Bernice P. Bishop Mus., Bull.


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The Marquesas tribes were in a continual state of warfare. Du Petit-Thouars reports that in the year 1837 there were five or six wars on Hiva Oa alone. On Nuku Hiva during the first year of the occupancy of the Catholic Mission twenty human sacrifices were offered. These facts probably indicate many raids and retaliations. When two tribes were actually at war, there was little chance that peace would be declared until one or the other had been completely overthrown and driven from the land, since, after every less conclusive victory, there remained always the duty of retaliation and revenge. But by means of the rite of hami oa a state of peace could be brought about between the two tribes without the complete overthrow of either.

There were two basic causes of all wars. The first was the necessity of securing human sacrifices at certain times for offerings to the tribal god, such sacrifices being always obtained from an enemy tribe. The second cause was revenge, the occasion being frequently the killing or stealing of men, women, or children for sacrifices on the part of another tribe, or possibly the necessity or demand for revenge growing out of an insult to the tribe. If one tribe that went to visit another were received in an unfriendly and inhospitable spirit, the visiting tribe, thus insulted by not being offered the usual courtesies, would return home and prepare for war. War has even been made by one chief on another to avenge personal slights or insults.

When a member of a family had been killed, it was incumbent on every fighting member of the family to avenge the death by blood. The duty was particular with the immediate relatives of the man killed, but extended in general to the whole tribe. The sign of a debt of revenge unpaid was the shaving of the head on one side, leaving a long lock hanging down upon the chest on the other. The lock was held together toward the lower section by a little cylinder of bone (puo), a piece of bamboo (puo kohe), or a small tiki head carved out of human bone (puo), of the same form as the tiki used for holding together drum cords. According to Dordillon pearl shell was sometimes threaded in this lock of hair. At the great feast place of Pekia in Atu Ona, Hivo On, there is in the large platform before the one on which the chief’s house stood, a pit into which was put the hair shaved from the heads of men that owed a duty of revenge. In Pekia the revenge victims were brought to this feast place.

The act of repaying a revenge debt was called umu heana (uma, oven; heana, human victims). If a man’s brother were killed, he would either arouse the tribe himself or take the matter to the chief, who would send his warriors to seek a victim from the other tribe; or else the man might merely collect a group of friends and go raiding into the valley of the other tribe seeking any man, woman, or child who could be killed and brought home. Such revenge victims were always eaten, unless the heana were a child under three years of age. An infant victim was strangled, placed on the heads of old men, and carried to the sacred place (me’ae) to be presented to the priest (tau’a) for the tribal god. The only persons who could not partake of the victim were the parents of the deceased person for whose revenge the heana was taken. To them the first captive was tapu; all others after the first they could, however, eat. Some informants say that women were not eaten, but this is contradicted by others and also by the manuscripts of the Catholic missionaries.

The eating of the revenge victim was based on the conception of the complete annihilation or absorption of his personality. Tipi te’e was a term applied to the following practice in connection with a victim seized to revenge the death of a fellow tribesman: a small bit of flesh of the victim was given to each member of the tribe and was eaten by the recipient. Such eating made the revenge complete.

War might be a definitely organized and planned campaign, or a series of attacks on the part of a tribe or group of allied tribes; or it might be on a simpler scale, merely raiding from one valley into another. He toua signified organized war. When there was trouble between tribes and a solution of the difficulty without war seemed desirable, chiefs would send ambassadors, men who for one reason or another would be given safe conduct, to talk over the matter with the chief and his people. If no agreement could be reached, war followed. These ambassadors, according to the information that I could obtain, appear always to have been men of some tribal importance, who, through relationships of marriage, adoption, or e inoa[naming], had some family bond in the enemy tribe that would give them protection.

Before a great war the chief of the aggressive tribe or the one that expected to be attacked sent one of his warriors to summon his allies. This messenger was called pa’e vi’i(pa’e, headdress; vi’i, to make a tour). Dordillon gives pa’e vi’i toua, with the meaning to announce war, to invite to war. This messenger wore on his back the leaf of a coconut tree shredded into small strips (kahu koua’ehi), a sign of tapu. Following his call, all the fighting men betook themselves to the precincts of the chief who was summoning them. The blowing of the chief’s conch trumpet meant a summons to war. The trumpet was not carried into battle, however. When the fighters were all gathered together in the warrior’s home, a chant called the puko toua, or pa’e vi’i toua, was intoned by the warriors. Formal declaration of war (utu po) consisted in going on the mountain tops in view of the enemy tribe and uttering war cries, or, in later times, of firing a few gunshots. . . .

While it is evident from the following description by Melville that there were individuals among the people who aroused the excitement of fighters before war by oratory, there were, so far as I know, no formal orators such as those in Tahiti. Melville says, describing a speaker:

"The effect he produced upon his audience was electric; one and all they stood regarding him with sparkling eyes and trembling limbs, as though they were listening to the inspired voice of a prophet."

War parties were dispatched to the scene of action by the chief and led by the toa [war leaders]. The place where the fighting took place was called mata vai. The scene of action was usually in the uplands between valleys, although sometimes large bodies of warriors would invade a valley from behind or from the side. Fighting was always by day. The wives of the warriors would follow them by some safe route to a point where they could see the fighting, going dressed in all their finery as though for a feast. They supported their men with spells, crying: "Into the ground the shot! Into the ground the shot! In vain! In vain! To the land! To the land! It is the shot of the god! It is the gun of the god." If a husband were shot, his woman lamented, e aue! e aue! e aue! alas! alas! alas! Dordillon gives the word toakaihau as meaning the cry uttered by women during combat; and tomoa, a cry of encouragement by women. The inspirational priest sometimes went with the warriors and stood on a high point from which he could watch the combat, uttering a spell to cause the missiles of the enemy to go into the earth rather than into his people. It is said that the ceremonial priest remained at the temple chanting. Porter describes one method of showing derision of the enemy: "They scoffed at our men, and exposed their posteriors to them, and treated them with the utmost contempt and derision." Other methods of showing derision consisted in sticking out the tongue, and holding down the under margin of the right eye with the forefinger. Porter describes their manner of fighting as follows:

"Their general mode of fighting consists in constant skirmishing. The adverse parties assemble on the brows of opposite hills, having a plain between them. One or two, dressed out in all their finery, richly decorated with shells, tufts of hair, ear ornaments, etc., etc., advance, dancing up to the opposite party, amid a shower of spears and stones (which they avoid with great dexterity) and daring the other to single combat. They are soon pursued by a greater number, who are in turn driven back; and if in their retreat they should chance to be knocked over with a stone, they are instantly dispatched with spears and war clubs, and carried off in triumph. It was shocking to see the manner they treated such as were knocked over with a shot; they rushed on them with their war clubs, and soon dispatched them; then each seemed anxious to dip his spear into the blood, which nothing could induce them to wipe off—the spear, from that time, bore the name of the dead warrior, and its value, in consequence of that trophy, was greatly enhanced."

Porter also describes the raiding of enemy parties into valleys, destroying houses and plantations and killing breadfruit trees by girdling. As soon as a victim was obtained, the raiding party would retire from the field. In prolonged wars the warriors returned every evening to their sleeping and eating houses, resuming the combat next morning. It is impossible to tell how sustained and how bloody were wars in the ancient days. Hiva Oa informants insist that there was one great war in which all the eastern end of the island fought all the western end, all the warriors of the former being slain. It seems very doubtful whether there were any engagements of a very serious nature, since to the native fighting was entirely a matter of individual personal combat, quick assault, and quick flight or pursuit. There appears never to have been any genuine organization of fighting men.

The first victim slain in battle was always slung on a pole, like a pig, between two men and carried home to be offered to the tribal god. The body was carried to the temple and presented to the priest, who placed it on the alter (ka’au) and left it there. . . .

Captives who were taken alive to the tribal feast place to be sacrificed were called tinaka. Those destined for the tribal god were taken into the temple, where they were killed and sacrificed with the reciting of the chant called haihai heana; the body was suspended in a coconut tree, left there for three days, then cut up and buried in the ground. The heads of all victims were presented to the tribal god, were consecrated in the temple, and were then returned to the captor, the eyes, however, being given to the chief. Those victims that were destined to be eaten were killed on the feast place and there cut up and distributed. Hanoa meant to attach a victim to a pole in order to carry him. Ta ika (ta, strike; ika, fish) was a term applied to those who went to search for human sacrifices, and the words tau ta ika meant to go in search of human victims. An enemy was called ika, fish. Naked captives and dead bodies were brought back slung on a pole between two men. Hauiui was the god who presided over the carrying of human victims on the shoulder pole (amo). Those who carried the body to the feast places were covered with coconut leaves shredded into small strips, indicating that they were tapu. Before carrying the body into the feast place, they went to the temple, and, taking a pig that had been fed by the attendants of the sacred precincts, they dismembered it alive and ate it while the flesh was raw and bloody. They had to eat standing.

Victims that were obtained definitely to revenge the death of a tribesman were treated with far greater cruelty than those who were merely war captives or sacrifices demanded by the gods. Such revenge victims were subjected to extreme torture, which appears to have been the expression of a frenzy of revengeful hate resulting from extreme concentration upon the thought of vengeance. Langsdorff describes the tearing open of a victim’s skull on the field of battle and the eating of his brains on the spot. Krusenstern was told that warriors tore off the heads of their victims and sipped the blood.

