Cold-pressed virgin coconut oil is rich in nutrients and easily digestible. This new star of organic grocery stores, and favorite ingredient of natural cosmetics is becoming wildly popular across the world. An atoll in the Tuamotu Islands, Niau, has made the product its specialty. Here is a portrait of an environmentally friendly Polynesian business.
With their heavenly lagoons, exceptional dive spots and pearl farms, the atolls of the Tuamotu Islands are one of the big attractions of our destination. The coconut palm is a symbol of this group of coral islands. This incredible plant – that is called the tree of a hundred uses – is a useful resource and food source, and also allows this tropical dream to be exported to distant countries with different, colder, less sunny skies. A product, well known across the globe, is extracted from the dried coconut meat, coprah oil, that is used most notably in the production of monoï®. Infused with the tiare flower (Gardenia taitensis), this traditional Polynesian cosmetic product is used as a bronzing oil, for massage, or as a moisturizing after-sun, and has its own “appellation d’origine”.
Self-sufficiency, at the heart of the coconut plantation …
Jean-Marius Raapoto and Ahutiare, his wife, grew up on the family property and today have acquired nearly 40 hectares coconut plantation, which is maintained, respecting the most rigorous specifications of organic agriculture. The raw material that they use, the fresh coconut meat, is in fact certified by an international control agency. But the entire method of producing the virgin coconut oil is also carried out following a rigorous protocol, that guarantees its nutritional and organoleptic (odor, taste, texture) qualities. The production unit, built within the coconut plantation itself, is totally self-sufficient, with solar panels for electricity, an osmosis unit and pump for drinking water, resulting in a top of the range ecological product. The coconuts are first collected from the surrounding coconut plantation, then sent to the factory, where they are sorted. This careful sorting retains only the best coconuts : once selected and weighed – you need around 13 to produce a liter of virgin oil – the shells are split, and the pulp is extracted, grated and pressed. The coconut « milk » that is extracted is not the final product that can be decanted; it requires centrifugation to separate the oil and the water. Several stages of refrigeration and filtering assure that the oil produced by the first cold-pressing is absolutely pure. Exacting standards of cleanliness are required of the employees and the machines are rigorously maintained to ensure the impeccable hygiene of the end product.
However, for several years now a handful of atolls in the Tuamotu have launched themselves in the manufacture of cold-pressed coconut oil, an extraction process that avoids heating the fresh coconut meat. This produces an oil that has certain dietary and cosmetic properties that are recommended by nutritionists and health advisors. Niau is one such atoll, part of the Fakarava UNESCO biosphere reserve, situated 400 km north of the island of Tahiti. For several years, the island has a virgin coconut oil processing plant, which is certified with the organic label. This initiative is also an opportunity to launch into the sustainable development of the island, whilst protecting the biodiversity. The venture, started in 2008, as the idea of Raapotos [and has been developed since in partnership with the association called Ia hotu e ia heeuri to u fenua o Niau (Let my island, Niau, be green and fertile)], was an opportunity to transform the atoll into an entirely « organic island ». If the manufacture of this oil, which is certified to be an « organically farmed product », started initially to be marketed through the grapevine, it is today commercialized by the large supermarkets and specialist food stores in Tahiti, at the Tahiti-Faa’a airport duty free stores, and in a handful of pharmacies. It is also looking to develop its distribution on the international market as well.
The oil has been classified as being « triple A quality » by an agroalimentary analysis, carried out by a laboratory in the Bordeaux region, France. The product is aimed to be marketed as a high end product, under the trademark Niau®, with a packaging that is inspired by the local crafts (woven in coconut husk fibre, nape). The eco-concept, with its 100% recyclable packaging, with a low impact on the environment, zero wastes and exclusively local production, gives the final touch to this top of the range product.
A rigorous process, from the start to finish of the production chain
Forty hectares of coconut plantation maintained according to the strict specifications of organic farming practice, triple certified (Europe, USA, Pacific region) by the international control body Bioagricert. The husking of the coconuts is done directly in the coconut plantation where the extraction facility is located. This first step already avoids the inconvenience of long-distance transportation of raw materials, reducing the « carbon footprint ». Once split, the pulp is removed and mechanically grated then pressed, without heating, to extract the coconut milk. Then comes the delicate step, that requires special machines which use advanced technologies, developed by the medical industry, to carry out a double cold centrifugation. A stage that is carried out in a special room, under uncompromisingly hygienic conditions.
Jean-Marius and Ahutiare Raapoto : “In this country, I believe”
The calculated gamble, which seems to be paying off, was taken by Jean-Marius Raapoto and his wife, Ahutiare, the daughter of Francis Sanford (an important figure in local politics, ancient mayor of the town of Faa’a and once vice-president of the French Polynesian government council, in the 1960s and 70s). Jean-Marius himself, once the Minister for Education in French Polynesia, with a doctorate in (Polynesian) language studies, notably encouraged the practice of ’ōrero (the traditional art of oratory) in schools. Upon his retirement, he wanted to demonstrate his lifelong commitment for the internal development of the local economy, as the slogan of the political party he created, Tireo, says: “In this country, I believe”.
“Let my island, Niau, be green and fertile”
Niau, is one of the few uplifted atolls in French Polynesia, with several caves. The island rather unusually has a lagoon that has been entirely isolated from the ocean, since the last interglacial period; creating a unique ecosystem, with brackish water that most often is a greenish-yellow color. This specificity made it an ideal candidate to be listed within the « Biosphere Reserve * » to which it belongs, along with the rest of the commune of Fakarava, which encompasses seven atolls. The economy of this small island – around 30 km2 with barely 250 inhabitants – relies in the large part, like all islands in the Tuamotu archipelago, on the production of coprah. However, the production of virgin coconut oil, certified by organic farming specifications, is the first step on the road to making this associated commune of Niau, with the support of its mayor, into an entirely « organic » island. For this reason, the Raapoto couple have already brought and planted more than a thousand fruit trees – including figs, that are particularly adapted to the limestone soils of the island – and the island’s honey production could also be given the sought-after label. Organic charcoal, produced from the coconut shells, is also being produced. The Raapotos would like to see all these different professional avenues being developed to benefit the inhabitants of this island, which has been somewhat left behind by the more general economic development of French Polynesia.
* UNESCO’s acceptance of the « Biosphere Reserve » designation is recognition for exemplary regions of the earth that reconcile the conservation of biodiversity alongside sustainable development. In Niau, it helps to the protect the island’s endemic birds, the kote’ute’u (Todiramphus gambieri) – a kingfisher – or a palm that is also endemic to the atoll, koko Niau (Pritchardia periculum).
We warmly thank the population of the village of Tupana for their kind welcome.
When we met in Tahiti, Vahine Fierro was happy to be back after more than a month and a half away from home. But above all, the 18 year-old champion, from the island of Huahine, was ecstatic to have brought home with her the junior pro world championship trophy, won on March 8th in Australia, to reward the unfaltering talent and deter-mination, that will surely take her far.
How did you start surfing?
Vahine Fierro : My father, who is from San Diego, took part in surf competitions in the States with stars like Kelly Slater and Rob Machado. But, he got injured and had to stop. He came to Huahine where he met my mother, and quickly taught her to surf. Surfing is a family tradition for me and my little sisters. I learned to swim when I was 18 months, then I started bodyboarding with my dad. I started on a real surfboard when I was around 3 or 4 and had made a lot of progress by 5 or 6. I love the feeling, the sensation of freedom and being able to do express yourself freely on a wave. And, it’s something we share together. I’m very close to my family and part of that is because of surfing.
