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Pigs in Maohi Society

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Pigs were probably introduced to the Society Islands by early migrants between 300 and 1000 CE. By the time of the arrival of Europeans in the 1760s, they had become animals of great cultural significance for Maohi.

All domestic pigs are descended from Sus scrofa, one of 16 species of pigs in the family Suidae. Sus Scrofa probably originated in southern Eurasia and has been spread by humans throughout the world.

As Douglas Oliver notes, very little is known about the physical features or behaviour of pigs in the Society Islands prior to European contact, beyond the fact that pigs reared by Maohi were docile enough to be kept as pets. It would seem too that they grazed on grasses rather than foraged like other common Eurasian varieties for they were often allowed to roam freely. From the 1770s Maohi pigs were crossed with several European and Asian varieties, the genes of which quickly became dominant. By the missionary period the uprooting gardens by large and sometime fiercely aggressive pigs appears to have become a frequent nuisance that Maohi sought to prevent by fitting them with collars, or breaking their strongest teeth to stop them gnawing their way in or out of enclosures (Oliver, 1974: 271-5).

It was probably not long after the settlement of Tahiti that feral pigs came to inhabit in the mountainous inland of Tahiti and became hunted for sport.

Maohi men primarily raised pigs to enhance their social prestige by using them as gifts or as the main dish of feasts. Prayers on important occasions demanded the sacrifice of an uncooked pig at the marae, the animal being made to squeal before it was killed by strangulation so as to gain the attention of the gods.

The sacrifice of a pig was also believed to be a means by which spirits could answer things about a range of matters troubling Maohi. A priest or specialist diviner would seek to interpret what a spirit sought to communicate from observing the animal’s death struggle or examining the state of its entrails immediately after death (Oliver, 1974: 70).

The importance of pigs as gifts or tribute probably explains why early European voyagers found it difficult to procure the animals. By the late 1760s rivalries between the island’s highest title-holders had led them to amass as many pigs as they could so as to enhance their ability to strengthen or create new dynastic alliances. Such was the value of pigs in this regard that high ranking Maohi appear to have claimed ownership of animals kept by subordinates of lower social status. Ordinary Maohi were very unwilling to trade pigs with voyagers, claiming that they belonged to their district’s title-holder.

Pigs were also routinely looted during the conflicts between the island’s northern districts and the peoples of Tai’arapu of the late 1760s and 1770s.

The eating of pork was mostly a ceremonial and all male affair. Reviewing various early European sources, it would seem that ancestral traditions prohibited women eating pork or other foods such as certain kinds of fish that had been touched by men. Women could only eat pork from a pig they had raised and ensured had not been touched by a man or allowed to forage on his land. However, some evidence suggests that women could eat pork handled by close male relatives.

Whatever the true extent of prohibitions, women did eat pork, and did so eagerly when it was it was offered to them aboard European vessels and out of sight of Maohi men.

In the Journal he kept during his second visit to Tahiti, Cook provides a very detailed account of how a pig was slaughtered and cooked. Basically, after the animal was strangled, its hair was singed and scrapped off, after which the pig was disembowelled, the blood drained and its belly fat removed. The body cavity was then filled with hot stones and placed to cook in a stone-lined ground oven.

After a pig was eaten, its bones would be kept and fashioned into a range of artefacts such as wood working tools and fish hooks.


Created: 19 September 2003

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000325

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