The manuscript of Père Pierre gives a number of terms describing various modes of treatment of captives and victims for sacrifice and eating. Heake tutu pohue una meant to burn the victim alive; kopu kiki or kopu epo tikao me te poo kenae, was applied to the pulling out of the entrails of living victims by inserting in the orifice of the anus sticks of thorny kenae (flamboyant); heaka hi (hi, to fish with a line) is described as consisting in attaching a victim to a hook, throwing his body into the water, drawing it out, throwing it back in again, and so on, until the victim expired. In the rite called vai titi a live victim was attached to four posts by his limbs and roasted over a fire on the seashore. One of the most cruel of the tortures consisted in roasting a live victim by slow degrees, burying him in the sand on the shore and building fires around him. Heaka tao meant to roast a foe in an oven; heaka te’i, to dismember a victim; and heaka makoke, to parcel out his flesh. The body was cut up with a bamboo knife or a sharp stone. Taava and Taavi were the patron gods of all these practices associated with human sacrifice. Victims were sometimes suspended alive on a hook attached to the chin, the lips, or the nostrils.

The bones and certain other parts of revenge victims not offered to the tribal gods were regarded as the prizes of the victim’s captors. The warrior who brought home a victim for sacrifice or part of one was thereafter called by the name of his victim. The pudendum of a woman was sometimes attached to a lock of a victorious warrior’s hair and was worn as a sign of his prowess. Fingers were saved and worn on the loincloth of the captor. Other long bones were used in making ornaments, fan handles, hair and drum-cord binders, and fishhooks. But the most important of the prizes was the head. The skull and the name of a foe went to the man who killed him. This and other relics such as hands, for example, were consecrated and dried by the priest in the temple by means of some rite of which I have no account, and were then returned to the victor. When warriors went into battle they wore these prizes on the loincloth, on the ankle, or hanging down on the back by a cord from the neck. Langsdorff describes such ornaments of the warrior as being decorated with hog’s bristles, and having the underjaw fastened to it ingeniously with coconut fibers, and Marchand tells us that warriors sometimes wore three of these trophies at one time. In peace times these prizes were hung up in the houses or wrapped in cloth and secreted. . . . Dried hands were sometimes tied to the pendant tails of the loin cloth, or at the waist. A warrior would wear only pieces of skulls if he possessed many.

Kopeka ka’ahu ahi (kopeka, cross; ka’ahu ahi, charcoal) or kaue heaka was a rite that allowed the mother, sister, aunt, or wife of a man who had been taken as a revenge victim to go unmolested to the valley of his captors and curse them. A woman going on such an errand clothed herself in leaves and put a hibiscus flower in her hair. On Hiva Oa it was customary for her to oil her hair and body and cover them with red clay and ashes, but on Nuku Hiva to smear the forehead and cheeks instead with Soot in the form of a cross. She carried to the house of the killer a little breadfruit paste and some noni fruits. These she threw down in the road before the house and said, "Here is your food; bring me your murderer." Then, it is said, there would appear to her like two ghosts the wraith of the murderer and that of his victim. The woman would then dance, striking her body with her hands. If she saw the ghost of the murderer precede that of his victim it was a sign that he would be taken in turn and offered for human sacrifice. The ghost of the victim being that of a dead man was to be recognized by the feebleness of his gait. This ceremony was considered as a form of mourning on the part of the female relative. A man attempting to perform this rite would be killed, but a woman so clothed and decorated was not touched.

A relative living in the valley in which a captive was to be sacrificed, could save his kinsman from being eaten by consecrating him to the tribal gold, for sacrifices to gods were not eaten. When a victim had been captured and cooked, one of his relatives would attempt to get one of the stones of the oven in which the body was cooked, the stone was wrapped in a piece of sacred white cloth and worn as a neck pendant, and as a protection against the spirit of the murdered man.

A truce between two tribes at war was often called, in order to allow the celebration of one of the great harvest or funerary festivals. Sometimes such a truce was indicated by the planting of a coconut branch on the top of a mountain between the tribes at war. At the time of these great festivals all the people of all tribes, whether enemies or friends, came together, war being tapu. Those visiting in an unfriendly or enemy valley always came, however, armed against possible eventualities, and held themselves ready to depart suddenly, for such times were frequently chosen by the inspirational priest to quickly terminate the festival and announce that his god was demanding human sacrifices.1

1Handy, E.S. C.n/an/an/an/a, "The Native Culture in the Marquesas," , 9: 123–141.


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Chicago: "Bernice P. Bishop Mus., Bull.," Bernice P. Bishop Mus., Bull. in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed July 18, 2019,

MLA: . "Bernice P. Bishop Mus., Bull." Bernice P. Bishop Mus., Bull., Vol. 9, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 18 Jul. 2019.

Harvard: , 'Bernice P. Bishop Mus., Bull.' in Bernice P. Bishop Mus., Bull.. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 18 July 2019, from