New Caledonia
Slide index.

A Brief Description (T)

New Caledonia is a land of many names. To the French, it is Nouvelle Caledonie, to the English speakers it is New Caledonia, to the Kanaks (the Melanesian population) it is Kanaky, and the Surfer Dudes call it NewCal. New Caledonia is French-speaking country ruled partially by France for the last 150 years. There is a strong Independence movement by the Kanaks. In recent years their culture has been going through a period of revival.

New Caledonia is an island 350 km long, by 50 km wide. It is surrounded by the world's largest lagoon. There are four smaller islands: Isle of Pines, Lifou, Mare, and Ouvea, and scores of even smaller ones. The main island is called La Grande Terre.

New Caledonia was discovered in 1774 by Captain James Cook, on his second voyage. Cook called it New Caledonia, as it reminded him of the coast of Caledonia in Scotland, because of the similar purple hue of the local bushes (heather in Scotland). French interest was sparked when King Louis XVI sent Comte De La Perousse and Jean-Francois de Galuup to investigate. Their ship was destroyed in a cyclone off Vinikolo. The French sent a rescue team, which sailed within a few nautical mile of the small island on which the last few survivors were stranded. France brought settlers to the island. The descendants of these are called Caldoches. Most of them have never been to France, but they keep many French traditions alive. Around 100 years later, French convicts were sent to New Caledonia.

Before Europeans came to New Caledonia, Melanesians (* see Appendix A) had already been living there for 2000-3000 years, having sailed there in great voyaging canoes. From 1000-1700, there was a large mass migration of Polynesians, who, when threatened with overpopulation on their own islands, sailed west. The Loyalties are mainly populated by Polynesians.

The French took control of New Caledonia in 1854. Noumea was made the capital and a penal Colony was founded there in 1864. The Nickel rush started in 1870, and provided a valuable boon to the economy. Of the 200,000 people in New Caledonia, 100,000 live in the Noumea area. (While we were there they undertook a census for New Caledonia.)

Languages (N)

French is the official language of New Caledonia. A lot of Kanak languages exist, but unlike neighboring Vanuatu, there is no unifying indigenous language (in this sense New Caledonia is more like Papua New Guinea). This is hardly surprising because the French have largely ignored and even discouraged the use of the Kanak languages ever since they've been here.

An estimated 27 distinctly different languages still do exist in New Caledonia. They are part of the 1200 Melanesian languages. Within the Kanak language groups there are many dialects. Most Kanaks are able to speak their own language as well as the dialects of the people they live close to. Many Kanak languages are in danger or being lost. Literature was non existent until some of the French missionaries translated the bible into a couple of the Kanak languages.

The language spoken by the largest group of Kanaks is called “Drehu”. It comes from Lifou and is mixed with some Polynesian, French and English. The other language that a lot of the people speak is “Ajie”. One of the High Schools and the University now teach a few courses in Drehu and Ajie.

Living Arrangements (T)

Traditionally a village is set up in the following manner. The Chief's hut (called La Grande Case) lies at the end of a long and wide central walkway which is used for gathering and for performing the village ceremonies. The Chief's younger brother lives in a hut at the other end. The rest of the village lives in huts along the central walkway, which is lined with Auracarias or Palms.

The inside of a Grande Case is dominated by the central pole (made out of Houp wood), which holds up the roof and the Rooftop spear (fleche faitiere). Along the walls are various posts which have been carved to represent ancestors. The door is flanked by two carved door posts, called Katana, who were the “sentinels who reported the arrival of strangers”. There also is a carved door step, and its function is unknown to me. The rooftop spear has three Main parts: The spear facing up, which prevents bad spirits coming down onto ancestor. The face, which represents the ancestor. The spear on the bottom which keep bad spirits coming up to ancestor.

Villages like these do not exist anymore. The Tjibaou Cultural Center has a representation of one.

Bamboo Engraving (T)

Bamboo engravings were used to record stories. They were carved by a knife or flint, and then rubbed with a burnt ground-up nut. Later the ground-up nut was rubbed off, but some was still trapped into the carvings, which made it more visible. They were all about a meter long, and were filled with magical herbs to ward off magic spirits. Archeologist only gathered them between 1850 and 1920. It is unclear whether this was an ancient tradition, or just a fad of the time.

