views updated Jun 27 2018


ETHNONYM: Society Islands


Identification. The name "Tahiti"or, as Bougainville first wrote it in 1768, "Taiti," and Cook in 1769, Otaheite"was the name the natives gave their island and which Europeans came to apply to the indigenes. If the Tahitians had a name specifically identifying themselves, it is not known. What is known is that all of those living in the Society Archipelago, including Tahiti, referred to themselves as "Maohi."

Location. The island of Tahiti upon which the Tahitians lived is the largest of the Society Islands and is located in the windward segment of that group at 149°30 W and 17°30 S. It is a high island of volcanic origin with peaks rising above 1,500 meters. The mountainous interior is covered with Forest and ferns while the lower slopes, especially on the leeward side, are brush and reed covered. In the inhabited valleys and coastal plains open stands of indigenous trees and tall grasses were scattered between the cultivated fields of the Tahitians. Wild fowl were said to have been relatively scarce and limited to a few species, pigeons and ducks being specifically mentioned. Wild four-legged creatures were limited to a few small lizards and the Polynesian rat, the latter probably brought by Polynesians.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tahitic language of the Tahitians belongs to the Eastern Polynesian Subgroup of the Malayo-Polynesian Subdivision of the Austronesian Languages.

Demography. Estimates of Tahiti's population in the later years of the eighteenth century varied from as few as 16,050 to approximately 30,000 persons, and thus these estimates are of little factual value. A nineteenth-century decline in population due to wars and diseases is known to have occurred. However, by 1907, after which it was no longer possible to segregate indigenous totals from those of foreigners and immigrant Polynesians from other islands, the number of Tahitians was said to number 11,691.

History and Cultural Relations

Present archaeological evidence supports the view that the Society Islands, of which Tahiti is a part, were the first to be populated in eastern Polynesia from an eastern Polynesia dispersal center in the Marquesas, perhaps as early as a.d. 850. Whether later prehistoric migrants ever reached the Society Islands is an open question. Limited archaeological data and tradition suggest the occurrence of prehistoric Society Island emigrations to New Zealand and Hawaii. However, by Contact times Tahitian voyaging, primarily for political and trade purposes, was limited to the islands of the archipelago and the atolls of the western Tuamotus. In contrast to prehistoric culture change on Tahiti, which had occurred in small increments, the discovery of the island by Wallis in 1767 marked the beginning of strong European acculturative forces Impacting on the traditional life-ways of Tahitians. Except for material goods, the most notable changes occurred with the arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1797. Within several years after their arrival a number of Tahitians, including the paramount chief, Pomare II, had been taught to read and write, and the Christian faith and mores had begun to be accepted. However, objections by more conservative members of the society resulted in a series of internecine wars and it was not until 1815 that Pomare II crushed his opponents and, with the aid of the missionaries, successfully guided a Religious and political modification of the older traditional order. With the development of American and European whaling and sealing activities Tahiti became a prime distribution center for goods. By 1840 South American currencies had come to be accepted as a substitute for the old trading techniques. At the same time, foreign immigrants and investments on the island produced a variety of problems for which the Tahitians were ill prepared. Foreign government overtures to Queen Pomare to establish a protectorate resulted in the French moving quickly to annex the island in 1842 and thus dissolving Tahitian native rule.


Prior to European intervention, Tahitians followed a pattern of dispersed settlements, dwellings being scattered along the coastal plain and up the broader valleys. By the nineteenth century missionary activities and the use by European vessels of safe harbors on the island resulted in the formation of Villages near these locations. The Tahitian house resembled a flattened oval inground plan, the long sides being parallel and the two ends rounded. The thatched roof extended down on all sides from a central ridgepole extending lengthwise along the house. Most dwellings were enclosed by a wall of vertically lashed bamboo poles, a space being left open in the middle of one long side to serve as a doorway. Such structures averaged about 6 meters in length with a width of 3.6 meters and a ridge height of 2.7 meters. However, important chiefs might have buildings measuring as much as 91 meters in length and proportionately wide, with a ridgepole resting some 9 meters above the tamped earthen floor.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Tahitians were horticulturalists raising a variety of tree and tuberous crops as well as plantains, all of which, except sweet potatoes, originated in southeast Asia or Melanesia. Domesticated animals included pigs, dogs, and chickens. Fish, caught by a variety of techniques, were a dominant source of protein. Contact with Europeans resulted in the addition of several American and Old World plants and domesticated animals. During the early nineteenth century a successful pork trade with New South Wales was carried on and this was followed later by exports of coconut oil, sugarcane, and arrowroot. Provisioning of European ships became a major nineteenth-century source of income.

