Brando’s atoll was holiday getaway for Tahitian royalty

Brando’s atoll was holiday getaway for Tahitian royalty
Aerial view of Teti'aroa, French Polynesia. Image: Dr Guillaume Molle.
Tuesday 28 July 2020

A paradise lost has been re-discovered by on the tiny Pacific atoll of Teti'aroa, once owned by Hollywood icon Marlon Brando.       

The finds from ANU include two rarely-seen archery platforms and a huge open-air altar, likely used for ceremonial purposes and ritual offerings. 

They are among 115 important structures mapped by the researchers, giving the strongest evidence yet the island was the exclusive preserve of the Tahitian royal family in the 18th century.

In 1961, Marlon Brando fell in love with Teti'aroa - as well as his on-screen love interest - while filming Mutiny on the Bounty there, prompting him to seek ownership of the atoll for his private enjoyment.

ANU archaeologist, Dr Guillaume Molle, and an international team of collaborators, identified the sites, which have now been mapped for the first time. 

"The chiefs lived a 45 kilometre canoe ride away on Tahiti, but we know they would leave the high volcanic mountains and fertile valleys for the 'ultimate getaway' break to Teti'aroa," Dr Molle, from the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology, said. 

"It's the only coral atoll in the Windward Islands and its striking scenery and abundance of fish, birds and turtles would have been very attractive to them.

"These new finds could confirm the atoll was used as a place of retreat for the elites of Tahitian society."

Dr Molle said evidence like the archery platforms, the first ever seen on an atoll, give the strongest indication for the presence of the chiefs on Teti'aroa.

"No commoner would have been allowed to mount an archery platform because it was a very elite sport in Tahitian society used for displays of strength, power (mana) and status and we have two here on Teti'aroa," he said.

While the chiefs were practicing archery, their children were involved in the 'ritual of fattening'.

"The children were kept inside a special dwelling so they could avoid the sun and they'd be fed for weeks on end," Dr Molle said.  

"They were fed the high-calorie fermented paste of the breadfruit mixed with coconut water to fatten the children, and with their fairer skin, they'd be presented to the rest of Tahitian society as the royal heirs."

More than 25 significant ceremonial sites were found including one of the largest-known open-air temples, or 'Marae', in the Society Islands at 55 metres long and eight metres wide. 

"It has a main altar, or ahu, which today looks a bit like a giant pile of coral blocks with some internal compartments to it. We believe this may have been used to contain ritual offerings, probably bound up in the cult of the ancestors, a strong feature of the Polynesian culture," Dr Molle said. 

"Unusually we found carved volcanic stones on some nearby assembly platforms which we think could have come from Tonga or New Zealand, a distance of over 4,000 kilometres away. 

"This shows an enormous commitment of labour and materials which could only have been set in motion by a high-ranking individual in society, very likely the Pōmare dynasty.

"Along with the oval-shaped meeting houses we found and other domestic and horticultural structures it indicates the whole island was set-up and managed to support the elite activities of the Tahitian chiefs."

Dr Molle hopes to get a greater understanding of his findings when travel resumes and excavations can start on Teti'aroa. 

The Teti'aora project is a collaboration between The Australian National University, the International Centre for Polynesian Archaeological Research and the Teti'aroa Society. 

This news story was originally published on the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences website.


Updated:  29 July 2020/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications