We're anchored in the tiny main harbor on the island of Ua Pou in French Polynesia, waiting for steady winds for the next leg.
Below is a mountain view of Taiohae Bay on Nuku Hiva, where this story begins.
There have been enough calms over the past week to make the 600-mile leg to the Tuamotus much longer than necessary (a weather router had said we'd have two days of motoring.) But steady winds will be here by the weekend, and we plan to leave the Marquesas on Saturday (tomorrow.) This rather long, words-only post is being sent via Ham radio, so there are no photos.
UPDATE JUNE 11: Photos have been added.
Warning: Graphic descriptions are contained in this post.
It began innocently enough—a few cruising boat crews going on a tour of the island of Nuku Hiva, with a guide and his assistant to interpret the island's history, flora and fauna. We eight sailors crammed ourselves into two SUVs.
It's hard to know where to start on this subject, a paradox of gentleness and violence, because I didn't grow up thinking about such things. Cannibals in stories were usually caricatures (remember those tasteless cartoons of dogbone-nosed natives with their cooking pots?) I had previously dismissed the topic as a historical curiosity about a distant place where no one alive knows anything firsthand. That assumption was wrong. Now we are in the southern hemisphere, in an island group with not just a known history of human sacrifice and consumption, but also the rap of being the last holdout of cannibalism until the 1950s, possibly later.
We are meeting people whose grandparents, and possibly parents, knew (or know) the taste of human flesh, and the stories and cultural significances of eating "long pig." These elders obviously described it in detail to their offspring, a few of whom seem happy in turn to describe it to us. When you ask questions, answers come at you pretty directly, sort of sinking into your bones with a shudder before you realize it.
As if to emphasize that fact and the old "You're not in Kansas anymore" feeling, a longtime cruising sailor we met reported being out hiking near Anaho Bay two weeks ago and coming across human hand and foot bones. They could be very old bones, but the find implied that if a casual hike turns up that kind of thing, maybe the island's chock full of human bones. He didn't touch them. I asked, "Did you report them to anyone?" He answered, "Nobody'd do anything if I did." Curious.
Here's the deal: Marquesans once numbered around a hundred thousand people splintered into warring tribes and scattered across a handful of small South Pacific islands, in a hundred-mile radius of one another. They've lived here for several thousand years, somewhat isolated in an "end-of-the-line" part of the trade wind world, where from Tahiti and places west it's a long hard upwind paddle in an outrigger canoe to get there. Most visitors came by sail from the Americas (and many still do.) The date of first contact with whites was in the last few hundred years. White men's diseases took their usual toll. Most of the Marquesan culture was wiped out along with all but a couple thousand of their people, so when you look at petroglyphs in a sacred site less than a mile from a currently occupied village, you'll learn that no one knows what they mean. Marquesans have been rebuilding their culture over the past few decades and are fiercely proud of their canoes and the men who race them, their dances, their songs, their historic stone sites, their art, food, language ("We don't speak French, we speak MARQUESAN!") and especially their tattoos. Below are patterns for tattoos, from a museum.
Tattooing here is high art and heavily symbolic. This is an historic sketch of a partially tattooed Marquesan warrior. It took many years to achieve a full-body tattoo.
In spite of the tribal resurgence, Marquesans are mostly Christian, the majority being devout Catholic after heavy missionary influence. The juxtaposition of white Christian crosses on hillsides overlooking harbors with stone structures in jungled valleys where human sacrifices were made is part of the paradox. What shines through the competing historical contexts are the Marquesans themselves, a warm and friendly people who beam back at you, especially when greeted in their own language: Ka-OH-Ha! Here's a canoe race photo-finish going right past us in Taiohae Bay.
It's good to see people reclaiming their customs and culture, but the truths about the more grisly side are there, too. The paradox comes when a Marquesan tells you hair-raising stories about their history of human sacrifice and you see the expression with which he tells it—a puzzling mix of nonchalance and cultural pride. I wondered how someone born here might feel about cannibalism being practiced by their recent ancestors; I found that no shame or embarrassment was evident anywhere; in fact, there is pride that hints of a reclaimed heritage and a ragged fierceness just beneath the surface. The missionaries must have found the "body and blood" sacrament to be the only easy sell in an otherwise culturally repressive imposition of western values that all but eliminated dancing, singing, tattooing, and other things held dear by Marquesans.
We're standing in the middle of a grassy playing field halfway up a mountain, surrounded by dense wet rainforest. Bordered by black basalt boulders, it's a bright green swale about a hundred feet wide by about four hundred feet long. Carved stone tikis, huge stone phalluses (the Marquesan name for their islands is Fenua Enata, or "Land of Men") and other stone forms dot the perimeter, perched on the low wall of basalt blocks. A low wall of red rock is at the far end, and a pa'e pa'e, or 30 by 30 foot square platform about 8 feet high, made of fitted stones, towers over what would be the fifty yard line.
