Easter Island – Rapa Nui by its Polynesian name – is famous for its thousand giant statues. The history of the people shows how they overcame brutal trials, including the disappearance of the forest. Yet did this occur due to human negligence or a harsh climate? Michel Orliac, one of the world’s leading experts over Easter Island, is conducting a scientific investigation into what remains one of the greatest mysteries in Polynesian history.
We are enchanted by Polynesia’s mild climate and stunning landscapes; however, we must not forget that it was also home to those who crossed the Pacific in one of human history’s most immense voyages. The discovery of these islands spread across this great ocean by a people who did not have metal tools seems almost as improbable as walking on the moon. Indeed, prehistoric humans ventured very late onto the dreaded waves: it wasn’t until fifty thousand years ago after millions of years of our evolution that this adventure was a success, thanks to Homo sapiens Australia’s Aborigines and Papuans from New Guinea. However, it was only three thousand years ago that the islands of the western Pacific (New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga …) welcomed the ancestors of Melanesians and Polynesians who arrived from Southeast Asia. A slow maturation of knowledge and techniques made it possible for them to cross thousands of kilometers by sea. This exploit was the result of a combination of talents, such as building large vessels and knowing the winds, currents and stars.
The successful settlement of these lands devoid of resources was mainly due to the transport and acclimatization of the food plants from Southeast Asia then South America (breadfruit, bananas, taro, yams, sugarcane … and sweet potatoes). Over a span of two or three centuries about a thousand years ago, Polynesians visited or populated thousands of tiny islands within the 4300 mile/7000km triangle formed by Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island. They even went as far as South America and brought sweet potatoes back to their islands.
This disaster occurred between the second half of the seventeenth century and the passage of Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 who described the island as completely devoid of trees. Archeology shows that during this short period, Easter Islanders used grasses instead of wood to cook their food. To explain this disappearance, some believed that the islanders roamed the country to destroy the landscape with axes in hand. It is not known why not only all the trees disappeared, but also the smallest shrubs. However, this notion is highly questionable, especially for a seafaring people who depended on the abundance of wood to build boats. It is a decidedly unbelievable theory for people who are builders working with boulders weighing several tons and for a population of sculptors who moved colossal statues over tens of kilometers. The reason for this brutal and massive plant extinction is more likely due to a climate crisis characterized by an intense drought that lasted one or more decades.
An impact from the Little Ice Age?
Indeed, the seventeenth century is characterized by a period of global climate change called the “Little Ice Age.” In Europe, these climatic disturbances resulted in a significant drop in temperatures (legend says that King Louis XIV observed wine freezing in his glass at Versailles). However, in the Pacific, the effects are lesser known. On Easter Island, the effects could have caused a substantial drop in rainfall, similar to what was reported for the same period in the Galapagos Islands and New Zealand. Severe droughts have occurred everywhere in Polynesia and stories from oral traditions show they were dreaded more than cyclones.
Estimating the amount of rainfall in the past is not easy. It is necessary to find evidence that can reconstruct the history of episodes of drought and heavy precipitation. If these changes leave traces in the landscape (such as cracks from dried soil or gully runoffs), they are quickly erased through erosion. The clues we are looking for are microscopic. Quickly buried in geological layers, they escape any deterioration. Thus, the leaf surface of some plants retains a thin white film of epicuticular wax. This permanent wax persists in the sediment while other parts of the plants undergo significant degradation. The molecular character of this wax (a proportion of its various isotopes) makes it possible to evaluate the quantity of water necessary for the plants to grow.
Easter Island: extremely remote
Around this time, a small group of Polynesians settled on remote Easter Island, thousands of kilometers from Tahiti, the Marquesas and Hawaii. On this 14 mile-long island (24 km), they found dense vegetation over 35,000 years old that has been identified through pollen (male reproductive cells of plants) and traces of palm tree trunks and their roots. Pollen reveals the presence of totora reeds and at least six types of trees, including the Sophora toromiro, which grows only on Easter Island.
Unlike microscopic pollen carried by the wind, more reliable evidence provides information about the composition of the twigs from trees and shrubs that Easter Islanders burned to prepare food. The botanical identification of several tens of thousands of charred plant fragments has allowed thirteen trees and shrubs to be added to the list of those already identified through their pollen. Extracted from an area comprised of just a few square meters, these pieces of coal offer a minimal idea of Easter Island’s plant diversity, which possibly included at least several dozen trees and shrubs.
With the exception of the palm tree, which is native to Chile, the forest that was revealed came from the Society Islands where the climate is much warmer and wetter than on Easter Island, so transplants struggled to adapt. On the other hand, Easter Islanders increased their gardens according to their population growth and therefore reduced primitive vegetation. Of course, like everywhere else in Polynesia, strict taboos protected the resources, especially wood needed for boat building and transporting giant statues. Be as it may, neither prohibitions nor prayers prevented the disappearance of the forest.
Therefore, a good way to estimate the evolution of rainfall abundance in the past — on Easter Island as elsewhere — is to collect soil samples deposited in conditions favorable to the conservation of environmental variation markers (such as pollen and leaf wax), analyze them layer by layer and date them using the carbon-14 method.
On a Quest for Climate Markers
Thus, the mission that took place during April and May 2017 on Easter Island was aimed at collecting sediment samples to ensure the presence and preservation of these climate markers. One of the research sites was Lake Rano Aroi near the summit of Terevaka, the largest volcano on the island. Sediments were collected from a column about 1.5 m high (5 ft.). Preliminary studies show that this thickness covers the last five centuries, which includes most of the Little Ice Age.
In addition, other samples have been collected at the bottom of large natural depressions where water tends to stagnate. The walls of random samples in these basins present a succession of horizontal layers which proves they were formed in water by sedimentation. These sites enable the conservation of climate markers.
The results of this mission will help explain why the trees on Easter Island disappeared between the 17th and 18th centuries. For the first time, these analyses will provide tangible information about possible episodes of drought or heavy rainfall. If our results confirm a significant reduction in the amount of rainfall during the Little Ice Age, then finally the scenario that holds the islanders responsible for the destruction of the forest—a real “ecocide” according to some environmentalists— will be once and for all refuted. It will once again confirm the ingenuity of the Easter Islanders who survived, and adapted to, the most dramatic changes in their environment.
