Around 4000 BC, a great migration began from Southeast
Asia across open ocean to settle the Pacific Islands.
Many researchers conclude that Tonga and Samoa were
settled around 1300 BC and from here colonization
voyages were launched to the Marquesas Islands in
about 200 BC. Over the next several centuries, great
migrations to colonize all the Tahitian islands
and virtually the entire South Pacific took place.
This area of the Pacific ocean is now called the
“Polynesian Triangle” and includes Hawaii
to the north, Easter Island to the southeast, and
New Zealand to the southwest. As a result of these
migrations, the native Hawaiians and the Maoris
of New Zealand all originate from common ancestors
and speak a similar language collectively known
The era of European exploration began in the 1500s
when “ships without outriggers” began
to arrive. In 1521, Magellan spotted the atoll of
Pukapuka in what is now the Tuamotu Atolls and,
in 1595, the Spanish explorer Mendaña visited
Fatu Hiva Island in the Marquesas. More than 170
years later, Captain Samuel Wallis and the H.M.S.
Dolphin was the first to visit the island of
Tahiti during his journey to discover terra australis
incognita, a mythical landmass below the equator
thought to balance the northern hemisphere. Wallis
named the island of Tahiti “King George III
Island” and claimed it for England. Soon after
and unaware of Wallis’ arrival, French navigator
Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, landed on the opposite
side of Tahiti and claimed it for the King of France.
European fascination with the islands grew as news
spread of both the mutiny of Capt. William Bligh’s
crew aboard the H.M.S. Bounty and of tales
of tropical beauty and the warm nature of the Tahitian
people. Knowledge of Tahiti and the South Pacific
continued to grow as Capt. James Cook brought back
thousands of illustrations of Tahitian flora and
fauna as well as the first map of the islands of
the Pacific. In the 1800s, the arrival of whalers,
British missionaries, and French military expeditions
forever changed the way of life on Tahiti and created
a French-British rivalry for control of the islands.
The Pomare Dynasty ruled Tahiti until 1847 when
Queen Pomare finally accepted French protection
of the islands of Tahiti and Moorea.
In 1880, following the queen’s death, King
Pomare V was persuaded to cede Tahiti and most of
its dependencies to France. In 1957, all the islands
of Tahiti were reconstituted as the overseas French
territory called French Polynesia. Since 1984, a
statue of autonomy was implemented and, in 1998,
French Polynesia became an overseas country with
greater self-governing powers through their own
Assembly and President. With these powers, the country
is now negotiating international agreements with
foreign states in matters of commerce and investment.
The Tahitians of the modern era maintain their
heritage and traditions of their Maohi ancestors.
Oral history recounts the adventures of gods and
warriors in colorful legends where javelin throwing
was the sport of the gods, surf riding was favored
by the kings, and Aito strongmen competed in outrigger
canoe races and stone lifting as a show of pure
strength. The Tahitian culture is rich in the islands, welcoming visitors from all over the world.
The open-air sanctuaries called Marae were once
the center of power in ancient Polynesia. These
large, sacred, stone structures, akin to temples, hosted
the important events of the times including the
worship of the gods, peace treaties, celebrations
of war, and the launch of voyages to colonize distant
Heiva i Tahiti
In celebration of ancient traditions and competitions,
the annual Heiva festival has been the most important
event in Tahiti for the past 122 years. For visitors,
there is no better place in the world to be during
July than surrounded by this pure display of Polynesian
festivity. Tahitians gather in Papeete from many
islands to display their crafts, compete in ancient
sporting events, and recreate traditional and elaborate
The word tattoo originated in French Polynesia. The legend
of Tohu, the god of tattoo, describes painting all
the oceans’ fish in beautiful colors and patterns.
In Polynesian culture, tattoos have long been considered
signs of beauty, and in earlier times were ceremoniously
applied when reaching adolescence.
The beauty, drama, and power of today’s Tahitian
dance testify to its resilience in Polynesian culture.
In ancient times, dances were directly linked with
all aspects of life. One would dance for joy, to
welcome a visitor, to pray to a god, to challenge
an enemy, and to seduce a mate. Dance is still accompanied
by traditional musical instruments such as thunderous
drums, conch shells, and harmonic nasal flutes.
Modern Tahitian music is enjoyable as well, with
a sound that often blends Polynesian rhythm and
The skills of the ancestors’ artistry are
kept sacred and passed on by both the “mamas,”
the guardians of tradition and the matriarchs of
Tahitian society as well as by skilled craftsmen.
Items include weaving, quilting, wooden sculptures
and bowls, drums, tapa, carvings, and hand-dyed
Centuries before the Europeans concluded that the
earth was round, the great voyagers of Polynesia
had already mastered the Pacific Ocean. Aboard massive,
double-hulled outrigger canoes called tipairua,
they navigated by stars and winds. Today, the canoe
still plays a role in everyday Tahitian life and
is honored in colorful races and festivals throughout
Tropical flowers seem to be everywhere on the islands,
particularly in the hair of Tahitians. Hibiscus
blossoms are worn behind the ear or braided with
palm fronds into floral crowns. The Tiare Tahiti flower, which can only be found in Tahiti, is used in leis for greeting arriving visitors
and returning family. Tradition holds that, if taken,
women and men wear a flower behind their left ear.