Eiao, The Mystery Island

© F.Jacq ©M. Charleux©M. Charleux © F.Jacq © F.Jacq © F.Jacq © F.Jacq © F.Jacq © F.Jacq ©M. Charleux © F.Jacq © F.Jacq ©M. Charleux © F.Jacq © F.Jacq © F.Jacq ©M. Charleux©M. Charleux © F.Jacq © F.Jacq © F.Jacq
Eiao, The Mystery Island

At the end of the Marquesas Archipelago, this rough abandoned island hides in its strange scenery the remains of an ancient time when it was a true stone tools “factory”, whose production was exported to all Polynesian islands. A secret uncovered little by little by recent scientific expeditions.

This island, now uninhabited, located some hundred kilometers from Nuku Hiva at the northernmost end of the Marquesas, Eiao is shaped like a crescent with a southeast concavity, it is a dozen kilometers long and four kilometers wide. With its 50km2 surface, Eiao is probably one of the largest last desert islands left in the world. Deserted island would be a more precise term as, even though it has a rough surface, it was populated during the pre-European era, i.e. before the arrival of the first Europeans in the Polynesian islands. An ancient oral tradition tells us that a fabulous Peruvian treasure of gems, gold, jewels, etc. brought by some Spaniards is hidden there. Other stories tell us that during World War II, a German submarine moored there secretly to hide a big Nazi treasure.

© F.Jacq
© F.Jacq

Jagged And Inhospitable

The over 5 million years old initial volcano, which gave birth to the island when it surged from the ocean’s depths, then collapsed and created a large, over 20km (12 miles) caldeira. The ocean and natural elements did a fantastic erosion job that remodeled the island and gave it its present physical aspect. The cliffs on the southeast side’s quarter circle are the last remains of this ancient and formidable caldeira. On this side of Eiao, big swells coming from the South crash on big black shingles and rocks. Once you pass the swells and the shingles, you run into steep debris sloped at 45 degrees before reaching the powerful barrier created by the caldeira’s vertical “wall”. There are of course a few “passes” to reach the crest line whose altitude remains around 500m and culminates at 577 meters on the Mouatiketike, but their access are very steep and dangerous. This means that the island is hardly accessible through its southeast coast.

© F.Jacq
© F.Jacq
©M. Charleux
©M. Charleux

Nobody knows for sure if these are just legends or if these treasures are real, but the few treasure hunters who secretly explored the slopes of this island, whose access is regulated today, have apparently found nothing… Unless they kept the secret of what they could have found! Or that a treasure, of a totally different kind, escaped their research! But what is sure is that Eiao has a patrimonial treasure of regional importance whose visible remains are the thousands of basalt stone chips left in some sectors of the island. These are the remains of an era when this island at the end of the world was a tool factory due to the presence of a unique stone, a fine grain basalt. From this precious material, the ancient Marquesans made adzes and other high quality tools, which they mass-produced. This real riches draws its origins in the extreme chaotic geological history of this island.

© F.Jacq
© F.Jacq
© F.Jacq

The northeast side is barely more inviting: the ocean cut through volcanic flows and created vertiginous dark cliffs 2 to 300m high, carving valleys that open on nothing, where reddish color torrents crash into the sea as soon as it rains on the “plateau”. Only a few rare bays, more or less protected from the swells let you access to the inside of the island. Among them, Vaituha Bay offers a relatively safe refuge – although when the wind turns, the breakers can prevent any landing – but you have to climb a rather steep 350 meters to finally enter the island and reach the “planezes”, these triangular plateaus of volcanic origin, located between 350 and 500m in altitude.

Martian Landscapes

While the coastline doesn’t much encourage any landing, the inside of the island is not much more inviting, especially when there is one and only source of fresh water on the heights of Vaituha Bay. These various “handicaps” caused the failure of all attempts of development in the 19th century. Of all these attempts that were unsuccessful for various reasons, what remains is sheep – hundred of them! – they have returned to the wild, and in the absence of predators, they have reproduced abundantly and adapted to their new habitat. Jumping from rock to rock, including in abrupt areas, these friendly quadrupeds make the day of Marquesan hunters, who organize hunting expeditions with onsite meat processing from the island of Nuku Hiva. But unfortunately these animals also eat the entire vegetation! Perhaps they just aggravated a desertification that started way before they were introduced on the island. Still Eiao is totally barren on 50 to 60% of its surface. These damages of animal origin – but for which man is largely responsible -, are aggravated by rain and strong winds hitting the island practically without stopping, and causing a kind of erosion that nothing seems able to stop. Fertile soil is gone, uncovering reddish decomposition clay, that creates Martian landscapes on the Tohuanui Plateau and a small-scale “Colorado desert” when dry as there is no body of water all year round on the island! This unavoidable destruction of the island offers in counterpart, a fabulous scenery, true palettes of colors, making the day for the rare photographers who are able to explore the island. 

