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Tahitian Royalty Getaway

A team of archaeologists has uncovered two ancient archery platforms and a huge open-air altar on the Polynesian atoll of Teti’aroa, once owned by Hollywood icon Marlon Brando. The finds are the strongest evidence yet that the island, located 52 km (30 miles) north of Tahiti, was the exclusive preserve of the Tahitian royal family in the 18th century CE.

Lagoon on Teti’aroa. Image credit: Guillaume Molle.

Lagoon on Teti’aroa. Image credit: Guillaume Molle.

Teti’aroa is the only atoll in the Windward group of the Society Islands, which is considered to be the home of some of the most stratified chiefdoms in Polynesia.

Oral traditions mention connections between Teti’aroa and a junior line of chiefs from the Papeno’o valley on the north coast of Tahiti Nui.

Early historical records describe permanent occupations of the atoll by small communities under the domination of chiefly lines from the united district of Porionu’u, also on the north coast of Tahiti, with regular exchange of manufactured goods and natural resources between the two islands during the 18th century CE.

The proximity and intervisibility with the high islands of Tahiti and Mo’orea, some 52 km distant, suggest that the atoll was known and visited by Polynesian colonizers throughout prehistory, perhaps since the 11th century CE as indicated by the earliest archaeological and paleoenvironmental evidence of human presence in the region.

“Teti’aroa is the only coral atoll in the Windward Islands and its striking scenery and abundance of fish, birds and turtles would have been very attractive to them,” said Dr. Guillaume Molle, an archaeologist at the Australian National University.

“In 1961, Marlon Brando fell in love with Teti’aroa — as well as his on-screen love interest — while filming Mutiny on the Bounty there, prompting him to seek ownership of the atoll for his private enjoyment.”

Dr. Molle and colleagues identified and mapped 115 ancient structures, including 25 significant ceremonial sites, on Teti’aroa.

One of these ceremonial structures is 55 m (180.5 feet) long and 8 m (26 feet) wide and is among the largest open-air temples, or marae, in the Society Islands.

“Tahitian chiefs lived a 45 km (28 miles) canoe ride away on Tahiti, but we know they would leave the high volcanic mountains and fertile valleys for the ultimate getaway break to Teti’aroa,” Dr. Molle said.

“These new finds could confirm the atoll was used as a place of retreat for the elites of Tahitian society.”

Evidence like the archery platforms give the strongest indication for the presence of the chiefs on Teti’aroa.

“No commoner would have been allowed to mount an archery platform because it was a very elite sport in Tahitian society used for displays of strength, power (mana) and status and we have two here on Teti’aroa,” Dr. Molle said.

While the chiefs were practicing archery, their children were involved in the ‘ritual of fattening.’

“The children were kept inside a special dwelling so they could avoid the Sun and they’d be fed for weeks on end,” Dr. Molle said.

“They were fed the high-calorie fermented paste of the breadfruit mixed with coconut water to fatten the children, and with their fairer skin, they’d be presented to the rest of Tahitian society as the royal heirs.”

“It has a main altar, or ahu, which today looks a bit like a giant pile of coral blocks with some internal compartments to it. We believe this may have been used to contain ritual offerings, probably bound up in the cult of the ancestors, a strong feature of the Polynesian culture.”

“Unusually we found carved volcanic stones on some nearby assembly platforms which we think could have come from Tonga or New Zealand, a distance of over 4,000 km (2,485 miles) away.”

“This shows an enormous commitment of labor and materials which could only have been set in motion by a high-ranking individual in society, very likely the Pōmare dynasty.”

“Along with the oval-shaped meeting houses we found and other domestic and horticultural structures it indicates the whole island was set-up and managed to support the elite activities of the Tahitian chiefs.”

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G. Molle et al. 2019. The long-term history of Teti’aroa (Society Islands, French Polynesia): New archaeological and ethnohistorical investigations. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 10 (2): 55-62

Aymeric Hermann et al. 2019. Geochemical sourcing of volcanic materials imported into Teti’aroa Atoll shows multiple long-distance interactions in the Windward Society Islands, French Polynesia. Archaeology in Oceania 54 (3): 184-199; doi: 10.1002/arco.5187

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