The First Real Settlement: A Polynesian ‘mystery island’

Of all the descriptions given to Norfolk Island over the years including, ‘paradise’, ‘a place for angels and eagles’, ‘convict hell hole’, and ‘a bounteous gift’ – its description by anthropologists as one of the Pacific’s ‘mystery islands’ surely conjures the most intrigue. The mystery of mystery islands is that, while once inhabited by prehistoric peoples the reasons they left are unknown. The first people to inhabit Norfolk Island were Polynesian and it was their departure around 1500AD that gives the island claim to such a tantalizing descriptor.

Interestingly, while Norfolk is the most westerly placed ‘mystery island’, the most eastern is Pitcairn Island. Not only do our islands share a more modern Polynesian ancestry due to the Bounty mutiny, but both also had an unconnected prehistory Polynesian settlement. Pitcairn Island lays over 6,000kms away and Rapa Nui a further 2,000kms to its east. With Norfolk Island as the most westerly and Rapa Nui the most eastern point of Polynesian settlement, the vastness of Polynesian migration in the Pacific Ocean can be appreciated.

People began moving into the Pacific over 3,000 years ago and by about 1000AD most of the habitable islands supported thriving populations. Showing incredible speed and daring they sailed in double-hulled canoes in search of these new homelands. The last places to be reached were in the southwest and far eastern Pacific with New Zealand being the last major land mass on the planet to be settled. After it was reached about 1250AD, long-range voyaging began to decline quite rapidly.

About 900kms north-east of New Zealand lie the Kermadecs, a series of now uninhabited islands including the largest Raoul Island, and this is where archaeologists believe the Polynesians on Norfolk Island came from. Co-directing a series of archaeological digs in the late 1990’s called the ‘Norfolk Island Prehistory Project’, Atholl Anderson and Peter White uncovered an archaeological site extending over approximately 3000 m2 in the sand dunes behind Emily Bay. The objects found in the digs provided the first comprehensive picture of Polynesian arrival and settlement on Norfolk Island. Anderson and White say the Polynesians “… had probably arrived in a large double canoe, possibly more than one, and therefore might have numbered in the order of 20–50 people, plus at least one dog, and some small rats which had, no doubt, secreted themselves amongst sails and supplies”. They also brought a core or two of obsidian, a naturally forming volcanic glass that importantly, does not occur on Norfolk Island. The pieces found behind Emily Bay were sourced to Raoul Island potentially solving at least, the question of ‘where did these people come from?’

On coming ashore the new migrants would have found the sheltered conditions of Emily Bay provided the most ideal and logical place for settlement. Without today’s pine tree plantations and sand dune formations, the beach gradually sloped up to a gently undulating surface about a metre above high water. Not only did Emily Bay provide the only area of flat land close to the lagoon, the small swampy lake behind the beach provided fresh water and eels. Fish and turtles in the bay and the thickly strewn ground-nesting muttonbirds and seabirds were ready sources of food.

Organising for food and shelter would have been the very first things attended to. Branches from nearby pine trees would have been quickly cut to frame the first houses and the first ovens would have been dug, with basalt cobbles collected for ovenstones. Anderson and White say: “…Soon a small village would have been visible’’ and provide a picturesque description of at least one small house with a porch facing out toward the sea. Amazingly some branchwood postbutts (Araucaria heterophylla) from this house were found during the digs and are now on display – 700 years after it was built. Several metres to the side of the house a large earth oven was found, providing the typical Oceanic unit of a house with separate cooking area. It is believed that the village would have been composed of a number of these house/oven units.

From these small beginnings Anderson and White say: “the Polynesian colony probably increased quite rapidly in numbers, and some families may have established themselves in Bumboras, Ball Bay, Anson Bay and perhaps parts of the interior, not to mention on the other two islands [Phillip and Nepean]. Within a few generations, several hundred people may have lived in the Norfolk Island archipelago”. This finding was probably not too much of a surprise for many locals, as over the years, surface finds of stone tools have been made across the island. In fact the first evidence of an earlier occupation of the island came as early as 1788 with the arrival of Commandant Philip Gidley King and the first British settlers.

Amongst their ‘finds’ were bananas growing in clusters in Arthur’s Vale. As a seedless fruit requiring propagation, someone must have brought banana suckers and purposely planted them. Remains of a canoe, wooden artefacts, stone tools and the presence of rats were other early found clues. Philip Gidley King had the two Maori men Tuki and Huru, who were brought to the island in 1792 to teach flax production methods, look at a very large adze and they recognised and identified it as Maori. Nearly 200 years before Anderson and White’s archaeological project, King concluded that there was, “a feasible proof” of Norfolk Island having once been settled from New Zealand. He would have been fascinated with one of the most important finds from the digs behind Emily Bay that confirmed his hypothesis – that being an eastern Polynesian religious structure or marae.

Marae’s are the focal point of Polynesian communities as a place of worship and where important ceremonial and community events occur. Usually they include a place for communal cooking and eating, however in our marae this appears not to be the case, leading to the conclusion it was most likely only used for ceremonial purposes. The archaeologists found paving slabs of the local calcarinite limestone around 3-8 cms thick in a rectangular layout approximately 4 x 5 metres. Anderson and White say: “Charcoal samples under the paving were dated and indicate the Marae was made some 600-700 years ago. Compared with marae of a similar date in Eastern Polynesia they are far less elaborate, perhaps indicating little or no contact with those areas”. The sanctity of the site was revealed with the finding of the remains of a sub-adult elephant seal skull and teeth, perhaps caught locally or brought from the Kermadecs. For either location, it would have been exceeding rare, highly prized and valued. Burial of the skull close to the marae is similar in practice to the sacred placement of whale bones elsewhere in Polynesia.

Prior to the Emily Bay digs, Dr. Jim Specht conducted field surveys and in 1985 published “The Pre-historic Archaeology of Norfolk Island”. In this he suggests that it would have been likely for a burial ground to be located seaward of the dunes, within proximity of the marae. In the 1990s digs Anderson and White found no human remains, perhaps much to their disappointment as these could have provided more clues about the settlement and its eventual closure.

They did however find a number of basalt flakes, blades, preforms and adzes. Stone adzes were the most important tool of the Polynesians, used to fell trees, shape canoes and canoe parts and hew timber for houses, spears and clubs. Making a stone adze was a skilled job and begun by breaking up boulders into smaller pieces (preforms). These were then worked into the desired shape by striking flakes off the edges with hammer stones, which were also used to smooth rough surfaces. Finally the adze was polished and the cutting edge sharpened by rubbing it back and forth on a wet grinding stone. The number of flakes, blades and preforms found in the eastern end of Slaughter Bay led the archaeologists to believe it was the ‘adze manufacturing’ area of the settlement. Flake analysis showed that the stone was quarried elsewhere and the preforms brought to this area for finishing off.

Beautiful carved bone artefacts were also recovered, including a marine ivory one-piece fish hook and a turtle bone harpoon point. Handling these delicate items together with the heavy stone tools, leaves little doubt that highly skilled craftsmen and a sophisticated people lived here.

The Polynesians who came to Norfolk Island were adventurous explorers. When they set out the island probably had no name, was on no string and shell map and no directions had been passed orally about its position. Perhaps encouraged by the discovery of New Zealand and the thought that the next big land mass lay over the horizon, they sailed off with the westerly winds whipping them along. They would have known that to sail back in the event of not finding land, meant a dangerous journey against the prevailing winds. The archaeological evidence tells us that they made land and lived here for over 200 years – but it does not help us discover the reasons why they left.

There are however two main theories. The first is that the community may have felt severe social isolation and a desire to re-establish contact with other communities. The second is that the food base was insubstantial with a failure of food sources driving the need to quit the island. Inshore fish stocks may have declined, nesting bird populations been eaten-out and banana crops periodically failed. In reality we just don’t know what happened. It really is a mystery.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 05 Issue 02, 2015. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.


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