Sacred Trees in Polynesia

by Annette Kühlem

Trees in French Polynesia are believed to be a direct gift from the gods. Early creation myths tell us how the god Ta’aroa took on the shape of a bird and flew over the newly emerged islands shaking his feathers. These feathers landed on the ground, on rocks and hills, and turned into the leaves of the first trees. Humans identified strongly with trees, especially the trees that grew in and around the temples, or marae. According to the ancient beliefs, the human body is directly connected to the body of trees. A creation myth describes for example how the first coconut tree grew out of the head of a buried ancestor: The coconut is the skull, the fibers are the hair, the two little germination pores are the eyes and the big germination pore is the mouth. The coconut water is believed to be the tears of the ancestor, the flesh is the brain and the palm sap is the blood (Henry 1928: 420-422). The personalization of trees goes so far that individual specimens were given names that have prevailed through centuries.

Trees were planted at the temples and played an important role during the rituals. They provided shade for the chiefs and priests during ceremonies, and the spirits that were called upon were believed to hide in the shadows of the trees. Another important aspect was that the trees attracted birds. Birds were considered messengers of the gods and when they flew over a marae during a ceremony that was seen as a direct presence of the god that was being worshipped. Thus the trees at the sacred sites served as a bridge, linking the world of the gods to the world of men.

Certain tree species were dedicated to certain deities and were believed to transform into the respective god during rituals. Miru (Thespesia populnea sol) was considered to be the holiest of all trees and the emanation of the god Roro’o, who inspires the chants of the priests at the marae. Tamanu (Calophyllum inophyllum) was dedicated to Tane, god of the forest. Aito (Casuarina equisetifolia subsp.) was dedicated to ´Oro, god of war, and Pua (Fagraea berteroana) was dedicated to Tane and Hiro, god of thieves. On the Marquesas Islands it is the giant Banyan trees (Ficus prolixa) that still can be found on or close to ceremonial sites. Early drawings and accounts by European explorers show that also palm trees grew inside the marae enclosures as a component of the ritual architecture.

The marae were very structured and meticulously planned. Oral traditions and chants describe how the marae were weeded before ceremonies. We can therefore assume that the plants that grew within a marae complex were not growing wild but were selectively planted or allowed to grow.

Rapa Nui and French Polynesia share a great number of religious concepts, albeit with local adaptations. This is also the case for the places of worship. Like the marae of French Polynesia, the ahu of Rapa Nui typically consist of a paved plaza with a raised rectangular platform at one end. In some cases effigies of deified ancestors were placed on top. In French Polynesia they are called Tiki or Ti’i, on Rapa Nui it is the famous Moai. Despite all the other similarities, trees as a part of ahu architecture have never been studied or even considered on Rapa Nui. On the contrary, trees are only ever mentioned in the context of deforestation.

The tree species that dominated the landscape by the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers was the now-extinct Easter Island palm tree (Jubaea sp.). 20 Million palm trees are estimated to have grown on the island (pers. comm. Hans-Rudolf Bork & Andreas Mieth). Over the course of centuries the palm forest had to give way to extensive agricultural fields to feed a growing population. Does this massive deforestation exclude the possibility that sacred trees were once planted on Rapa Nui?

We know that ritual objects, especially Kava Kava statuettes and Rongo-Rongo tablets were carved from toromiro  wood (Sophora toromiro). The name toromiro also exists on the Society Islands. Here the sacred Miru (Thespesia populnea) is referred to as toromiro only when planted at a religious site. The Miru in Rapanui on the other hand is called makoi. Only a few ritual objects that have been carved from this wood, such as a baton, or Ua have been preserved (Oriac 1994: 61). For the production of ritual objects on Rapa Nui we can thus find a connection to the sacred trees of French Polynesia.

Since 2008 the German Archaeological Institute in cooperation with the Consejo de Monumentos, CONAF, the Museo Anthropológico Sebastián Englert, the Christian Albrechts University Kiel, and the HafenCity University Hamburg are conducting excavations at the site of Ava Ranga Uka A Toroke Hau. This project produced evidence that palm trees were intentionally planted as a component of the landscape transformation of a ritual site.

During the excavation of an extensive pavement that spanned the entire valley planting pits for palm trees were found. They are clearly distinguishable by a circular stone rimming and the presence of palm tree root channels in their interior. This shows the exact location of where palm trees once grew. In the paved plaza in front of the Ahu Hanua Nua Mea another planting pit had been hacked into the bedrock. Therefore we know that a big palm tree once grew in front of the ahu and that it was deliberately planted there.

The trees were thus a part of the ritual architecture of Ava Ranga Uka A Toroke Hau. This tells us that palm trees must have had a special significance for the ancient Rapanui, that they were not only cut down but were valued and cherished. And that they possibly had a similar significance as the sacred trees in French Polynesia that link the world of the gods to the world of the humans.