Caves of Nanumanga

Caves of Nanumanga is an underwater cave off the northern shore of Nanumanga, Tuvalu in western Polynesia. It was discovered by two scuba divers in 1986. The caves are located between 37 and 46 m (121 and 151 ft) below sea level,[1] down the wall of a coral cliff. Dark patches on the roof and walls and blackened coral fragments on its floor suggest the use of fire by ancient occupants.[2]

Caves of Nanumanga
location in Tuvalu
Locationoff the northern shore of Nanumanga
RegionTuvalu in western Polynesia
Coordinates6°16′7.32″S 176°19′15″E


The discovery of the Caves of Nanumanga was made because of interest aroused by a local legend. According to this legend, there existed "a large house under the sea". The existence of this legend led to the scuba diving expedition in 1986, during which the caves were discovered.[2] These are sometimes referred to as the Fire Caves of Nanumanga.

Historical interpretations

The last time that the cave was not underwater appears to have been more than 8,000 years ago, in contrast to the previously accepted view that the Pacific was settled just 6,000 years ago.

Pacific archeological evidence was questioned after the discovery, in that a vital piece of climatic evidence was missing – an enormous and continuous rise in sea level that began 18,000 years ago and stopped 4,000 years ago and possibly drowned most of the evidence of much earlier human migrations into the Pacific.

In the Journal of Pacific History, Dr. John Gibbons of the University of the South Pacific in Fiji wrote: “…trying to make sense of Pacific prehistory may have been somewhat akin to the efforts of someone who arrives in time for the second act of a play, and then attempts to work out the plot without even realizing that the first act has already taken place."[3]

Dr. Gibbons and his co-author, Dr. Fergus Clunie, believe the Pacific including the Tuvalu islands was colonised by waves of "boat people”, driven from their ancestral coastal homelands in Indonesia and South-East Asia by rising oceans.[3] The known world of Pacific archaeology ends abruptly at a temporal horizon 6,000 years ago, the earliest date of distinctive shards of Lapita Pottery. The pottery is found in coastal regions throughout the south-west Pacific, from the Marquesas in the east, to New Caledonia in the south and the Carolines in the north.

Sea level debates

The caves are currently submerged underneath the ocean, highlighting the profound change in sea level over time. Public controversies regarding sea level changes in contemporary Tuvalu are thus set against this background.


  1. "Nanumanga Fire Caves". Wondermondo.
  2. The Age (Melbourne, Australia), Monday 13 April 1987
  3. Gibbons, John R. H. and Fergus G. A. U. Clunie (1968). Sea Level Changes and Pacific Prehistory: New Insight Into Early Human Settlement of Oceania. Journal of Pacific History 21(1-2). pp. 58–82.
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