Industrial Arts. Decorated bark cloth was a major aboriginal industrial art created by women and used as clothing, as formal gifts, and for export trade. Bark-cloth production continued into the twentieth century, but such cloth is no longer manufactured.

Trade. Regular aboriginal trading was carried on with the leeward islands of the Society Archipelago and the western atolls of the Tuamotus. The principal item for exchange was bark cloth, to which was added provisions in the case of the Tuamotu atolls. With the arrival of Europeans, iron became the dominant item traded to those atolls. In exchange, Tahitians obtained dog hair, pearls, and pearl shells from the Tuamotus and coconut oil and canoes from the leeward islands.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, general construction work and manufacturing of tools, weapons, canoes, and fishing gear was men's work, as was fishing, major ritualism, and warfare. Women created bark cloth, wove mats, and fashioned clothing from both materials. Farming was shared by both sexes.

Land Tenure. At the time of contact landownership with the right of inheritance was recognized for those of the chiefly and commoner classes, with only the lower class, known as teuteu, being excluded. Such lands were subject to taxation in kind by the ruling chiefs who could banish an owner if such taxes were not forthcoming. Missionary activity in the nineteenth century seems to have resulted in at least some of the teuteu class obtaining land rights.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent was bilateral with Social weight tending to favor patrilateral ties. Consanguineal and, perhaps, affinal kin were grouped in what have been referred to as kin congregations who worshiped their own tutelar deity at their group religious structure, referred to as a marae. Primogeniture was important in ranking within the kin congregation. While women were excluded from the marae of the large kin congregations, that was not always true for marae of smaller kin congregations.

Kinship Terminology. The term matahiapo was applied to firstborn as well as all representatives of a family stock descended in the line of the firstborn. Teina was used to distinguish younger brothers, sisters, and cousins who were not matahiapo; otherwise, the Hawaiian type of kinship terminology was used.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Tahitians disapproved of marriage between close consanguineal kin, but how close was never made clear. However, marriage was not permitted between those of differing social classes. Therefore, children resulting from a sexual relationship between partners of differing classes were killed upon birth. In the eighteenth century young couples were required to obtain the permission of their parents before Marriage, and among the chiefly class early betrothal was said to be the norm and concubinage was common. Marriage Ceremonies, when present, consisted of prayers at a marae. There appeared to be no fixed residency requirement and divorce was by common consent.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family was the dominant unit.

Inheritance. The firstborn son became the head of the family at birth and succeeded to his father's name, lands, and title, if any. The father then served as the child's regent until he became of age. In the event of the firstborn dying, the next son succeeded him. There is some indication that in the absence of male offspring, an oldest daughter might be the inheritor.

Socialization. Children were raised permissively by their parents, although those of the chiefly class were given a degree of education through teachers of that class. Men and women ate separately, and there was a variety of restrictions regarding who might prepare another's meal.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. During the eighteenth century, there were basically three social classes: the ari'i, or chiefs; the Commoners, variously known as manahuni or ra'atira; and the laboring and servant class known as teuteu. Only the last group could not own land. By the beginning of the nineteenth Century, perhaps because of European influence, a fourth class called titi, consisting of slaves derived from warfare, had been added.

Political Organization. In the early years of European contact Tahitian tribes were grouped into two major territorial units. One constituted the larger northwestern portion of the island and was known as Tahiti Nui, while the other consisted of the southeastern Taiarapu Peninsula and was known as Tahiti Iti. Each maintained a paramount chief of socioReligious power. Below this highest position were chiefs who ruled over what may be likened to districts. These were Divided into smaller units and managed by inferior ranked chiefs. A paramount chief's power was not unlimited, since important matters affecting most or all of his region were decided by a council of high-ranking chiefs. Paramountcy was not totally preordained, as wars and kinship alliances served to maintain such a status. It was with European aid and combinations of these factors that the Pomare paramountcy was maintained well into the nineteenth century.

Social Control. Fear of divine retribution was a major Control, while human sacrifice and a variety of corporal punishments for secular antisocial behavior were also used as sanctions. Justice in the latter cases was determined by a district chief, and the right to appeal to one's paramount chief was available.

