Buried Bones And Ancient Myths on Mangaia

In the 1620's the descendants of the Aitu clan returned to Mangaia hungry for revenge. According to oral history, their ancestors had been driven off the island a century earlier by the Te-tuikura clan, and the time was ripe for them to return home and retake the land which they believed was rightfully theirs.

Soon after they landed, they made plans to build an open-air shrine -- called a marae -- that would exceed all others in reverence to their tribal god, Tane-ngaki-au. The marae serve as gathering places, territory markers, and temples to various gods.

Over the next few months, the Aitu launched a series of night attacks against the island's occupants, killing hundreds of them and taking their heads, which were used for the foundations of the marae. After enough heads had been arranged and covered with soil, the marae was lined with snow-white sea pebbles. The Aitu clan, after generations in exile, had again taken control of Mangaia.

Solar Eclipse

Today the marae is overgrown with wild hibiscus and shrubs, hidden far inland past the taro swamps, where few people venture anymore. Throughout its thousand-year history of warfare over land and status, the people of Mangaia have built dozens of marae, all buried now and almost all forgotten. When Christian missionaries came in the early 19th century, they built white limestone churches to replace these traditional gathering places, and the peoples of Mangaia were compelled to move out from the hilly interior and settle along the more 'civilized' seafront.

My guide, Moana told me, "Mangaia was the last of the Cook Islands to be Christianized, and not everyone here has truly given up the old beliefs." I'd heard it said before: while inhabitants of the other 13 populated islands in the country had smashed and burned their idols at the urging of the missionaries, the people of Mangaia resisted Christianization for years. In the end, instead of destroying their idols, they hid them deep in the cave networks beneath Mangaia and sealed off the entrances with boulders, waiting, perhaps, to retrieve them one day if Jehova were to fail them.

I asked Moana if she could take me to see the stored idols, but she just laughed. "Only the Kavana [Chiefs] of Mangaia know where to look, and even they wouldn't dare go. We're very superstitious here, you know. We wouldn't want the gods to wake up and haunt us." So instead we ventured off to the giant earth oven in which the tribe of Ngariki cooked the Aitu alive for their cruelties. This historical landmark too had long been covered and forgotten.

Anxious to learn more, I befriended a local cave guide named Tere in the village of Ivirua. We jumped into his red truck and arrived at his family cave in about half an hour, coming to a halt beside a 3-foot high hollow etched out of a towering cliff face. I followed him through the hole and soon we were deep into an intricate network of dips and turns, the path forking off into the complete darkness every few minutes. I was suddenly glad that I'd decided not to risk exploring the caves on my own. I'm sure I would never have found my way out again.

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