Tahiti is part of the Society Islands, a group of 11 major islands and numerous smaller islets in the South Pacific also commonly referred to as French Polynesia; these islands are included geographically as part of East Polynesia by archaeologists. Tahiti is one of the windward isles of the archipelago, along with Maiao, Me’etia, Mo’orea, and Tetiaroa; the leeward isles include Huahine, Maupiti, Porapora, Ra’iatea, Taha’a, and Tupai. Tahiti, a double volcano, is the largest island in the Societies, comprising roughly two thirds of the Societies’ total land area of 1,600 km.
The first human settlement of Tahiti may have occurred as early as 200 BC when settlers from Samoa and/or Tonga moved eastward; this chronology, however, based on dates from the Cook and Marquesas islands, has been disputed by some archaeologists. The earliest acceptable dates hover around AD 600, but because this would include a “long pause” of more than 1500 years between the settlement of Western and Eastern Polynesia, other researchers have argued that the earliest occupation sites have not yet been found. As further work is conducted and radiocarbon chronologies are more accurately determined (especially in places such as the Marquesas) the issue of when settlement actually occurred may be resolved.
Early archaeological research in the Societies began with Kenneth P. Emory in the 1920s and Garanger in the 1960s who primarily studied marae, the stone temples commonly found throughout Eastern Polynesia. Unfortunately, early focus on these ancient structures has resulted in a gap in understanding other aspects of prehistory in Tahiti and the rest of the Society Islands, although this been changing in recent years.
Due to this lack of intensive chronological research, only a basic chronology of human settlement has been proposed for the Society Islands, and primarily for the ‘Opunohu Valley on Mo’orea. For this valley, Roger Green from the University of Auckland proposed four main phases of occupation: 1) the Pre-Atiro’o Phase (AD ??-1000), in which shifting cultivation occurred on the hillsides which led to heavy erosion; 2) the Atiro’o Phase (AD 1000-1650), in which the first evidence for stone structures appeared along with the development of arboriculture, especially of the Tahitian chestnut; 3) the Marama Phase (AD 1650-1788), which was signaled by the conquest of the area by other chiefs, as well as the construction of elaborate marae; and 4) the Pomare Phase (AD 1788-1812), a period when European contact led to massive changes in the traditional lifestyles of local inhabitants. Throughout this cultural sequence, Polynesians in Tahiti and the rest of the Societies were becoming increasingly complex socially and economically, with an elaboration of temples that show an increased control by the social elite.
European contact with Tahiti came after the British explorer Samuel Wallis landed on the island in 1767. The hospitality of the local Pomare family toward these and other Europeans fueled the myth of Polynesia as a “paradise” where people lived and loved freely. As Patrick Kirch noted in 2000, “No island society was more influential in forming eighteenth-century European conceptions of Polynesia and the “noble savage’ than “Otaheite,” purported isle of love and salubrious existence where nature’s bounty made work unnecessary.”
Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, trade and exchange between Tahitians and Europeans grew. One of the most famous trading incidents occurred in 1789 when the H.M.S. Bounty arrived in Tahiti to gather breadfruit trees so to feed slaves in the Caribbean. Captain William Bligh was set adrift with other crewmembers after the ship was captured by the Master’s Mate Fletcher Christian in the famous “mutiny on the Bounty.” The mutineers returned to Tahiti where some of them decided to stay; the others, including Christian, escaped to the remote island of Pitcairn with some Tahitian men and women, forming a small colony. After a violent beginning, they settled down; many of the descendents of Pitcairn today are related to the Bounty’s mutinous sailors.
- Garanger, J. (1967). Archaeology and the Society Islands. In G. A. Highland, R. W. Force, A. Howard, M. Kelly, & Y. H. Sinoto (Eds.), Polynesian culture history: Essays in honor of Kenneth P. Emory, Special Publication No. 56 (pp. 377-396). Honolulu, HI: Bernice P. Bishop Museum.
- Green, R. C. (1996). Settlement patterns and complex society in the Windward Society Islands: Retrospective commentary from the ‘Opunohu
- Valley, Mo’orea. In M. Julien, M. Orliac, & C. Orliac, (Eds.), Mémoire de Pierre, mémoire d’homme: Tradition et archéologie en Océanie, (pp. 209-228). Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne.
- Kirch, P. V. (2000). On the road of the winds: An archaeological history of the Pacific Islands before European contact. Berkeley: University of California Press.