Nuku Hiva: The Human Environment and Sustainability

The Marquesas Archipelago is a group of twelve volcanic islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about 800 miles northeast of Tahiti and 3000 miles southwest of Mexico, the closest continental landmass.  Steep volcanic mountains plunge straight to a rough ocean, and jagged ridges separate the deep valleys. There are no reefs or lagoons surrounding the islands, so the Pacific Ocean pounds on their windward coasts. Nuku Hiva, located on the northwestern edge of the central group, is the largest island of the Marquesas. The lifestyles and livelihood of the people of Nuku Hiva are greatly influenced by the island’s remote location and rugged environment.

Starting from Asia, Polynesian people migrated slowly through the islands of the southwest Pacific Ocean in forty-to-sixty foot ocean-going canoes until they eventually arrived in the Marquesas sometime between 2000 and 1000 years ago. They called the islands “Henua Enana” meaning land of men. Throughout the island there are many archaeological sites, including houses, shrines, ceremonial sites, agricultural terraces and burial grounds that testify to the existence of an old civilization (Sumner-Fromeyer). The settlers brought with them many useful plants and animals, such as breadfruit, taro, pandanus and yams (Suggs). Even with these introduced crops to help them, life for the Marquesans was tough. Initially, they settled near the coast and depended heavily on the ocean for resources. Bones and fishhooks found at the oldest coastal sites suggest that their main sources of protein were fish, turtles and seabirds (Sumner-Fromeyer). As the population increased, the settlers began to move inland. Artifacts found from this period, such as peelers and pounders, suggest that agriculture was developing into an important resource (Sumner-Fromeyer).

The rugged landscape and undependable climate made sustaining a human population sometimes difficult. Breadfruit was an important staple in the Marquesan diet, as it grew well and could be preserved for time of need. Herman Melville describes the preparation of breadfruit dishes in much detail in his book Typee, as breadfruit was prominent in the island diet he experienced. According to Melville, the breadfruit “is never used, and is indeed altogether unfit to be eaten, until submitted in one form or other to the action of the fire” (Melville, 145). There were various methods of roasting the breadfruit in the fire, but the most important dish made from breadfruit was Poi-Poi, and its preparation was a big event. When the majority of the breadfruits were ripe, all the islanders assembled to harvest the fruit. The preparation of Poi-Poi was complicated. The breadfruit would be worked with a stone pestle until it reached a doughy consistency. Then, wrapped in leaves, it would be buried and allowed to ferment. It could remain in this state until it was needed, sometimes for years, and in this way the islanders were able to stock up for frequent times of drought and shortages. Once removed from the ground, the fermented breadfruit is heated on embers then mixed with water until it gains the stretchy pudding-like consistency for which it is famous.

An island ecosystem is finite. It can only sustain a large population for a limited amount of time before its resources can no longer support them. The population of the Marquesas continued growing and by 1400 AD all habitable land was populated and people were even living on the eastern coast, which has little precipitation and rocky soils (Suggs). The growing population led to resource competition between the valleys. Hostilities and fighting developed, adding to the aggressive warrior aspect of their culture. Fortified sites were built to protect the valleys. Captain David Porter, who visited the islands in 1813, described these forts in his Journal of a Cruise:

The manner of fortifying those places, is to plant closely on end, the bodies of large trees, of forty feet in length, and securing them together by pieces of timber strongly lashed across, presenting on the brow of a hill, difficult to access, a breast-work of considerable extent which would require European artillery to destroy. At the back of this a scaffolding is raised, on which is placed a platform for the warriors, who ascend by ladders, and thence shower down on their assailants spears and stones. (307).

The conflicts between the isolated valleys of the island contributed to the development of cannibalism. Many human bones have been found amongst animal bones indicating that cannibalism has long been part of Marquesan culture (Somner-Fromeyer). It probably started during this period as a result of the pervasive violence. Warriors killed in battle were eaten by the victors as a way to absorb their strength. The victors kept the skulls as they were thought to be the center of a person’s spiritual power, or mana (D’Alleva). In Melville’s account, cannibalism is alluded to, but the islanders are aware of the foreigner’s horror towards it, and keep the evidence from Melville.

The first European to visit the Marquesas was the Spanish Explorer Alvaro de Mandana in 1595. He described a group of wild islands that was home to “intimidating savages.” By the time the Spaniards left they had killed more than 200 Marquesans (Somner-Fromeyer). Melville does an excellent job of explaining the initial European/Islander interaction, and the reasons behind the “savage” reputation of the islanders. He explains that:

When the inhabitants of some sequestered island first descry the big canoe of the European rolling through the blue waters towards their shores, they rush down to the beach in crowds, and with open arms stand ready to embrace the strangers. Fatal embrace! They fold into their bosom the vipers whose sting is destined to poison all their joys; and the instinctive feeling of love with their breast is soon converted onto the bitterest hate. (33)

Contact with the outside world was not beneficial for the Marquesan population. Dr. Janet Sumner-Fromeyer goes as far as to say that it “marked the beginning of the end for the Marquesan people,” and the archaeologist and leading authority on the Marquesas, Robert Suggs, states that as a result of European contact “the two thousand year old culture disintegrated” (Suggs). A number of factors contributed to this decline in the population and culture of the Marquesas. They had no resistance to the diseases brought by the Europeans and could not cope with the effects of alcohol and guns. This, combined with continued inter-tribal warfare, brought the population from a pre-contact estimate of about 90,000 to 5,246 at the first census in 1887 (Sumner-Fromeyer).