On the far side of the large pa'e pa'e (pronounced "pie-pie") are two red stone statues, both recent re-creations. One statue, the guide told us, is of a priest sacrificing an infant, whose head is pulled back and throat cut. It's a shocking thing to look at. Although infanticide was practiced in some areas for population control, this statue implies ritualized sacrifice, and it stunned me into silence.
The other statue is of a priest marrying a couple who are sitting on skulls. Its meaning is unclear to me. The significance of red stones, all of which were carried up the mountain from a distant sea-level site, is tabu: only priests and high-status people can touch or even walk across a row of red stone. Below is the Catholic church in Taipi Vai, with a row of the same kind of red stone at the altar, but of course everyone crosses it now.
Stones around the tall front edge of the big pa'e pa'e overlooking the arena have a series of small, drinking glass-sized holes in them, obviously for containing liquid. We were told that many were used for tattoo ink, which was made of the burnt ashes of the candle-nut mixed with water and applied to skin with hammer and bone needles. Tattooing is still a painful process, even with modern sterile tools; with the old implements it was excruciating, especially on the face. Even eyelids were tattooed, giving the eyes a huge, popping aspect in the dark background. Old people's skin eventually turned green as a result of the tattoo ink aging. Perhaps the holes in these stones were used for tattoo ink, but there are so many of them at the high altar in this place of human sacrifice that I suspect ink wasn't all they contained. Here are pa'e pa'es midway between the playing field and the top of the site.
The preparation of a human sacrifice involved some degree of torture, to find out the amount of bravery the person being sacrificed possessed. The braver they were, the more honor they were given after they were killed. I don't know what the old ways of torture might have been because our guide, a strapping twenty-something Marquesan who is married and has two small children, did not know. But he told us how the rivalry in his grade school between the white students (who always got the best grades) and the native students often spilled over into ritualized chronic violence.
"We were very violent when we were young boys," said our guide. "For example, my friends and I would wait for one of the kids we didn't like, who'd been nasty to us, and ambush him. We'd throw a sack over his head, carry him off, and tie him still inside the sack to a post that we had stuck into a fire ant hill. Then we'd put a circle of kapok (a cottony substance that grows naturally) around him, and while the fire ants crawled over him and he cried like a baby, we'd set fire to the kapok ring and dance around the fire. Usually the next morning the teacher would say So-and-So will not be in school today." He smiled, admitting, "We were very cruel, but it happens, growing up here."
We're wandering across the playing field, where sports events that involved mostly fighting, including on stilts, were held. He walks over to a small, low pa'e p'ae directly across from the tall pa'e pa'e. It's about 3 feet high, with a 4 foot deep, coffin-sized hole in the middle. "Human bones were thrown in that hole after people finished with them," he said. Eventually the bones were used for fish hooks, carvings and other things. Not long ago when this site was restored, the archaeologists found a French soldier in there from the 1700s, complete with a musket and a tricorn hat. Evidently the French had used this site as a burial ground.
On this low pa'e pa'e's front wall sits a 3-foot wide stone with a curved, sharp, half-rounded inside edge. "This is the stone where the heads were cut off," said the guide. In use, it rested with the curve side up.
You could see where the victim's neck went. He continued, "If the person being sacrificed still wasn't dead by the time he was to have his head cut off, meaning he was very brave and strong, there was a tool used to break the neck." He demonstrated by pretending to hold a lever. Later I saw one of these tools, in Rose Corser's museum in Taiohae. It looks like a wooden war club, elaborately carved, with a thick, Y-shaped wedge at the end sporting a neck-sized, curved inside surface. It was chillingly easy to see how quickly such a tool could do its work.
"Once the head was cut off," said our guide, "It was carried over to the chief up on the platform. He would eat the eyes for good vision and the brain for intelligence." Raw or cooked, it didn't matter (I asked.) He then made a joke about other rival tribes such as Tahitians, eating the genitalia for good sex. I had heard this joke once before. Evidently this is a huge inside put-down.
"In order to keep the spirits of the people who were sacrificed, and who were probably very angry about it, from coming back to harm the tribe, they cut off the person's hands and feet," said our guide.
"So these people were afraid of the angry spirits from the people they sacrificed and ate?" I asked.
"Oh yes," he said.
We're standing in a jungle of trees above the playing field. Large black stones are laid steplike up the steep slope. The stones have many flat surfaces, but the Marquesans say they were all fitted from natural shapes—even more amazing than if they'd been cut. There are literally miles of fitted stone structures on these islands. The stone is a weathered form of columnar basalt that naturally has edges and flat surfaces. Only the red stones, most of different origin, were cut. Here is a section of this partly-restored slope. That's our guide's assistant.
