Motu Akea Well, Tokelau

The Big Picture Portfolio, #7 Buy the PrintWatch the Film

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Not a single person lives on this little islet. It’s mostly a quiet place. Yet in the middle of the tiny island is this – a shallow well lined with coral slabs. The water is brackish (a mixture of salt and fresh water), but one could be very glad to know about this indeed. Drinkable water is key for people to live anywhere, and on Pacific atolls it is often challenging to find.


Where: Motu Akea, southernmost islet of Nukunonu
What:  An excavated depression, lined with coral slabs on all four sides
When: Origin precedes contemporary memory
Getting there: 30-45 minutes by boat from Nukunonu Village
Water: Brackish, best at low tide

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Surviving in an environment like this is no small task. It makes for a pretty postcard but don’t wish yourself straight there just yet.

Atolls are more of the ocean than they are of the land. Fresh water, accordingly, can be tough to find. There are no rivers or streams, indeed no surface water at all unless it’s salty (in which case it is truly abundant). Drinkable water – except if it’s been shipped in from outside – can be found sparingly in two places: the sky and the ground.

Yet archaeology indicates that people survived – or even thrived – here for hundreds of years. During that time they must have obtained water, and regularly. This well is perhaps one such place, where a freshwater lens sits not far below the surface.

Other tricks included hollowing out the base of a coconut tree and carving channels into the trunk to collect rainwater. You still see ’em around on some of the motus (though the first one had to be pointed out to me). Ingenious.


Got a haircut today. Never gave instructions, just kinda nodded a few times. She knew exactly what to do. Big fan of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa campus barber shop!

Nukunonu Atoll, Tokelau

The Big Picture Portfolio, #4 Buy the PrintWatch the Film

Mulifenua Point, Nukunonu Islet, Tokelau

One of the most remote atolls in the Pacific, and Polynesians found it!  When exactly? We are trying to figure it out! But in the meantime, this is a view back onto the islet of Nukunonu (a name that also refers to the nearby village, and the atoll itself), which are all part of Tokelau.


Location: Mulifenua Point, Nukunonu Islet, Tokelau

Time of Settlement: Prehistoric, radiocarbon dates posit a maximum of ~1,100-600 cal. before present (~850-1350 AD) for Tokelau

Mode of Transport: Double-hulled or outrigger canoes

Closest Major Island: Savai’i, Samoa – 500 kilometers of open ocean to the south

Stuff People Brought: Volcanic stone (e.g. basalt), plants (e.g. pandanus), and animals (e.g. pig, dog, chicken, and rat, at various times)

Population Today: ~400 (Nukunonu Village)


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The distant past of Tokelau remains largely to be discovered. With remarkable natural and cultural beauty on tap, the idea that Pacific peoples both found and settled these most remote banks of coral well before Christopher Columbus ever sailed across the Atlantic only heightens the amazement of setting foot in such a place.

Each atoll is composed of many small islets, which when seen from the air appear as a coral ring upon the surface of the ocean, defining and creating a sheltered lagoon from the surrounding depths. It is possible that – despite their remoteness – these small landmasses were important stepping stones for early Polynesian voyagers who went on to settle distant places to the east like Hawai’i, Rapa Nui, and New Zealand.

Today, each atoll has only one village, each generally on the western side of its lagoon. Prehistoric layers exist under each modern settlement, but it remains possible that the very first people to arrive on Tokelau made their base(s) elsewhere. On Nukunonu the elders will tell you that once upon a time there were four separate villages!

Archaeological investigations continue with the major questions of who got here first, and when, still up for debate. No matter what, just finding this place remains a feat in 2011, just as surely it was hundreds of years ago.


Will I leave at the end of this week? Over the weekend, or early next week? Or maybe not until mid-month?

That is the way the game is played here – the servicing of these islands by the ships responsible is pretty spotty. They get here regularly enough in the end, but the fact that they sometimes have the audacity to publish and distribute a schedule borders on the hilarious. You leave when the ship leaves, not when you want (or think) you will!

So, another week or three here and then it’s back to Samoa. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to check out a site or two on Savai’i, and I’ll do my best to get something on here if I do. Happy trails!

Music performed by Alatua.

2009 Addison et al. Archaeology of Atafu, Tokelau: Some Initial Results from 2008. Rapa Nui Journal 2009:5-9.

1988 Best, Simon. Tokelau Archaeology: A Preliminary Report of an Initial Survey and Excavations