In May 1842, the Marquesas became part of the French Colonial Empire. The French viewed the Marquesan culture as “something to be exterminated” (Sumner-Fromeyer). French military personnel, civilians and missionaries worked together to discourage anything relating to traditional culture. Tattooing, chanting, carving, dancing and beating drums were all outlawed, and much knowledge was lost. Much of what is now part of the local Marquesan tradition and culture has been relearned from European accounts or artifacts that the early visitors took from the islands.

Europeans, especially missionaries, were shocked by the Marquesan “disfigurement” in the form of tattoos. Tattoos in the Marquesan society defined status and wealth to the point that tattooed and untattooed people would not associate with one another. Individuals used tattoos to mark important life events such as puberty, marriage, childbirth, and victories in battle (Baker). As result of the ban on tattoos put in place by the missionaries, the art of tattooing had been lost in the Marquesas by the mid-nineteenth century (Baker).

The modern Marquesas Islands are considered an administrative subdivision of French Polynesia, an overseas territory of France. With this designation comes some autonomy. French Polynesia has its own president, Oscar Temaru, and legislature, all of which is in Tahiti (World Fact Book). However, France still controls areas relating to police and justice, monetary policy, tertiary education, immigration, defense and foreign affairs (Suggs). On a local level a state administrator governs the Marquesas from Taiohae, on Nuku Hiva. The rest of the islands are broken up into six municipalities, each of which has an elected mayor and council (Suggs).

This system of government has not been beneficial for the Marquesas. The French appear disinterested in the Marquesas, and Tahitian politics have had a fairly pro-Tahitian orientation for the past twenty-five years. Robert Suggs noticed this, saying that the Marquesas “have been quite neglected in comparison to the economic development which has taken place in other areas of French Polynesia.” The Marquesas do not have an international airport and everything going to the Marquesas must first go to Tahiti, were heavy taxes are imposed on already expensive merchandise (Suggs). Despite this, the Marquesan government in Taiohae is very aware of their reliance on the French; a representative from the mayor’s office in Taiohae expressed no desire for independence when she visited with SPICE students aboard the Robert C. Seamans. Without the money and support they receive from France, the Marquesas would have an even more limited economy, and with an uncertain flow of funds, access to many of the modern necessities upon which people have come to depend would be compromised. These imports, items such as cars, fuel, food, medicine and really anything that cannot be made on the island, comes on a cargo ship every two to three weeks.

Figure 1. A supply ship docked in Nuku Hiva. David Siu, 2011.

The main population center is located in Taiohae Bay. The government offices, a post office and the bank are to be found here. There are also several small convenience stores, which supply the basic modern goods which the islanders do not produce for themselves.  The selection, especially of food supplies, is limited to processed and frozen goods; most of the locals have other access to produce and meat.  There is a Catholic church, and both public and private schools in town.  The last notable feature of the capital of the Marquesas is the island’s one luxury hotel, the Keikahanui Nuku Hiva Pearl Lodge. Taiohae is connected to the other valleys of the island by steep, winding roads. Small towns are located in the other valleys of the island, which consist of a group of houses along the road and maybe a general store.

Figure 2. A view of Taiohae Bay. David Siu, 2011.

The infrastructure on Nuku Hiva is fairly simple. Water is potable everywhere on Nuku Hiva except in Taiohae. The local government tried to remedy this problem by installing water filters, but they unfortunately malfunctioned within forty-eight hours of their inauguration and were too expensive to replace. Garbage is dumped in a landfill on the hillside outside of Taiohae. Sewage is collected in community septic tanks. 

Access to education beyond middle school in the Marquesas is limited. Public schools in the islands only go through middle school, so students who wish to continue their education travel to high school in Tahiti. The one option for a high school level education in the Marquesas is a private Catholic school in the bay of Taiohae which provides vocational training at the high school level in agriculture and other trades. Students at this school are also able to take more academic classes and earn a high school diploma. Marquesan students who leave the islands to be educated elsewhere frequently return home without graduating. Those who succeed in academics rarely return to their island home. University-bound students usually end up in school either at the University of French Polynesia in Tahiti or at universities in France or Australia. As a result, the population of the Marquesas is generally not educated beyond a middle school level.

