Tattoos are very common throughout all of Polynesia. While this certainly not the only culture—ancient and modern—to incorporate body art in their culture, the various Polynesian peoples might be the most well known for their Adrenaline tattoos.
Before we begin, let us first discern which indigenous peoples of the Pacific are considered to be Polynesians. These are: the Cook Islanders, the Hawaiians, the Marquesans, the Maoris (New Zealand), the Tongans, the Niueans, and the Tahitians.
Tattoos in Polynesia: Origins
There is great debate over the origins of Polynesia culture, as a whole, but we are going to ignore that for now. What we can say is that these people are genetically linked, perhaps even descending from a single tribe that originated in Southeast Asia.
There is less debate, though, over the Polynesian origin of the word “tattoo.” We know, for example, that Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour naturalist, Joseph Banks, documented that Polynesians used the word “tattoo,” though each of the different island nations spelled and pronounced it differently. In Samoa, for example, it was spelled “tatau” and in Tahiti it was spelled “Tatu.”
Tattoo and Mythology
In Polynesian culture, the tattoo is part of a sacred ceremony. The type of tattoo is just as important as its location on the body as they were determined by a person’s genealogy, their position within society, and even to describe their personal achievements. Perhaps most importantly, in many ancient Polynesian societies, those who went without a tattoo were often seen as being of the lowest social class.
The Popularity of Tattoo
By the time Cook returned to Europe after his rounds in Polynesia, he was telling stories of a Polynesian tradition he called the “tattaw.” Furthermore, he also brought with him a Tahitian named Ma’i, who began to give tattoos in Europe; and their popularity spread very quickly.
Tattooing In Polynesian Culture
For the most part, a tattoo is a means of visual communication: a way for its owner to convey a message without speaking it. The tradition of tattoo, though, has also been heralded as a way to acquire spiritual power or to gain protection or strength. Some Polynesian tribes describe how a person’s mana—their life energy, spiritual power—is displayed through their tattoo.