Bruno Malaizé, Assistant Professor, l’Université de Bordeaux 1 and Michel Orliac, Research Fellow for CNRS (Centre National de Recherche Scientifique)
Édouard Deluc, fascinated by the beauty of images and sensitive to music, became a director due to his passion for great stories. When he comes across subjects that carry him away and that help him make sense of his role in the world as a man and as an artist, he makes films about them. This is one of the motives behind Gauguin: Voyage de Tahiti, a feature film that brings this wretched painter to life during his first visit to Tahiti from June 9, 1891 to June 4, 1892.
Where did you get the idea to make this film and how is Gauguin a film character for you?
Édouard Deluc: As a matter of fact, these two questions are entirely connected. The first inspiration came from Gauguin’s travel journal, Noa Noa. This personal diary is also a fantastic adventure story coming from a man on a quest to paint, to find himself and who is certain that he has things to say but that they couldn’t be said within the constraints of society. From outside the margins of the clichés that are associated with Paul Gauguin, we find the embodiment of this character. He is neither a genius nor a monster, perhaps both, surely both, but also so much more interesting and complex once you start digging. Gauguin had an extremely refined mind that grasped raw feelings and returned to simplicity. Civilization created confusion, so he tried to find a thread to go back to where we come from. Noa Noa is a crazy adventure story, a quest that is both tragic and noble, and through this, it speaks to all of us.
What justified the choice to specifically highlight the painter’s first trip to Tahiti?
This trip galvanized a very powerful moment in his life. He had reached a point of rupture with civilization and knew it was now or never. Polynesia had been under the French flag for ten years and Loti’s book had been published ten years earlier in 1880* … Gauguin was searching for truth and believed he would find it in Tahiti. He had the fantasy that he would find humanity in its infancy. Inevitably, he was disappointed when he arrived because Papeete had already metamorphosed into a French sub-prefecture, which pushed him to go even farther. But this period had the greatness of a first movement with strong personal stakes which were very intense for him. This period was also an obvious gateway due to its importance in French Polynesian history.
Was coming to Tahiti a bonus or a necessity?
Economically it was a concern, because it is very expensive. But the truth is, it never occurred to us to not come here. The only alternative was to not do the film…we stuck it out together and found ways to make it cheaper. For the people as well as the setting, it had to be shot here. The other possibilities made no sense. Gauguin had come here to meet Tahitians and untamed nature … It was an absolute necessity. It was not possible to do this anywhere else.
Between Tahiti of the late nineteenth century and today, have you found analogies and established any kind of continuity?
If anything is permanent, it is people. This is obvious if you take the time to look at them. You can have nothing to talk about yet share everything anyway. You don’t have to tell yourself gibberish or try to sell yourself anything. There is a relationship to time that has not shifted. You find this on Gauguin’s canvases. There is an infinite wisdom, an infinite serenity, an immutability, a continuity. Tahitians know how to be present without expecting anything more than being where they are and being present. They offer an abundance of plenitude and peace, something that does not happen with anyone else. It blew me away.
What do you think is the attraction and notoriety that Tahiti has enjoyed in the West since its discovery?
When you see the nobility of the people, the way of life and the incredible landscapes, you can easily imagine why the first sailors thought they had discovered paradise, especially since everything here mirrors the “civilized” world. After all this, I doubt it will be possible to capture all of its depth and richness after spending ten days by the lagoon in Bora Bora with idealized images that are certainly magnificent but a lot less intense.
Today, it seems that although Gauguin may have been a loser in his time, but that he eventually became a good ambassador for Tahiti, but which type of ambassador?
First, he had a very strong and noble aspiration to encounter another culture. Noa Noa is the most beautiful tourist brochure ever written about Tahiti. Gauguin created beautiful and just images that traveled around the world, but his writings are lesser known and are gorgeous in their simplicity and clarity. He really knows how to write about Tahitians, light, landscapes. He brings out the beauty, but he is also a realist with documentary vision, He knew this was a world that was disappearing at the same time he was writing and painting it. Yet at the same time, he held fast to his fantasy. This is so powerful. Despite his faults, his repatriation as an artist in distress to close this period is a crazy declaration of love for Tahiti with the feeling of having found his path. This is the reason he will come back. He obviously remains an ideal ambassador for Tahiti.
Gauguin is still a polemic figure here because of certain aspects of his life, including his lifestyle … Which part of this dimension of his character inspires you?
These are questions that still make sense and should be asked. I studied the character closely and can actually create an in-depth portrait. But above all, we can decide to draw the portrait of a free man in search of his truth. I find it to be a virtue, that there is nobility and dignity in all of this. The end of his life, when he was alone, poor and bitter, is clearly less noble. Things were not as pretty, this is for sure. Nevertheless, it seems very difficult for us to impose our 21st century morals onto reading another era, with other manners, other values. And then it does not excuse anything, of course, but Tehura made her choices … We understand in his writings. There was such depth that he could not just be a monster. He was just a complex man who knew he had a message to give and who sacrificed everything for it.
The myth of Tahiti was built around many clichés, starting with long white sandy beaches crowned with coconut trees and bathed in turquoise waters. How did you approach these imposed images?
We needed several sets within the same perimeters. Considering this constraint, I looked for places where nature was the strongest, most powerful, far from the clichés of the lagoon, turquoise water and coconut palms. A black sand beach is stunning … In reality, I did not try to go against the tourist clichés but rather to go towards the truths of the world, the ones charged with stories and ghosts. I consulted many archival images and old photographs to restore this power of the environment and the way it plays on humans. We found this at Tautira, Mataiea and on the Peninsula. In fact, it was a journey across troubled waters rather than transparent ones….
What feelings remain from this shoot? And from the reception of the people?
I was mesmerized. It is an encounter that I will never come across again in any other experiences. I was fortunate to be able to spend three and a half months in French Polynesia during three successive voyages. I feel marked for life with the impression of having touched the depths of the Polynesian soul. It changed me. And Vincent. The encounter with Tahitians has transformed him. In particular, I will remember the welcome of the choir of Tautira for the rest of my life. It was indescribable.
Why did you choose Vincent Cassel to play Gauguin?
