Pascal Sellier, CNRS, équipe Ethnologie préhistorique de l’UMR7041 ArScAn


The funerary practices of ancient Marquesans make an interesting case study, as far as interventions on human remains are concerned, and can provide theoretical issues on archaeology of death. Among other prehistoric and protohistoric people from remote Oceania, this agricultural population retained its traditional way of life and culture until the final Christian evangelization of the Archipelago, around the mid-nineteenth century. The data supporting the reconstruction of their mortuary process are from both archaeological and ethnographical sources. The main archaeological record is coming from the pre-contact Manihina funerary site, on Ua Huka Island (Marquesas, French Polynesia), dated from the mid-15th century, far before the first discovery of the Northern Marquesas Islands by European and American seafarers (in 1791). Reliable ethnohistorical information is also available, through travellers’, beachcombers’, seafarers’ or missonaries’ accounts or sketchbooks, at least during the sixty years before effective colonization, and some close practices observed in Tahiti and Society Islands are also supporting the hypotheses and reconstructions from the archaeological remains.

On Manihina funerary site, around 40 human burials have been so far excavated (together with pig and dog burials). The disposal of the dead is not uniform but actually of manifold forms. It includes individual primary burial (sometimes with evidence for the reconstruction of a wooden container), simultaneous double burial, intervention after burial (to remove part of the skeleton, especially the cranium), reopening of grave for an additional corpse, and secondary burial (complete or not). As modifications before inhumation are concerned, some desarticulations have been observed (on non-adults) and there is also clear evidence of mummification of the corpse which will be especially discussed here: The topic includes the presumed techniques of mummification (through dessiccation) under a tropical climate, the evidence for such a reconstruction through the archaeological record, and ethnographical data.

The hypothesis proposed here is that those manifold forms of disposal of the dead (including mummification) should not be seen as different practices devoted to people of various status, nor as different kinds of final burial, but as stages of the same long-lasting compound process. The successive stages of the whole mortuary process make a consistent “chaine opératoire” (with mummification as a special stage), and the afterlife fate of the corpses can be seen as a part of material culture, resulting in the production of ancestors.


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