Where did the idea to take part in competitions come from later?
In fact, I hated competitions and I didn’t take part in any until I was 13 years old. I enjoyed myself so much, that I didn’t see any reason for it. It wasn’t ârt of our lifestyle, we surfed for the pleasure. But, dad watched the competitions online over the internet and he could easily see that, even without comparing myself to the others that I had the required level. So, he pushed me a little bit by telling me : « Why don’t you just try ? It’s a dream come true to be able to make a living by doing what you love and enjoying yourself ! ». So, I then started with the Coca-Cola competitions in Tahiti, then the juniors pro… I got a taste for it.
Where are you with your career today ?
Today I’m semi-professional. I have just earned the title of junior pro world champion, and this year I’m going to be participating actively in the QS (the World Qualifying Series, which is the only means of access to the world of surf elite, the WCT, which includes the 38 best professional male surfers and 17 best women surfers, editor’s note). In the past, I have already won runner up in Portugal during the 2016 world championship. If the QS is open to all, it takes a lot of maturity to get enough points to reach the WCT.
How do you finance all this ?
At the beginning the money came from my parents, and my father made my boards for me, up until last August. However, after a while they told me that real life didn’t work like that, that I’d have to work for what I wanted. That’s when I started making and selling chocolate pies, which, after two years, earned me enough money for a plane ticket ! And it’s true it motivates you: when you travel it’s very expensive, when you come from far away you really don’t want to lose in the first round! Later, I started to be sponsored by Air Tahiti Nui and Dakine, a brand of surf accessories. Even more importantly I was spotted by the Tahitian Raimana Van Bastolaer. He’s an influential figure in the world of international surf, who recommended me to team Roxy, a surf brand that has now become my main sponsor. In February I signed a 3-year contract with Jeep. Finally, I am also supported by the commune of Huahine, within their means. They are very proud of their young athletes !
And where are you with your studies?
In June 2017, I got my Economy and Social bac (high school diploma) from Papara High School in Tahiti. I was majoring in surf sport studies, I got a lot of support from my teachers because I did nevertheless miss a lot of classes. But I was feeling pretty fed up with my education. Not everybody is lucky enough to get another option offered to them, and I’ve been paid a salary since I was 16, so I decided to take a year out. But during competitions, there actually is a lot of waiting around, time that I could use to study; that’s why, in September, I am going to restart an online English degree to become a teacher.
In your opinion, what is it that makes the difference between you and the other surfers on the world tour ?
The commentators often say that I’m fluid, powerful, with a nice style. In fact, if I get the right wave, I’m sure to get a good score and pass. Choosing the right waves is really important, and the Roxy coach has taught me some great techniques for executing my series and getting a strong confident start. It’s also important to know how to continue to keep having fun during the competitions. And to stay well balanced, you must know how to keep yourself surrounded by a strong support team; and I always am.
What does surfing mean to you ?
Surfing, it’s my life. I surf all the time, I always want to. It’s like a love story. In the morning when my sisters are at school and my parents are at work, I train seriously on my sets, then in the afternoon, it’s time for fun with my sisters. It’s very important to me to be able to maintain both aspects of it, in that way.
What are your favorite « spots », here and elsewhere ?
My favorite spots are, Huahine, of course, but I won’t say where, because they’re hidden spots ! (Laughing). Otherwise, I really like Tahiti iti, Teahupoo and Teavaiti. Internationally, I’ve fallen for a spot in Morocco that’s called La Mouette. I discovered it during a family holiday and I loved it, the country as much as the culture and the waves.
Aren’t you ever scared ?
I’m always afraid ! When it’s big. I’m particularly scared of Teahupoo because it’s an extremely dangerous break. But I always try to push myself. That said, I have never gone over 4 meters ; my biggest wave was 3.5 meters, that was in Huahine and I was too happy to have been able to ride it !
What are your next challenges ?
I’m giving myself two or three years to be able to qualify for the CT. In fact, in surfing, you lose more often then you win …So, this year my big challenge is to learn to lose and accept defeat, even though I hate it. But, I would also like to perform consistently, ranking in a quarter of the competitions and learning not to repeat the same errors, because at this level all the competitors are really strong. And I want to keep enjoying what I’m doing, to never lose the pleasure.”
Do you have any idols among the professional surfers ?
Michel Bourez, who I adore, but also Jérémy Flores… I was with them in Australia, it was great ! Then from the ladies Stephanie Gilmore, an Australian who has been world champion six times. She is part of team Roxy, and when they came to my island with the team, for a photoshoot in 2015, it was one of the best days of my life.
What are your biggest dreams as a young woman of 18 years old, going beyond the world of surfing ?
My dreams all revolve around surfing (laughing) ! But my main goal is always to be happy in life. Nobody has a life without problems and it’s easy to let it get away with you. Me, I don’t ever want to lose sight of happiness. I also want to stay humble and kind to others. I always try to support those close to me, my family and even strangers who need help. I want to stay that way.
Finally, where do you see yourself in 10 years time ?
If I’m on the Tour, I will be travelling all the time. And, I will take my mother along with me, because she’ll be retired by then. In fact, we’ll all be travelling, because my sisters will also be competing in the QS ! And if that doesn’t happen, then I’ll be an English teacher in Huahine, and surf every day at home. Because, even if I have visited lots of other different places, Huahine is my personal paradise. There are no traffic jams, not many people, we’re completely connected to nature and I don’t think that is going to change. What’s more we live in the mountains where I often go hiking and we have a huge vegetable garden… everything to keep me happy and busy. The island has a fatal attraction !
Interviewed by Virginie Gillet
Born in Toulon, the sunniest town in France, on the Mediterranean coast, photograher Benjamin Thouard has explored his passion for the ocean and surfing, since he was a child. Settled in French Polynesia for 11 years now, it is here that he has made his name and discovered his artistic expression. His first book of photographs, Surface, released on May 15th, is a declaration of love to the Fenua’s beauty, its sea and waves.
Surfing made a dramatic entry into the photographer, Ben Thouard’s life, when he was barely 8 years old. Born under the blazing sunlight of the French Riviera, on the French Mediterranean coast, the young boy grew up near the sea and waves. A calling that came to be like a drug, an obsessive addiction shared with his older brothers, while the rest of the family were never far from the water, the father a surgeon owned a yacht, that was often used for family sailing holidays to Corsica … Then, when Ben found his father’s old camera in the loft, he started very naturally to take pictures of his friends surfing. The young man, who also dabbled in painting during his adolescence, could spend hours, without reading a word, just staring at magazine pictures, particularly surf magazines.
A journey that leads “to the end of the road”…
Encouraged by his early successes, the young photographer quickly organizes his life between Hawaii, where he stays for two three-month long stays a year, with travel assignments all over the four corners of the globe, following athletes and taking photos for magazines. While he keeps a base in Paris, Ben Thouard has resolutely set sail to live his dream. Another important element falls into place when he becomes friends with Baptiste Gossein, a « big wave surfer » (a professional surfer who earns his living by photographing monster waves, NDLR) settled in Maui for 10 years, but who had a soft spot for Tahiti and the mythic spot, Teahupoo, Ben, who had family based in Tahiti, but had never had an opportunity to visit, let himself be tempted: « why return to Hawaii, where it was crawling with people, when you could live in front of the best waves in the world, in peace and tranquility, far from the crowds and everything that goes with it ? ».
