Nihoa was reportedly inhabited sometime between 1000 and 1500 AD. Archaeological surveys on Nihoa have documented numerous archaeological sites and cultural material.
The sites included; habitation sites such as massive platforms; rockshelters, terraces and enclosures; heiau that are small terraces with single linear arrangement of upright stones and numerous pieces of branch coral laying on surface; extensive agricultural terraces and burial sites.
The heiau (place of worship) and platform foundations with upright stones found on Nihoa resemble other Hawaiian wahi pana on the islands of Maui at Haleakalā, Hawai‘i Island on top of Mauna Kea and the island of Kaua‘i Kea Ali‘i heiau in Waimea.
It is believed that the first Native Hawaiians to inhabit the archipelago and their descendants frequented Nihoa for at least a 500- to 700-year period.
Archaeologists believe that the terraces were planted with sweet potatoes. They estimate that the 12-16 acres under cultivation might have supported about 100 people.
The only tree on the island is the loulu palm; a total of 515 palms were counted in 1923. Its fan-like leaves were used for plaiting (braiding,) and its trunk could have been used for building shelters or for firewood (however, if cut for firewood, the supply would eventually be depleted.
Without forest products, islanders could not have provided themselves with canoes, wood containers, nets, fishing line, clothing and blankets, mats, and medicines. So, some of these were probably supplied from Kauai or Ni‘ihau.
Fish, shellfish, crabs, lobsters, turtles, and seals, as well as seabirds and their eggs are abundant sources of food. Food and water supply was sufficient for subsistence, but that the lack of firewood would have created a hardship.
Also referenced as Bird Island and Moku Manu, Nihoa is the closest island northwest of the main Hawaiian chain, about 155-miles northwest of Ni‘ihau and 250 miles from Honolulu.
It’s the largest and tallest of ten islands and atolls in the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI;) total land area is about 171-acres (about a mile long, a quarter mile wide.) It is the summit of a huge volcanic rock with two main peaks, Miller’s Peak (895-feet) and Tanager Peak (852-feet.)
Landing on the island is difficult. High, sheer cliffs prevent landing on the east, north, and west sides; the island slopes down to the south, but the shoreline is rocky and unprotected from the surge of southerly swells.
By the time of Western European contact with the Hawaiian Islands, little was collectively known about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) by the majority of the population, as relatively few individuals traveled to these remote islands and had seen them with their own eyes. However, families from Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau voyaged to these islands to fish.
The first Westerner to see Nihoa was Captain James Colnett of the ‘Prince of Wales,’ on March 21, 1788.
Within the next century, a number of expeditions were initiated by Hawaiian ali‘i to visit these islands and bring them under
Hawaiian political control and ownership.
Having heard chants and stories about the island of Nihoa, in 1822, Queen Ka‘ahumanu organized and participated in a royal expedition to the island, under the charge of Captain William Sumner. Reportedly, the waterfront area around Ka‘ahumanu Street in Honolulu was named Nihoa in honor of the visit.
The following is a part of the story related to the direction from which the winter rains come:
‘Ea mai ana ke ao ua o Kona,
‘Ea mai ana ma Nihoa
Ma ka mole mai o Lehua
Ua iho a pulu ke kahakai
The rain clouds of Kona come,
Approaching from Nihoa,
From the base of Lehua,
Pouring down, drenching the coast.
In 1856, Nihoa was reaffirmed as part of the existing land mass of Hawai‘i by authority of Alexander Liholiho, Kamehameha IV (March 16, 1856 Circular of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i).
In 1885, the most famous visit by Hawaiian royalty was made by then princess Lydia Lili‘uokalani and her 200-person party who visited Nihoa on the ship ‘Iwalani.’ They brought back artifacts – a stone bowl, a stone dish, a coral rubbing stone and a coral file.
While I have visited the NWHI, now the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, I have never been to Nihoa. However, in 2003, I had the good fortune to fly over the island and capture a few images of Nihoa.