Issue 6.5: October/November 2003

Marae Mysteries

story by Derek Ferrar
photo by Linny Morris Cunningham

There are certain parts of the Society and Marquesas Islands—the "cradles" of Eastern Polynesian culture—where people sometimes say that the stones of long-forgotten ancestral sites "call out" to Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto, guiding him to them for the sake of future generations. Over the last half-century, the renowned Bishop Museum archaeologist and protégé of Pacific anthropology pioneer Kenneth Emory has employed his uncanny skills to locate, study and help conserve dozens of key sites that have played a major role in the current understanding of precontact Polynesian culture.

"The whole purpose of archaeological work is to use the remains of material culture to help in the search for identity," says the sprightly seventy-eight-year-old scientist, whose snowy hair is always swept neatly back, his keen eyes shining behind silver-rimmed bifocals. "Our work can help Polynesian people rediscover answers about who their ancestors were, and what type of culture and history they had."

Over the years, Sinoto has unearthed an untold treasure of artifacts that have become key elements in tracing the migrations of the Polynesian people across thousands of miles of the Pacific. In addition, he has been deeply involved in the study and conservation of ancient Tahitian marae, or temple sites. Such efforts have earned him many high honors, including Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun, a Tahitian knighthood and the Bishop Museum’s Kenneth Pike Emory Distinguished Chair in Anthropology.

Sinoto’s aptitude for archaeology blossomed at an early age, when he began collecting artifacts that he found near his school outside Tokyo, which happened to be built over a prehistoric village. "Somehow, that kind of work just hooked me," he recalls. "Every weekend I would go out looking. Sometimes, I would take off my shirt and wrap the things I found in it. That made my mother very angry."

But his father, who was a plant geneticist, encouraged Yosi’s archaeological pursuits, and an uncle in the construction business provided a shed for a backyard lab. It is a mark of Yosi’s youthful skills that a 4,000-year-old pot he found and pieced together as a boy is today displayed at the National Museum in Kyoto.

Although the war years interrupted Sinoto’s studies, he was eventually able to work at the Archaeological Institute of Japan, and in 1954 he got a chance to study Native American prehistory at Berkeley. Along the way, his ship was scheduled to stop in Hawaii, so a friend cabled him suggesting that he pay a visit to a dig that Emory was then conducting at South Point on the Big Island. Sinoto made arrangements to visit the site, and, after a series of comical detours, he finally arrived at South Point via a nearly one-hundred-mile taxi ride from Hilo.

When he got there, Sinoto says, he was dismayed to find that Emory—not technically an archaeologist but rather an anthropologist who specialized in tracing linguistic roots—was "making a mess" of the site. For his part, Emory was quickly taken with the young scientist from Japan. "When we got to South Point," Emory describes in the biography Keneti, by Honolulu newspaperman Bob Krauss, "Yosi took out a silk scarf like a package to carry things, and his field kit was in the scarf. He had his little brush and things. Oh, my! He was ready to go to work .... I was immediately impressed with his training."

Emory soon realized that Sinoto’s skills were indispensable and insisted that he abandon his Berkeley plans and remain in Hawaii. "I was kidnapped!" Sinoto recalls with one of his ready chuckles. "Kenneth said, ‘No, you can’t go anywhere; you must stay.’" So Yosi agreed to stay for one semester, which quickly turned into a life’s work.

Sinoto admits that when he took his first trip to Tahiti with Emory in 1960, he wasn’t all that interested in marae sites, since his primary focus lay in analyzing the developmental sequence of fishhooks, adzes and other small artifacts. In fact, his passion for marae didn’t fully develop until 1967, when the Tahiti tourism board asked him to help rehabilitate some of the sites. "How could I refuse?" he says. "Archaeologists are always digging up and destroying sites, and here I was being given a chance to restore and preserve these ancient places."

Much of his most important work has taken place on the small, rural island of Huahine, which is home to a higher concentration of marae sites than any other island in Polynesia. The most remarkable feature of Huahine’s past is that the chiefs of the island’s eight districts once lived peacefully side by side in a single, sacred village called Maeva. There, the chiefs built dozens of marae.

In 1925, Emory had passed through Huahine on his honeymoon and recorded the names and histories of more than thirty marae in Maeva. Sinoto returned to those sites and stumbled upon over thirty more marae that had long been forgotten even by local residents.

Sinoto’s most famous discoveries on Huahine, however, came not at Maeva’s marae, but at the site of the island’s first luxury hotel, the Bali Hai. In 1972, Sinoto was helping to rebuild an old meeting house in Maeva when some workmen from the village returned from the Bali Hai construction site and told him that they had uncovered a lot of whale bones that day. Knowing that the Polynesian ancients had often worked the bones of beached whales into chiefly tools and ornaments, he went over to the hotel worksite the next morning.

"The construction manager said, ‘I saved this one piece for you because it looks like something man-made,’" Sinoto remembers. "As soon as he showed it to me, I jumped up and got very excited, because it was a patu—a kind of flat club that had never been found outside of New Zealand." The find provided the first hard evidence of a cultural link between the Maori people of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and the Society Islands, a connection long spoken of in Maori legends.

Sinoto began excavating the site and immediately started coming across what he describes as an "incredible treasure" of fragile artifacts preserved in the area’s water-logged soil. Sinoto now theorizes that the 1,000-year-old village—the oldest site yet found in the Societies—was likely frozen in time when a massive tsunami or storm wave washed through the low-lying area and buried the site under layers of sediment and debris.

The most remarkable find at this "Polynesian Pompeii," as some writers have described it, came in 1977, when Sinoto and his crew uncovered pieces of an ancient canoe estimated to have been some sixty-five feet in length. To this day, the remnants offer the only material evidence yet found of the great voyaging canoes recorded in the chants and legends of Polynesian navigators.

As cultural reawakenings gather strength throughout Polynesia, Sinoto’s main concern today is that the restoration of historical sites should be done in a way that is scientifically and culturally accurate. Recently, he has been highly critical of certain marae restorations undertaken by the government of French Polynesia, which, he says, have mixed different marae construction types in a way that is not authentic.

His biggest worry, he says, is that over time the people of the Islands themselves might come to think of these inaccurate reproductions as representing the actual work of their ancestors. "I’m so afraid of that," Sinoto says. "That’s the main reason I wrote a really strong article about it. I feel I must tell the people that this is a fake; this is not your ancestors’ cultural heritage."

It is this kind of genuine concern and fearless campaigning for cultural authenticity that has made Sinoto a folk hero in places like Tahiti, where local pop songs have been written about him. As one young Maeva girl simply told a journalist who accompanied Sinoto on a trip there, "He teaches us about us."