Ben then chose to bury himself in his work, developing his skills as a surf photographer. If he managed to make a living and a name for himself in this circle, it’s thanks in a large part to the friendships he managed to forge with the stars of surf, including the Tahitian champion Michel Bourez, but it would not be long before the photographer started to suffer the consequences of a new problem: the economic crisis. Which would impact the economy worldwide, and combine in a loss of interest in surfing, but also cause a crisis in the press and magazine world, at the same time that social networks devalued certain skills. His career in the world of watersports started to look less secure; Ben chose to take heed and to go in search of his artistic side, something that had always appealed to him, calling for him to express his emotions through his work.
Fascinated by the images, some of which have stayed etched into his memory over the years, Ben, who was still looking for his career path, managed to convince his parents, after getting a high school diploma in science, to allow him to go to Paris in 2004, to follow a three-year course at a famous photography school (Icart Photo). However, at the end of a « wonderful » first year, the young man, through sheer willpower, got a training position that would change the direction of his life. He was welcomed into the editing team of the magazine Wind, where he made a long-lasting friendship with the photographer Bernard Biancotto, who warmly encouraged him « if he wanted to photograph windsurfing » to settle in Hawaii. Ben, for whom life in Paris was not ideal, didn’t need to be told twice : he decided to leave school, building his own waterproof camera casing and flying to Hawaii in January 2006, where he stayed at first for three months, long enough to take his first shots, and get his first photos published.
After a first visit in 2007, the two friends sell up, one a house in Hawaii, the other his apartment in Paris, in order to live the Polynesian dream. In early 2008, things are ready, Baptiste and Ben settle into their new life at the end of the road on Tahiti iti. However, in 2009, the dream turns sour : Baptiste is severely injured in Teahupoo (today he is a paraplegic, but the surfer has returned to Tahiti, after years of treatment on mainlaind France, and has created Are Va’a, a company that makes canoes for an international market …and is extremely successful!). Ben, who was in the water when his friend had his accident, was profoundly affected, to the point of giving up surfing on Tahiti iti for several years. But this was also a hard blow on the professional front, as the event put an end to their fruitful collaboration.
Magnifying Tahitian waves
From 2010, he started to photograph « that which fascinates him most » while at the same time pushing himself to enjoy himself to the maximum. Waves have always been his favourite subject. Ben reconnects, photographing them over and over again, with a passion for « capturing the moment, seeking to make all that we need to know to appear in one unique image. A photo can stand by itself and signify so much ». The photographer, who accumulated shots without showing them at first, was preparing to develop this artistic side, in order to exhibit and sell his prints.
« It’s totally gratifying to know that one of my photos is chosen by somebody to be a picture hanging in their living space, because it echoes something in them.» To get started in the business, Ben relied on the « good side of social networks and Internet » at the same time adding to his skills : a diver’s license for underwater and aquatic photos, an ultra-light pilot’s license, buying a paramotor … But this time, it was the arrival of drones that threw a spanner in the works, in some areas.
« Deeply enamored of the sea and waves for their timelessness », Ben Thouard thus chose to dedicate himself almost exclusively to aquatic photography, shooting only in the water. Aside from the shoots that he still really enjoys with the surfers, his other work started to take on his own personal touch, entirely coming from his passion for the ocean. Life had almost certainly brought him to this place, to his paradise, for a reason : to bare his artist’s soul, to use his photos to show the incredible beauty of the ocean. The artist reveals himself in his shots that magnify French Polynesia, seen from a watery continent. Shots that he has brought together in Surface, a book in French and English, 184 pages long, printed at the author’s expense. An unequalled book of exclusive photos, 50 % of which were taken entirely underwater, almost all in Teahupoo (an odd few are from the Tuamotus, notably), even if it’s hard to believe it, given the limpidity of the medium. However, for the artist there is absolutely no doubt : nowhere else in the world would have « allowed such photos to be taken, in such clear water, without particles, without algae, such deep waves, really tubular, breaking on the reef, in a spot that is also protected from the wind and cross currents, with surreal lighting that the weather gives you just a couple of times a year, during short periods of a few tens’ of minutes ». A book that is in the format of an ode, that the author would like to think, « even if he is not an environmental activist, that it contributes to an increase in awareness » for the protection of this beautiful yet fragile world. « A photo often says more than words, and if my work does that, than I will be very satisfied …» An amazing work.
Ben Thouard, A “Tahiti Nui Explorer”
The photographer, who also actively works in the promotion of French Polynesia’s local and international air companies, since 2013, and is also a « Tahiti Nui Explorer », a personality that spreads the image, the mark and participates in promoting the Air Tahiti Nui company and, in this way, also that of the destination, Tahiti and her islands, through his travels. This partnership, created with the company three years earlier, allowed the photographer to approach overseas clients, offering them the opportunity to shoot their publicity campaigns in French Polynesia.
Thus, when he started to develop his book project, he naturally turned towards the company, which in turn helped him with the logistics, and without which Surface would not have been the same book. The partnership also assisted him in approaching publishing houses in Paris, to organize the printing of the book and as well as a large promotional tour during 2018. A beautiful showcase of our destination.
Magnificent, unsettling, impressive, breathtaking… Such are the adjectives that come to mind when you cross paths with The Manta Rays under water. But this giant and mythical fish is now getting rare in our lagoons as they are more and more disturbed by human activities. In Bora Bora, the famous kingdom of these threatened Queens, an Association is fighting for their cause.
How can anyone forget the small fixed and inquisitive eye of a manta ray trying to make eye contact with you? Or the aquatic ballet of a group of these giants, swimming to meet you in a intimate and shy exchange? These magic moments are perceived by any diver as precious presents, moments of plenitude suspended between two waters. Manta rays belong to the big family of rays, a lineage supposedly issued from the adaptation of the shark to the scarcity of halieutic food, in the tertiary era, some 60 millions years ago. Over five hundred species have been counted throughout the world, divided in eighteen thousand families, all of them different by their shape, their territory and their lifestyle. The manta birostris ray, of the Mobulidae family, the only species encountered in Polynesian waters, is the most impressive among them. It can reach up to 6 meters and weigh over a ton. Its atypical morphology is constituted of a head part of a flat body shaped like a wider than long lozenge with supple and pointed fins giving it a winged and elegant silhouette. Their back is dark brown to black and their white belly has dark spots, whose unique disposition is the mark of distinction of individuals. It is its unique shape that gave it the name of “manta” (“blanket in Spanish). The manta ray is a voracious plankton and small nektonic animal (small fish) that it swallows with its wide-open mouth. It cannot stop swimming, otherwise it would sink and choke. So it swims at night over long distances, 10 to 20 kilometers to feed. In the morning it looks for the sun and shallow waters to warm up its back and speed up plankton fermentation in its stomach, thus facilitating its digestion.
