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Archaeology

Between myths and prehistory

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  • 8 December 2022
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Between myths and prehistory

The chronology of human occupation of the Loyalty Islands is still poorly known compared to that of Grande Terre of New Caledonia.

Since the 1990s, the Province of the Loyalty Islands has initiated a preliminary inventory of the ancient sites on the four large islands, with several archaeological excavation campaigns, but there is still much to discover.

Lapita Sites

The Lapita culture is an ancient archaeological culture of Oceania, established throughout the western Pacific Ocean around the first millennium BCE and known in particular for its original pottery decorations. The first Lapita migrations to New Caledonia which likely concerned the Loyalty Islands, came from neighbouring Vanuatu.
Eight Lapita sites, including five major ones, have been identified to date in the Loyalty Islands, all located near the sea, close to freshwater springs and passes in the reef:

– In Maré, along Patho-Kurin Beach
– In Lifou, Hnaeu (south-east coast) and Keny (north-east coast, at the level of the tribal village of Hnathalo)
– In Ouvéa, south of the Wadrilla tribal village
– In Tiga, in Namara at the foot of the raised coral plateau

Hnakudotit in Mare

In the Maré language, Nengone, this site is called “where they stumbled on the rocks”. It is a monumental structure made from blocks of coral, the construction of which dates back two thousand years. The site, called “Hnakudotit”, is an open quadrilateral of impressive size. The walls of this structure, nearly four metres high, are on average ten metres thick. The entire site, which is made up of a large U-shaped wall and two L-shaped extensions, is 180 metres long and 145 metres wide.

Located near La Roche, Hnakudotit is the product of a worksite that must have been very organised. Near the present Yeiwéné Yeiwéné Cultural Centre, the walker will notice paths that have been used to transport the coral blocks, some of which weigh up to several tonnes. The walls were also arranged according to an internal architecture. The largest coral blocks are placed on the inner sides of the building’s four gates. In the same way, coarse cut stones can be seen on the external walls. The size of the blocks in these places can be interpreted as a mark of prestige intended to impress the new arrival.

Until the start of the 1990s, the site had not undergone any restoration. The stone blocks were crumbling, the vegetation was gaining ground and cultivated fields were flourishing inside the enclosure. In 1993 and 1994, the New Caledonian Department of Archaeology carried out its first studies and partly renovated this monumental structure. Archaeologists found the remains of human skeletons, pieces of pottery and shellfish middens. Dating of some shell remains made it possible to go back in history as far as 1,000 B.C. According to the results of the excavation, this monumental construction must have had a defensive role in this plain where no natural shelter existed. As well as fortified walls, the archaeologists uncovered a ditch a dozen metres wide, running along the length of the open part of the quadrilateral.

Science and history thus agree with the oral tradition. On Maré at least two accounts explain that these stone walls were used as refuges in times of war. They are said to have been created by spirits who engaged in a competition. The La Roche spirits prevailed over their adversaries. The Hnakudotit building is indeed more imposing than “Waninetit” or “the right-hand wall”. This neighbouring construction has two enclosures with walls that are not as high or as thick.

Jokin Cliffs in Lifou

Apart from Maré and its monumental constructions, the Loyalty Islands’ archaeological heritage is not easily accessible to tourists. However, if you look at the islands differently, you can detect the presence of history. Ancient burial places can be found in openings in the raised coral plateaus, such as in the Jokin cliffs on Lifou. Mortal remains may also be left inside caves. They were placed on a raft or inside the hull of an outrigger canoe. This funeral tradition, which developed during the second millennium A.D., is still visible today in the Loyalty Islands.

The Loyalty Islands caves are important archaeological sites. Visited often in times past, perhaps for initiation rites, they contain traces of prehistory. This is true of Wanaham Cave on Lifou. In this cave, which occupies an important place in the oral tradition, traces of human presence have been found that go back to 700 B.C. Two caverns are crammed with drawings done with orange-coloured coral and charcoal. The walls are decorated with more than two hundred hands, not to mention depictions of fish, turtles and birds. Engravings with stars and geometrical designs have also been found in Wanaham Cave, which is located just beneath Lifou’s only aircraft runway.

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Mémorial des dix-neuf d’Ouvéa
Historic site and monument

Mémorial des dix-neuf d’Ouvéa

Ouvéa
A monument in memory of the 1988 hostage-taking and the 19 pro-independence activists killed during the assault on the Gossanah cave.
Mission de la Roche
Historic site and monument

La Roche mission

Maré
Built in1866, the Mission Church stands amidst abundant vegetation at the foot of the high coral rock that gave the tribe its name (Roche meaning rock in French).
Monument dédié à l’arrivée de l’Évangile
Historic site and monument

Monument dédié à l’arrivée de l’Évangile

Maré
Located in the Roh tribal village some 200 m after the church, this monument commemorates the arrival in 1841 of the first Polynesian Protestant catechists who came to evangelize the island.
Monument dédié à l’arrivée de l’Évangile
Historic site and monument

Monument dédié à l’arrivée de l’Évangile

Lifou
On Ahmelewedr beach, stands a monument that commemorates the arrival in Lifou of the Protestant missionaries Fao and Zakaria in 1842.
Monument la Monique
Historic site and monument

Monument to the sinking of the Monique

Maré
On the quayside facing the sea at Tadine stands the monument to La Monique in memory of the 126 people who disappeared in 1953 on the ship La Monique somewhere between Maré and Nouméa.
Chapelle Notre-Dame de Lourdes
Historic site and monument

Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes

Lifou
Perched on the hill overlooking the Bay of Santal (Sandalwood Bay), the Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes provides a magnificent viewpoint from which to admire the bay.
Eglise de Pénélo
Historic site and monument

Église de Pénélo

Maré
The Church of the Holy Cross of Penelo was built in 1910 and inaugurated in 1915.
Église du Sacré Cœur de Wé
Historic site and monument

Church of the Sacred Heart of Wé

Lifou
Built by the missionaries of the Sacred Heart Xavier Montrouzier and François Palazy, this small church located by the sea does not lack style.
Église du Saint-Nom-de-Marie
Historic site and monument

Church of the Holy Name of Mary

Ouvéa
From the beach, a majestic access path of columnar pines leads to the church, which overlooks the lagoon from the top of a small hill.
Église Saint Jean-Baptiste de Hnathalo
Historic site and monument

Church of St. John the Baptist of Hnathalo

Lifou
The Church of St. John the Baptist is located in the Hnathalo tribal village in the Wetr district.
Église Saint-François Xavier
Historic site and monument

Church of St. Francis Xavier

Lifou
The Church of St. Francis Xavier in Easo was one of the first churches built in Lifou.
Église Saint-Joseph
Historic site and monument

St. Joseph's Church

Ouvéa
Built in 1912, the imposing Saint-Joseph church stands facing the sea, flanked by a beautiful colonial building.
Église Saint-Michel
Historic site and monument

Church of Saint-Michel

Ouvéa
The Catholic church of Saint-Michel is located in the centre of Fayaoué island and the capital of the island.

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