Pitcairn Islands Expedition: Remnants of a Lost Civilization

Amidst the morning’s relentless downpour, the lush greens and bright reds of Pitcairn’s volcanic slopes are reduced to shades of blue and gray, floating above a misty line of white where the raging surf and splashing rain glow in the diffused light. (Photo and Caption by Andrew Howley)
Amidst the morning’s relentless downpour, the lush greens and bright reds of Pitcairn’s volcanic slopes are reduced to shades of blue and gray, floating above a misty line of white where the raging surf and splashing rain glow in the diffused light. (Photo and Caption by Andrew Howley)

Pitcairn as the home of the descendents of the Bounty mutineers is fairly well known, and certainly, this is the defining mythos of the people who live there now. However there are other stories of Pitcairn that still survive as whispers, hidden in the dense groves and rocky coasts of this small and remote island.

Daughters of Tahiti

One of these stories still relates very directly to the current inhabitants. It’s the story of these people as the descendants of Tahitian women who left their homeland to settle a new land with white visitors whom they had come to know during the sailors’ roughly 6 month sojourn on Tahiti.

Since most of the sailors and all of the Tahitian men were killed within a few years of settlement, much of the Pitcairner’s culture came from the Tahitian women, until more regular contact with Europeans was established after 1814. While John Adams, the last surviving mutineer, forcibly encouraged the use of English, and taught everyone in the ways of the Bible, the basic domestic tools and functioning of the island were being run by the women in the ways that they knew. One of the most visible signs of this influence was the manufacture and use of traditional Polynesian tapa cloth for loincloths and skirts.

Meralda Warren paints images of Pitcairn, the “Bounty,” and a local bird on traditional Polynesian tapa cloth she has made. Photo by Neil Gelinas.


Today, Meralda Warren keeps close to these traditions. She makes her own tapa cloth by hand, and has even produced a short video to spread the word about “the inspirational story of the Polynesian women and the Bounty mutiny.” In addition, Steve and Olive Christian have begun contacting research facilities in Tahiti, trying to learn what happened to the relatives of the Tahitian Pitcairners after the Bounty departed. Since the people were high-ranking, they hope some records or stories have survived.


Mementos of the Wayfinders

The other story goes back even further than this. As remote as it is, for hundreds of years Pitcairn was home to prehistoric Polynesians, who through their masterful knowledge of the seas and skies navigated and settled throughout the Pacific, spreading their culture from Tahiti as far south as New Zealand, north as Hawaii, and east as Easter Island, even visiting South America. (I’ll write more about NG Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis‘ research on the amazing Polynesian wayfinders in a future blog post.)

Archaeological excavations and serendipitous discoveries have shown that the island’s solid rock formations were important sources for raw materials to make tools in a part of the ocean dominated by islands formed of little more than coral rubble. Pitcairn’s remoteness has discouraged the kind of intensive investigations that have occurred at other places like Hawaii and Easter island.

Stone tools including adzes and a fishing hook that have been found by Pitcairners throughout the island now reside at the small museum near the town square. Photo by Andrew Howley


The small museum on Pitcairn houses at least 70 small stone tools made from local materials perhaps a thousand years ago, and many more have been given and traded away. In addition, tools made from Pitcairn stone have also been found on Henderson Island, more than 100 miles to the north, an important source of wood for both ancient Polynesians and modern Pitcairners. However it seems that when Polynesians discovered the resources of more conveniently located islands, or exhausted the wood supply for canoe building on Henderson and Pitcairn, the life-sustaining trade that linked the prehistoric Pitcairners and Hendersonians to the rest of Pacific disappeared. For a fuller discussion of theories of what happened, see NG Explorer-in-Residence Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse.”

There are other more prominent material reminders of the early Polynesians on Pitcairn as well. For those who know what they’re looking for, stone foundations for buildings, earth ovens, and quarry areas built by the early Polynesians are still to be found hidden in the overgrowth of places such as the green hillside of Tautama on Pitcairn’s southern shore. According to Bob Ching, Pitcairn aficionado and chief engineer on our ship, Tautama is not the best site, or the likely position of any ancient village though. The village, he reckons, would have been above the beach at a place called Tedside, which afforded much better access to the water and the island’s interior. I may be able to go ashore at Pitcairn tomorrow as we make our way to Oeno atoll. If I do, Polynesian sites are at the top of my sight-seeing list.

Bob Ching, our ship’s engineer, holds an unusual volcanic bubble of rock he found on Pitcairn. His knowledge of local lore, history, geology, and archaeology is substantial. Photo by Andrew Howley



Ancient Presence Still Felt Today

The most visible remnants of Polynesian life on the land are the plants the Polynesians brought with them, including coconut trees, but the most striking are the collections of rock art carvings found at the bottom of the treacherous climbs to places called Down Rope (see photos) and Down the Gods. Brenda Christian also says there are four remaining standing-stone “gods” around the island as well.

Modern watercolors record a view of the area called “Down the Gods,” where ancient Polynesians carved their symbols in the volcanic rock. (Illustration by Andrew Howley)

Notoriously difficult to interpret, rock art leaves as many questions as it answers, but there is an immediacy to it that makes the reality of these people’s presence on the island keenly felt. It is fortunate for us that such art was made, given the sad fate of the rest of the Polynesian cultural items once found on the island.

When the Bounty mutineers arrived, they found hewn stone gods at sacred sites around the island. They ultimately pushed them into the sea. I wonder what the Tahitians thought of that.

After a perilous climb down a cliff, visitors to Down Rope stand before the island’s most striking reminder of its ancient inhabitants. Photo by Andrew Howley


Polynesian culture is alive and well on many islands throughout the Pacific. While its story is largely still hidden on Pitcairn, perhaps it can yet be refound. Perhaps after all these generations, the efforts of mutineer-and-Tahitian descendents like Meralda Warren and others will help reestablish an awareness and appreciation of the Polynesian history and heritage of Pitcairn at home and in the outside world.

(updated 3/31/12)

Human Journey


Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.