Image Canoe figure, 19th century

TLF ID R5407

This is a 19th-century wood sculpture from the Marquesas Islands (eastern Polynesia), believed to be a canoe prow. A male figure sits upon a T-shaped platform, his legs held up by a smaller, facing figure whose head is missing. The figures are covered in fine surface carving with the hands resting on the stomach of the carved figure. The main figure has pierced ears and on the back of its head there are two pierced lugs which could have held the cords for strings of feathers or other fibre decorations commonly used on canoe prows. The carving measures 3.75 m (l) x 2.60 m (w) x 2.20 m (h).

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset represents a tiki or human figure from the Marquesas Islands - these tiki appeared in many forms, ranging from large stone deities and carved wooden house posts to small stone figurines used by priests in rituals; this particular tiki figure is a rare three-dimensional wooden image largely confined to canoe carvings.
  • It originates from a group of islands with a combined land area of 1,274 sq km, some 600 to 1,000 km from Tahiti in eastern Polynesia - the Marquesas are part of French Polynesia and the furthest island group in the world from any continent; the small group was first discovered by Europeans in 1595 when the Spanish explorer Ålvaro de Mendaña de Neira gave the name Marquesas Islands to the group, known to the indigenous people as Te Henua Enata or the Land of Men; in 1595 the island group had an estimated population of 100,000; through contact with European and US explorers from the late 18th century, the Marquesas Islands were exposed to diseases such as smallpox, resulting in the population declining to 20,000 by the mid-19th century, and a little over 2,000 by the beginning of the 20th century; it had recovered slightly to 8,700 in 2002.
  • It illustrates the links between New Zealand and the Marquesas Islands - Mäori had similar small extensively carved human figures at the base of the taurapa (stern post) of their waka (canoes); Mäori also wore carved pendants in human form known as hei tiki, which were similar to Marquesan jewellery made from human bone.
  • It connects the importance of the canoe in the pattern of settlement of Polynesia, sometimes referred to as 'island hopping' - the Marquesas were most likely settled some 2,250 years ago and most likely from Samoa, according to ethnological and linguistic evidence.
  • It illustrates the links between the islands of Polynesia through the practice of tattooing - this tiki displays the full body tattoo of Marquesan men which is similar to the traditional Samoan pe'a, or body tattoo, and the Mäori practice of ta moko, which evidence suggests came to New Zealand from eastern Polynesia.

Other details

  • Content provider
  • Copyright holder
  • Organisation: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Remarks: Reproduced courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Publisher
  • Date of contribution: 03 Sep 2013
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia
  • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
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  • Image
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  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements