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.
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.
We stopped frequently at small burial areas. Tere illuminated the ancient skulls, which are often surrounded by broken shell necklaces half buried in the dust. We continued on for another couple of hours until finally I stood squinting in the sunlight, shaking Tere's hand, thanking him for the experience. He dropped me back into town, and my sleep that night was surprisingly sound.
The next morning I searched the island for a suitable location where I could view the solar eclipse taking place the next day. It was what had brought me and about 400 other tourists to Mangaia. As I lurched along the rugged back roads of the island on my rented motorbike, I met a young local boy who offered to take me to his family's burial cave in town. He hopped onto the back of my scooter and we zoomed back to Onerua, the village on the west side of the island. He told me to park by the only grocery store. From there we walked across the street, through a friendly woman's backyard and continued up a small stone path through the bushes.
After about a minute of hiking he gestured for me to follow through a clump of dense shrubs towards a pile of boulders. He turned on his flashlight and we ducked in through a small, dark opening in the rocks. Hunched over, we shuffled in, until suddenly the cave opened up and dropped off below our feet. On the ledge directly below us was a human skull, turned upwards, eyeless sockets staring up at us.
We ventured further in where we found more skulls, and other human bones, scattered in every direction. The natural ledges were piled with what I took to be various offerings, and I had to watch every footstep to make sure I didn't step on any fragile bones. Further into the cave, my young guide kneeled beside a rectangular wooden box under a low-hanging ledge cluttered with shimmering stalactites. He shifted the cover off the top of the box and inside was the skeleton of a child, not more than two years old.
He lifted a bead out from the dust between the small bones and held it in front of me. "They bury them with gifts," he said, and I could see the bead was a piece of shimmering pink plastic. The grave did not seem to be very old and I suddenly felt uneasy. When we left the cave the boy's father was waiting at the entrance, ready to scold him. I excused myself and drove home.
I arrived back at the homely Mangaia Lodge and told my host about the adventure. I asked him about the father's stern reaction, and he warned me that a few years ago a Japanese couple had ventured into that cave and had met a ghost. They screamed until someone living close by came to their rescue, saying a prayer to calm the spirit and freeing the Japanese tourists from the apparition. He warned me not to go back.
That night, I stayed up late with one of the astronomers at the lodge, watching the stars, preparing patiently for the eclipse the next morning. Before sunrise I went out with the masses of tourists and watched them line their telescopes along the airport's long dirt runway. I hopped on my scooter and drove off to the secluded viewing spot I'd chosen. Although dark looming clouds threatened to blot out the sight, I was able to get brief glimpses of the eclipse and felt completely satisfied.
After the 400 astronomers, astrologists, and hobbyist star-gazers from around the world packed up their equipment and were ferried off the island, I reflected on my experience of Mangaia.
Like every island in the Cook Islands, Mangaia has a unique character. Geologically the oldest of the islands, it's bounded on all sides by steep, sharp volcanic cliffs. Dense forests of pandanus – stout, palm-like trees -- separate these cliffs from the rugged roads. The hilly interior is thick with swamps, riddled with caves, and abounds with hibiscus and fruit trees. The Cook Islands' government technically has no control on the island as the village chiefs make all decisions and settle all disputes.
To many outsiders, and even locals, the island seems 'backward' and frozen in time. If the inhabitants worked together, they say, and opened up all the caves, uncovered the ancient marae and exhumed the ancient idols to put on display, Mangaia could easily become a prime destination for tourists exploring the Cook Islands.
But the 500 natives of Mangaia fear their way of life, and their very history and lineage is at stake. It is this very mentality that gives Mangaia its unique character, and distinguishes it from the comparative metropolis of Rarotonga and the luxury hotels of Aitutaki.
A few hours before my departure, I peered down at the sea breaking over the jagged cliffs and felt content with my decision to visit Mangaia. I had the chance to see first hand the place where so many brutal Polynesian tales unfolded, and was thankful that I had discovered some of the deep mysteries of this island and its people.