Racism Concerns Raised by German Man's Mysterious Death

Joseph Jaffé spoke with Heike D. The lanky German offered to serve as an interpreter when the local police tried to question her, and she was in shock. But he is not allowed to say anything about the interrogation.

In fact Jaffé, an ethnologist and linguist, would really prefer to have nothing to do with the matter. Jaffé is on Nuku Hiva for a different reason. For the islanders, the horrific story comes at a bad time. They are rehearsing for the biggest Marquesan cultural event in years, and Jaffé is one of the organizers.

The islanders plan to celebrate Mata Va'ha, the Eyes Open Festival, from Dec. 15-18. "We hope to revive the traditional culture of the Marquesans," says Jaffé. "It's a new kind of search for identity." Some 2,000 dancers and musicians are expected on the island.

The deep, booming sound of drums is coming from the community center next to the town hall, where local residents are dancing the Haka Manu, or "bird's dance." Heavy-set men are stomping their feet to the powerful beat, holding the U'u, the Marquesans' traditional warrior's club, in their hands. Many of the dancers are tattooed. Sweat glistens on their naked upper bodies. 19th Century Human Sacrifices

The fugitive Henri Haiti is also someone who honored traditions. And he, too, is broad-shouldered and has tattoos. But does that make him a cannibal, as the German tabloid Bild speculated?

Jaffé is familiar with the prejudices. "Europeans enjoy dividing the world into good and evil," says the academic. For tourists, the cannibal story is an "obsession." "There were human sacrifices here," says the ethnologist. "There's no doubt about that." But, he adds, all of that happened long ago. Besides, many accounts of cannibalism were already exaggerated in imaginative ways back then.

A.P. Rice, an American anthropologist, described the Marquesans' cult of human sacrifice more than a century ago. According to Rice, it was considered a "great triumph" among the Marquesans to eat the body. The natives, Rice claimed, would first break the prisoners' arms and legs so that they could neither run away nor defend themselves. In the end, the victims were supposedly skewered and roasted.

The American writer Hermann Melville, who later wrote "Moby Dick," also helped shape the image of bloodthirsty wild natives. After a trip to Nuku Hiva, he turned his experiences into a novel, "Typee." In the work from 1846, he describes a "curiously carved vessel of wood" on the village square. When Melville lifts the lid, he sees parts of a human skeleton, the "bones still fresh with moisture." 'Cannibalism Theory' Plays No Role

But how much of it was legend and how much was the truth? There are certainly no human sacrifices anymore today. "Traditional Marquesan culture went extinct more than a hundred years ago," says Jaffé. The last reported case of a human sacrifice happened in 1880, according to Jaffé. The Marquesans were Christianized starting in the mid-19th century, and they almost died out as a result of the epidemics and opium brought in by outsiders. As their numbers dwindled, their traditional customs also vanished. In 1842, there were about 12,000 people living on Nuku Hiva. By 1934, there were only 634 left.

In Taiohae, the sun is now setting behind the jagged ridges, forming dark green patterns on the dense vegetation covering the mountain slopes. The police are closing in on the fugitive.

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