Issue 13.4: August/September 2010

Mystery Islands

Story by Roland Gilmore

Photos by Dana Edmunds


None are taller than eighteen inches. Their shape—the rounded, neckless heads, the flattened facial features—is like nothing else found in Hawai‘i. Ever. That they are made of stone is itself different: Most Hawaiian ki‘i (statues) were carved from wood. In appearance, their closest relatives might be two thousand miles to the southeast, where the great Marquesan carvers created stone tiki with similar rounded lines and facial expressions, though often at more than triple the size.


Who made them is not known. Whether they represent men or gods is not known. What they were doing in an abandoned temple complex on an abandoned island is not known. They almost seem amused.


They are part of the mystery.




Mokumanamana (“branching island”) and Nihoa (“serrated” or “firmly set”) are tiny islets in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, far beyond the horizon of the main Hawaiian Islands. Nihoa, the closer of the two, is roughly 150 miles to the northwest of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau. It’s a mile long, 910 feet at its highest point and averages a quarter-mile wide. It’s shaped like a saddle, with peaks at both ends and a low plain in the middle. With the exception of a few loulu palms, the vegetation is a variety of windblown grasses and shrubs. Nihoa gets about twenty to thirty inches of rain per year and has three small springs, the water in each of them fouled by droppings from the hundreds of thousands of birds that inhabit the island throughout the year.


Hook-shaped Mokumanamana (a.k.a. Necker Island) lies another 150 miles past Nihoa, also a mile in length but only 277 feet at its peak and averaging 400 feet wide. Rainfall is between twenty and twenty-five inches per year; there are two small springs, also fouled by birds.


Looking at these islands today, it seems impossible that anyone would or even could live here. Too small, too little water, no wood of the kind used for canoes and day-to-day implements. But it has been estimated that between 150 and 200 people once lived permanently on Nihoa, with a much smaller number spending time on Mokumanamana. Nihoa shows signs of intensive, long-term agriculture; there are numerous house sites, heiau (temples) and at least two burial sites. When a team from the Bishop Museum surveyed the island in 1923-24, they found hundreds of artifacts: adzes, mortars and stone bowls; fishhooks, sinkers and lures—all signs of long-term habitation.


There are fewer housing and agricultural remains on Mokumanamana but more religious sites. It was here that the small stone statues were found—thirteen in all, which were removed by two separate landing parties in 1894. Eight ended up in the Bishop Museum, two in the British Museum and three in private hands. Meanwhile, the 1923-24 survey documented thirty-four temples on the island—closer in shape and design, notes the survey report, to certain types of Tahitian marae than to Hawaiian heiau. Numerous other artifacts were excavated.


Nihoa and Mokumanamana are for the most part the end of the road in terms of high islands in the Hawaiian chain; northwest of them, the low islands, atolls, pinnacles, seamounts, banks, shoals and reefs that stretch off for another eight hundred miles quickly drop toward sea level. What the relationship between the two islands was, how and when people lived there, why they were there, how they survived, what they worshipped: This is the rest of the mystery.




Until fairly recently the final word on Nihoa and Mokumanamana was that 1923-24 Bishop Museum visit, the Tanager Expedition, led by renowned archaeologist Kenneth P. Emory and written up in his extensive 1928 report, Archaeology of Nihoa and Necker Islands. Emory is known today for his work throughout the Pacific and among other things is credited with developing (along with Dr. Yoshihiko Sinoto) the theory that Hawai‘i was settled in two distinct waves, first from the Marquesas (circa AD 500-750) and later from Tahiti during a two-century period of navigation between the Hawaiian and Society Islands that ended around 1300. According to the theory, this second wave brought the religious beliefs and social structures that evolved into Hawaiian civilization as it existed when Capt. James Cook arrived in 1778.


The Tanager report shows this two-wave settlement theory in its infancy. Emory believed that the evidence on Nihoa and Mokumanamana pointed to two distinct settlements of Hawai‘i by Tahitians; first from Tahiti island and the second from Rai‘atea. According to this model, the people who ended up on the two islets were part of the first wave and had probably died off by the arrival of the second. What they left behind then went undisturbed until well into the nineteenth century, with the islands themselves all but disappearing from Hawaiian consciousness. They were, Emory wrote, “a pure sample of the culture prevailing in Hawaii before the thirteenth century.”