A Mythical And Threatened Animal
Is it its “horned” appearance, with its two cephalic lobes guiding the plankton toward its wide-open mouth, that caused it to be called “devil of the sea” on all the oceans of the world, or is it its impressive size? All over the world, it has inspired many legends and mythologies that demonize it. The manta ray has indeed for a long time been feared by sailors and fishermen who were afraid it might pull their boat to the bottom of the ocean. In French Polynesia, it is said that it prevented pearl fishermen divers without scuba equipment to get back to the surface by covering them with its impressive body. In the Tuamotu, some legends even accuse it of kidnapping and rays with children heads are part of the islands’ oral tradition. Today, the Polynesians still fear them when they are under water. However, its food based on plankton and its inquisitive and peaceful behavior makes it a truly harmless fish. No verified facts or recent testimonies support any of these myths.
While the manta ray is no danger to man, the reverse is unfortunately not true: today it is really the manta ray that is threatened by man. In Asia, it is fished for the leather of its skin and for Chinese traditional medicine, and the demand for fins and gills has expanded its fishing zones to Africa and Mexico. In other countries of the world with tropical and subtropical reef zones (Australia, Hawaii, Maldives, French Polynesia), it suffers from its own popularity, which made it one of the most sought after animal in terms of observation. The respective governments are thus little by little forced to take measures to reduce tourism pressure, which is harmful to the species’ tranquility. Thus the Manta Birostris is now classified as “nearly threatened” (NT) on the red list of IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Since 1998 in French Polynesia, the capture, removal, destruction, pick-up, transportation, sale, use and marketing of all or part of a manta ray is strictly forbidden. Although it is the only fish protected since February 2008, by its inscription in class A of threatened Polynesian species (there are 165 of them), the manta ray, the only protected fish, still does not always benefit from concrete measures to protect its environment.
Bora Bora, The Stakes Of Biodiversity
Manta rays are found in the five Polynesian archipelagos (except Tahiti and Moorea), but divers come to observe them mostly in Bora Bora, in the passes of the Tuamotu Islands (Rangiroa, Tikehau, Fakarava) and in the Marquesas. Bora Bora, through its tourism activity (an average of over 40,000 tourists per year) and the riches of its lagoon, is a typical island where danger threatens its manta birostris. It is indeed through the observation of the evolution of their population in function of human activity in this mythical lagoon, that the stakes of their protection take full meaning. Since 2002, Moeava de Rosemont, diver, cameraman and Vice-President of the Manta Polynesia Research & Protect Association, has completed a photographic identification in order to evaluate the population of the island’s lagoon. He has observed that the presence of manta rays on the three main sites of Toopua, the Pass and Anau, is directly linked to tourism activity and to construction work (hotels and private landfills) taking place there. Thus, the Toopua site has almost been deserted since the construction of a hotel in 2002-2003. The Anau site is still the most popular. Frequented as much by passing sailboats as it is by tourism professionals, Anau is a regrouping site during the reproduction period, and a cleaning station for labrum fishes that remove the rays’ parasites. They are easier to approach and therefore often disturbed by divers. In June 2005, the Association observed the abandonment of the Anau site by the manta rays, likely due to too strong a human pressure generated by tourism development and the construction of two hotels near the site.
Since 2009, due to economic slowdown and the drop in tourist frequentation, the manta rays slowly came back to the area. In 2010, only twenty resident animals are supposedly remaining in Bora Bora (versus over a hundred at the end of the 80’s). Their protection has therefore become an ecological and an economic stake. Today, the future of these friendly “devils” in our lagoons depends on concrete actions to protect their environment. The Manta Polynesia Research & Protect Association, which since 2004 militates for a protected marine area (AMP) in the Anau area, is not without ideas on the subject: “We recommend the implementation of sworn lagoon guards, speaking French, English and Tahitian, in charge of raising awareness and to fine offenders if necessary. Financing could be done through the sale of mother of pearl tokens, symbolizing an environmental tax” explains its Vice-President. Thus only a general mobilization supported by firm political implications, would be able to slow down the manta ray’s departure and would offer a kingdom worth of their majesty to these fragile Queens.
Made from the bark of certain trees, tapa is an important part of the cultural heritage of Pacific Island societies. As an object of prestige as well as for everyday use, it is in French Polynesia where the fabrication technique has been perfected like nowhere else. Ethnoarchaeologist and tapa expert Michel Charleux, who lives in Tahiti, has directed a collective publication dedicated to tapa.
Tapa has its origins in Southeast Asia, more specifically in the Guangxi region of Southern China along the border with Vietnam. The oldest stone beaters (the beater is a tool used to beat bark to make tapa) discovered in this region by archaeological excavations date back 8,000 years to during the Neolithic period. During the great migration movement that began at least 3,000 years ago, Southeast Asians brought their ancestral know-how with them to the Pacific all the way to the extremities of the Polynesian Triangle, New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island, and most likely South America. This is why tapa is found in these parts of the world. In French Polynesia, oral traditions attribute the origin of tapa to the goddess Hina, the first to have beaten bark to make beautiful white fabric. Archeological digs on the island of Huahine in the Leeward Islands confirm the historical presence of tapa in French Polynesia with the discovery of wooden beaters dated between the 9th and 13th centuries.
Tapa: Technique and Use
Obtained from vegetable fibers, tapa is a soft fabric made from the inner part of certain types of bark. It is beaten on an anvil so as to interweave the fibers and create a kind of felt. Three species of trees were used for the production of tapa: the breadfruit or ‘uru (Artocarpus altilis), the paper mulberry or aute (Broussonetia papyrifera) and banyan or ‘ōrā (Ficus prolixa). In French Polynesia, creating tapa was a woman’s role, unlike in Melanesia where it was mandatory for men. Once the tree was cut down, the first step was to separate the inner part of the bark, or plant tissue, by scraping the outer part with a clam shell. The bark then fermented for a few days on a banana leaf then was beaten on an anvil made of wood (or stone as in the Marquesas Islands) using a very hard wooden beater. The square-shaped wooden beater made of ‘aito (Casuarina equisetifolia) had wide grooves on the front. The other sides had grooves that were increasingly thinner. The cloth was first beaten with the front of the beater with the large grooves, followed by the finer ones, until it gradually reached several decimeters in width. In order to make a piece that was considerably large, strips of tapa were assembled together and beaten again so that the fibers could interweave. They were then dried in the sun, bleached and sometimes decorated. The most beautiful tapa cloths were appreciated for their suppleness and the finesse of their execution.
From birth to death, tapa was a part of all stages of life. It was used for clothing and house linens on a daily basis. Newborns were wrapped in the most supple, soft tapa cloths. Women used tapa to make päreu (pareos) that they wrapped around their waists. Men wore the maro, a strip of tapa passed between the legs and knotted around the waist. The tïputa, a dyed and decorated type of pinafore, and the ‘ahufara, a cloak worn on the shoulders like a shawl, were also made of tapa (The Museum of Tahiti and the Islands- Te fare Manaha preserves magnificent pieces of tïputa and ‘ahufara). The tapa pieces also served as sheets and blankets, or in the case of Fiji, as turbans.
In social relations, tapa cloth was a sign of wealth and prestige. Inside the fare (house), it was exposed as a hanging, partition or mat. This is still practiced in parts of the Pacific, such as Wallis and Futuna, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Papua New Guinea. During great social and religious ceremonies, tapa was offered as a sign of recognition and distinction. At the moment of death, the deceased was wrapped in a shroud made of tapa. There were also tapas that were sacred, reserved for the tikis on the marae. These were made by the opu nui, the guardians of the marae.
Tapa: Intangible Cultural Heritage
As a symbol of power and authority, tapa could be artistically embellished. The oldest tapa cloths in Tahiti are decorated with geometric lines and concentric circles. Elsewhere in the Pacific, these geometric motifs can be found in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. For coloring, natural elements were used. Only tapa reserved for domestic and social use were decorated. Tapa for religious purposes remained in its natural state.
Today, the ancient tapa technique is still practiced in Tonga, Western Samoa, Fiji, Wallis and Futuna and Papua New Guinea. Marquesans on the island of Fatu Hiva continue to make perfumed tapa for their daughters’ puberty initiation ceremonies. Since the 1960s, Marquesans have been producing tapas with motifs inspired by tattoos, which very popular with tourists. Throughout the rest of the Marquesas and French Polynesia, tapa is but a distant memory. Dress codes imposed by the missionaries in the nineteenth century and the importation of new fabrics put an end to this ancestral practice.
Throughout the rest of the world, tapa is found in South America, Madagascar, among the Baoulé in the Ivory Coast, and in Uganda. Since 2008, the creation of bark fabrics in Uganda has been included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Ethnoarchaeologist Michel Charleux, who has carried out excavations in French Polynesia, intends to take the necessary steps to obtain UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage label for tapa in the Pacific, as in Uganda. This entails demonstrating that the tapa technique in Oceania is not only a tradition inherited from the past, but that it remains a contemporary practice particular to all the peoples of the Pacific, connecting them to one another.
Tapa in the spotlight: a book and an exhibition
Michel Charleux is very involved in the knowledge and culture of tapa and has led several projects around this theme. He was the chief commissioner for Festival des tapa, liens culturels d’Océanie (Tapa Festival: Cultural Ties in Oceania) held in Tahiti in November 2014, which brought scientists together (archaeologists, ethnologists, museum curators, etc.) who are recognized experts in French Polynesian artists and materials. From this project evolved the idea of a book devoted to research over tapa. This was a successful venture. Under the direction of Michel Charleux, Tapa d’Océanie, de l’écorce à l’étoffe, Art millénaire d’Océanie, de l’Asie du Sud-Est à la Polynésie orientale (Tapa from Oceania: from bark to fabric, ancient art of Oceania from Southeast Asia to Eastern Polynesia) was released in bookstores on September 6, 2017. It assembles sixty authors specializing in the subject (scientists and local experts). Adrienne Kaeppler, anthropologist and curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in Washington and recognized as the world’s leading tapa expert, agreed to participate in this project. The book examines the fabrication and different uses of tapa cloth from Indonesia to archipelagoes throughout the Pacific. Notably, it highlights the remarkable work of a Chilean team that studied genes to trace the path of the paper mulberry tree during migrations. This book provides a collection of knowledge, some of which has never before been published. The book was presented in Paris from September 12-17 as part of the 2017 Parcours des Mondes, the major international fair dedicated to the first arts of Africa, Asia and Oceania held annually in the Saint Germain-des-Près district. This year, the event featured French Polynesia and supported the launch of this publication, which is already recognized as a reference book.
Tapa d’Océanie, de l’écorce à l’étoffe, Art millénaire d’Océanie, de l’Asie du Sud-Est à la Polynésie orientale, under the direction of Michel Charleux, 610 pages, bilingual French and English, Somogy éditions d’art, 95 € ($115USD), available after September 6.
On July the 9th, 2017, UNESCO officially announced that the marae Taputapuātea on the island of Raiatea was accepted onto the World Heritage List. An honor for the island, cradle of the mā’ohi culture, but also for French Polynesia more generally. Let’s take a journey across the site and so to the heart of eastern Polynesia’s mythology and ancient religion.
Taputapuātea is a ceremonial archaeological complex, located on the East coast of Raiatea, the largest island in the Leeward Society Islands, 230 km Northwest of Tahiti. It has been conserved since 1952 and subsequently classified as a natural and historical monument, and is protected by French Polynesian law. This protection, as well as the respect that the site inspires, has allowed it to remain well preserved up until today. However, the international recognition that the UNESCO classification attributes to the site further demonstrates the value of this remarkable witness to a thousand-year-old cultural tradition. Because of the extent and the quality of the remains, Taputapuātea provides an excellent example of ancient stone architecture, which we find, which is also found, with certain stylistic variations, in several of the archipelagos. Notably, this listing as a « cultural landscape », awarded for its universal and exceptional value, represents an important first for Overseas France. The region already includes several listed sites, but none of a « cultural » nature. Even more significantly, Taputapuātea is now part of a an elite group – with few members – Polynesian cultural sites classified as World Heritage. It can now be considered on a par with the Easter Island site – Rapa Nui – and its world famous moa’i. This recognition, obtained in July 2017, is two-fold: acknowledging the Polynesian civilization and its rightful place alongside other civilizations of the world, on one hand; and confirmation, on the other, of the far-reaching influence of our islands in this cultural zone that spans a vast area of the Pacific.
Ancient birthplace of Polynesian culture
These sites, now acknowledged, have been so for their paved terraces (pae pae), and more strictly speaking marae, built on the point of the Matahiraitera’i peninsula. Once sacrosanct, these communal spaces – open-air temples – represented the interface between the human world, te ’ao, and the world of the gods and ancestors, te pö. But, beyond the ceremonial and religious significance – it was also a center of power – existing over several centuries in the past, within an area that covers nearly 2,500 hectares. For the International Monuments and Sites Committee, whose task it was to evaluate the sites in the context of the listing request, they are « an exceptional illustration of the colonization of the eastern Pacific by Polynesians as well as the spatial, social and religious structure of these populations ». What is more, as the birthplace of the ancient Polynesian culture, Taputapuātea « holds exceptional significance for all the peoples of Polynesia, because of the way that it symbolizes their origins, links them to their ancestors, and is an expression of their spirituality ». Illustrating several centuries of mā’ohi civilization, the site is not only important for its « old rocks », as spectacular as they may be. It was – and remains to this day – the focal point of a major cultural radiation, at the very heart of the « Polynesian Triangle », whose extremities are Hawaii to the North, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the South-East, and Aotearoa (New Zealand) to the South-West.
A traditional gathering place of the peoples of the « Polynesian Triangle »
Inter-archipelago exchanges over vast geographic distances, sometimes friendly, sometimes aggressive, occurred over the span of several centuries, even if they became less frequent from the 15th century.The district of Ō-po-ä was the center of an interisland coalition called « Hau faatau aroha », or « Chiefdoms joined by alliances ». It is on the marae Taputapuātea that their members were received, after entering the sacred pass Te ava mo’a in their double-hulled canoes, delegations coming from the Society Islands, but also New Zealand, Hawaii, the Cooks… Then large religious ceremonies and important political meetings would be held. Starting out as Raiatea’s « national » marae, the site acquired a regional importance in the South Pacific, situated as it is at the epicenter of the « Polynesian Triangle».
Even if the ancient religious practices have not survived to our times (having disappeared around the end of the 18th century), the communities of the Polynesian Triangle still return to this site of remembrance, because they have maintained or rediscovered a powerful spiritual connection. Former senator and president of the Na-Papa-e-Va’u- Raiatea association (see text box), Richard Tuheiava explains, « this cultural and spiritual ‘radiation’ reaching across the Te-Moana-Nui-a-Hiva (Pacific Ocean) and its role as key witness of the Polynesian civilization, prior to European contact, make this ceremonial and archaeological complex a significant geographic location for the contemporary renaissance of the Polynesian culture ». As proof, in April 2017, it was visited by the famous Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule’a, whose crew are masters of traditional navigation skills, without instruments, like the ancient Polynesians. An art that is also starting to take root again in French Polynesia today.
From its origins up until today…
The eastern Pacific was one of the last regions of the world to be discovered and populated by human beings. The remarkable achievement of a population of seagoing navigators who arrived from western Polynesia (Samoa, Tonga). According to current ideas, the Leeward Society Islands were colonized sometime around 1000 A.D. The Taputapuātea marae is the culmination of a series of historical events that were brutally interrupted with the arrival of the first Europeans, and, more notably during the era of the Christianization of the Society Islands. « Taputapuatea » as it is called know was known by several different names in the past: Feoro, Tinirau-nui-mata, Tinirau-nui-mata-te-papa-o-feoro, Vaiotaha, etc. First recorded by Prof. Kenneth Emory of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Hawaii, in the1930s, before being reinforced and partially restored by Prof. Yosihiko Sinoto between 1967 and 1968, Taputapuātea tahua marae as well as part of the Te pō complex were the object of a restauration project in 1994-1995 directed by Maeva Navarro, from the Centre polynésien des Sciences humaines (CPSH, Polynesian Center of Human Sciences).
An exceptional architectural compound
It is the archeological complex situated by the side of the road in the district of Ōpoa, some 30 kilometers from the small town of Uturoa – the administrative center of the Raromatai (Leeward Society Islands) – that attracts most visitors. Constructed on a point protruding into the lagoon, it is a monumental compound built in stone (river rocks and coral blocks) made up of several marae and pae pae built between the 14th and 18th centuries. This emblematic part of the site is the most spectacular. However, Taputapuātea’s classification does not apply solely to this area. The entire site includes several hundred hectares on a nearby hill, two bays and two wooded valleys as well as their associated ridgelines – the ’Öpoa and Hotopu’u valleys. The latter hide ancient traces that await archeological investigation: household foundations, horticultural terraces and marae… There are more than 300, the vast majority still hidden in dense vegetation.
In the upper reaches of the valleys, in highly inaccessible places are found the oldest marae, such as the founding marae Vaeāra’i. A stretch of lagoon and the coral reef, as well as a strip of open ocean are also included within the limits of the protected area. In fact, it is the integrality of natural and semi-natural elements of the marine and terrestrial environment that were considered during the inscription of the site. This greater whole forms the substrate, upon which the « cultural landscape » of Taputapuātea rests, considered to be a « relict landscape » in that it continues to testify today of the presence of the mä’ohi civilization. It retains significant traces of the way in which ancient Polynesians colonized the islands and organized their living space – on a social and practical level – shaping the landscape to allow a sustainable lifestyle. The forests are notably made up of useful plant species (breadfruit, coconut palm, mangoes, noni, māpe or Tahitian chestnut) planted upon the arrival of the first human occupants, more than a thousand years ago.
An uninterrupted oral tradition
The Polynesian « Seat of Knowledge », « Cradle of the (ancient) gods », the Taputapuātea /Te pō site has once more found its place as an « international marae » and is today once again an important place associated with the expression of the Polynesian identity. Regularly reuniting cultural representatives from the islands of the Polynesian Triangle, whose ancestors had set out from the island Havai’i Nui (an old name for Ra’iātea) to populate other isolated islands, such as the Hawaiian archipelago or even New Zealand. At least this is what is told by the oral tradition transmitted from generation to generation up to today, despite the Christianization and modernization of the island. The paripari fenua, texts recited during ceremonies, describing and eulogizing the natural limits of the land: the pass (opening onto the ocean, through a sacred passage), the point where the marae is found (a natural inroad of land jutting into the sea)… In any case there are striking similarities between the oral information and that recorded in different documentary sources, based on accounts given by the first explorers and missionaries, dating from the end of the 18th century. A reason why this uninterrupted and corroborated oral tradition was also used by the experts in charge of the classification of the site, as a complement to the numerous archeological and ethnological studies that have also been carried out over several decades.
At the heart of a network the marae of the same name
Acknowledged at the end of the 18th century as the oldest “royal” marae in the Society Islands, it was linked with the ancient and powerful Tamatoa dynasty who has reigned over the Leeward Society Islands up until their Christianization. The oral tradition tells that one or more stones were taken from the marae Taputapuātea to be transported to different islands or archipelagos, and to establish new marae called «Taputapuātea », dedicated to the god Oro. Today, such marae can be found on Fakarava (Tuamotus), Rarotonga (Cook Islands), in Tahiti (Pirae, Hitia’a, Punaauia, Tautira) on Moorea, on Tubuai (Austral Islands), in Hawai’i and in New Zealand.
Further reading : – Emory, K.P. 1933 – Stone remains in the Society Islands. Bernice Bishop Museum, Bulletin 116, Honolulu HAWAII. – Eddowes, Marc – Origine et évolution du marae Taputapuatea aux îles Sous-le-Vent, CNRS
The main monuments
The specific part of the site that houses the Taputapuātea tahua-marae had an important role not only for the islands of the region (the current day Society Islands), but also the entire Polynesian region. Undoubtedly built at first to honor the cult of Ta’aroa, god of creation, it was also dedicated to ‘Oro – god of fertility and fecundity, but equally a god of war – and was at the origin of the expansion of this cult through the Society Islands in the 18th century. The marae Hauviri, with its large standing stone, 2.7m tall, was used for the investiture of the high chiefs, or Ari’i Nui. The marae called Opu teina, was exclusively for the non-firstborn ari’i lineages (or teina), great navigators who left to found new Taputapuātea marae. You can also find, among other structures, an archery platform, meeting areas (pae pae), a sacrificial stone and two other small marae. Some of the structures have been restored, but the complex’s layout and most of the construction materials are original.
The classification marathon…
The inscription of this site, emblematic of Polynesian culture, onto the UNESCO World Heritage List, on Sunday July 9th, 2017, during the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee, held in Krakow, Poland, is the culmination of a twenty-year long marathon. A first inscription request was made in 1995, under the auspices of French Polynesia’s Young Economic Chamber, the Na papa e va’u association took over the challenge in 2006. A « management committee » for Taputapuātea /Te pō was established in 2009, as set out by the guidelines of UNESCO’s Pacific Action Plan 2010-2015. Its candidature being supported by French Polynesia and France, the site was admitted onto a list of tentative French World Heritage sites in 2010 and the file was finally accepted with unanimity last July. Henceforth, the management committee has the delicate task of monitoring the different human and environmental pressures that could endanger this listing. Specifically, by maintaining a buffer zone that protects it in its current state and integrity. The site should be used to strengthen understanding of the ancient Polynesian civilization, through research and exchange of knowledge, and equally to promote the mā’ohi culture and identity, along with associated cultural practices (agriculture, fishing, crafts, etc.).
