Nuku Hiva is known as the largest island in French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean. Beyond its history as the largest of the Marquesas Islands, it is especially known for the stone monuments scattered throughout its landscape. The majority of these stone monuments were found in Temehea Tohua, a small settlement within Nuku Hiva. Archaeologists determined that they dated back to some time between the 11th and 14th centuries, and are likely depictions of ancient Nuku Hivan deities.
A deeper look into Nuku Hiva reveals an interesting and culture-rich history. The stone statues themselves tell archaeologists about the deities which locals used to worship – and still do in some areas. In addition, understanding the history of Nuku Hiva’s relationship with France also helps to shine light on its cultural shifts over time. Though Nuku Hiva’s culture has definitely changed over the last several hundred years, the existence of these stone monuments reveals its original ancient past and just how far Nuku Hivans have come since their arrival in the territory a few thousand years ago.
Stone monument on Nuku Hiva island. ( Angela Meier / Adobe Stock)
Nuku Hiva in Context: A History of the House of Ono
Nuku Hivans frequently tell of the legend of the origins of Nuku Hiva. According to them, the god of creation, Ono, once bragged to his wife about wanting to build a beautiful home for her in a single day. To do this, he gathered tons of earth and stone as his building materials, and created the Marquesas Islands from them as her house. It is believed that each of the Marquesas Islands represents a different part of the house, with the largest island, Nuku Hiva, representing the roof of the home. Ua Huka, one of the islands near Nuku Hiva, is considered to be the leftover building remains after Ono finished building his “house.”
According to historians, Nuku Hivans first arrived on the island approximately 2,000 years ago and originated from other locations in western Polynesia such as the island of Samoa. In ancient times, Nuku Hiva used to be considered two separate provinces: Te L’i and Tai Pi. It is believed that during its original population, Nuku Hiva was home to nearly 100,000 people, which made proper housing and feeding difficult for some communities. Fishing became one of the most common jobs in the community in an attempt to gather enough food besides fruit to feed the population. With food scarce at times, it is rumored that cannibalism was potentially occurring on the islands in ancient times, but this has never been confirmed by historians.
Nuku Hiva existed in this way for many centuries, although it did receive some visitors over the years including Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira (a Spanish explorer) in 1595, and James Cook (a British navigator and explorer) in 1774, which helped bring awareness to the island. As knowledge about the island grew throughout Europe, commercialism grew in the form of shipping, trading, and whaling.
It is believed that these growing activities are what led to severe epidemics in the 18th and 19th centuries that eliminated over 90% of the Nuku Hivan population. After France took possession of the islands in 1842 and began tracking this issue, French physicians stepped in to help the declining population in the early 1900s and provided the locals with vaccinations and access to better medical care, preventing the population from depleting entirely.
In 1946, France declared French Polynesia an overseas territory of France, which allowed it to have a territorial government assembly. This assembly allowed French Polynesia to elect representatives to both the French National Assembly and the French Senate. Though there has not been much governmental change since this occurred, Nuku Hiva has recently communicated desires to become independent from French Polynesia while remaining a part of the French Republic. Nuku Hivan leaders claim that this is because they do not want to lose their relationship with France if French Polynesia becomes independent in the future.
Nuku Hiva Island in French Polynesia. ( Angela Meier / Adobe Stock)
A Modern-Day Polynesian Paradise
Nuku Hiva boasts a lush landscape filled with greenery, sandy coastlines, bays, and valleys. Each side of the island has its own unique topography, with the north being known for its deep bays and the east having the majority of its villages and boat landings. The center of the island is mostly made of the To’ovi’I plateau, a prairie plateau on which the locals raise cattle. The Vaipo Waterfall, a popular place to source freshwater for locals, is known as the tallest waterfall in Polynesia outside of Hawaii and New Zealand at 1,148 feet (350 meters) tall!
As of 2017, the population of Nuku Hiva was approximately 3,210 people. While this has grown significantly since 2007 when the population was only 2,260, it is still significantly less than surrounding areas. Historians believe that this decreased population is likely due to European diseases such as typhoid fever causing illness and death in the original communities as commercialism and tourism became more popular over the last several hundred years. Records show that European epidemics have killed over 90% of the original Nuku Hivan population since 1820.
The lifestyle of modern-day Nuku Hivans is highly focused on natural resources and strong community. Their diet mainly consists of various naturally-growing fruits and vegetables on the island including breadfruit, coconut, and taro. They also have access to imported fruits and vegetables such as apples, celery, grapes, and oranges. Rice is the most common grain consumed on the island, but wheat is also used to make French breads such baguettes in some local bakeries. Meat is available but is not as common, with Nuku Hivans primarily consuming goat and fish. However, pork and beef have become more popular in recent years as some locals have taken up cattle farming on the To’ovi’I plateau.
