Tahiti - Orientation

Identification. The name "Tahiti"—or, as Bougainville first wrote it in 1768, "Taiti," and Cook in 1769, Otaheite"—was the name the natives gave their island and which Europeans came to apply to the indigenes. If the Tahitians had a name specifically identifying themselves, it is not known. What is known is that all of those living in the Society Archipelago, including Tahiti, referred to themselves as "Maohi."

Location. The island of Tahiti upon which the Tahitians lived is the largest of the Society Islands and is located in the windward segment of that group at 149°30′ W and 17°30′ S. It is a high island of volcanic origin with peaks rising above 1,500 meters. The mountainous interior is covered with Forest and ferns while the lower slopes, especially on the leeward side, are brush and reed covered. In the inhabited valleys and coastal plains open stands of indigenous trees and tall grasses were scattered between the cultivated fields of the Tahitians. Wild fowl were said to have been relatively scarce and limited to a few species, pigeons and ducks being specifically mentioned. Wild four-legged creatures were limited to a few small lizards and the Polynesian rat, the latter probably brought by Polynesians.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tahitic language of the Tahitians belongs to the Eastern Polynesian Subgroup of the Malayo-Polynesian Subdivision of the Austronesian Languages.

Demography. Estimates of Tahiti's population in the later years of the eighteenth century varied from as few as 16,050 to approximately 30,000 persons, and thus these estimates are of little factual value. A nineteenth-century decline in population due to wars and diseases is known to have occurred. However, by 1907, after which it was no longer possible to segregate indigenous totals from those of foreigners and immigrant Polynesians from other islands, the number of Tahitians was said to number 11,691.

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