But more recent surveys of Mokumanamana and Nihoa indicate that people were there much later—at least two centuries later—and suggest a more nuanced picture of settlement patterns in Hawai‘i. Kekuewa Kikiloi is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Hawai‘i. His dissertation (working title: Voyaging, Colonization and Extinction Risk in Marginal Oceania) focuses on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, though it also seeks to place them within the context of a number of other prehistoric, inhabited-then-abandoned “Polynesian mystery islands” (as they have been called by another Pacific archaeologist, Patrick Kirch). For Kekuewa such islands—there are at least twenty-five in Polynesia, including Pitcairn, Raoul, Norfolk, Kiritibati (Christmas) and Tabuaeran (Fanning)—hold the key to understanding a crucial chapter in the history of Pacific voyaging. In essence they were the ultimate tests of the early Polynesians’ navigational and survival skills. “We know now that Polynesian voyagers went to South America rather effortlessly, in a quick explosion across the Pacific west to east,” he says. “It is only these small mystery islands that really challenged them in developing a model of survival.”


Kekuewa has been to Nihoa and Mokumanamana nine times since 2002, sometimes as a scientist on a research vessel, sometimes as a crewmember on the sailing canoe Höküle‘a. So far, his research indicates that the Tanager Expedition might not have seen the whole picture. “One of the first projects Kenneth Emory worked on in his career was Nihoa and Necker,” says Kekuewa. “It was so early in the history of Pacific archaeology that it was a major accomplishment to even think that Oceanic people were related. But now we have much more complex models of understanding. … It is now understood that people were going everywhere, all kinds of ways: It’s much more complicated than just two migratory efforts.”


The year AD 1500 is one of the complicated turns in the story of Nihoa and Mokumanamana. Radiocarbon dating of material from the islands performed in the 1950s was inconclusive: The technology of the day could produce only dates accurate to within a couple hundred years, plus or minus. What’s more, two separate laboratories came up with two different dates for the same material. Radiocarbon dating has improved since then, and new tests are planned. Kekuewa also plans to apply seriation, a method of comparing the islands’ heiau and other structures to similar sites on the main Hawaiian Islands—a process that may lead to a better understanding of where the heiau builders came from and shed light on the enigmatic stone statues.


Kekuewa is also using coral dating, a technique with the precision of a “sniper shot,” he says, accurate to within a few years. Coral was placed at heiau sites on Nihoa around 1500, during what is considered a “golden age” of Hawaiian civilization, when agriculture on the main islands was expanding; when population was growing and people were moving into more marginal lands on the dry leeward coasts; when the ali‘i social structure was stable and large heiau were under construction on all islands.


Meanwhile, Nihoa and Mokumanamana were home to communities truly on the edge, facing constant threat of extinction with barely enough water to support them. And these tiny islands would have been challenging for navigators to locate—unless they regularly visited. Such visits would have required a significant commitment of labor and resources, not only to maintain and sail canoes back and forth, but also to provision the inhabitants.

“It’s very unlikely to me that those people were ever isolated on Nihoa,” says Kekuewa. “What we know from other mystery islands is that small, isolated, resource-deficient islands needed voyaging as a means of constantly supplementing their lives. These islands are really just a microcosm of how we live today, with Matson containers constantly going back and forth, giving us what we need to go beyond the capacity of our islands. A lot of archaeologists would say it would make more logical sense that at the midpoint of Hawaiian history, when there is more emphasis on domestication practices with land and terrestrial resources, they would stop voyaging. But in fact they’re pushing the limits of voyaging.”




On a practical level, Kekuewa’s research is about survival: what it took to live on marginal islands and how this can help us better understand how Oceania was settled. But the question of why early Hawaiians would have gone to so much trouble—what their deeper cultural motivations may have been—remains. To approach it, Kekuewa is supplementing traditional archaeology with oral tradition and written Hawaiian-language sources: chants, songs, genealogies and stories. The evidence suggests the possibility that islets might have been considered a nexus between the spirit and the human realms. “The setting of the sun in Hawaiian tradition means the passing of life into the afterlife. So the area west of Mokumanamana might be considered like po, the place of darkness from which life springs but also where it returns after death; a place where the gods originated and where our ancestors’ spirits rest. Everything east of Mokumanamana is where people dwell; we have chants about that region being a place of vitality and life.”


Kekuewa’s research continues, and it’s too soon to say definitively what new insights it might bring. In the meantime his fusion of archaeology with Hawaiian cultural traditions represents a new way of reconstructing history. Archaeology, a science that deals with physical evidence, often views oral tradition as unreliable. But for Kekuewa, an archeologist and a Native Hawaiian, the two aren’t mutually exclusive; they’re different ways of seeing into the past. “As Hawaiians all these things are dormant inside of us,” he says, “and what we’re trying to do is a process of remembering.”


In the meantime the mysteries of Nihoa and Mokumanamana remain just over the horizon, waiting to be solved.