Vincent’s face quickly came to me. Apart from the physical aspect, there are also many connections between Vincent and Gauguin: they are both free spirits with animality, power and refinement, yet at the same time they have very raw feelings. As soon as I finished reading Noa Noa, there was no question. And for him, too, it was obvious.
On a riskier note, why did you choose to entrust the role of Tehura, the painter’s muse and lover, to Tuhei Adams, a young woman totally inexperienced with filmmaking?
The producer had planned to launch a US casting call if necessary to reduce the risk, but we were determined to go meet what Gauguin had met himself. I was looking for a painting … It must be said that Gauguin describes what emanated from Tehura so well. This melancholy, this peace. Once again, we were guided by his writings. On the second day of auditions when Tuhei showed up, we discovered her density, what she has that is deep, tragic and luminous. We knew she was the one. Not all actors are actors; something truer is drawn out. The ability to act is important, but it is the nature of the person that transcends everything.
Polynesia has recently enjoyed extraordinary visibility thanks to the latest great Disney film, Moana. This interest is found in your film and other recent productions. Why do you think this is?
There is undoubtedly a global movement towards more simplicity and a call to nature at a time when our cultures are more and more sophisticated and our nature has become urbanized. It is important to ask ourselves questions about our civilization choices. And, as such, we have many things to learn about how to be in the world of Polynesians in particular. If my film could modestly contribute to that, this would be a wonderful thing.
*Le Mariage de Loti (Rarahu)
Interview compiled by Virginie Gillet
Her fragile appearance is immediately diminished by her extremely determined gaze. Alexandra Caldas, who was born with cystic fibrosis, did not want her life to be reduced to a pathology. In order to prove it to herself indefinitely and to give hope to other patients, she accomplished an extraordinary feat—she crossed the sea between Tahiti and Moorea in a double scull to promote organ donation. In 2012, she received a lung transplant and she affirms in a loud clear voice: “I am life!”
Born in 1995, Alexandra’s illness left her with a small stature that does not appear to predispose her to impressive physical feats. It also gave her a different childhood experience marked by pain, perpetual restraints and extensive medical treatments. However, this young woman also owes her extraordinary strength of character to this serious genetic disorder, which she calls her “best enemy.” She explains, “When you are afflicted with such a disease, you become independent very early on, since at a young age you have to learn how to administer your treatments. I also wanted to turn this illness into a strength, and thanks to this disease, I have had many experiences that without it, I would never have had.”
Cystic fibrosis is caused by a defective gene that causes, in particular, extremely severe lung and digestive disorders. In Alexandra’s case, it drastically limited her respiratory capacity to 20% when she turned 17 years old. There was only one solution for her survival—even if there was no cure for cystic fibrosis—a transplant of both lungs, which she underwent in Paris on November 20, 2012. She considers this date her second birthday despite many post-operative complications during the years that followed.
To overcome such challenges, one needs a tremendous amount of energy and joy of life as well as dreams that can give long term goals. Despite “only” two “lost” years, Alexandra is brilliantly pursuing her studies. She has a Bachelor’s in Geography and Territorial Development and plans to continue with a Master’s to work to “build cities that are more respectful of the environment and coastlines.”
She is also on a quest for more challenges. One determining factor was meeting Matthieu Forge, a physiotherapist with whom she developed an inspiring relationship. Because she complained all the time, yet still did things during a particularly painful period of her life, the young practitioner forged a very strong friendship with this young woman. From that moment, this duo will now face equal parts humor and challenges. When Matthieu left France to move to Tahiti, he encouraged Alexandra to play sports and gave her the desire to reach for new horizons. And because her doctor at the time told her that French Polynesia was an “unthinkable” destination, the young woman decided to do everything she could to get there…
Less than a year ago, she joined Mathieu’s former rowing club in France. After a few months, she was the only beginner to be given a boat to row all by herself over short distances, She was finally ready to meet the promise she made to herself the day of her lung transplant—to make her dreams come true to show others that “you must believe in life.”
Even if it meant going to French Polynesia, Mathieu proposed a crazy idea—that they both cross the high seas from Tahiti to Moorea in a double scull while rallying as many rowers as possible to believe in their organ donation cause. The first post of what was to become the “Rowing with Alexandra” challenge was launched eight months earlier on Facebook and soon had 11,000 likes and more than one million views. The project seemed even crazier since it required hauling a custom sea-racing scull made in Grenoble just for this occasion all the way to Tahiti. However, supporters queued up led by Air Tahiti Nui and the Rotary Club who made this dream come true.
On the morning of Saturday August 5, 2017, Matthieu and his “little rowing sister” who had never rowed this far, never mind on sea, completed the 17 km/11 mile crossing, “singing all the songs in their repertoire to keep them going,” accompanied by more than a hundred boats (including a V6 filled with Polynesians who had undergone kidney transplants). The crossing took two hours and thirty minutes. Overwhelmed by the hospitality and support of the locals that was so human, so warm and so welcoming, Alexandra took advantage of her visit to intern at a local environmental research office. She has managed to show everyone that you “can realize your dreams, even if you are ill.” This is a message of hope that she will continue to embody in order to better thank her lung donor and promote organ donations.
To follow Alexandra’s exploits and projects, visit the Facebook page “Rame avec Alexandra.” During her first visit to French Polynesia, Alexandra had many experiences: fire walking, rowing with dolphins, awards night at the Heiva…Enough to fill her with a true love for French Polynesia where she sees a lot to be accomplished in her field in Territorial Development. Perhaps this will be the beginning of new projects. The achievements of August 5 will result in a documentary to be broadcast on channels Polynésie 1ère and France Ô as well as in French hospitals and on Air Tahiti Nui flights. A few days before her return to France, Alexandra met Francis Gazeau, a Polynesian heart transplant who lived like Robinson Crusoe on Tahanea atoll to promote organ donations.
French Polynesia has five archipelagoes. Each one has its own language, topography and particularities as well as its own name. However…when, how and why were these island groups named ? Here is a chance to discover the history while visiting the islands. Our guide is writer Patrick Chastel. He takes us to the Marquesas in this first segment of a three-part series.
On Friday, July 21 1595, the sun had risen over what was still called the South Seas, and for the passengers on the four ships, the horizon appeared just as void of land as in previous weeks.