"So, if they were afraid of the angry spirits coming back," I continued, "is that not some kind of collective admission that they knew eating human flesh was (I didn't want to say the word 'wrong') …um, not going to sit well with the people they ate?" But he changed the subject. On later reflection, I don't think this knowledge that victims' spirits were royally pissed off can be judged as evidence of anything—it's just the way things were, and me questioning it through the lens of my western eyes felt irrelevant in the context of where I was standing at the time.
I began reading Herman Melville's book Typee while anchored in a bay called Hanga Haa in front of the Taipi Vai valley, where he lived for a few months after escaping from a brutal life aboard the whaler Acushnet. He lived among the Typees, a tribe with a fierce reputation, and one of the last to succeed in repulsing the French Navy. The book gave me some historical perspective. Though told from a western viewpoint in novelized form, Typee is an account of a true event. Here are some photos of Taipi Vai, or the Typee Valley. In the first, we're sailing into its spacious bay.
This is Taipi Vai viewed from up on the mountain:
This is the view looking seaward from the mountain:
During the middle part of his captivity, Melville's prose indicates that he might have experienced a mild form of Stockholm Syndrome. While he knew some Typees were cannibals, he hadn't seen any "enormities" or evidence of cannibalism. In fact, there was evidence aplenty, as he was horrified to later find. Three shrunken heads (two Marquesan and one White) concealed in white tapa cloth, had been hanging over his bed the whole time he'd been there. In spite of this and catching sight of a box containing fresh, wet skeletal remains of a human corpse after a battle with the nearby Happar tribe, in which several captives disappeared, his remarks remained sympathetic.
He says: "…it will be urged that these shocking unprincipled wretches are cannibals. Very true; and a rather bad trait in their character it must be allowed. But they are such only when they seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies; and I ask whether the mere eating of human flesh so very far exceeds in barbarity that custom which only a few years since was practiced in enlightened England: a convicted traitor, perhaps a man found guilty of honesty, patriotism and suchlike crimes, had his head lopped off with a huge axe, his bowels dragged out and thrown into a fire; while his body, carved into four quarters, was with his head exposed upon pikes, and permitted to rot and fester among the public haunts of men!"
Human sacrifices were most likely to be members of nearby rival tribes, though this does not fully explain infanticide. There were tribes in every valley, including Taiohae, Taipi Vai, and in the area now called Daniel's Bay. They all made raids upon each other, and guarded their borders along high mountain ridges. The German tourist who disappeared last year and whose charred bones were found in a fire had been on a cruising boat anchored in Daniel's Bay, with his girlfriend. Our guide personally knew the man who is accused of killing him. "I grew up with him, he would never do a thing like that," said our guide, who'd been shocked at the news. "You don't kill a person who's not your enemy."
Did they somehow become enemies? When the girlfriend went in search of her mate, the perp assaulted her, tied her to a tree and left her. She escaped. The incident is widely disavowed and the accused man is publicly regarded as crazy.
Which brings us to the paradox. While violence from ancient enmity from a host of different sources continues into our own time, told as stories in the nightly news interspersed with soap commercials, questions about cannibalism reach to the heart of exactly what is forbidden and what is sacred to a society.
Okay, I thought, as we walked along thousand year-old stone paths; so they only killed and ate their enemies, and the statue over there indicates they practiced infanticide. These impressions combined with Melville's account say there appears to have been some degree of restraint—right?
Our guide's next utterance destroyed that idea. "In fact, though, it was common practice to club someone else's child if nobody was watching," he said.
I could hardly believe my ears.
"A mother might send her kid out to gather taro, and the kid would never be seen again." His expression indicated that he knew this would shock us. I was beginning to wonder if he was pulling our tender legs.
"All you had to do was hit 'em once with a club and bury them in a luau pit," he said. "The body cooks underground and there's no evidence because nobody can find it." Then he added, "Some of the Old Ones say people used to love sucking on those little finger bones!" He smiled.
Now seriously. Is he putting us on? Maybe there were differences from tribe to tribe. With the isolation it's possible—we have towns that are as night and day to each other, even though geographically proximate. Melville's account shows no knowledge of this practice among the Typees. There's no reason to doubt that behavior varied from tribe to tribe, or person to person, just as it does today. But I'm creeped out from head to toe.
We climbed through rock ruins up a hill to where a gigantic banyan tree stood atop the biggest pa'e pa'e of all.
It was planted 500 years ago, and our guide said it had something to do with a big hole on the other side. Curious, I wandered in light rain over to the back side of the tree, away from the small group of cruising sailors. I figured, trees are good, right? There was a curious rock structure behind the tree and under its copious roots, so I called out a question to him. He looked alarmed. Motioning with his arm, he shouted, "Come here!" Whoops, I thought, maybe I wasn't supposed to see whatever it is I've seen; it was just a row of stones. Here's another view of it, right atop the high altar.
