Ornament for the prow of a canoe

From the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia
Possibly 18th or early 19th century AD

The Marquesas Islands consist of ten main islands and a few small islands in the eastern Pacific. Their administrative centre is on the island of Nuku Hiva. They were made a French Protectorate by Admiral Abel Du Petit-Thouars in 1842. After serious depopulation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, caused partly by diseases introduced by visitors, the population gradually increased in the latter half of the twentieth century. Most of the islands are mountainous and volcanic, and some are wooded, making travel difficult. Sea travel is therefore particularly important, and the building of canoes was a specialized craft. Large sea-going canoes characteristically have built-up sides, and are often decorated with elaborate carving.

This wooden carving is known by the Marquesans as tiki vaka (tiki: human figure; vaka: canoe). It would have been attached to the prow of a canoe using the holes in its base. The carving, which represents an ancestor, was intended to serve as protection for the sailors. When drawn for Museum records in 1890, it was depicted wearing a feathered headdress, now missing.

Human figures and heads are an important element of Marquesan sculpture. Apart from wooden and stone human figures of varying sizes, the human form and faces in particular can be seen on the carving that decorates many Marquesan artefacts.

The Marquesans continue to be skilled carvers, producing artefacts for their own use and for sale to visitors.

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More information


C. Ivory, 'The Marquesas Islands' in Art of the South Seas: The col (Munich, Prestel Verlag, 1999), pp. 332-41

R. Linton, The material culture of the Ma (Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Memoir VIII, no. 5, 1923)

A.C. Haddon and J. Hornell, Canoes of Oceania (Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publications 27-29, Reprinted as one volume, 1975)


Length: 48.000 cm
Height: 30.500 cm

Museum number



Purchased from the London Missionary Society


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