Necker Island

A Cross Cultural Comparison of Island Images

By Koa Kahili

H ome to thousands of birds, 300 miles northwest of Niihau, lies Necker Island. This rugged and remote island and contains one of the greatest mysteries of Hawaii. Necker island is approximately 41 acres, one mile long, and 400 ft wide. This small, isolated and treeless island rises 276 ft. out of the ocean in near vertical cliffs. First sighted by Europeans on November 4, 1786, it was not until a Hawaiian annexation party landed on Necker Island on May 27, 1894 that the unique stone images of Necker island were officially discovered. Standing on a rock in the middle of a vast ocean surrounded by crashing waves and birds flying overhead, evoked a spiritual awareness that inspired and empowered the ancient Hawaiians to create the Necker images. The true meaning and cultural significance of the stone figurative statures of Necker Island is a matter of pure conjecture and speculation.

The mysterious stone images carved of vesicular basalt on Necker Island are found no where else in Polynesia. At the time of their discovery native Hawaiians were not aware of their existence. The few stone and wooden images found on Hawaii are extremely different in conception and style then the Necker images, except for two curious stone bowls. The annexation party found seven all male figures at one marae . There are six more images known to exist collected by other passing ships collected form the same marae . Most of the images were split by weathering, and pieced together. The images range form 8 to 18 inches in height and weigh form 4 to 25 lbs.

The most comprehensive archaeological research on Nihoa and Necker was conducted by Kenneth P. Emory of the Bishop Museum in 1923-4. There are 52 archaeological sites on Necker island recorded in 1987. The dense grouping of mares on Necker Island are not found in Hawaii but in the Society Islands. Hence the reference to mares instead of heiaus. These religious structures also have similar counterparts atop Mouna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Haleakala. The large number of maraes (33) constructed at different times suggest that the occupation of the island was not a one time stop over by a fleet of voyaging canoes. The uniformity of the archaeological remains on Necker Island suggest that the island was inhabited for only a limited number of years, yet maraes were used as ceremonial sites not dwelling sites. If a limited number of people did live on Necker island they were probably confined to the 8 or 9 rock shelters found on the island. With no trees and limited water, a temporary occupation site, which was repeatedly visited is a more viable theory.

Out of the more numerous wooden Hawaiian images, not one resembles the statues of Necker Island except for the arm position. There are approximately 150 know pre-contact Hawaiian wooded sculptural images know to exist. The sex of the Necker Island images is obviously male, indicated by a small projecting phallus. Hawaiian images usually lack any indication of sex. Of the five sculpted basalt bowls found on Hawaii, Kauai, and Molokai, two bear a striking resemblance to the modeled heads of Necker images. The largest of the stone bowls, known as the Wery bowl, is 13 inches tall and 16 inches in length. The head is conspicuously rounded with the chin jutting out, framing a broad mouth with protruding tongue. To thrust out the chin is a gesture regarded as insulting or signifying contempt. The rounded eyes are absent. Cup shaped ears stick out as in the Necker images. It is interesting to note that the ears are pierced, reminiscent of Marquesan images. The McBryde bowl found on Kauai again has a face and head similar to Necker images with the eyes and ears missing. The resemblance is evident in the continuous sloping plane of the profile view. The head is oval and set deeply into the chest facing directly forward. The plane of the forehead extends to the nose merging with the deeply cut brows. There is a definite stylistic quality shared by the first settlers of Hawaii yet the question remains as to what connection these bowls have with the Necker images? Out of all the stone bowls found on Necker and Nihoa island why were there none with a carved face? Hawaiian wooden figurative bowls in general are associated with the Ali'i.

The closest resemblance to the Necker images are found in Marquesian stone statues. The treatment of the head and body are somewhat similar, formed in planes that meet is sharply defined angles. The face on both images is flat with a broad chin framing a widely stretched mouth with pronounced parallel lips and tongue in relief. The Necker images almost appear to have a slight grin. In certain Polynesian cultures such as the Maori for example, the projecting tongue marks a ritualized challenge or haka , used in warfare and formal greeting ceremonies. Marquesian figures differ mainly in the stylized eyes, nostrils and arm position. It might be possible that Necker images bore a closer resemblance to ancient Marquesian images. The ears are pronounced as they protrude from the head. Similar to the highly stylized ears of the wooden figures from the Marquesas. The absence of a neck is apparent in both Marquesian and Necker images. The Necker images appear to have been carved from the head down similiar to Marquesan images. The stylistic connections between Hawaiian stone images and Marquesan stone images has been further suggested by lateral hip projections.

