A historical and cultural melting pot in French Polynesia


Tahiti-French PolynesiaCultural Heritage

 Tahiti Tourisme / Tatiana Salmon
© Tahiti Tourisme / Tatiana Salmon

Reading time: 0 minPublished on 31 December 2022, updated on 16 April 2024

History and traditions

In 1767, the Tahitians welcomed French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville. Although he stayed in Tahiti for just 10 days, Bougainville was so enchanted by the warm welcome and the gentleness of the people that he named their island New Cythère. The story of his trip contributed largely to the creation of the legendary Polynesian paradisiacal myth.

Tiare flower wreaths are given to each visitor upon arrival at the airport. In recent years, the Polynesian people have been able to refresh the island’s identity by reviving many of its traditions Rooted in the mists of time, dance and music in Polynesian culture are seen as a genuine means of communication. Passed on by oral traditions in the secrecy of isolated valleys and out of the way atolls, these traditions were nevertheless preserved and have now been revived and renewed with vigour (‘Haka’ from the Marquesas, Tamure, Himene, Ori, etc.).

Power and charm, symbolic gestures, beautiful ornaments (costumes, crowns of flowers) are characteristic of these arts, that express social togetherness during festivals and ceremonies, culminating in the Heiva i Tahiti festival in July. This yearly event is also the opportunity to celebrate the community’s sports and artists.

The bravest will fight during traditional sporting events: a stone lifting competition, a javelinthrowing event, coconut climbing and husking, a copra competition, and a fruit carrying race as well as outrigger canoe races. Each year, this major event also allows Polynesian artists to showcase theirbest works at a major craft exhibition.

The Marquesan tapas are fabrics made from fibres from the bark of certain trees that are treated and painted with traditional motifs with natural pigments. There are also the famous black pearls from Tuamotu, the polished coconuts, the sumptuous ‘tïfaifai’, bed spreads with plant or ethnic motifs sewn on by hand, the cotton pāreu (dresses) with hibiscus patterns, and, finally, the woven baskets and hats. Art and history lovers should not miss the numerous museums in Tahiti: the Museum of Tahiti and its islands, the Robert Wan Pearl Museum, the Shell Museum as well as one dedicated to the painter Paul Gauguin.

Legends and sacred rituals dedicated to Polynesian gods, such as the god Oro and the god Hiro were celebrated in the Marae. Sites where religious ceremonies occurred or the coronation of a tribal king took place still remain today.

Did you know ?

The art of Polynesian tattooing: The word tattooing originated in French Polynesia. The word itself comes from the Tahitian tatau, which means ‘to mark something’, ‘draw’ or ‘hit’, and derived from the expression ‘Ta-Atouas’. The root of the word, ‘ta’, means ‘drawing’ and ‘atua’ means ‘spirit, god’.

For the Pacific people, this great art means far more than an aesthetic wish: tattooing has its own language, it defines the individual’s social status. In the past, it was the proof that an initiation ordeal had been successfully completed, exploits had been carried out,or key roles within the community had been undertaken. The tattoos today claim a personality and a pride, as well as identifying membership to a clan or an island (the Marquesas or Bora Bora).

Many tourists now return after a holiday there with a ‘Made in Polynesia’ tattoo. The ‘Tatau i tahiti tattoonesia’ festival is an annual event which, in November, brings together in Papeete the best tattoo ists in Polynesia, the Pacific islands and the rest of the world, as well as attracting more than 15,000 visitors.


Live the Polynesian way: For those who would prefer the simplicity and authenticity of a local experience living with the Tahitians, small family hotels provide travellers with the opportunity to share their daily life, including fishing and cooking with the mother of the house. Over 250 establishments (B&Bs, guesthouses, faré and family hotels) offer the opportunity to live by the gentle rhythm of the Tahitians.

By Rédaction France.fr

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