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.