berkeley’s Gump Station and the French national laboratory, are located on island. Moorea is a valuable island for researchers, as geologically it is in the process of transitioning from a high island to a coral atoll, meaning that the island itself is eroding while the surrounding reefs develop. The publications of these centers provide another significant source of documentation, and are invaluable for those studying coral reef ecology. However, this also creates an overly large perception of the importance of marine research for the islanders themselves. The Gump Station contributes a good deal of funding to community projects, including co-sponsoring the building of a Polynesian cultural center known as the Atitia Center on its property on island.[19] UCB students and faculty have also presented their work to students at the Oponohu High School, a local agricultural trade school attracting students from across French Polynesia. The Gump Station and its students and faculty are an important part of the island community; however, it should be noted that the research itself is conducted by non-native, often temporary residents, and that academic research is not a common occupation for Moorean islanders themselves.

In endeavoring to capture Moorea, many authors have been colored by their individual biases and have ultimately failed to paint a complete picture of the island. While tourism and marine research are important to the island’s economy, focusing exclusively on these overshadows the daily lives of islanders, many of whom work in subsistence agriculture or commute to Tahiti. Similarly, to read historical accounts is often to read of colonization attempts or missionary work, which tends not to capture the islanders’ perspective. The end result for the reader is often an outsider’s portrait of the island, a collection of foreign opinions about an island that has a culture of its own.

Allison Gramolini, Colgate University
Kate Kelly, Colgate University

1.  Atitia Cultural Center interpreter, Moana, gives SPICE students a presentation on Moorea. Photo by Jenny Arndt.
2.  A small pineapple farm on Moorea. Photo by Owen Daniels.


[1] Roger C. Green. “Moorean Archaeology: A Preliminary Report.” Man, (Oct 1961) 61, 170.

[2] Green, 171.

[3] Green 171

[4] Jennifer G. Kahn. “A spatio-temporal analysis of ‘“Oro cult marae in the ‘Opunohu Valleyr, Mo’orea, Society Islands,” Archeology of Oceania, 45 (2010): 103.

[5] Kahn 103

[6] Kahn 104

[7] Kahn 104

[8] Kahn 109

[9] Kahn 105

[10]  The Journals of Captain Cook [Penguin Classic Edition, 200].

[11]   Waldegrave, William. "Extract from a Private Journal Kept on the HMS Seringapatam in the Pacific, 1830," Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 3, (1833), pp. 168-196. (172).

[12]  Waldgrave, 174.

[13] Henry Adams as cited in John Yarnell. “John La Farge and Henry Adams in the South Seas.” The American Art Journal. 20.1 (1988), 51-109.

[14] John LaFarge. Reminiscences of the South Seas. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, and Company, 1912, 348.  To see images of LaFarge's work, see: John LaFarge South Seas Sketchbooks at

[15] LaFarge, 299.

[16] Henry Adams in Yarnall, “La Farge and Adams,” 81.

[17] Yarnall, 81-82.

[18]   Bryan Miller, ”Moorea’s Sumptuous Sands” in The New York Times, 24 March 1996; and Hugo Martin,"World's Most Romantic Places to Propose," Los Angeles Times, 4 Feb. 2009. 

[19]   "Atitia Center/Gump Station, 2008."  Web. 25 Mar. 2011 <>.