Tourists have been in Tahiti in for a long time, but they have been slow to get to the Marquesas in numbers that would make a difference to the economy. Since the late 1800s, many of the tourists found in the Marquesas sailed there on private yachts (Ivory, 322). They did not bring in much money, as their only business was to purchase provisions and maybe buy a few trinkets with which to remember the Marquesas. In 1961, the airport was built in Tahiti, and many Marquesans moved there to take advantage of the jobs created by the construction, nuclear testing, and tourism in the area. Presently, about 10,000 people of Marquesan descent live in Tahiti (Ivory, 323). Tourists eventually started arriving in the Marquesas via a supply ship called the Aranui, which was the only reliable and comfortable way for tourists to travel to the Marquesas.  Today, approximately one half of the tourists that go to Nuku Hiva arrive on the Aranui II (Tahiti Guide).

In the 1970s, a domestic airport was opened on Nuku Hiva. It is served exclusively by Air Tahiti. Since this airport is only domestic, foreign tourists must still pass through Tahiti to travel by air to Nuku Hiva. Though tourism to Nuku Hiva is somewhat limited, it is still one of the main industries simply because other industries are even more limited. Tourists who come to Nuku Hiva are of a different type than those who vacation on Tahiti. Nuku Hiva does not have a large city or widely developed infrastructure. There is no fringing reef for those interested in scuba diving or snorkeling to see coral reef environments. However, there is one dive company on the island, which advertises the opportunity to dive with larger sea creatures, such as hammerhead sharks, dolphins, rays and moray eels (Tahiti Guide). The main attractions include hiking, visiting archaeological sites and horseback riding. Many of the accommodation options on Nuku Hiva are family-owned guesthouses that are not listed in major guidebooks. There is only one big hotel, located in Taiohae.

Farming is another component of the Marquesan economy. Copra, noni, fruits and vegetables are the main agricultural products of the Marquesas. In 2009, copra had the largest yield, producing 1,365 tons, then noni at 986 tons, with fruits and vegetables coming in at a combined 706 tons (ISPF). Not all the farming on Nuku Hiva is commercial. Most households, especially in more rural areas, have their own fruit trees which produce more fruit than the family could possibly eat. Private vegetable gardens are also common and a weekly market is set up for buying and selling produce. According to Tahiti Guide, Nuku Hiva is home to thirty percent of French Polynesia’s cattle population and more than ninety percent of the goat population, many of which are feral and roam the islands freely.

Unemployment is high throughout the islands and some young men have taken up hunting feral goats and boars as a way to provide for their families (Witting). These young men often ride horses into the more rural parts of the island to hunt and can often be seen riding through on the beach or down the street when they return to town. Only 696 of the 8,658 people in the Marquesas receive a consistent salary. Most of the non-salaried population of the Marquesas are involved in either farming or tourism. There are many people on the islands who do not have official jobs but still work and are able to provide for their families. Though the people of the Marquesas Islands suffered due to European contact, the population has been slowly increasing since the 1950s. Currently, there are 8,658 people living in the Marquesas islands, with 2,664 living on Nuku Hiva alone. Most of this population is centered in Taiohae, with smaller groups at Hatiheu and Taipivai (ISPF).

French missionaries were fairly successful in converting Marquesan people to Catholicism. In the modern Marquesas, religion is a big part of people’s daily lives. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there are currently 3,300 Catholics, 150 Protestants, and 300 pagans living in the Marquesas (Grey). Catholicism has changed the Marquesans, but the Marquesan culture has also changed the local practice of Catholicism to better fit their way of life. Their religious music is a beautiful blend of Catholic hymns and traditional singing and drumming. Marquesan people have also used the structure given to their community by the church as a foundation for the revival of their traditional arts (Ivory).  The church building in Nuku Hiva combines many of the familiar features of Catholic iconography, but with a Marquesan twist. 

Figure 3. The Catholic Church in the village of Taiohae. David Siu, 2011.

Recently, Marquesans have begun to rediscover tattooing and it is again common for both men and women to have numerous tattoos in the traditional Marquesan style. Tattoo designs are commonly used in woodcarving and to decorate tapa cloth. Tapa cloth is traditionally used “as garments, for ritual and ceremonial occasions, in gift exchange and displays of social status, and in homes, as floor coverings, room dividers, and sleeping covers” (Baker). Today, tapa cloth is sold as a souvenir to tourists. Woodcarvings are another favorite keepsake and the demand from tourists has created jobs for carvers. Marquesan designs are so popular that they can be found for sale in Tahiti as well (Ivory). Through the revival of their arts, the Marquesan people are linked to their past, and able to make some money from the connection.

Figure 4. A modern sculpture with traditional designs on the shore in Taiohae. David Siu, 2011.

Nuku Hiva’s isolated location and rugged environment have slowed development of the island. As a result, there are limited visitors and the economy has been very difficult to develop. Limited resources make the island inhabitants reliant on imports and make a sustainable modern economy difficult. Unemployment among the native population is an increasingly serious issue. However, with more contact with foreigners, Marquesans have been able to maintain their culture and even use it to attract visitors. 

Alyce Flanagan, University of Washington
Ariane LeClerq, Carleton College



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