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Tikis at the edge of the world – part two

Continued from part one

Iipona tikis at Puamau
Twelve miles from Atuona, the main settlement on the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, is the tiny village of Puamau, on the east of the island, looking out towards the great blue vastness of the Pacific ocean. It takes two dramatic, hot and bumpy hours in a four-wheel drive to get there. The dirt roads are treacherous, winding around impossibly spiky volcanic headlands with sheer drops on either side, through the rainforest, over peaks and around ridges. It's no wonder that until very recently, the only way to get anywhere in the Marquesas was on horseback. With resources on the island so scarce (everything except fruit, fish and chickens has to be imported) we were lucky to get there; the island's one petrol station was almost out of fuel and the supply boat wasn't due in for 48 hours.

The reason for our trip to Puamau was to see the Iipona archaeological site in which five giant tikis stand facing east, among a rubble of pae paes (stone platforms), standing stones, stone steps and ceremonial terraces. I have to tell you that this site blew my mind.

A giant polissoir stands at the side of track which leads you up to the site.

The first tiki you reach is the so-called 'flying tiki' (proper name Maki Taua Pepe) which is supposed to represent a woman lying on her stomach giving birth – though as a mother I can tell you that lying on one's front to give birth is a very silly idea. On the tiki's pedestal is a carved a strange creature perhaps a dog, though to me it looked more like a llama, but what this meant I couldn't begin to guess.

The largest tiki here, called Takaii, is the largest in Polynesia except for Easter Island's moai. It stands 2.67m tall and dominates the site.

There are 3 other tikis here too, standing in this hot jungle clearing. Our driver/guide and a French couple we were travelling with saw our enthusiasm and left us while they went off elsewhere. For an hour and half not a single other visitor came to this spectacular and wild place. This gave us time to think about the complexity of the site: the skill in carving these stones, laying out the vast site, and what did it all mean? Were the tikis the effigies of real ancestral warrior chiefs? Or perhaps god or spirits? How were they used? Did people make offerings? Were the stones sacred? Did they have special powers or were they taboo? Despite being used until a few centuries ago until Europeans came, no one seems to know.

On a nearby pae pae a number of disembodied tiki heads had been placed, lost from their original location indicating that at one time perhaps there were very many more complete tikis here.

A tiny glimpse perhaps, of an early obsession to replicate giant humanoid statues which became out of control on Easter eventually causing its civilisation to collapse?

Our driver collected us and took us down to nearby pension Chez Marie Antoinette for lunch. She had cooked us a delicious vegetarian lunch of rice, avocado and lime, starfruit, fried bananas in coconut, an unidentified glutinous vegetable and fried breadfruit chips. I particularly wanted to try breadfruit as I have long been fascinated by the story of HMS Bounty which came to Tahiti in 1787 to collect breadfruit saplings.

In Marie Antoinette's beautiful garden stood a finely built pae pae and four tombs, including the tomb of the last chief of the Puamau valley who died early in the 20th century.

His tomb was decorated by two small tikis standing guard – clearly they were much older that the tomb. As we travelled through Hiva Oa, we saw many randomly placed giant ancient carved stones, some just lying at the roadside, or reclaimed in people's gardens; one even had a horse tethered to it.

A copra worker burned coconut husks in the forest nearby and a pall of blue smoke crept through the trees. It was very atmospheric. This place took four flights on planes which got ever smaller, nine and half time zones, hours of research and months of saving my pennies to reach. It's so remote and isolated that it doesn't even appear in many atlases. An overwhelming feeling of standing at the very edge of the world hit me and I loved it.

Jane Posted by Jane
7th March 2009ce

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