While the ancient stone monuments indicate that ancient Nuku Hivans used to worship multiple deities, modern-day Nuku Hivans predominantly identify as Christian. This shift in religion is likely due to European colonization as well as Christian missionary work over the last several centuries. The island has many churches, with the largest and most famous being the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Marquesas Islands located near the Nuku Hivan capital Taiohae.
Locals call the Nuku Hiva stone monuments Tikami . ( napa74 / Adobe Stock)
The Mysterious Monuments of Nuku Hivan: Deities or Aliens?
In the 1900s, archaeologists began exploring Nuku Hiva to discover more about its ancient roots. In these explorations and excavations, they discovered the famous stone monuments now scattered across the Nuku Hivan landscape. The discovery of these monuments helped confirm the early arrival of Nuku Hivans from western Polynesia around 150 BC and also helped to confirm that a major activity of the ancient Nuku Hivans was pottery making and stone processing.
The ancient Nuku Hivan statues are in surprisingly excellent condition considering they were likely made around the 11th century. The details of these statues can still be clearly seen and there are few chips or cracks in the monuments, a testament to the excellent quality and craftsmanship of ancient Nuku Hivans. They are composed of a combination of red clay and volcanic rock, both of which are still in high quantities on the island.
The monuments have different depictions, but all have similar traits including large heads, giant eyes, and short bodies and limbs. Some are carved with traditional clothing while others bear no clothing at all, potentially because of different artistic styles or maybe weathering of the outermost stone layer over time.
The largest ancient stone monument is named after the island. The Nuku Hiva statue stands at 2.5 meters high (8.2 ft) and depicts one of these large-eyed statue people. Others are much shorter and are sometimes found in groups. The local term for these monuments is tikami, and each monument is known for serving a different purpose. While some are for blessings and healing, others provide wisdom in decision making or mediation in love affairs. Others are believed to be beings of protection that help to protect the island from invaders.
Ufologists, also known as UFO researchers, believe that these monuments are evidence for alien contact on Nuku Hiva due to their reptilian appearance and disproportionate bodies. They even claim that the clothing carved on the statues are representative of space suits. However, historians say that it is much more likely that they are simply representative of a specific and common art style at the time. This is supported by similar stone deity statues found across the globe in dozens of other ancient cultures with similar proportions ( Tiki statues and Moai are further examples of these types of statues). Though few locals still worship these statues due to the conversion to Christianity, those that do say that they will fulfill your desires as long as you treat them with respect.
Traditional stone monument on Nuku Hiva island in French Polynesia. ( Angela Meier / Adobe Stock)
Preservation of the Gods: Nuku Hiva and UNESCO
Excavations are still ongoing throughout Nuku Hiva with the aim to aid historians in discovering more about the island’s rich ancient culture. As more monuments are discovered, a clearer picture of Nuku Hiva’s origins is painted. There is also major support behind Nuku Hiva to further preserve and protect the discoveries from these excavations, especially the ancient stone deities that have been found.
In 2021, the Marquesas Islands put in a bid to become a UNESCO World Heritage site . UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, is known for its work in declaring various locations around the globe as World Heritage sites and providing resources to preserve and protect important historical spots.
While the Marquesas Islands have been in talks to become a World Heritage site for several years now, it has faced opposition from locals and politicians claiming that Polynesian locals do not need help in preserving their landscape. They also cite difficulty in accessing certain parts of the islands that are owned by Polynesian families that do not want government involvement in their land. Others claim that it is a move taken by France to solidify the islands as part of France’s heritage, though they existed long before France took control of them in the 19th century.
In this bid, more discussions are taking place to come to a final decision on resources that could be provided to the region if selected officially as a World Heritage site. It is possible that UNESCO could choose to focus their aid in specific regions of the islands to help in preservation efforts while also respecting the choices of locals rejecting their assistance. They may also choose to make specific islands, such as Nuku Hiva , UNESCO World Heritage sites but not the others, though this would require significant political discussion.
Regardless, all sides are in agreement that the stone monuments and other aspects of Marquesas culture could and should be safely preserved and protected for generations to come. The value of these precious, and at times mysterious, cultural monuments is far too great to let them go to waste.
Top image: Tikami stone monument in Nuku Hiva. Source: emperorcosar / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh