The submergence of Hiva – Myth or reality?

The submergence of Hiva – Myth or reality?

The submergence of Hiva

Myth or reality?

Among all of the ancient legends of Rapa Nui, the one about the origins of its first inhabitants is, without a doubt, one of the richest in details. The tale has been preserved in several manuscripts that date to the decade of 1910 and, with only small variations, in the narratives from Juan Tepano and Arturo Teao, which were written down in the first half of the 20th Century by several different authors. In this legend, the original land of the first settlers of Rapa Nui was Marae Renga which was supposedly located within a vast and distant island territory generically called “Hiva” (loosely translated as, “off there in the distance”). Somewhere to the west of today’s Rapa Nui, Hiva was doomed to sink into the sea in an enormous cataclysm as foreseen by the Polynesian priest Haumaka. With his prophecy, it became urgent to evacuate the island. One group migrated to the east, found the island of Rapa Nui and settled there. The different legends don’t make it clear whether Hiva finally sank underneath the water, if it disappeared completely or if part of it remained.
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Is this story a true reflection of fact or is it a later interpretation of events long forgotten? Studies done by different scientific groups have uncovered that the Rapanui people of today have a fairly close degree of relationship to the inhabitants of Mangareva in the southern archipelago of the Marquesas, and then slightly more distant with the islands of Tuamotu and the Australs, all of which are currently within French Polynesia. Three of the islands in the Marquesas group have the word “Hiva” as part of their names: Nuku Hiva, Fatu Hiva and Hiva ‘Oa. The last two are in the southern Marquesas. Although some have speculated that the three Marquesan “Hiva”s are remains of the original Hiva that sank, there is no geological evidence to back it up. On the other hand, “Hiva” is a word in the Rapanui language that is applied to any distant land. It could refer to almost any place in the wide Pacific Ocean.
Rapa Nui is not the only island of the Pacific which has as one of its foundation myths the submergence of another island. Perhaps the most well known example of that is found among the Maori of New Zealand whose traditions indicate an origin in an island called Hawaikii. Similar stories can be found throughout Micronesia. It is altogether possible that this has remained in the collective memory of all the dispersed peoples of the Pacific since the end of the last glacial period some ten thousand years ago. At that time, the melting of the polar ice caused a fairly rapid rise in sea level which completely submerged what is now referred to as Sondaland and parts of Sahul in Southeast Asia and Australia. At this same time, many myths arose in many cultures in several parts of the world about great floods. It is, however, the same period in which the Austronesian culture of Southeast Asia began to develop – part of which emigrated toward the east and eventually became the Polynesian seafaring peoples.

In historical times, the submergence or cataclysmic disappearance of oceanic islands has happened and been documented. A large island near Vanuatu, called Kuwae, was totally destroyed by an enormous volcanic eruption in early 1453. The large island of Kuwae was fragmented into two minor islands, Tongoa y Epi, leaving behind a large hole of 12 by 6 kilometers (7 by 3.5 miles) completely buried under the sea. Local folklore relates that this eruption was apocalyptic, causing great earthquakes, tsunamis which affected neighboring islands and leaving Kuwae twisted and collapsed from the violence of the eruption. Many people were victims of this gigantic event, but the survivors were able to sail away to Efate, another island in the group.

The caldera of this volcano is today under the water, although it continues to be active and frequently emits gases. The eruption of 1453 spewed some 35 km3 (8.4 cubic miles) of volcanic material, making it one of the greatest eruptions in the last thousand years. By itself, it set off the second pulse of the Little Ice Age, causing three years of severe cooling and results that lasted for decades as its emissions clouded the atmosphere. Notes from around the world of strange colors in the sky and the sighting of Halley’s comet in 1456 in tones that were more red and golden have remained as lively examples of the consequences of that eruption.
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Another instance, much more well known and more recent, is that of Krakatoa in August of 1883. Located in the Krakatau Archipelago of Indonesia, Krakatoa was a volcanic island, at that time under Dutch rule. In the years preceding the collapse of the island, intense and frequent seismic activity was felt throughout the area, even as far as Australia. Several times columns of ash and steam would start to rise from volcanic cones, annihilating a greater part of the vegetation on Krakatoa. Then 70% of the island disappeared beneath the water following the fourth eruption, leaving behind only an enormous submerged caldera. Pyroclastic flows extended toward Sumatra and gigantic tsunamis dispersed in all directions causing the death of almost 40 thousand people throughout Southeast Asia.

These two historical cases could shed light on the disappearance, or partial disappearance, of Hiva, at some time in the early second millennium. Submerged volcanic calderas are abundant throughout the Pacific. Up until now, none of them has been conclusively identified with Hiva. Leaving aside the mystical, speculative tales of the lost continents of Atlantis, Lemuria or Mu, the partial or total disappearance of islands in the ocean is a scientific and historically documented fact, which might also be the origin of some of the foundation myths of Polynesia.

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