The Marquesas Islands were colonized by seafaring Polynesians as early as 300 AD, thought to originate from Tonga. The dense population was concentrated in the narrow valleys and consisted of warring tribes.
Much of Polynesia, including the original settlers of Hawaii, Tahiti, Rapa Iti and Easter Island, was settled by Marquesans, believed to have departed from the Marquesas as a result more frequently of overpopulation and drought-related food shortages, than because of the nearly constant warfare that eventually became a prominent feature of the islands' culture. Almost the entire remainder of Polynesia, with the exception of a few areas of western Polynesia as well as the majority of the Polynesian outliers, was colonized by Marquesan descendants centered in Tahiti.
Native Marquesan culture was devastated in the period following the arrival of European explorers. The primary cause of its collapse can be directly linked to the catastrophic effects of alien diseases, especially smallpox, which reduced the population by an estimated 98%.
It is worth noting that the sexual culture of Marquesans is often misrepresented. Robert Louis Stevenson, who visited the islands and talked to the natives, wrote:
"Stanislao Moanatini told me that in his own recollection, the young were strictly guarded; they were not suffered so much as to look upon one another in the street, but passed (so my informant put it) like dogs; and the other day the whole school-children of Nuka-hiva and Ua-pu escaped in a body to the woods, and lived there for a fortnight in promiscuous liberty. Readers of travels may perhaps exclaim at my authority, and declare themselves better informed. I should prefer the statement of an intelligent native like Stanislao (even if it stood alone, which it is far from doing) to the report of the most honest traveller."
(The conflicting reports mentioned here are compactly summarized by Robert Carl Suggs.)
The Marquesas have a long history of complex geometric tattooing, covering the whole bodies of both men and women.
Today, Marquesan culture is a mélange created by the layering of the ancient Marquesan culture, with strong influences from the important Tahitian culture and the politically important French culture.
Marquesan society died a horrible, wasting death. By the early 1920's, only 1500 confused, hostile, and apathetic survivors remained of the possible 100,000 to 120,000 that had inhabited the islands in 1767.