However, towards the end of the afternoon and much to the surprise of those on board, the watchman atop the huge mast let out a long cry. Adelantado Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira was alerted that there was an island located to the northwest of the ship’s route. On the captain’s orders, San Jeronimo immediately shifted direction, followed by the rest of the fleet composed of Santa Isabel, San Felipe and Santa Catalina.
The 378 people, all of Spanish origin—including 98 women and children—who had embarked on all four ships, rejoiced at the relative speed (of just one month) which allowed them to sail from Callao, a port in Peru, to the Solomon Islands, the goal of this expedition.
Situated near present-day Papua New Guinea about 1,600km/995 miles northeast of Australia, Álvaro de Mendaña came across the Solomon Islands twenty-seven years earlier during his first voyage in 1568. At the time, the twenty-five-year-old captain had no qualms about braving this rarely frequented ocean in order to increase Spanish possessions and save the souls of South Sea “savages” who were still, as was believed at the time, truly in the hands of the devil. This second expedition was to secure the settlement and colonization of the remote Solomon Islands, while Alvaro de Mendaña y Neira would take possession of the islands in the name of the King of Spain.
Ever since, the term “Marquesas Islands” is all that remains. The English language retained the Spanish version and to this day, we refer to the archipelago as the Marquesas Islands. The Land of Humans archipelago, located in the northernmost part of French Polynesia, consists of eleven islands, of which only six are inhabited: Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou and Ua Huka to the north and Hiva Oa, Tahuata and Fatu Hiva to the south.
The visit of these four Spanish ships to the Marquesas lasted only a fortnight. What followed was less fortunate. After a new month at sea, the ships reached the island of Santa Cruz, near the Solomon Islands. But the drama had begun shortly before with the sinking of Santa Isabel, causing the death of its 182 passengers. Once on land, tropical diseases took about fifty men, including Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira. His widow, Doña Isabel, took command of the expedition— which was an exceptional feat for that time—and continued en route to the Philippines. The voyage lasted three months and was marked by the disappearance of the ships San Felipe and Santa Catalina as well as by many deaths due to scurvy.
During a stopover in Manila, Doña Isabel married a nephew of the governor. They left for the coast of Peru on San Jeronimo, the only remaining ship from the expedition. They arrived at their destination at the end of 1596.
Next issue: Tuamotu and Gambier Islands
Unfortunately, bad news circulated quickly early the next morning as they approached the coast. The Adelantado, an honorary title which gave supreme authority over the expedition, found absolutely no resemblance between this land and the Solomon Islands, which he knew well enough to identify. It became obvious that this island was not the one they expected. Indeed, this was a new land. As the boats entered Omoa Bay on Fatu Hiva, the southernmost island of the Marquesas archipelago, they baptized the land Santa Magdalena after the Saint of the Day.
The arrival of these four ships marked the first time since its settlement ten centuries prior that te Fenua ‘Enata, the Land of Humans, came in contact with the existence of an outside world. No one disembarked during this stop; however, outrigger canoes approached San Jeronimo and “savages” climbed on board. Thefts made the crew angry and they used force and weapons to chase away the intruders.
The ships took back to the sea and made their way towards three islands visible to the northwest. Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira named the deserted island Motane San Pedro. Hiva Oa became Dominica and Tahuata, Santa Christina. At Santa Christina, the ships were able to set anchor in Vaitahu bay, which they named Madre de Dios bay (Mother of God).
The next morning, they held a mass on land. At the end of the service, Álvaro de Mendaña took possession of these four islands in the name of His most Catholic Majesty and King of Spain, Philip II. The Adelantado decided to name the islands Las Marquesas de Mendoza in honor of Don Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza, the Marquis of Cañete and Viceroy of Peru, who was greatly in favor of this expedition and who authorized it.
Well-known tattoo artist Manu Farrarons moved to Los Angeles over two years ago to work in one of the most popular tattoo studios in this Californian city. This son of the fenua currently exposes and highlights all the beauty of Polynesian tattooing. Here is an introduction.
“There, you have your grandmothers. Here, you have dance and travel. Is this what you were envisioning?” Sitting on a leather chair across from his client, Manu Farrarons, now over 40, places his color marker on his work table. In fluent English touched with a slight accent, this Polynesian tattoo artist takes the time to have a conversation before injecting the ink into Jessica’s ankle. She is an American ’Ori Tahiti dancer (’Ori Tahiti is traditional Tahitian dance).
This attractive 27 year-old didn’t hesitate to drive many miles to meet the person who would permanently ink her skin. She came all the way to Los Angeles from Anaheim where her dance group is based in order to receive a tattoo from this Polynesian artist whose unique style merges skill, grace and femininity. “I love his work. All that he does is unique and makes sense. He is a true artist,” she says while reclining on one of the chairs at the Royal Heritage Tattoo Shop. Like many others, she had to book almost five months beforehand in order to get her appointment.
Since his arrival in Los Angeles in 2015, Manu Farrarons’ schedule has not ever cleared up. This tattoo artist is booked several months in advance, so it is impossible to just get a walk-in tattoo. This is also the case with other artists in the shop, which is a true nest of American talent.
Talent for sale
Located at the corner of S. Crescent Heights Boulevard and W. 3rd Street in one of the hippest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Royal Heritage Tattoo is notorious in the U.S. for its renowned artists. Here, no one copies any work. Each tattoo is unique, each design is a work of art and each artist has a particular specialty. Manu Farrarons works with three other artists, most of whom are women. But not much impresses this Polynesian who stands out as the only one who tattoos free hand.
He does not use stencils and he draws directly onto the skin before tattooing. This expertise elicits the admiration of his colleagues, who despite their skills, do not create free hand tattoos. This capability is just one of the many qualities for which Manu was brought from Tahiti to work in this shop. Although Samoan tattoos have gained much popularity in California over the past few years as well as throughout the rest of the USA and the world due to certain celebrities sporting them, Polynesian tattooing is right on the heels of its Samoan cousin. “There was not yet a specialist in Tahitian or Marquesan tattoos although there was a demand. Ever since I moved here, it has been extremely successful. I try to bring a fresh twist with my personal touch.” From Europe, Africa and even French Polynesia…clients don’t hesitate to travel many miles and even cross oceans to receive a tattoo from Manu Farrarons, who learned from the Polynesian school of tattooing.
