There are a lot of debates about the origins of the Polynesian culture, but one thing we can be sure of is that Polynesia is not just a single tribe. It is a complex one, and every single part is carrying its characteristics and identity.
- The origins of the Polynesian culture.
Polynesians, which include Marquesans, Samoans, Niueans, Cook Islanders, Tongans, Hawaiians, Tahitians, and Māori, are generally connected with indigenous peoples of parts of Southeast Asia.
It is a sub-region of Oceania, which comprises of a large grouping of over 1,000 islands scattered over the central, as well as southern Pacific Ocean, within a triangle that has New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island as its corners.
The people that inhabit the islands of Polynesia are termed Polynesians, and they also share a lot of similar traits, including language, beliefs, and culture.
However, Polynesian languages can vary slightly from one another, and in several cases, they differ quite significantly. There are several words that are the same throughout all the Polynesian languages, reflecting the deepest core of all the Polynesian cultures. The similarity of words reflects how closely related Polynesian cultures are with the ocean because they believe that the ocean guarantees life.
Those people that live on the island are seen as Polynesians for their similar traits in their language, but also in their customs, culture, and society. Some of the most common questions of people are about the differences between Polynesian and Samoan, Marquesans, Tongans, or Tahitian tattoos. The answer is that they are just a branch of Polynesian tattoos, and each of the branches has its subtle features. But, several people know or can realize the differences among them nowadays.
- The origins of the Polynesian tattoo art.
Historically, a writing system was not present in the Polynesian culture at that time, so the Polynesian utilized tattoo art which was full of distinctive signs, to express their personality and identity. Tattoos may also indicate status in a hierarchical society, and sexual maturity, genealogy, and one’s rank within its society. Almost every person in ancient Polynesian society has been tattooed.
The Polynesian islands which were first visited were the Marquesas Islands, which have been found by the European explorers and the Spanish navigator, named Alvaro de Mendana de Neira, in 1595. But, the European navigators showed just little interest because of the lack of valuable resources.
Captain James Cook, who was the first navigator that tried to explore the Polynesian triangle mentioned before.
In 1771, when he first returned to Tahiti and New Zealand, from its first voyage, the word appeared in Europe. He also narrated the behaviors of the Polynesian people in his voyage, which he called tattaw. Also, he brought a Tahitian named Ma’i to Europe, and since then, tattoo started to become quite famous, predominantly because of the tattoos of Ma’i.
There is another legend which says that European sailors liked the Polynesian tattoos so much that they have spread quite fast in Europe as the sailors emblazoned the tattoos on their bodies.
The tradition of Polynesian tattooing existed more than 2000 years ago, but in the 18th century, the Old Testament strictly banned the operation. Since its renaissance in the 1980s, a lot of lost arts were revived. Still, it became very hard to sterilize the wooden and bone tools that were utilized for the process of tattooing, so the Ministry of Health has banned tattooing in French Polynesia in 1986.
The revival of the art and practice of tattooing, especially in Tonga, in recent years, is referred to as a result of the work of scholars, visual artists, researchers, as well as tattoo artists.
Even though several years passed, the techniques and tools of Polynesian tattooing have changed little. For a strictly traditional design, the skill gets handed from the father to the son or master to disciple. Each tattoo artist has learned the craft over many years of serving as the apprentice of the master. They vertically passed their knowledge and rarely spread it widely because of the sacred nature.
- The role of tattoos in the Polynesian culture and their designs.
The tattoo was the way of delivering information about its owner. It is also a traditional method to fetch spiritual power, strength, and prediction. They utilized this as the sign of character, position, as well as levels of hierarchy. Polynesian peoples believe that the mana of a person, his or her spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo. Almost every Polynesian got a tattoo in ancient times.
This tattoo style may vary from island to island. It depends on the degree of evolution of different traditions from the original common tattoo designs, such as Lapita, which is a former Pacific archaeological culture. The ancient original styles mainly consist of simple patterns such as straight lines, repeating on the body. The geometrical styles may be found in Hawaiian and Samoan tattoo traditions, or tattoos from Fiji, Paula, Tong, and so on.
As the age is too far from nowadays, the meanings of the patterns are almost lost, or also debatable. The most utilized styles nowadays, which rather consist of rounded patterns, are from Marquesas Island.