Fishing (T)

Traditional Kanak fishing was done from canoes made out of hollowed out tree trunks, which were called pirogues. All pirogues are outriggers or catamarans. There are three distinctive types of pirogue: an outrigger that is oar powered, and outrigger that is sail powered, and a doubled hulled sailing platform. The fishing implements were spears and traps. The traps were used to catch crabs and lobsters, and the spears to catch fish and octopi.

Hunting (N)

Before the Europeans arrived, the tribes only used bows, spears and slings. No other hunting implements were necessary because there were only birds, rodents and flying foxes to hunt for.

Stones (N)

The stones which are most commonly found in New Caledonia and which are most commonly used for tools and decoration are Jade (we went to an abandoned Jade mine) and Serpentine. People used them for

  • ceremonial axes
  • arrow heads
  • jade beads for the Chief's wife (how many she had showed how important she was.)

People also used stones for other purposes. What the stone is used for depends on the shape of the stone. For instance:

  • water stones are round. They are used to mark water wells.
  • yam stones are yam shaped. They are “planted” in the yam fields to ensure a bountiful yam harvest.
  • taro stones are pestle shaped. They are “planted” in the taro fields to ensure a bountiful taro harvest.
  • banana stones are banana shaped. They are “planted” in the banana fields to ensure a bountiful banana harvest.

Shells (N)

Shells are used for many different things. They are used for bracelets, for instance. One of the different ways is to make them out of Giant Clam or Top Shells given to young girls when they are promised in marriage. The Triton Shell is used as a trumpet, both in ceremonies and blown by the Chief as a sign that all men are to come to the Grande Case for a meeting or war council.

Another use for shells is for money. Their money needed long and careful preparation. The money was made to represent an ancestor. The head was was woven or carved. From the head came a string of pendants made of of shells, and/or bones, and herbs. This string represented the spinal cord.

This money is not used for currency in the modern sense, but is used to show respects, to give during special occasions or to use as a seal to support alliances. (see Appendix B)

Fauna and Flora of New Caledonia (N)

Plant and animal life in New Caledonia is rather unique. New Caledonia separated from Gondwana 80 million years ago. Because it floated away, everything on it developed in isolation. The flora and fauna is also unique because New Caledonia's main mountain range, which runs from the northern to the southern end of the island, creates little micro climates in which endemic (=native and only in that place) species thrive. New Caledonia has the world's largest bio-diversity per square kilometer.

There are 3000 species of plants here, and 2400 of them are native. New Caledonia is really a botanist's paradise. Besides from the influence of the mountain range, plant life is so special because of the soil in New Caledonia. The soil is unique because it is formed from rocks from the oceanic crust. This happens very rarely. When it does, the rocks are rich in minerals. These minerals are mostly nickel, magnesium, chromium and manganese. In high concentrations, these minerals are highly toxic to most plants. Because of the high concentration of minerals, these soils do have some unique plant communities living on them. On top of that, New Caledonia's flora is also remarkable for having the most varied collection of ancient trees.

The soil content and the limited plant life effects the animals also, of course. This means that there is less food to be found. The fauna is also effected by the fact that New Caledonia is a fairly small island. This means that animals which need big territories to find food will only be able to life in small groups. Animals who use a lot of energy, such as all warm-blooded animals, birds, all the large animals have a hard time living in such an environment. This means that small animals and small reptiles are more abundant. New Caledonia has probably the most diverse reptile fauna on Earth. It is more than 10 times richer in species than Australia, which is the next country with such a high diversity. There are 2 families of reptiles in New Caledonia: skinks, of which there are 27 species, and geckos, with 21 species. The reason that reptiles are so abundant is also because New Caledonia is near the Tropic of Capricorn, meaning it lies in the tropics. Because reptiles are cold-blooded, the warmth of the sun is there every day to heat up their temperature. They also don't use much energy, so they don't need much territory. (See Appendix C). New Caledonia does historically not have any mammals but the fruit bat and rodents (deer were introduced by the French).

Two Land Animals in New Caledonia (N)

The Leaches Giant Gecko

The largest living gecko is called Leaches Giant Gecko, or Rhacodactylus Leachianus. It will get to be up to 40 cm long and may weigh 600 grams (which is 17 inches and 1.2 pounds). They are entirely arboreal and nocturnal. They eat mostly fruits and flowers, but sometimes small birds like honey eaters. They have also been known to eat the young of their own species. They seem to disappear entirely when they cling tightly to a branch from a tree. “It is only when they move their enormous, webbed feet to reveal the bright yellow soles, that the magic of their disappearing act is broken.” (Tim Flannery in “Future Eaters”.) (We even saw with our own eyes that this is true.)

