Nuku Hiva: Maritime Culture

The residents of Nuku Hiva have relied for centuries not only on the waters that surround their island, but also on the fertile valleys that lie in the interior.  This created a unique culture on Nuku Hiva that is still very evident today. Fishing continues to be the main source of protein for islanders, and many traditional dishes include crops like breadfruit as a source of carbohydrates. Canoeing has changed from a necessary part of island labor to a sport, but the traditional design of the canoes and paddles is still present.

The initial settlement of the island of Nuku Hiva is believed to have been between 300 and 600 A.D. (Addison 2006, 38). Anaho, located in the Northern part of the island, is the largest coral reef in the Marquesas Islands. This area, with access to the ocean and the availability of reef fishes, would have been an ideal settlement area for the earliest inhabitants (Allen, 87). The island population slowly increased, and the inhabitants remained close to the shore since they relied predominantly on marine resources (Sumner-Fromeyer).  As they became familiar with the structure of the island environment, the people began to move inward and developed agricultural practices to sustain their population. Archaeological artifacts, including peelers, scrapers and pounders that were used for fruits and vegetables have been dated to around 1200 A.D., showing the increasing development of agriculture around the island. To greater increase the productivity of the agricultural systems, irrigation systems were developed after 1400 A.D. to keep crops watered, producing more food for the growing population (Kawaharada).

Life in Nuku Hiva was, and still is, heavily regulated by the geographical features of the island. The mountainous terrain, weather, and lack of abundant coral reefs create an interesting landscape that is distinctive among the islands of Polynesia. Some of the dominant features of the island are the rocky cliffs that circle the island and the breaks which consist of deep inlets that lead into the valleys. There are many bays that correspond to the lowest points of volcanic craters which are the easiest access points to the ocean for the people of Nuku Hiva. The weather of the island fluctuates greatly with the El Niño/Southern Oscillation events that occur in the Pacific Ocean. During El Niño events there are extreme rainy seasons, and during La Niña events there are unpredictable droughts. The usual average annual rainfall for Nuku Hiva is 700-1400mm, although the topography of the land has a large effect on the amount of precipitation that an area receives (Addison 2006, 34). For example, the To’ovi’i Plateau creates a rain shadow on the western side of the island (Addison 1996, 43).The bays are often unprotected from the ocean, and there are few coral patches and fringing reefs. The two main patch reefs are located in the sheltered bays of Hakatea and Anaho (Addison 2006, 30-31).

The traditional culture of this island was centered around food—the production, preparation, and consumption of it. This could be seen on the individual household scale, as well as the community scale, when everyone prepared for feasts that could last for weeks. Feasts were prepared when there were important visitors, or when honoring particular individuals (Addison 2006, 130). Food was celebrated when it was in abundance, but it was also recognized as being a scarce resource. During droughts and famines, excess breadfruit saved from previous harvests was used as a food source. The pulp of the breadfruit is stored in what is known as a pit. is the preserved paste of breadfruit, and can be made into pudding (heikai and piahi), pastes (ka’aku and popoi), or it can be baked or roasted (Addison 2006, 145-46). The success of agriculture depended on many factors, such as the amount of water available for the crops and the soil type present. Due to the variability in rainfall across the island, the people developed irrigation ditches, which were located in the valleys near the north and east coasts of the island. The irrigation systems were developed in these valleys since they receive more rainfall, making the ditches more effective for watering the crops (Addison 2006, 78).

There are many gods associated with the production of food in Nuku Hiva, some said to control fishing and others controlling the success of the breadfruit crop. The main fishing god was Tana’oa, also called Te Fatu Moana which translates to “Lord of the Sea,” who was known as the “god of wind and sea and patron of fishing” (Kawaharada). There is also the religious structure, known as the malae, where sacrifices were made, one of the most common events being a sacrifice for the successful completion of a canoe (Kawaharada). It is clear that although the people did not solely rely on the ocean for sustenance, there was still a great respect for its power and resources. There were also gods and deities associated with the growth and cultivation of vital crops, such as breadfruit (Addison 2006, 81). A tradition in Nuku Hiva was to plant a breadfruit tree for newborns, and that tree would belong to the individual and provide them with nourishment throughout their lives (Kawaharada). As for the gods, there was Mumea, the mother of the breadfruit, as well as at least three deities: Ihitapu, Tukuu, and Kaumoa, who controlled the production of the breadfruit. There was also Honoiti, who protected the young, developing fruits (Addison 2006, 81). 

Europeans arriving at the island immediately noticed the vast agricultural infrastructure in the valleys, describing an abundance of coconut and breadfruit—even “plantations” where cultivation of such crops was occurring (Addison 1996, 9).  Two hundred years later, these cultivated trees are still an important part of the landscape. Fish has been supplemented in the Marquesan diet by new sources of animal protein introduced by Europeans, including pigs, goats, and cows (Addison 2006, 488-89). 

The people of Nuku Hiva were skilled at obtaining fish, and obviously knowledgeable about the animals they were catching. Fishermen knew of at least 140 different types of fish and were aware of the habitats and the preferred food for each of these species. One specific type of fishhook that has been found throughout Nuku Hiva is a “heavy shank hook,” with an inner barb constructed at the end. Several different methods were used to catch fish, one of the most interesting being the use of a smashed root placed at the bottom of a body of water. This temporarily paralyzed the fish, which caused it to float to the surface, and allowed for it to be easily captured. Fish were also caught in nets and with lines made of either the bark of the fau tree or from coconut fiber (Addison 2006, 488-489).

