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New Caledonia Cave. Credit: damedias / Adobe Stock

Pindai Caves, Once Home to the Lapita People and Extinct Species

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New Caledonia, in the South Pacific , is a special collectivity of France. Not only does it have a fascinating history and unique culture, the islands also have one of the most important archaeological sites in all of Oceania, the Pindai Caves. These caves have provided archaeologists with a treasure trove of human remains, and palaeontologists with remains of extinct birds, reptiles and other fauna that dates to the Holocene Period.

The Ancient History of Pindai Caves

The Lapita people were the first people to settle on the islands of New Caledonia. As these sailors of Austronesian extraction were extremely skilled navigators, New Caledonia played a very important role in their colonization of Oceania. They are regarded as the ancestors of the Polynesians who went on to populate many Pacific Islands and New Zealand. They are also the ancestors of the modern Kanak people of New Caledonia.

Archaeologists have found items that once belonged to the Lapita people, including many pot shards, within the Pindai Caves. They also left several heaps of shellfish scraps. Guano (bird excrement) was harvested in the caverns and used as a fertilizer.  

Lapita pottery, found on Port Vila, Vanuatu (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lapita pottery, found on Port Vila , Vanuatu ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

New Caledonia was absorbed into the French Empire in the 19 th century when they used the islands as a penal colony. While the caves were explored in the 19 th century, archaeologists only investigated in the 20 th century and found two settlements in the Pindai Caves that were occupied by humans over a period of at least two millennia.

The extinct horned turtle, Meiolania. Source: CC BY SA 2.0

The extinct horned turtle, Meiolania.  Source: CC BY SA 2.0

The Amazing Fossils of Pindai Caves

Along with the prehistoric settlements, a great many animal and bird remains have been discovered. Of the 45 species found, at least 20 are now extinct in New Caledonia or globally. Among the extinct species are rails, a kagu, pigeons, and a large snipe. Other long-extinct species of birds found includes the Sylviornis, a flightless megapode who laid its eggs on the ground in mounds, and a flightless swamp hen. The remains of a number of owls were also found. These too have been extinct for many years. A great number of these remains were found in potholes and sinkholes in the caves, which trapped the birds.

Sylviornis, the extinct flightless bird (Renata Cunha)

Sylviornis, the extinct flightless bird ( Renata Cunha )

A number of extinct reptiles were also found, including a land-dwelling crocodile ( Mekosuchus) as well as fossils of the giant horned turtle, Meiolania. The fossils and remains in the cave are providing researchers with insights into the extinction of species after the arrival of the first humans.

The results of various studies have not shown a definite link between human activity and the extinction of species such as the flightless birds on New Caledonia. The remains have been carbon dated and indicate that humans and the extinct species co-existed for many years. Over time, humans had an adverse impact on the environment and this, rather than overhunting, led to the demise of many species.

Layout of the Pindai Caves

The caves are on a peninsula on the north coast of the main island, Grande Terre. The location has six caves of the karst type, two of which are accessible. The remaining four caves have been categorized as sinkholes - chasm created by the flow of subterranean water.

The location of New Caledonia (Google Maps)

The location of New Caledonia (Google Maps)

The two accessible caves were once the homes of the first people who settled on the islands. The entrances of the cave broaden out into a large chamber and contain stalactites and stalagmites. Many species of birds lived in the caves, such as the extinct prehistoric birds whose fossils have been found by palaeontologists.

Visiting the Pindai Caves in New Caledonia

The caves are 130 miles (182 km) north of Noumea, the capital city of New Caledonia. There are guided tours of the region and they include excursions to the caves. The caves are protected by the local government and visitors are asked to respect the site.

Top image: New Caledonia Cave. Credit: damedias / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

References

Anderson, A., Sand, C., Petchey, F., & Worthy, T. H. (2010). Faunal extinction and human habitation in New Caledonia: initial results and implications of new research at the Pindai Caves

Available at: https://researchcommons.waikato.ac.nz/handle/10289/5404

Boyer, A. G., James, H. F., Olson, S. L., & Grant-Mackie, J. A. (2010). Long-term ecological change in a conservation hotspot: the fossil avifauna of Mé Auré Cave, New Caledonia . Biodiversity and conservation, 19(11), 3207-3224

Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10531-010-9887-9

Gaffney, E. S., Balouet, J. C., & Broin, F. D. (1984). New occurrences of extinct meiolaniid turtles in New Caledoni a. American Museum novitates; a. 2800

Available at:   http://digitallibrary.amnh.org/handle/2246/5273

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