The Nā Papa e Va’u association
A local cultural association « Nā papa e va’u » (« The eight foundation stones »), notably composed of elders from the local community of Ō-po-ä, and created especially to preserve the Taputapuātea site. Since 2006, their objective has been getting it inscribed on the World Heritage List. It ensures the involvement of the local community and includes « key resource people » among its members, who contribute to gathering together, along with ethnologists, what remains of the traditional oral traditions transmitted from generation to generation. A task that has not always been easy. After two centuries of Christianization, the site that was once used for pagan ceremonies and human sacrifices, had a mostly nefarious reputation, that only started to dissipate some thirty years ago. On the contrary, certain of today’s inhabitants were concerned that the site would be « sold » to UNESCO. Mato Pani, former president of the association, considers that « It is important to preserve our history and our culture for the future generations », and that it is necessary to give these sites the « respect » they deserve.
During June and July the rhythm of the heiva festival vibrates throughout French Polynesia; Tahitian dancing (‘ori Tahiti) is at center stage. This art form is deeply rooted in Polynesian society and is enthusiastically enjoyed by all, yet ironically it was once outlawed. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that dancing re-emerged and took back its rightful place in society.
Once upon a time, song and dance were a vital part of religious ceremonies and rituals that took place several times a year around the large marae, or holy grounds, where the people assembled. A ceremony would be held for the lifting of the rahui, for example, the ban that would be levied on certain creatures or plants in order to allow them to propagate. This celebration would mark the beginning of the harvest. Dancing was also an integral part of military training for warriors. Singing and dancing were synonymous with festivities, as in modern times, and joyous performances were given during heiva. Traditionally dance was performed as a group and it’s interesting to note that in western society dance is more often performed in couples.
Dance was a part of any type of social event that brought people together: welcomings, send offs, marking a particular honor, or just for fun. During the heiva (that were observed by the early navigators and missionaries at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries) the dances were shockingly erotic if not blatantly sexual. Details were omitted from recorded accounts, either from indignation or embarrassment. It’s hard to put into context what the impact of those dances would have had on a society whose values and taboos were quite unlike ours of today. Furthermore, it would be difficult for these first Westerners to describe a dance, or even draw it, since it is a thing of movement that defies static description.
Little by little Tahitian dance began to come out of the shadows and became connected to all of the country’s festivities. From around 1900 the long missionary inspired dresses that the locals had also adopted started to become less popular. Shoulders and arms began to be unveiled again. From the 1830s newly known dancers often came from modest origins and were the pillars of festival places that were in style around the world. In the second half of the 20th century dance started to become considered a more noble practice and thus became the center of big shows, not just a sideline act during festivals. These shows became more encouraged as the tourist industry started to form with regular visits from cruise ships. But Tahitian dance really experienced a re-birth in 1955 when two dynamic women, Mémé de Montluc et Madeleine Moua came on the scene.
Mémé de Montluc formed the dance troupe Arioi that unfortunately only made it through one year. Madeleine (“Mamie”) Moua, a school teacher who loved dance, started another troupe called Heiva Tahiti made up of some of the prettiest girls from some of the biggest mixed families on the island. With this troupe, Mamie Moua organized the shows and established rules that are still in place today. She made magnificent costumes that went with choreography based on ancient legends that she tirelessly researched. As her repertoire grew she put together a live orchestra. This move to rehabilitate traditional dance and the passion surrounding it inspired more groups to form. Many of these troupes were started by dancers from Heiva Tahiti including Coco Hotahota, Paulina Morgan, Gilles Hollande and Joseph Uura. Madeleine Moua’s Heiva Tahiti started a whole new generation of dancers who are still today entrenched in all that is ‘ori Tahiti (Tahitian dance).
People could dance anywhere when the occasion presented itself, but there were also houses set up especially for dance. These consisted of an esplanade protected at one end by a simple awning which sheltered the musicians. The musicians played two types of instruments: the pahu, a shark skin drum which was played with the hands, and the vivo, a nasal flute made of bamboo. Woven coverings were laid out on the ground and the sky was open overhead. The audience sat or stood on three sides of the esplanade, sometimes surrounded by a small fence. Witnesses describe the male dancers as being dressed simply in pareos or a wrap of tapa (a beaten bark cloth). However the costumes of the women hura dancers were extremely elaborate and made deep impressions on the official artists whose numerous sketches saved them for posterity. Hura is a term that applies to the type of dance as well as the costume appropriate to it. This dance was performed for major events such as the fa’ari’i, or the welcome for important visitors. The high priestess and inspiration for this dance was the goddess Hina. The elements that constituted the costume for this dance (which disappeared after 1819) were among the most highly prized of the ancient Polynesians (tapa, feathers, hair) and confirm its importance.
« Games or lascivious pastimes »
Tahiti’s conversion to Christianity at the beginning of the 19th century happened quickly and was formalized in 1819 with the Pomare Code, named for the island’s king. This code, designed by the missionaries, forbids what were thought of as old and “immoral” habits such as tattooing and dance. “All lascivious songs and pastimes are strictly forbidden,” stated the code. Dance thus became a clandestine activity and disappeared from the public arena for some 60 years. During this time, there were testimonies that ‘upa’upa (dance and music parties usually with drinking) did still happen at night in small groups and out of missionary earshot. By 1881 traditional dance was allowed again but only modestly in celebrations of French Bastille Day in July. Because of this, most of the islands in recently annexed French Polynesia, began to celebrate the national holiday with great enthusiasm. At first these festivities were called tiurai. Soon the missionaries found themselves accompanying islanders from all over Tahiti to the big events in Papeete where contests for all the traditional Polynesian activities took place.
The 1970s and 1980s were highlighted by troupes such as Paulina Morgan’s Tiare Tahiti, Coco Hotahota’s Temaeva, Paulette Viénot’s Tiare Tahiti, Joel Avaemai’s Maeva Tahiti, Julien Faatauira’s Porinetia, Teupoo Temaiana’s Fetia and Betty Taputuarai’s Tamarii Mahina. In the 1980s Coco Hotahota’s Temaeva and Gilles Holland’s Iaora Tahiti were the supreme groups. In the 1990s to 2000 Iriti Hoto formed Heikura Nui, Teupoo Temaiana Ahutoru Nui, Tonio Iro Tamarii Papara, Manouche Lehartel Toa Reva, Marguerite Lai O Tahiti e and Makau Foster Tamariki Poerani. And the momentum didn’t stop at the turn of the millennium; Tumata Robinson, Lorenzo Schmitt and Teiki Villant started Les Grands Ballets de Tahiti then Matani Kainuku formed Nonahere and Jean Marie Biret Manahau.
This renaissance of Tahitian dance was stimulated by the reclamation of identity started in the 1950s that paralleled the politics of Pouvana’a a O’opa (and later by artist Henri Hiro) and the independentist and autonomist movements. The reclaiming of identity was expressed through tattoos and dance. Affirmation of Tahitian culture’s comeback was seen in the 1980s through the formation of the Tahitian Academy, la Maison des Jeunes et de la Culture, The Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, the Territory’s Artistic Conservatory, the Arts Center and more. From the 1980s traditional arts received official recognition when dance was taught at the Conservatory and dance schools multiplied. Today there are at least 30 dance schools that together teach more than 5,000 students. If in developed societies – where much tradition has been lost – dance is the art of movement, Polynesian dance is above all the expression of an ancient culture, original and unique, that drinks from the collective spring of memory in its cultural and natural environment.
Manouche Lehartel, Museologist
Tahiti and its islands Museum – Te Fare Mahana
Special Thanks to Jean-Claude Soulier
Musée de Tahiti et des Iles – Te Fare Mahana
Visitors to French Polynesia are invariably impressed by the majestic silhouette of the breadfruit tree (called tumu’uru in Tahitian) and its big orb-like fruits. Besides being an integral part of the Polynesian landscape, the fruit has been a dietary staple since ancient times.
The tumu’uru (artocarpus altilis) more often called uru, is an unmistakable component of Polynesian flora. Interestingly, the history of this fruit is similar to that of the great Polynesian explorers who brought it to the islands. According to today’s accepted theories, ancestors of today’s Polynesians originated in Southeast Asia. During several waves of migration these great sailors populated Western Polynesia (Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands) around 1000 to 1500 BC then in the first centuries of our Common Era they continued on to colonize Eastern Polynesia and what is today French Polynesia.
Traveling from island to island in massive double outrigger canoes, these first people brought with them everything they needed to survive including uru trees, that they planted upon arrival. Soon they propagated this tree, originally from Papua New Guinea, all throughout the archipelagos.
As part of the Moraceae family, the uru is surprisingly big. The tree can grow to be up to 25 m (82 ft) high and be 1.20 m (4 ft) in diameter. One of the uru‘s main characteristics is that one tree has both male and female flowers. This quality makes the tree classed by botanists as being monoecious. The oval or round shaped flowers (that are both male and female) generally bloom from June to September.
On certain islands with more favorable climates such as in the Marquesas Islands, tumu’uru give fruit nearly year-round. Fruit grow in bunches of two to three and turn from green to yellow as they ripen. Uru come in many different varieties – over 50 in French Polynesia alone. The most well-known are the puero, hamoa and huero varieties. On Tahiti the maohi, with its thick foliage is the most widespread. This type of tree gives off round or oval fruit about 15 cm (6 in) in diameter and often covered in resin.
From a small taproot, a new, majestic tree is born. This natural propagation seems relatively easy but does require some effort. In order to give fruit, the tree, whether it’s near the shore or living at an elevation of up to 600 m (1970 ft), or is growing in lime or volcanic soil, must be treated with care. It needs to be trimmed regularly to not grow taller than about 12 m (40 ft) and must receive plenty of sun. Marshy or heavily irrigated areas are to be avoided. Uru trees are highly productive and usually give fruit five years after being planted; after this they can bare fruit for about 50 years. Some varieties give fruit year-round while other species, that bare fruit seasonally, are often tastier. The tree has been the object of on-going research by Polynesian farmers who developed agricultural techniques to activate ripening of the fruit. As talented horticulturalists, Polynesians cross-pollinated varieties using their deep knowledge of each variety and their attributes. The number of varieties we see today are thus the results of the meticulous work of generations of islanders. So even though the Uru seems like a part of nature’s abundance, it is in fact partly due to human labor. Fruit is harvested with a rou uru, a long stick with a fork at the end.
The climate in French Polynesia is divided into two tropical seasons: the wet season and the dry season. Thus in ancient times, the seasons were marked by periods of food shortages when there was little irrigation. Fruit production is much lower in the dry season. For this reason, the uru was especially useful to the ancient Polynesians. For centuries populations knew they could rely on these particularly nourishing fruits to help them get through the toughest periods of the year. The uru was so important it was even a form of currency. Fruit was often given to thank someone for their services or simply given to hosts as a gesture of hospitality and friendliness. In this way the fruit went beyond a form of food and was entrenched in social life. Polynesians have always been very attached to their community social lives and used food as a form of communication. Village get-togethers when everyone prepared food together was a time to exchange, bond and become a part of the heart of the social group. During times of food shortages, the people worked in organized union with each other to cook and prepare the precious fruit.
The people became very inventive about ways to conserve uru to make sure they had provisions during food shortages. Ripe uru rot quickly – in just a few days. In this particularly hot and humid climate with no pottery type of conservation, Polynesians still managed to invent techniques to stock their food. Uru were either cooked or fermented into a paste then stored in pits (mahi) especially made for this purpose. Based on the principal of fruit acid fermentation, mahi were dug throughout all the Polynesian isles to keep food. The islanders stocked these pits that could sometimes be as large as 100 m3 (3,530 ft3) and five meters (16 ft) in depth and diameter, full of their ripe uru when times were plentiful. Mahi are most prevalent in the Marquesas Islands. Conservation by cooking meant cooking excess ripe fruit in a pit oven called an ahimaa – ahi meaning fire and mā’a meaning food. These ovens were dug to about 50 to 80 cm (20 to 30 in) of depth with a diameter of up to 2m (6 ½ ft). Hot stones were carefully arranged at the bottom. After removing the skin, the fruit was cut into chunks and the seeds removed. The fruit pieces were wrapped in leaves, placed in the ahimaa then covered with leaves and hot rocks that were then covered by another layer of leaves and soil. Within about 30 minutes the cooked fruit could be taken out. Once cooked the fruit is called opi’o. The happy moment when the uru was done meant getting all the family and sometimes community together to share and celebrate the meal. Even today a meal cooked in an ahimaa is a special social event for Polynesians.
Nutritious and Satisfying
In ancient and current Polynesian society, the fruit, leaves, bark and every part of the tumu’uru are used daily. Breadfruit are eaten in several different ways, sweet or savory, baked, fried or boiled. Nourishing and satisfying this starchy side dish is part of every traditional Polynesian meal. Eat it roasted, cooked and sliced, mashed or doused in coconut milk. In the 1960s when the Polynesian diet was becoming more Westernized, islanders began eating less breadfruit, replacing it with bread, rice and pasta. Less trees were planted for family food resources. Today uru is making a bit of a comeback in new types of products such as ready-cut packaged peices or as a new type of potato chip. It’s still eaten often in the home and its distinct flavor is now also being explored by chefs who cook it new and creative ways. After a brief hiatus, uru seems to be aspiring to make its way back into the heart of Polynesian society once again.
Rua-ta’ata, Breadfruit origin legend
Raiatea was suffering a devastating famine. Rua-ta’ata and his wife Rumau-ari’i had no more food to feed their children. To stay alive they ate ferns that grew in the mountains. One evening, exhausted from hunger, Rua-ta’ata told his beloved wife that he wished to become a tree, whose fruits could be cooked to nourish his family. He imagined that his hands would become the leaves, his body and legs would become the trunk and branches, his head would be the fruit and his tongue would be the core of the fruit. In the morning his wife discovered to her surprise and relief that his wish had been granted. A breadfruit tree had grown, full of ripe fruit, and the family was saved.
A Central Role in the Mutiny of the Bounty
In 1776, during his exploratory expedition of Tahiti, Captain James Cook made note of the breadfruit, or uru, in his journals. Its nutritional value soon thrust it to center-stage in the legendary drama of the Bounty, one of the most famous maritime expeditions in history. The Bounty was sent to Tahiti by the king of England in 1788, with orders to collect seedlings of the breadfruit and transplant them to the Caribbean colonies, where they would provide an inexpensive food source for the slaves. Once in Tahiti, the crew worked hard to assemble hundreds of seedlings and great care was taken to assure their survival. In contrast, Captain Bligh’s harsh treatment of his crew became less and less tolerable. After the mutiny, which has gone down in history, the breadfruit project was stalled. However, in 1793, the British Admiralty made another attempt, and this time it was successful. The plants were delivered to Jamaica where they flourish today.
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)