The eyebrows are in a delicate relief merging at the base of the nose, framing two rounded eyes. This particular fashion of rendering the eyes and eyebrows is also found in a petroglyph from Rapa Nui. The rounded eyes and mask like quality of the stylized face is suggestive of a continuity of form reaffirming ancestral ties with the spirit world. There is no modeled belly or navel, which is a dominate feature in Polynesian figurative carvings.

On the closest inhabitable island to Necker, Nihoa 150 miles southeast, no images have been found, but a few marae structures are very similar to those on Necker. Nihoa is approximately 156 acres with a remnant volcanic peak rising to 895 ft. The slopes of the island are steep and rock with an average inclination of 23 degrees. On Nihoa, as of 1987 there are 88 recorded archaeological sites. The mares or heiau s have a close affinity with an enclosure on Easter Island. Both have a retaining or facing walls. made of vertical slabs planted on end and capped with horizontally laid slabs. Cleghorn states that the dry-walled masonry with stacked and core-filled walls, "are decidedly Hawaiian", while the "agricultural systems on Nihoa generally appear similar to dry-land agricultural systems on the leeward sides of the main Hawaiian Islands".

Radiocarbon 14 dating has placed the approximate time of occupation of Nihoa and Necker at around the 11th to 16th c. Between 1100 and 1300 CE the long voyages between Hawaii and Tahiti ended abruptly. It is possible that the Necker culture was a remnant of ancient pre 13th c. colonization. More likely the semi-permanent population of these two remote islands traveled there at a time when frequent sailing voyaging canoes were still a major part of the culture. Nihoa possibly acted as a staging area for the sacred ceremonies of Necker. The population of Nihoa based on the limiting factors of food, water, and fuel is estimated to be around 100.

The adz is a helpful tool in determining the probable cultural relationships of Necker Island within Polynesia. A plethora of adzes are available for study from around Polynesia each with a distinct uniformity. Necker island adzes are similar to a rare variety found in Hawaii. A squid-lure sinker/cowrie shell octopus lure, bone one-piece fishhook and fisherman's shrines found on Necker are characteristic of the main Hawaiian group, further testifying to their Hawaiian origins. The stone "bird-snaring perch" found according to Emory has a direct wooden equivalent in New Zealand.

The stone bowls and images are found nowhere else in Polynesia so it can be assumed that were made on the island and not imported. A hammerstone and one statue in the rough were found on Necker, supporting this theory. With the development of such unique carved stone figures is it possible that the population of Necker and Nihoa were cut off from the rest of Hawaii? This is doubtful considering the sailing technology, unless a voyaging canoe was shipwrecked on the island. Again a doubtful theory considering the parallel archeological features of Nihoa and Necker.

In general sacred stones in Hawaii are believed to be inhabited by mana , an ancestral life-force. Respected and protected the stones reflect spiritual beliefs. The large number of mares indicate a pervasive religious element in the ancient culture. Necker and Nihoa were probably discovered by following the swarms of ground nesting seabirds that thrived on the island. Could the ritual pilgrimage to Necker Island be a ritual in thanking a bird god for pointing the way to Hawaii? Perhaps the religious significance for visiting Necker was similar to the bird cult on Rapa Nui where strict rituals surround the gathering of the first bird egg of the season. If so, why the curious lack of anthropomorphic bird forms. If it is assumed that a bird cult existed on Necker Island, the frequent migrations of exploitive ritual voyages out to the isolated island could of decimated the bird population, resulting in the abondonment of the islands as a sacred pilgrimage site. A stylistic convention does exist in the face of the Necker image and a similar face found on a petroglyph form Rapa Nui. This meager bit of evidence when supported by the striking similarity of another petroglyph design of an arched back figure found on the main Hawaiian Islands, further suggests a Rapa Nui cultural connection.