Conflict. Confusion regarding tribal territories and overindulgence of chiefly demands for products and services were sources of irritation. At the time of European contact, warfare for chiefly aggrandizement, rather than territorial acquisition, was dominant. By the close of the eighteenth century the European tradition of warfare for territorial gain had been added to the traditional theme of warfare. Minor interpersonal conflicts were resolved by each antagonist being allowed to exhibit publicly his strong resentment of whatever indiscretion had caused the conflict, after which both parties soon reconciled. However, more important conflicts were settled by a district chief, the antagonists having the right to appeal his decision to the paramount chief if not satisfied.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Just as with Tahitian society, native Religion recognized a ranked series of gods starting with one supreme deity and passing down through lesser gods and subordinates to individual family spirits of departed relatives. Religion was centered on regional, tribal, and kin tutelar deities, although a few of the gods transcended such limitations and were, in effect, supratribal deities. Gods required a wide variety of appeasements in order to ensure the continued welfare of the individual as well as the tribe. Early nineteenth century missionary activity successfully substituted Christian beliefs for the earlier traditional ones.

Religious Practitioners. Aboriginally, priests were of the chiefly class and were of two kinds. There were those who conducted formal rituals during which the gods were prayed to and appeased by gifts in order to gain their favor. Others were inspirational priests through whom particular gods spoke and offered oracular advice. All priests received some sort of payment for their activities and many were believed to have powers of sorcery. With the nineteenth-century acceptance of Christianity, various Tahitians, not all necessarily of the chiefly class, were trained by the missionaries to become lay preachers.

Ceremonies. Religious ceremonies were carried out in marae, most of which were tabooed to women. Some Ceremonies were seasonal affairs, while others pertained to war and peace, thanksgiving, atonement, and critical life-cycle events of chiefs. The degree of ceremonialism was dependent upon the deity and the importance of the marae, those for Commoners in districts and smaller land divisions being the least elaborate.

Arts. Drumsand, in the early nineteenth century, shell trumpetswere the only musical instruments used during ceremonies. The raised platforms of certain marae were decorated with carved boards, while the god, Oro, was personified by a wickerwork cylinder enclosing sacred feathers. The culture-hero god, Maui, was represented by a large humanoid wicker figure covered with patterns of feathers. Plaited masks were worn during certain ceremonies on the Taiarapu Peninsula.

Medicine. Obvious ailments such as sores and open wounds were treated with herbal medicines and poultices, and splints were applied to broken bones. Less obvious illnesses were thought to occur as a result of sorcery, contact with a sacred individual or object, or the anger of one's god. Curing was attempted through priestly prayers and offerings. Among the chiefly class, these cures were performed at the patient's marae and might include human sacrifices.

Death and Afterlife. Untimely death was thought to be because of the anger of one's god, while death through aging was regarded as a natural process. Rank determined the extent of expressions of mourning and the length of time the corpse was exposed on a platform before burial. In the case of high-ranking members of the chiefly class, this time factor was greatly extended by evisceration and oiling of the body. Simple burial, secretive for those of high rank, was customary. There is some indication that cremation was employed for certain individuals on the Taiarapu Peninsula. Among the upper classes human relics were preserved. For some, the afterlife was seen as a state of nothingness, but for others it was believed to be a happy life, for rank in the spirit world remained the same as in life.

See alsoHawaiians, Marquesas, Rapa, Raroia


Ferdon, Edwin N. (1981). Early Tahiti as the Explorers Saw It. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Newbury, Colin (1980). Tahiti Nui: Change and Survival in French Polynesia, 1767-1945. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.

Oliver, Douglas L. (1974). Ancient Tahitian Society. 3 vols. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.



views updated May 11 2018

Tahiti Island in the s Pacific Ocean, in the Windward group of the Society Islands, the largest in French Polynesia and accounting for more than half its population. Tahiti is mountainous, rising to 2237m (7339ft), but also fertile – producing tropical fruits, copra, sugar cane, and vanilla. Charted in 1767 by the British navigator Samuel Wallis and explored by Captain Cook, France colonized it in 1880. Paul Gauguin lived and painted here. Industries: tourism, pearl-fishing, phosphates. Area: 1058sq km (408sq mi). Pop. (1996) 150,000.