I stuck close to the guide as we traipsed up the hill past the banyan, into more sacred ground where only the highest priests could go. There was a small pa'e pa'e up there, where they once lived. Our guide muttered and chanted some phrases in Marquesan, and gestured brusquely with his arms off to his sides, as if brushing things away. His assistant, who brought up the rear of our small group, answered in a call-and-response way as we passed the tree, which I assumed was related to what our guide in the front was doing. We walked up the hill, arriving at a richly petroglyphed set of rocks showing fish, a whale, turtles, humans, and other things, but their meanings have been lost in the mist of time.
Later on I quietly asked him, "Are there still sites here on the island that are tabu?"
"Oh yes," he said. "Many more sites in the forest that haven't been restored are tabu. Many sites are not even known to outsiders, and are still full of spirits. Those sites are tabu."
"Is this site tabu?" I said.
"No, we did an exorcism," he said. So that's what the two Marquesans were doing as we went up the hill past that tree, I thought.
We descended to the back side of the banyan tree. A stone-lined round hole about ten feet wide and at least twenty feet deep was where captives were kept before being killed, and we gazed uncomfortably into it. Tree roots twined into the deep hole, weaving a ropy tangle at the bottom. Our guide is standing at its edge in this photo.
The misery welling out of that hole in black waves of silence felt overpowering, so I walked away from it and the group again. But I heard someone asking how victims were cooked, and thought, good god, a recipe's coming. Our guide cheerfully supplied the answer. He said there were different ways; in one way, the body was hoisted upside down and the skin flayed off the legs, "covering everyone in grease," he added. "Some people developed a real taste for it."
I clearly had the feeling that this guide was giving us more information than he gave most tours; in part because we women had been curious early on, asking lots of questions about plants and animals and general island history in the car, and in part because he became visibly more relaxed with us as the day wore on. I would think if a tour like this was a standard item, we might have heard of it along the cruising boat grapevine.
As we rode in his car on the narrow mountain road, he described the common practice of killing and eating one of the island's many pigs, which is a family event: "First you cut the throat and hang it up quickly so you can catch all the blood." Then he turned to the women in the Toyota's back seat and grinned, showing his big teeth. "We LOVE eating the blood! We put it in the fridge so we can use it later." A couple days later, two of us remarked on this leer seeming a bit gratuitous. The general shock value of the tour's non-botanical components made it hard to distinguish how much enjoyment he was getting from our white-bread reactions, so it's impossible for me to say if any exaggeration was being employed. I have no reason to assume it was.
I tuned out the rest of his talk. Seeing the relish with which he described eating the blood made me think, we're hearing about a pig… right? But it wasn't hard to make the mental leap, because he made it easy to imagine. Perhaps we got the insider's cannibal tour most people don't get, or perhaps not. Maybe some Marquesans would disagree with his statements, and maybe not. He obviously wanted us to know, really know at a gut level, what happened here, and how some descendants of the grandmothers and grandfathers who also happened to be cannibals, feel about it.
On the island of Ua Pou yesterday, Jim and I went for a drive with a friendly local Frenchman who's lived here since 1996. After a jolting ride over unpaved mountain roads, we reached an exceptionally well-restored stone ceremonial center with an L-shaped playing field, similar in dimensions except for the L-shape, to the one at Nuku Hiva.
Each end had a 6 foot wide, table-sized flat rock perched on smaller stones. "This is where they cut off the heads," said Xavier, as casually as someone in a grocery store might say, this aisle is where you can find the vegetables.
These are the living quarters around the playing field. Sleeping mats are in the back.
Here are some thatch details. The sides were steep to shed rain, and doorways were low.
A few miles later, we saw a stone pa'e pa'e that's been converted into a piggery. The inner stones are gone and it's just a square stone enclosure near a beach. Seven large pigs rooted through the coconut husks, trapped in their little enclosure, as the surf pounded on the shore just out of sight.
This is Xavier, our French guide at Ua Pou, with Jim at a cliff on Ua Pou's beautiful east side. He swims out to the anchored boats each day, chatting and getting to know the cruising sailors.
Again, here's Hermann Melville, with the mid-nineteenth century context: "But here, Truth, who loves to be centrally located, is again found between the two extremes; for cannibalism to a certain moderate extent is practiced among several of the primitive tribes in the Pacific, but it is upon the bodies of slain enemies alone, and horrible and fearful as the custom is, immeasurably as it is to be abhorred and condemned, still I assert that those who indulge in it are in other respects humane and virtuous."
Sent via Ham radio