Based on 2010 studies, new research suggests that the islands were colonized rapidly in two waves by indigenous colonists from West Polynesia, beginning c. 1025–1120 AD, leading to development of a "remarkably uniform culture, human biology and language."
The Marquesas Islands form one of the five administrative divisions of French Polynesia. The capital of the Marquesas Islands administrative subdivision is the settlement of Taiohae on the island of Nuku Hiva. The population of the Marquesas Islands was 9,264 inhabitants at the August 2012 census.
The first recorded settlers of the Marquesas were Polynesians, who, from archaeological evidence, were long believed by scholars to have arrived from West Polynesia before 100 AD; other estimates were settlement from 600 AD.
However, a 2010 study using revised, high-precision radiocarbon dating based on more reliable samples has established that the period of eastern Polynesian colonization took place much later, in a shorter time frame of two waves: the "earliest in the Society Islands A.D. ∼1025–1120, four centuries later than previously assumed; then after 70–265 years, dispersal continued in one major pulse to all remaining islands A.D. ∼1190–1290." This rapid colonization is believed to account for the "remarkable uniformity of East Polynesia culture, biology and language." The new information will require major reworking of scholarship about the development of linguistics and culture in the islands. Ethnological and linguistic evidence suggests that they likely migrated from the Western regions of Polynesia.
The rich environment of the islands supported a large population. They lived by fishing, eating both fish and shellfish. They used breadfruit and raised other foods.
The first Europeans to reach the Marquesas may have been the crew of San Lesmes, a Spanish vessel which disappeared in a storm in June 1526; it was part of an expedition headed by García Jofre de Loaísa. The islands were given their name by Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña, who reached them seventy years later on 21 July 1595. He named them after his patron, García Hurtado de Mendoza, 5th Marquis of Cañete (Spanish: Marqués de Cañete), who was Viceroy of Peru at the time. Mendaña visited first Fatu Hiva and then Tahuata before continuing on to the Solomon Islands. His expedition charted the four southernmost Marquesas as Magdalena (Fatu Hiva), Dominica (Hiva ʻOa), San Pedro (Moho Tani), and Santa Cristina (Tahuata).
In the late 16th century, European explorers estimated the population to have been more than 100,000. Europeans and Americans were impressed with how easy life appeared to be in the islands, which had a rich habitat and environment. In 1791 the American maritime fur trader Joseph Ingraham first visited the northern Marquesas while commanding the brig Hope. He named them as the Washington Islands. In 1813, Commodore David Porter claimed Nuku Hiva for the United States, but the United States Congress never ratified that claim.
In 1842, France conducted a successful military operation on behalf of native chief Iotete, who claimed he was king of the whole island of Tahuata. The government laid claim to the whole group and established a settlement on Nuku Hiva. That settlement was abandoned in 1857, but France reestablished control over the group in 1870. It later incorporated the Marquesas into French Polynesia.
Of all major island groups in the Pacific, the Marquesas suffered the greatest population decline in Polynesia from endemic diseases carried by Western explorers. The indigenous people suffered high rates of mortality, as they had no immunity to the new diseases. Such infectious diseases as smallpox, measles and others reduced the eighteenth-century population of over 78,000 inhabitants to about 20,000 by the middle of the nineteenth century. By the turn of the 20th century, the islands' population was reduced to just over 4,000. During the course of the twentieth century, the population increased, reaching 8,548 at the November 2002 census, not including the Marquesan community residing on Tahiti. It has continued to increase, reaching 9,264 inhabitants at the August 2012 census.
The Marquesas Islands form one of the five administrative divisions (subdivisions administratives) of French Polynesia. French and Tahitian are the official languages of government. The capital of the Marquesas Islands administrative subdivision is the settlement of Taiohae on the island of Nuku Hiva.
The sparsely populated Marquesas Islands are located 1,371 km (852 mi) from Tahiti. With 183,645 inhabitants (2012 census), Tahiti is the most populous island of French Polynesia, containing 68.5% of the total population of the grouping.
Residents of the Marquesas have chafed at Tahiti's overwhelming dominance, complaining of neglect by politicians based in Tahiti, and leaders have suggested developing a direct relationship with the metropole, the government in Paris, instead of depending on Papeete. As sentiment was rising in Tahiti in the 21st century for independence from France, several prominent Marquesan political leaders in 2007 floated the idea of the Marquesas Islands separating from French Polynesia but remaining within the French Republic. This has generated controversies in Tahiti, where pro-independence Tahitian leaders have accused the French central government of encouraging the separation of the Marquesas Islands from French Polynesia.