In front of an audience of students and professors, he spoke of the history of the practice of tattooing: missionary prohibition of tattooing in French Polynesia, tattoo revival during the 1980s and its evolution up until now. His Polynesian wife, bilingual after pursuing her studies in Australia, helped him write his presentation in correct English. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he brought her with him.
Today, the couple rents an apartment in Hollywood Hills, one of the most hip and coolest areas of Los Angeles. However, it is also one of the most artsy. A self-proclaimed art buff, Manu Farrarons loves to cruise around in his new car, a 1974 Malibu Classic, to stop at almost every street corner to contemplate the various sizes of murals that grace the walls of the city. “Art is everywhere here. It is in the streets, but also in the museums and numerous galleries. It inspires me,” the tattooist enthusiastically states, in constant awe at the quality of the art in L.A.
A quest to explore the United States
Passionate and curious, Manu Farrarons has felt like a fish in water in this city that is somewhat difficult to master due to its sheer immensity. Since Los Angeles is the second largest city after New York, it could very quickly bring on feelings of isolation. However, this tattooist has many resources. An artist at heart, he is also a seasoned musician. He is a bass player who particularly appreciates the music scene of this city that has seen the birth of stars and is still home to artists of international fame.
He loves to be carried away by the funk scene every Friday night at Rosalind’s Ethiopian Restaurant or to be taken away by the rock music held in the old Fonda Theater founded in 1920. So that he never misses any of the artistic events around town, Manu scours the LA Weekly, a free magazine over L.A. arts and culture. Even though he leads a rich and deep artistic life since his arrival in California, he has never lost his need for nature. “Here, there is so much space. You can drive anywhere. Last December, we left with other tattooist friends for the snow. It was amazing!” Southern and Northern California, Florida, Nevada…Manu regularly takes off with his wife on a quest to explore this enormous territory of the United States, always in his old Malibu.
The Polynesian school
After a career as a school teacher on the fenua (Tahitian word for the homeland—French Polynesia) where he lived for over 36 years, Manu Farrarons quickly swapped his pencil for a needle. Following a “pilgrimage” to the Bishop Museum in Hawaii in the 1990s to do research over Polynesian tattooing, this budding artist went back to Tahiti with articles translated from the famous 19th century German anthropologist Karl Von Den Steinen and Hardy and Hardy, an explorer couple. Their works over Polynesian tattooing, of which the most known is still the Marquesan tattoo, allowed him to revive it from the ashes.
Through discovering the richness of this type of tattooing, its symbols and their significance, Manu Farrarons developed a passion that is constantly expanding—to the point that he integrated Marquesan designs into the curriculum for his young students.
In 2003, he finally resigned his position as a school teacher in order to dedicate himself fulltime to tattooing. He took over his father Jordy’s tattoo shop, which was one of the first ones to open in Tahiti. Very quickly, he became successful. “I threw all my father’s designs in the trash, as he copied and pasted. I didn’t like this way of doing things. For me, tattooing must be unique to each individual because each tattoo tells that person’s story.” Manu found his own style and developed it. Once a client arrives, he/she tells Manu about an idea for the tattoo. They discuss it together since it is up to him, the artist, to design the tattoo. His way of doing things has inspired a good number of young Polynesian tattooists to come into Manu’s shop to learn from him before opening their own. With the arrival of social networks and his participation in several tattoo festivals, this artist gained an international reputation that led to the day he was offered a position in California.
Representative of Polynesian culture
Although he has been far away from his fenua, Manu Farrarons still remains a representative of Polynesian culture. First through tattooing, followed by his conversations with clients which arouse a sudden curiosity for the beauty of our islands, then through the transmittal of his knowledge. His in-depth expertise about Polynesian tattooing attracts university departments. Last April, the artist was invited to participate in a seminar over this type of tattooing held at California State University, Channel Islands in Camarillo, Ventura County.
Within a global context , mankind has irrevocably destroyed 20% the coral reefs over the past fifty years and 50% of the reefs are at risk within the next 20 years. French Polynesia is distinguished by its particularly resistant healthy reefs. Here, the effects of climate change are minimal and local pollution is under control.
With the exception of the Marquesas Islands, all of the islands in French Polynesia have coastal marine ecosystems that are almost exclusively comprised of coral. For biogeographical reasons, the abundance of reef species is certainly lower than in tropical regions situated more to the west of the Pacific. However, with close to 200 species of coral, 1200 species of fish, 1000 species of crustaceans and 2500 species of mollusks – to name the most common known groups – these ecosystems remain extremely rich compared to temperate zones. One square kilometer of coral reef contains a number of animal and plant species comparable to the entire coastal marine area of France or the state of California.
The most obvious role of a coral reef is to create a protective barrier around coastlines, allowing the development of human activities along the protected coastal plain. On a larger scale, the land mass of an atoll is entirely constructed of reef organisms. Without coral reefs, the atolls and their villages would simply not exist (there are 83 atolls in French Polynesia, of which 76 are located in the Tuamotu Islands). Besides, reefs create resources useful to mankind, like traditional fishing, aquaculture (i.e. pearl shells that produce Tahiti’s famous black pearl) and collecting ornamental fish popular among aquarists. Then of course, coastal landscapes and underwater reef paradises with warm clear water are ideal for visitors, which makes tourism the number one industry in the country. We now know how to evaluate the benefits of a natural system and call it “ecosystem services”. For instance, the total value of reef-generated products on the island of Moorea is estimated at $85 million per year (9 billion French Pacific Francs/74 million Euros). Beyond the financially quantifiable aspects, the reefs provide other valuable features deemed as non-use, such as the cultural, social, traditional and spiritual aspects practiced by the people who live there and who have depended upon the reef for many generations.
Cyclones, as well as coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci or taramea in Tahitian) are the two main factors that naturally control the state of coral reefs in our islands. Cyclones, which occur most frequently on the western edges of French Polynesia, randomly affect anything in their path, including reef coastlines exposed to the swells of the storm. The coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish (taramea) can proliferate at quite an impressive rate (with two major phenomena observed since the late 1970s). They cause extensive damage that can attain the scale of an entire archipelago. The 76 atolls of the Tuamotu islands have somehow been spared from this type of invasion for reasons that are still unknown.
The last episode of a taramea attack observed between 2004-2010 killed off the majority of the outer coral slopes within the Society Islands. However, the reefs in French Polynesia are resilient to natural stressors and display a quick recovery. About a decade is necessary for the coral to make a full recovery from these types of disturbances.
Endangered and threatened
For several decades, this natural dynamic has been threatened due to consequences of human activities. Climate change is to blame for part of it. Coral is very sensitive to elevations in sea water temperature and often lives in an environment that is very close to its maximum tolerance levels. This maximum, which for the moment is set at 29.2 C/84.56 °F, has been more frequently exceeded during austral summers throughout the periods of El Niño. The coral then takes on florescent colors for a few weeks before bleaching. Depending on the intensity and duration of the phenomenon, some of the colonies end up dying.
Another endangering effect is linked to climate change; i.e. the acidification provoked by an increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and in sea water since this gas is constantly absorbed by the ocean. When the CO2 content rises, there is a change in chemical balance which increases the acidity of the water. The synthesis of the limestone by calcifying marine organisms (including coral) becomes disrupted.
Human-induced distress at the local level is not as subtle but more concrete. Today, human activities are the main reason for any observed damage to the reef in the past 50 years. The over-exploitation of resources, waste water discharge, hyper-sedimentation caused by the careless destruction of terrestrial plant cover and the physical modification of the coastline (rock retaining walls, embankments for a specific purpose, etc.) are the main stressors that coral reefs face.
French Polynesia has been spared
Due to its remote location in the Pacific Ocean that offers somewhat of an immunity to physical and chemical changes, due to the very widespread distribution of islands over a surface area of more than 5 million km2/2 million sq. mi. and because of relatively varied climates, French Polynesia’s coral reefs appear to be somewhat protected from threats linked to climate change. Even though temperature limits have been exceeded several times in the past 25 years, the occurrence of coral bleaching has been much less intense compared to other regions in the world where mortality rates for coral have sometimes reached 100% of a reef’s colony.
The effects of acidification of sea water in the natural environment are not very noticeable at the moment. Local disruptions are limited to some of the most populated zones and haven’t reached the natural environments located in most of the islands. This isn’t due to a rigid and methodical regulation of the ecosystems, but rather because of limited or nonexistent human populations (more than a quarter of the islands are uninhabited). Lastly, barrier reefs located near the majority of the islands isolate and preserve the outer reef of the islands. For all of these reasons, out of all of the 15000 km2 /6000 sq. mi of coral reefs and lagoons belonging to the 118 islands in French Polynesia, 90% are still considered to be in good ecological health.
Some of the most studied and monitored reefs in the world
With several research centers (Criobe: Insular Research Center and Environmental Observatory, Ifremer, IRD formerly Orstom, Malardé Institute, University of California, Berkeley, University of French Polynesia), French Polynesia benefits from a powerful research facility that over the natural environment of the islands.
Within this framework, scientists from four archipelagoes have been closely monitoring the state of health of reefs in French Polynesia for more than 40 years. The island of Moorea is the most studied tropical island system in the world based on the number of scientific publications over this subject. With two research stations Gump/UC Berkeley (USA) and Criobe (France), it is also the island whose reefs are the most closely monitored with its network of studied reefs that started in 1983 and that are still active today.
On a larger scale, Criobe’s Polynesia Mana monitoring program has been evaluating strategically selected reefs for the condition of their health since 1991. Every two years and on almost 15 islands spread over the entire geographical area of French Polynesia, bio-indicator parameters are collected over coral and fish colonies for each targeted reef area.
This monitoring, along with scientific reef research, makes it possible to understand how ecosystems function and evolve over time. In time, and in this era of sustainable development and integrated management of ecosystems, this knowledge should be increasingly used as a means for policy makers and administrators to make the right decisions concerning these precious and fragile coastal marine ecosystems.
Criobe – Centre de Recherches Insulaires et Observatoire de l’Environnement (Insular Research Center and Environmental Observatory) – Moorea
Moana has allowed the world to meet a brave Polynesian seafarer. A fictional character of course, but not far from reality. In the past, Polynesian women played an important part during the great voyages and today they’re still very active on board the double-hulled canoes sailing in the Pacific.
The lights go out… rustles rustle… first lights on the screen… the necks are stretched forward and the eyes of the children sparkle… here it is, the film starts ! Moana appears on the screen and the dream begins ! Since it was released in November 2016, Moana –Vaiana in France, Moana in Tahitian- has broken records, overtaking her elders Anna – Frozen– and Raiponce – Tangled– during the very first day on screens. A month later, the film had already been viewed by more than 600 million spectators, arriving 4th at Disney’s box office behind The King Lion, Frozen and Zootopia.
This is nothing surprising as the film ticks all the boxes required to make a blockbuster : paradisiacal settings, high-technology at the service of the plot, the story of a charming heroine who embarks us on hectic adventures full of pitfalls in a country located in the popular imagination, that is, in Polynesia…But in Moana, no love story whatsoever, and neither Prince Charming, but an initiatory journey in the wake of the ancient Polynesians. This is precisely what makes this animated film a modern and original cartoon that makes little Polynesian girls dream and sing.
How many girls dreamt when they saw Moana steering her va’a –canoe- with her hoe –paddle- like the ancients, or when they discovered the adventures of the independent heroine, this playful little girl who becomes a young rebel determined to save her people even by breaking the tapu –taboo- forbidding them to venture past the local reef ?
The popularity of this heroine and her story is undisputable and even in the most remote islands of French Polynesia people are still humming over and over the tunes that accompany her adventures, and since the release of the songs in the Tahitian language the craze has been even more intense. This is an unprecedented success thanks to an efficient marketing plan –the film has been dubbed in 45 languages among which the Tahitian language- but also because Moana appeals to the most sensitive part of the spectators, the link to their past, to their origins.
1976, the revival of traditional wayfinding
On May 1st 1976, in Honolua Bay on the island of Māui, Hōkūle’a the Hawaiian double-hulled canoe is about to sail to Tahiti. Her goal is to get to Tahiti using only traditional navigational methods in order to demonstrate that New Zealander Andrew Sharp’s accidental settlement hypothesis is wrong, and to restore the Polynesians’ pride after proving their ancestors were great seafarers.
