The life of ancient Polynesians was centered on religion. All social, political, and family gatherings happened in and around sanctuaries called marae. The marae was a place of worship where gods and ancestors were honored, but they also expressed social status, property rights, and the rank of a clan. Not many ancient structures survive to this day. Most of them were destroyed by Polynesians themselves, only a few reconstructed by archeologists stand today.
There were many different types of marae in the Polynesia: private, family and ancestral marae, public and chiefs marae. They were used for different occasions like religious ceremonies or political, collective and family meetings.
Completely restored Marae Arahurahu in Tahiti contains flat platform with two-stepped ahu at its end, that was reserved for gods and the spirits of the ancestors. The walled area called tahua has several stylized woodcarvings called unu and symbolizing messengers of the gods. Many backrest stones (turui ) mark places for an important people during the ceremonies. Reconstructed is also fare ia manaha, the house for the priests and guardians of this marae.
The valley of Opunohu in Moorea is probably the largest archeological site in the Society Islands. From many identified structures in this area some have been reconstructed close to their original form. For some visitors today structures can be acknowledged simply as a pile of stones, but for ancient peoples these were the most sacred meeting places. Between many walls and flat stone platforms we can find single backrest stones called turu'i that marked places of essential people during the ceremonies. Two archery platforms, not rectangular in shape, indicate that the archers' god was celebrated at one of the marae. Based on archeological studies the valley has been inhabited for at least 600 years. The oldest structures are dated back to the 13th century.
Polynesian Tiki Village Theater in Moorea may sound like a tourist trap. It actually presents traditional dancing nights with dinner, an equivalent of luau in Hawaii. An authentic marae is easy to be missed during the night show. It was moved here from another location, stone by stone, all supervised by a priest. The structure located is off shore and contains wood and stone tiki or better ti'i carvings that are a representation of the lesser spirits.
" ... a wonderful piece of Indian architecture and far exceeded everything of its kind upon whole island. It is a long square of stonework built pyramadically. On the middle of the top stood the figure of the bird carved in wood ... Near to this marae were several small ones, ... and on the beach between them and the sea lay great quantities of human bones ..."
Capt. James Cook about marae on Tahiti, 1769