The Marquesas Islands group is one of the most remote in the world, lying about 1,371 km (852 mi) northeast of Tahiti and about 4,800 kilometres (3,000 mi) away from the west coast of Mexico, the nearest continental land mass. They fall naturally into two geographical divisions: the northern group, consisting of Eiao, Hatutu (Hatutaa), Motu One, and the islands centered on the large island of Nuku Hiva: Motu Iti (Hatu Iti), Ua Pou, Motu Oa and Ua Huka, and the southern group of Fatu Uku, Tahuata, Moho Tani (Motane), Terihi, Fatu Hiva and Motu Nao (Thomasset Rock), clustered around the main island of Hiva ʻOa. With a combined land area of 1,049 square kilometres (405 sq mi), the Marquesas are among the largest island groups of French Polynesia originally discovered by Spanish galleons fleets en route to Manila, Nuku Hiva being the second largest island in the entire territory, after Tahiti. With the exception of Motu One, all the islands of the Marquesas are of volcanic origin.
In contrast to the tendency to associate Polynesia with lush tropical vegetation, the Marquesas are remarkably dry islands. Though the islands lie within the tropics, they are the first major break in the prevailing easterly winds that spawn from the extraordinarily dry (from an atmospheric perspective) Humboldt Current. Because of this, the islands are subject to frequent drought conditions, and only those that reach highest into the clouds (generally, above about 750 m / 2,500 ft above sea level) have reliable precipitation. This has led to historical fluctuations in water supply, which have played a crucial role in the sustainability of human populations in certain sections of the various islands throughout the archipelago. This is especially evident in the low historical population of Ua Huka (maximum elevation 857 m m / 2,812 ft.) and the intermittent inhabitability of Eiao (maximum elevation 576 m m / 1,890 ft.). The Marquesas Islands are thought to have formed by a center of upwelling magma called the Marquesas hotspot.
There are also a number of seamounts or shoals, located primarily in the area of the northern Marquesas. Among these are:
Temperatures in the Marquesas are stable year around, but precipitation is highly variable. Precipitation is much greater on the north and east (windward) parts of the islands than on the western (leeward) parts. Average annual precipitation can vary from more than 100 inches (2,500 mm) on windward shores and mountains to a low as 20 inches (510 mm) in the "desert" region of Nuku Hiva. Droughts, sometimes lasting several years, are frequent and seem to be associated with the El Niño phenomena. The statistics from the weather station at Atuona on Hiva ʻOa is representative of the average sea-level climate of the Marquesas. Illustrating the variability of precipitation, the highest annual rainfall recorded in Atuona is 148.2 inches (3,760 mm); the lowest is 22 inches (560 mm).
The bulk of the Marquesas Islands are of volcanic origin, created by the Marquesas hotspot that underlies the Pacific Plate. The Marquesas Islands lie above a submarine volcanic plateau of the same name. The plateau, like the islands, is generally believed to be less than 5 million years old, though one hypothesis has the plateau (not the islands) as significantly older and having a mirror image, the Inca Plateau, subducting under northern Peru.
Except for Motu One, all the Marquesas are high islands. Motu One is a low island, comprising two small sand banks awash on a coral reef. Unlike the majority of French Polynesian islands, the Marquesas are not surrounded by protective fringing reefs. Except for Motu One, and in bays and other protected areas, the only other coral in the Marquesas is found in a rather strange place: on the top of the island of Fatu Huku. The South Equatorial Current lashes the islands mercilessly, which has led to sea-caves dotting the islands' shores. Except for where the valleys empty into the small bays, the islands are remarkable for their mountain ridges, which end abruptly as cliffs where they meet the sea. The islands are estimated to range in age from the youngest, Fatu Hiva (1.3 million years) to the oldest, Eiao (6 million years).
The Marquesas Islands do not have a provincial or regional assembly. Administratively, they form a deconcentrated subdivision of both the French central State and the government of French Polynesia. As a deconcentrated subdivision of the French central State, the Marquesas Islands form the administrative subdivision of the Marquesas (French: subdivision administrative des Marquises), one of French Polynesia's five administrative subdivisions. The head of the administrative subdivision of the Marquesas is the administrateur d'État ("State administrator"), generally simply known as administrateur, also sometimes called chef de la subdivision administrative ("head of the administrative subdivision"). The administrateur is a civil servant under the authority of the High Commissioner of the French Republic in French Polynesia in Papeete. The administrateur and his staff sit in Taiohae, on the island of Nuku Hiva, which has become the administrative capital of the Marquesas Islands, having replaced Atuona on the island of Hiva ʻOa, which was previously the capital.