On board, 13 men guided by Mau Pialug the navigator from Satawal, in the Caroline islands, and captain « Kawika » Kapahulehua. They carried out their mission on June 4th 1976 when Hokule’a arrived in the harbour of Papeete amid the warm cheers of some 17 000 people celebrating their new ’aito –heroes-… There was no woman on the first leg from Hawai’i to Tahiti that took 34 days, but for the return to Hawai’i, two pioneer women were on board : Keani Reiner from Kāua’i and Penny Rawlins Martin from Moloka’i. They showed the way, and prepared the place for more women on board the traditional canoes of modern times.
Since this navigational feat, several double-hulled sailing canoes have been built to promote traditional voyaging ; among them Makali’i, and Hawai’i Loa (from Hawai’i), Gaualofa (from Samoa), Haunui and te Matau a Māui (from New Zealand), Marumaruatua (from Cook Islands), Uto Ni Yalo (from Fiji), Hinemoana, and of course Fa’afaite i te ao mā’ohi (from Tahiti). More and more women sail on board those traditional canoes for various reasons. We’ve met those ’ihitai – crewmembers – who sail across the Pacific aboard those « sister canoes ».
Women and traditional voyaging
While the legends of great mythical navigators like Māui, Hiro or Ta’ihia can be found in reference books, there is nothing of the kind about female navigators. Of course this doesn’t mean that women were absent from the great navigations that resulted in the settling of the Polynesian islands, nor that their part was secondary.
Indeed in the seafaring world, and undoubtedly even more during the great migrations, women were important, not only because whole clans departed to settle new territories, but also because they had their own essential parts to play on board, otherwise, how could we account for the fact that Hina-ke-ka –ke ka, tatā in Tahitian, is a bailer-, was the Hawaiian goddess of canoe bailers ? She is also known under the names Lea or Hina-ku-wa’a – wa’a is va’a in Tahitian-.
Besides there are many legends that mention women standing at the prows of the canoes ; for instance, in the legend of Rata –Laka- one of the most famous Polynesian seafarers. When his people fought against a giant clam, his mother lead the fleet to bring the remains of the victims of the sea monster back to their island.
Tradition also has it that Rū and his sister Hina-fa’auru-va’a discovered the islands. An old chant narrates that Rū was at the rear while Hina was at the front ; she first saw the islands, now known as the Leeward islands, that her brother then named Maurua –now Maupiti-, Porapora –Bora Bora-, Taha’a and Havai’i –Ra’iātea. Similarly, in the legend of Kupe the navigator who discovered Aotearoa –New Zealand- his wife Hine-i-te-aparangi, is said to be standing at the rear ; she was the one who first sighted the island.
In Tahitian, the name Hina-fa’auru-va’a means that Hina steered the va’a ; this is further proof that for the ancient Polynesians, there was no absurdity in having a woman assuming a key role on board, and also that their role was significant.
In Ra’iātea, a pass bears the name of Hina who started beating tree bark into tapa on this island. According to the legend, even if Hina liked this island she still loved sailing and one night when the moon was particularly beautiful, she decided to visit it. She settled up there, on the moon, abandoned her canoe and never came back on the earth. From then on, Hina-i-fa’auru-va’a became Hina-i-a’a-i-te marama meaning Hina who settled upon the moon…
Encounter women ’ihitai
Hau’oli Smith-Gurtler is one of them ; as a true woman of the sea, Hau’oli is an experienced rower who first boarded Hōkūle’a in 1992 for the « No Na Mamo Voyage ». Says Hau’oli « trying to get on a voyage was tough », and before Hōkūle’a got through modifications, « you had to have strength and muscle… Steering with the hoe in rough weather was difficult, and hoisting and lowering mast, spars and sails was physically demanding ; you had to have stamina to keep up with the Uncles ! »
Like Teiratohu from Aotearoa, some got involved in the canoe world inspired by their elders or because they were curious ; others came to traditional sailing by accident like Georgia or 68-year-old Elizabeth who still sails and has no intention to stop soon ! As for others like Māori Rereahuhete, traditional sailing is a way « to be part of the large Polynesian family, reconnect with our ancestors, and with the spiritual side of waka ».
One common point to those women ’ihitai is they are all aware that their mission goes beyond the va’a itself, and this is even more true since Te mana o te moana fleet was set up. Those women are engaged in their own communities where they transmit traditional skills like wayfinding but also promote the preservation of their culture, their environment and the values that are central to social well-being. For Samoan Ivanancy Vunikura, Māori Gina Mohi, Fijian Agnès Sosoko, or their seasters, their approach would be meaningless if not in close connection with their island communities.
In Tahiti too there tend to be more and more women on Fa’afaite, the only « traditional » double-hulled canoe of French Polynesia. As an example, from March 15th to April 5th Fa’afaite toured the Austral islands in order to promote the protection of the ocean and the sustainability of resources. Six ’ihitai did the whole voyage that lasted 3 weeks ; half of them were women, and for the return leg, 8 out of the 15 crew were women. In fact, three women -–Moeata Galenon, Fatiarau Salmon and India Tabellini- have started training to qualify as maritime captains and hope to motivate new recruits. Undoubtedly, more and more Tahitian women get interested in sailing canoes, train as best they can and inspire others ; so, join in !
As this article gets to its end, Hōkūle’a is about to close her 3 year-long journey around the world. When she returns to Hawai’i, two sister canoes will accompany her : Hikianalia, her Hawaiian sister and Fa’afaite. Hikianalia arrived from the Marquesas to Papeete on April 12th ; her captain was Kala, daughter of navigator Kālepa Baybayan. She’ll probably be captain again for the return to Hawai’i. As for Hōkūle’a, no doubt, two women will hold the most important posts : Pomaikalani Bertelmann will be her captain and the navigator will be Ka’iulani Murphy.
Keani, Penny, Pomaikalani, Hau’oli, Ka’iulani, Kala, and the others, thank you for what you did and what you’re still doing in order for women to have their place on board, side by side with men, like the outriggers of traditional canoes !