In researching the images of Necker Island more question were raised then answered. I can only hope that the presentation of these questions will provoke further inquires and answers about the mysterious images.

Were Nihoa and Necker Island seasonal fishing and bird hunting grounds? If so why did the ancient Hawaiians travel hundreds of miles in the open ocean to a small barren island to exploit marine resources, which most likely were just as abundant on the main islands? Nihoa and Necker must of had a significant religious importance to necessitate the long pilgrimage. I am suggesting that the Necker images were used in a specialized ceremony, most likely associated with the fecundity of fishing, catching birds and harvesting bird eggs ensuing the prosperity and continued fertility of the various tribes of the main Hawaiian Islands. Can the small pronounced phallus of the Necker images be evident of this theory? Why did the inhabitants of Necker Island make vessels/bowls out of unyielding, heavy brittle stone? Were each of the 33 shrines on Necker Island functionally different and why were stone figures only found at one? Why did they population of Nihoa and Necker abandon the islands? Were they in contact with the population of the main island group? What were the adaptive strategies of the inhabitants of Nihoa Island? Were the people on Nihoa and Necker outcasts form the main islands, why did they chose such an inhospitable place to live and pray? Could these two small islands have been discovered by ancient voyaging Marquesans before the major islands of the Hawaiian chain? Two major migration are believed to have populated Hawaii, one around 200 CE. from the Marquesas and one around 1200 CE. from the Society Islands. Did specialized hunters such as the professional feather hunters, poe kawili manu ., who collected the red and yellow sacred feathers for cloaks and capes, visit Necker Island to accrue valuable natural commodities used in trade with the main Hawaiian Islands? If so this would suggest a well defined social heirachy in the 11th c. If Nihoa and Necker Island were sacred places reserved for the ceremonial exploitation of natural marine resources why are their no anthropomorphic carvings such as fishing gods found in the form of stone sculpted fish? If Necker Island had a strong mystical attraction to the ancient Hawaiians why is there no recorded historical evidence of them? Why did they lose their importance?


Campbell, Kyn, "The stone sculpture of the Pacific Islands" Master of Arts Thesis, U of H 1971

Cleghorn, Paul L., Prehistoric Cultural Resources and Management Plan for Nihoa and Necker Islands , Honolulu HI. Bishop Museum, 1987

Cox, Halley J. and Davenport, William H., Hawaiian Sculpture , HI. U of H press, 1988

Curtis, Dorothe B., "Human Figure Imagery in Hawaiian Carved Stone Bowls", HI, Arts of the Pacific , 1971

Emory, P Kenneth, Archaeology of Nihoa and Necker Islands , Honolulu HI. Bishop Museum, 1928

Kolb, Michael J. "Ritual Activity and Chiefly Economy at an Upland Religious Site on Maui, Hawaii." Journal of Field Archaeology 21 (1994): 417-136

Cleghorn, Paul L., Prehistoric Cultural Resources and Management Plan for Nihoa and Necker Islands , Honolulu HI. Bishop Museum, 1987 p.40

Cox, Halley J. and Davenport, William H., Hawaiian Sculpture , HI. U of H press, 1988

Cox, Halley J. and Davenport, William H., Hawaiian Sculpture , HI. U of H press, 1988

Campbell, Kyn, "The stone sculpture of the Pacific Islands" Master of Arts Thesis, U of H 1971

(Ralph Linton, Archaeology of the Marquesas Islands , Bishop Museum #23 1925 p.32)

Campbell, Kyn, "The stone sculpture of the Pacific Islands" Master of Arts Thesis, U of H 1971

Bulletin 160 Bernice P. Bishop Museum p.291 Course Readings II Art 678

Cleghorn, Paul L., Prehistoric Cultural Resources and Management Plan for Nihoa and Necker Islands , Honolulu HI. Bishop Museum, 1987 p.9

pun intended

Campbell, Kyn, "The stone sculpture of the Pacific Islands" Master of Arts Thesis, U of H 1971 (according to prof. Halley Cox, U of H 1968)