Niue: the Rock of Polynesia

Niue: the Rock of Polynesia

To celebrate Vagahau Niue: Niue Language Week (6-13 October 2012), the Pacific Cultures team are highlighting stories about Niue focusing on taoga (treasures) from Te Papa’s collection. Today, in this second blog post we offer a short environmental profile of the Niue, sometimes referred to by locals as “The Rock of Polynesia”. We finish with one of Niue’s creation stories.

Niue: a raised coral atoll

What is a raised coral atoll? A raised coral atoll forms when a coral reef grows on an underwater volcanic peak, which is then raised above sea level. This can happen from both earth movements and falls in sea level. Niue consists of coral limestone – old, dead coral that now makes up both the central bedrock and the coastal cliffs. The volcano on which Niue is formed is extinct. The main environmental threat to Niue is drought. Because of Niue’s height and steep coast, rises in sea level will have little, if any, effect on it.

Niue coastline 2 – photograph by Fearlessrich (

Food and water on Niue

Compared with other types of islands, a raised coral atoll is not well suited to human habitation. There isn’t much fresh water on Niue. In former times, the inhabitants had to find it in caves or dig wells for it. Niue also has very little fertile soil. There is only a thin layer in most places. However, Niueans have made the most of the soil they have available, and cultivate introduced plants – especially talo (taro), bananas, and coconuts. Niue’s marine and fishing resources are good, but access to the sea is difficult in some areas because of the rugged coastal cliffs. These photographs from the Te Papa collections were taken by New Zealander Glenn Jowitt. They capture aspects of food production and fishing on Niue in the 1990s. Check out the big catch…

Weighing taro (1996) Photographer Glenn Jowitt
Lakepa Niue(1996) Photographer Glenn Jowitt
Flower snapper (1996). Photographer Glenn Jowitt.

Toolmaking on Niue

As with other raised atolls, limestone is the accessible type of rock on Niue. In the past, Niueans made wood carving tools from this stone and from shells. Occasionally they obtained tools of harder stone from other islands. They valued these greatly, and would repair and reshape them until they were too small to use.

Toki ngenge (shell adzing tool)

These stone tools (below) were used on Niue, but must have been obtained from Tonga or Samoa. Being a raised coral atoll, Niue has no stone of this kind.

Toki uli (stone adzing tool)
Toki uli (stone adzing tool)

The origins of Niue: a creation story

There were five gods: Fao, Huanaki, Lageiki, Lagiatea, and Talimainuku (Fakahoku). They left their land and discovered a small reef in the ocean – Niue.

The gods bailed water off the reef and emptied it into caverns. More and more dry land emerged, until the reef was big enough to live on.

It was one of the gods, Fao, who first brought humans to Niue. Some say that he had two children, Avatele and Malotele. Others believe he went to Fonuagalo and brought back a couple whose names were Avatele and Kavatele.

Ko e tupumaiaga ha Niue

Na toko lima e atua fakamua: ko Fao, Huanaki, Lageiki, Lagiatea mo Talimainuku (taha higoa foki ko Fakahoku). Ne fenoga a lautolu mai he motu ne nonofo ai ti moua e lautolu e uluulu he moana puke lahi, ko e matamaka ko Niue.

Ne ahu e lautolu e tau puke tahi mai he uluulu mo e liligi hifo he tau maihi maka. Kua kitia ai hane fae lahi fakahaga e kelekele momo ati maeke ia lautolu ke nonofo ai.

Ko e taha mai ia lautolu e tau atua ko Fao ne taatu fakamua e tau tagata ki Niue. Taha talahauaga pehe, na tokoua e haana a tau fanau, ko Avatele mo Malotele. Falu ne pehe, kua finatu a ia ki Fonuagalo mo e tamai e ia e hoana mo e taane ko Avatele mo Kavatele.

A full version of the origin story of Niue was documented by Pulekula, Teacher at Tama-ha-le-leka and published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1903.

Niue: the stats

Total land area: 259 square kilometres

Highest point: About 60 metres above sea level

Annual rainfall: 2170 millimetres

Population in 2000: 1625 (2006 census)

More than 22,000 Niueans now live in New Zealand (2006 census).

Crab, Niue (1962)Photographer Richard Dell.


  1. How do you say the rock of Polynesia in niuean

    1. Author

      Fakaalofa lahi atu Nykolias, one of our Niue community advisors suggests the following translation “Ko e Niue he matamaka he Polenisia” but advises this could be shortened, depending on the translator.

  2. Thanks heaps! This helped a lot with my culture and my studies 🙂

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