Acting as the representative of the French central State and delegate of Papeete's High Commissioner, the administrateur of the Marquesas is in charge of:
As a deconcentrated subdivision of the government of French Polynesia, the Marquesas Islands form the circonscription des Marquises ("district of the Marquesas"), one of French Polynesia's four circonscriptions ("districts") created in 2000 by the Assembly of French Polynesia to serve as deconcentrated subdivisions of the government of French Polynesia in the islands away from Tahiti and Moorea. The head of the circonscription des Marquises is the tavana hau, known as administrateur territorial in French ("territorial administrator"), but the Tahitian title tavana hau is most often used. The tavana hau is the direct representative of the president of French Polynesia's government who appoints him. The tavana hau and his staff sit in Taiohae on Nuku Hiva, same as the State administrator.
The tavana hau is in charge of:
The Marquesas Islands also form the electoral district of the Marquesas Islands, one of French Polynesia's six electoral districts for the Assembly of French Polynesia (see also Politics of French Polynesia).
The Marquesas Islands are subdivided in six communes (municipalities). In each of the six communes the local residents elect a municipal council and a mayor in charge of managing local affairs within the commune. Three communes (Nuku-Hiva, Ua-Pou, and Hiva-Oa) are further subdivided into associated communes due to their larger population. The communes and associated communes are the only elected councils in the Marquesas since there does not exist a provincial or regional assembly for the entire archipelago. Municipal elections are held every six years on the same day as municipal elections in the rest of France (see French municipal elections, 2014 for the last municipal elections).
The areas and populations of the communes at the 2012 Census were as follows:
French and Tahitian are the only official languages of all of French Polynesia, but the Marquesan languages, in their various forms, remain the primary means of communication among residents within this archipelago.
Marquesan is a collection of East-Central Polynesian dialects, of the Marquesic group, spoken in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. They are usually classified into two groups, North Marquesan and South Marquesan, corresponding roughly along geographic lines.
The North Marquesan dialects are spoken on the islands of Ua Pu and Nuku Hiva, and South Marquesan dialects on the islands of Hiva ʻOa, Tahuata and Fatu Hiva. The dialects of Ua Huka are often incorrectly classified as North Marquesan; they are instead transitional. While the island is in the northern Marquesas group, the dialects show more morphological and phonological affinities with South Marquesan. The North Marquesan dialects are sometimes considered to be two separate languages: North Marquesan and Tai Pi Marquesan, the latter being spoken in the valleys of the eastern third of the island of Nuku Hiva, in the ancient province of Tai Pi.
The most striking feature of the Marquesan languages is their almost universal replacement of the /r/ or /l/ of other Polynesian languages by a /ʔ/ (glottal stop).
Like other Polynesian languages, the phonology of Marquesan languages is characterised by a paucity of consonants and a comparative abundance of vowels.
At the 2007 census, 94.1% of the population whose age was 15 and older reported that they could speak French. 90.2% reported that they could also read and write it. Only 4.4% of the population whose age was 15 and older had no knowledge of French.
At the same census, 67.8% of the population whose age was 15 and older reported that the language they spoke the most at home was Marquesan. 30.1% reported that French was the language they spoke the most at home. 1.4% reported Tahitian, and 0.7% reported another language.
7.2% of the population whose age was 15 and older reported that they had no knowledge of any Polynesian language at the 2007 census.
The places of birth of the 8,632 residents of the Marquesas Islands at the 2007 census were the following:
There are four airports in the Marquesas, one each on the islands of Nuku Hiva, Ua Pu, Ua Huka, and Hiva ʻOa. The terrain of Tahuata is too irregular to allow for the construction of a landing strip without significant investment, and while the upland plateau of central Fatu Hiva is large enough to permit the construction of an airstrip, the island's minuscule population makes such an exercise of dubious benefit.
The Marquesas are served by telephone as well as by radio and television, mainly from Tahiti. Recent additions include the "Vini" a mobile phone service that, in about 6 years, has expanded to cover most of the populated islands. There also is "Mana", an internet server with DSL broadband that is expanding with wifi stations too.
The Marquesas Islands were once a major center of eastern Polynesian civilization. Wooden and stone crafts and tattooing are common practices among the locals.
The ecosystem of the Marquesas has been devastated in some areas by the activities of feral livestock. As a first step in preserving what remains, the Marquesan Nature Reserves were created in 1992.