Teuira Henry, Ancient Tahiti
Edward Tregear, The Maori-Polynesian comparative dictionary
Colin Richards, The Substance of Polynesian Voyaging
Ben Finney, Richard Rhodes, Paul Frost and Nainoa Thompson, Wait for the west wind
Imagine a small cruise ship, the front loaded with containers. This is Aranui 5, which services the northern archipelago of French Polynesia once or twice a month. Watching the very animated unloading of supplies that Marquesans have been impatiently anticipating before they accompany you to discover archeological sites and other wonders of their islands certainly does not lack charm or intrigue.
A visitor on a quest to discover the Marquesas on board the passenger freighter that services the most northern archipelago of French Polynesia may feel like somewhat of a dock worker. The small Aranui sea vessel served the Marquesas for the first time in 1960 (see box), and the current version now enjoys the features of a true small cruise liner, yet every stopover yields the exciting ambience of a merchant ship.
Rest assured, Aranui passenger! You will not be asked to unload goods, but it will be hard for you to resist giving a helping hand to the friendly sailors. The Aranui’s tradition of transporting cargo brings additional ambience to being on board this comfortable ship that offers many other amenities, much to the delight of the passengers. On the largest of the three aft decks, a hostess and master Tahitian dance teacher hold workshops over Marquesan dance, weaving, and necklace-making around the pool during each crossing. Meanwhile, in the largest of four lounges, a variety of presenters, journalists, researchers, professors and navigators share their passion for the richness of Polynesian culture.
Entertainment and comfort
On top of these new discoveries is the actual comfort of the cruise ship. The vast dining room can hold 250 guests who are served quality meals worthy of a starred restaurant. Local fare is prepared by a team of professionals under a top level chef. Young people who embody Polynesian kindness provide service while assuring joyous entertainment during gala dinners. With all of this, one can never get bored during the journey.
It is important to mention that the crossing is long: 1600 kilometers/995 miles between the home port of Tahiti and the Fenua Enata (“The Land of Humans” in Marquesan). This is why the first stopover for Aranui 5 is at the halfway point to the Marquesas in the Tuamotu Islands, the largest archipelago of French Polynesia. You’ll get lots of sun on a white sand beach and bathe in the turquoise waters of Fakarava atoll, whose lagoon abounds with fish … which will be on the menu of the first meal ashore prepared under the watchful eyes of the Aranui passengers. This is an opportunity for them to learn how the famous Tahitian Poisson Cru (raw fish) is prepared, especially with its essential ingredient, coconut milk.
We go from amateur archeologists to quickly dreaming of becoming cooks so that we could taste the delicious pig taken out of the Marquesan underground oven…before we turn back into archeologists in Taipivai. Through its multiple platforms, formations, petroglyphs of birds, turtles and other mysterious symbols and of course, stone tikis, this other famous site on Nuku Hiva reveals an ancient civilization that was obviously complex.
To help us understand what we are exploring, several guides, researchers, teachers, journalists and lecturers accompany us throughout the expedition with explanations that will be complemented by conferences onboard the Aranui 5, which give this beautiful cruise the essence of an initiatory journey.
Equally fascinating is the discovery of the island of Ua Pou, where the arrival will be enhanced by the unloading of the freight-filled barges and passenger rowboats onto a small quay sheltered by a large rock. The swells render the sailors’ work even more physically demanding since these experienced guys also jump onto the quay firmly holding or carrying passengers. The landlubbers, warned that the manoeuver would be a delicate one, are torn between fear and confidence. However, everything turns out well.
Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel: an exciting segment
A more recent phase in the history of the Marquesas is found on the island of Hiva Oa, characterized by the stays of two great artists, Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel. In the village of Atuona, there is a museum with excellent reproductions of the Breton artist’s most stunning paintings that neighbor the space devoted to the Belgian singer, Jacques Brel. His famous twin-engine Jojo dominates the center of a vast hangar surrounded by an exhibition of photos, drawings and press clippings that evoke his life and work. This is an emotional visit that continues on to the cemetery located higher up, where Gauguin and Brel are neighbors for eternity.
It is also on Hiva Oa that we will discover the most important archaeological site due to the number of carefully restored tikis in various postures: me’ae Ipona. Not even archaeologists can explain all the meanings, just as we do not yet know everything about the mysterious ruins of Puamau.
Visiting Fatu Hiva will be more current with the discovery of contemporary local art such as seed jewelry, tapa, (a vegetal fabric made from breadfruit tree bark often decorated with famous Marquesan tattoo motifs), elaborately sculpted stone tikis and an array of monoï (beauty oil derived from coconut pulp and perfumed with tiare flowers). Islanders offer demonstrations over the fabrication of these local products as well as Marquesan dance performances, including the famous pig chant executed by men and the gracious bird dance performed by young women.
The island with four museums
In Hua Huka, we have a rendezvous with ancient culture and current agriculture. To answer the numerous questions raised by ancient objects, Léon Litchtlé, the mayor of the island, had the idea to open several small museums at the end of the last century. One of them brings together ancient archaeological and artisanal objects. Another features castings of rock carvings, the third displays sections of wood to reflect the richness of Marquesan forests and the fourth is dedicated to shells. Although now retired but still passionate, Litchtlé guides us through the arboretum that he also created where many species of tropical fruit trees are cultivated. He takes great pleasure in having us taste the fruit while making us guess their names. This is such a delicious moment, as much through the flavors as by the liveliness of the anecdotes served by this exciting guide who is the former Minister of Agriculture of French Polynesia.
For our return to Nuku Hiva on the tenth day of navigating between this archipelago’s six islands—which are definitely full of surprises—we go back to being dock workers, at least visually, as we admire the dexterity of crane operators loading products destined for Tahiti.
But before returning to Tahiti on the fourteenth day, we again play tourist for two new sunny stops: one in Rangiroa—the largest atoll in the Tuamotu Islands and second largest in the world—to discover from close up the production of the famous Tahitian black pearls. The other stop is on Bora Bora, the “Pearl of the Pacific,” for an afternoon of diving and a picnic in paradise on a motu with white sand. It is enough to make you want to jump back onto the first plane to Bora Bora once you get back to Tahiti, but this is another story that you will have to write.