© F.Jacq

They are rare because Eiao is difficult to access and it benefits furthermore from a “Protected Area” status and its access must be formally authorized. The island made the news on two occasions in recent past. First in the sixties with the “Robinson Crusoe” experiment lived by French journalist Georges De Caunes. Relayed live on a Metropolitan French radio station, it had to be stopped for health reasons after about hundred days. In 1972, a drilling mission was completed by the BRGM, le Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières, a French geological and mining agency. Major means were deployed at the time. The considered – at the time secret – objective was to make of Eiao a center for experimentation of nuclear underground explosions. Fortunately, the three in-depth drillings revealed that the island’s underground was too fragile and this project was abandoned. The island returned to silence and recovered its quietude.

©M. Charleux
© F.Jacq

A Giant Factory

But it is the same geology that caused Eiao to be the place chosen by ancient Marquesans to manufacture stone tools for everyday use. Indeed a fine grain basalt – meaning “with very small crystals” – is found on the island that responds very well to carving through percussion or pressure, and allows the relatively easy cutting and shaping of stone tools. There were only two islands in this eastern region of the Pacific that featured such geological riches: Eiao and the famous Pitcairn Island, better known for having been home to the famous Bounty mutineers. Thus it is not by accident that Eiao became a giant adze manufacturing factory. The production was practically “industrial”, and these high-quality tools were appreciated and “exported” to other Marquesan islands, but also to other more remote islands. As each volcano produces lava with its own “geo-chemical” signature, it has been proven today, through analysis, that in some Marquesan sites, the proportion of tools coming from Eiao reached nearly 50% (site of Hanamiai in Tahuata, 130km South of Eiao).

© F.Jacq

More remarkably, we found an adze from Eiao in Mo’orea (over 1,400 km /800 miles away from its origin), three or four others in Mangareva 1,800km / 1,100 miles away, and even one in the island of Kiribati over 2,500km / 1,550 miles away from Eiao! These distances were necessarily covered in outrigger canoes! The precious fine-grain basalt let us therefore prove unsuspected until now inter-archipelago exchanges. This tells us about the regional importance of Eiao’s archeological heritage. This is probably the true and the most important treasure of Eiao! On the island, the remains of this important production are not lacking: large workshops and areas covered with chips of basalt, various building structures, spread mostly in the center and the North of Eiao. Recently a layer 2.20 meters thick of basalt chips was even discovered in a large valley of the center of the island, which concentrates the largest density of sites, meaning also that stone carving lasted for centuries. A cultural patrimonial treasure inexorably threatened by natural erosion and animal degradation, which it became urgent to inventory, to survey and to analyse. An additional argument for the Marquesans who wish that their archipelago be added to UNESCO’s World Humanity’s Heritage.

© F.Jacq
© F.Jacq

Expeditions

This is why the archeological mission “EIAO 2010” was organized under the sponsorship of the Centre International pour la Recherche Archéologique en Polynésie (CIRAP) and the University of French Polynesia. A “heavy” mission with major human and material financial means and a long mission since, with its 50-day stay on the top plateau, it is the longest mission ever organized on the island. But it is a mission under difficult conditions as the area studied is subjected to strong winds that blow red dust, as fine as talcum powder, that gets into everything, and as the research area is totally without water. It was therefore necessary to bring all the way to the summit several tons of equipment, food and over two tons of water reserved exclusively for drinking and cooking for about ten persons during their seven-week stay. The French Armed Forces in French Polynesia contributed precious logistic support while taking advantage of missions programmed for the frigate “Prairial” and its Alouette III helicopter, as well as the patrol boat “La Railleuse”.

© F.Jacq

As Eiao depends administratively on the community of Nuku Hiva, the city, the “Te Hina O Motu Haka” Association and the French Administrator for the Marquesas Islands made available a total of 8 Marquesans for the mission. The combined efforts of these various partners and a motivated and dedicated Marquesan team made the success of this mission possible. This is how, through many researches, several new built-up sites were discovered. All of them covered by a heavy thickness of basalt chips practically all over their surface, they reveal the presence of a human group living there and an important activity of basalt cutting and of tool making over several centuries. The first samplings made it possible to collect mollusk shells and fish bones, which now need to be identified and analyzed. The CRIOBE (Centre de Recherches Insulaires et Observatoire de l’Environnement de Polynésie Française / Polynesian Island Environmental Research and Observation Center located in Moorea) volunteered to identify the species through the use of old DNA contained in the fish’s vertebras: a first.

© F.Jacq
© F.Jacq
© F.Jacq
©M. Charleux
© F.Jacq

Charcoal carefully collected during these samplings should supply an inventory of the woods used, and identify the initial vegetal covering, and most of all it should obtain precious dating. These various analyses will be performed in the context of collaboration with New Zealand and Hawaii laboratories. But the sites riches and the island’s interest are such that, despite technical difficulties and some fatigue tied to the previous mission’s conditions, a second mission, “EIAO.2010.2” has been organized. The Polynesian Government’s Ministry of Culture’s subsidy was a major argument. The objective: further excavations on the sites discovered and more in-depth work on the operating links in the making of adzes. A mass of information, which will take months to process and analyze.

Michel CHARLEUX

Eiao, The Mystery Island
Eiao, The Mystery Island
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At the end of the Marquesas Archipelago, this rough abandoned island hides in its strange scenery the remains of an ancient time when it was a true stone tools “factory”, whose production was exported to all Polynesian islands. A secret uncovered little by little by recent scientific expeditions.
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welcome Tahiti
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