Historically, fishhooks have been made from pearl shells or bones. At Teavau’au, six unfinished and twelve finished hooks made from pearl shell were discovered. They ranged in length from 11.6 to 31.7 mm with the average size being 15.9 mm. This is a relatively small size for a hook, which confirms the pursuit of fish such as groupers, rock cod, soldierfish, squirrelfish, and wrasses in this area (Allen, 87).

One method of fishing used today is called hi poito. This method works best at depths between 100 to 200 meters. A 50-meter line with baited hooks is attached to a yellow and red float. One particular fisherman rigged his line by wrapping a baited hook and filet around a volcanic rock (Siu). Larger fishing boats can leave up to twenty of these in the water and then return later in the day to retrieve their catch (Niva). A smaller fishing boat, with fewer resources, will set only a couple of floats at one time and then return immediately to it when they see that fish have been caught (Siu). Another technique utilized by the fishermen is jigging, which is used primarily to catch snappers and tunas. To catch bottom-dwelling snappers, the lines are composed of up to five hooks, spread a couple feet apart and baited, and a sinker. A good fisherman will pride himself in being able to fill up all of the hooks before retrieving the catch. Jigging for tuna is a little different as the depth of the hooks will be about thirty meters deep. Another technique to catch tuna is to troll for twenty to thirty minutes before and after sunset. This method is normally given priority over jigging during these times because it is the most effective time for trolling, while jigging can be done throughout the night. Other late night activities include spear fishing and snorkeling for spiny and slipper lobsters (Witting).

Fishing in ocean waters is restricted to 36 licensed local boats in the ocean waters, and foreign long-line fishing vessels that pay a fee to fish in the waters around the Marquesas (Representative of the Mayor’s Office). The fish caught from some of the local boats are consumed on Nuku Hiva. The fisherman of the island can be hired on a job-by-job basis and will fish for different businesses (Siu). If there is no specific job they will sell their fish at the market for residents to purchase. The fish sold on Nuku Hiva are significantly cheaper than those sold in Tahiti. Tuna in Tahiti is sold at prices between 1500-2400 PFC/kg, whereas in Nuku Hiva the same fish would be priced around 500 PFC/kg (Huauta).

Canoes were very important to the everyday life of the early inhabitants of Nuku Hiva; historically they were used for transportation, warfare, and fishing (Kawaharada).  While they are used mainly for recreational purposes today, they remain an important part of the culture and retain traditional design features, including outriggers, which increase their stability. Canoes for transportation and warfare were very similar in structure using composite hulls, created by attaching multiple planks together, while smaller fishing canoes were made from a single hollowed-out log.

Transportation depended on canoes, not only to other islands, but around Nuku Hiva, where  the mountainous interior made it difficult to travel across the island. Herman Melville describes this in his novel Typee, where the character Toby has to travel to Taiohae by canoe to obtain medical supplies. A canoe used for travel would be constructed by lashing two separate canoes together, with a gap of a couple of yards between them, to increase the storage capacity (Kawaharada). They also had two sails and an outrigger. Some accounts have said that these canoes could be sixty feet in length or even longer, though there is no physical evidence to support this claim (Kawaharada).

There are varying opinions on the design and stability of Marquesan canoes. Some believe that these canoes may have been well suited for long voyages, whereas others doubt their seaworthiness (Oliver, 115; Addison 2006, 492). Early European explorers had many varying opinions on whether the canoes of the Marquesas were capable of even leaving the bays without certain death to the occupants (Addison 2006, 492).

War canoes were very sacred and powerful in the culture. They could be up to fifty feet in length and were the most elaborately decorated, featuring objects such as human hair mixed with grey beads, and pearl shells hanging from coconut branches (Kawaharada). When not in use, these canoes were disassembled and the individual parts held in multiple households. When it was time for battle, the households would join together to reassemble the canoe from parts that had been spread out among different villages within the region.  This allowed and required the people to come together, and explains why some canoes have two names, one from each village (Niva).

Canoes used for fishing were smaller, normally about six feet in length, and could hold two to three people. The advantage of using a dugout hull for these canoes was that it allowed for the canoe to move through the water quietly. They also did not have sails, so paddles were the main form of propulsion. They were mainly used in the bays near the shore where a lot of the fish were located. Canoes are no longer generally used for fishing because of the availability of motorboats, and most fish are no longer accessible near the shore. The targeted species are yellow fin tuna (Thunnus albacares), albacore tuna (Thunnus alalunga), big eye tuna (Thunnus obesus), skipjacks (Katsuwonus pelamis), two-spot red snapper (lutjanus bohar), and wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri) (Siu).

While canoes are no longer used for the reasons they once were, such as fishing and warfare, the people have found another way to integrate them into their daily lives. Outrigger canoe racing is the national sport of Nuku Hiva and French Polynesia, and children are taught paddling techniques in school at an early age. From there, those interested in competing competitively will join an association to further advance their skill in the sport. Overlooking the bay at Taioha’e, canoe teams and individuals can often be seen practicing. The main event that is held every year is Hawaiki Nui, which starts in Huraique and ends at Bora Bora. This event draws over 100 canoe teams, all composed of crews of six, and tests not only the endurance of the rowers but also their knowledge of the ocean as an understanding of currents, winds, and direction are all essential in this long and labor-intensive race.

Many different factors have molded the culture of Nuku Hiva. The structure of the land, and the weather that is created as a result, have had an effect on what was available to the residents. The extreme geography of the island limited access to the ocean, and the lack of large reefs caused the early inhabitants to look to the fertile valleys around them for nourishment. The residents still use the ocean as a major source of protein, however, and the unification of fishing and agriculture has created a unique culture.

Joan Hurley, University of South Carolina
Nicholas Morrow, Northeastern University



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