The Cagou (Kagu)

The Cagou is related to cranes and is found in a few places in New Caledonia. It is New Caledonia's national bird. They have a strange barking sound that can be heard early in the morning. Like cranes, the male and the female Cagou dance in a strange courtship display. They whirl around holding the top of their tail or wing in their bill. The Cagou only lay one egg a year, and it takes a month to hatch. They are also ground nesting and flightless, and are very vulnerable because of these four reasons. Today the Cagou is gravely endangered and the few nesting sites in the wild are protected by rat-trapping programs. Mostly you can see the Cagou in animal parks.

Two Marine Animals in New Caledonia (T)

The Nautilus

The Nautilus is the last surviving species of the order Nautiloidea, which has been around for 450,000,000 years. The nautilus is a relatively new species, having been around for only 100,000,000 years. One species, Nautilus Macromphalus, is endemic to New Caledonia. The nautilus is the only cephalopod to have an external shell. Other cephalopods like octopi and cuttlefish have inner "shells." A nautilus shell is never bigger than 30cm long, and is divided into 36 sections. The outside is white with red-brown stripes, while the inside is lined with mother-of-perl. The older sections are filled with gas and the newer ones are filled with water or air to adjust buoyancy. It eats shrimp, crabs and other dead bodies using its 96 tentacles to feed and protect itself. In 2000, the Noumea Aquarium successfully bred some, despite the fact that we know nothing about their reproductive system. The three babies are called Cala, Stuckie and Nemo and are still alive today.

The Sea Snake

There are 12 species of sea snake in the New Caledonia. Most of them come up on land to warm up. In adaptation to marine life, Sea Snakes have bodies that are wider in the middle, and no definable neck. Some Sea Snakes are so adapted to marine life that they have traded their large belly scales for small belly scales, making them helpless on land. Sea Snakes have highly toxic venom, but they are (thankfully) not aggressive. Sea Snakes need to come up to breath, but can take in oxygen from the water through their scales to extend the amount of time they can stay under water. All Sea Snakes eat fish, and the Yellow Bellied Sea Snake catches its prey in a unique way. It makes its tail look like a floating object, so little fish that normally gather underneath floating objects adopt it. But how will the snake get it's prey, when its tail is where the fish are swarming around? The answer is simple. The snake swims backwards until its head is in the swarm, and with a simple sideways flick of its head, the snake has its meal.

The most poisonous sea snake is the Tricot Rayé (tree-co ray-ay). It is native to New Caledonia and is distinguished by beige and black stripes. A bite from one of these will kill you in 5 minutes. There is no known antidote. The Kanaks have a saying: "Leave them alone and they'll do the same."

Appendix A: Melanesians, Polynesians, and Micronesians (T)

All of those islands in the Pacific that are collectively referred to as Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, also sometimes known as Oceania.
For convenient reference, the Pacific Islands are customarily divided into three ethno-geographic groupings. The great arc of islands located north and east of Australia and south of the Equator is called Melanesia (from the Greek words melas, “black,” and nAsos, “island”) after the predominantly dark-skinned peoples of New Guinea, the Bismarcks, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides), New Caledonia, and Fiji. North of the Equator and east of the Philippines is another island arc that ranges from Palau (Belau) and the Marianas in the west through the Carolines and Marshalls all the way to Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands). This is Micronesia, so named because of the smaller size of these islands and atolls. In the eastern Pacific, and largely enclosed within a huge triangle formed by Hawaii in the north, New Zealand to the south, and Easter Island far to the east, are the “many” (poly-) islands of Polynesia. Other components of this widely scattered collection are Samoa, Tonga, French Polynesia (including the Society, Tuamotu, and Marquesas Islands), and the Cook Islands. In this, the last section of the Pacific Ocean to be inhabited, the islanders share a cultural tradition that relates them closely to many Fijians. Fiji, indeed, is actually a transitional territory between Melanesia and Polynesia.

[from: Encyclopedia Britannica]

The first wave of migration was made by the ancestors of the New Guineans and the Aborigines, called the Papuans. The migration made it as far south as Australia and as far east as the Solomons, more than 25000 years ago. Four thousand years ago, a people came from South-East Asia, with highly developed navigational skills and an very good knowledge of the sea. These were the Lapitans. The arrival of the Lapitans was what opened up the rest of the Pacific to colonization.

After some 500 years in the PNG-Australia (Austronesia) area, probably because the area was becoming overcrowded, they left for the west. Also the Lapitans loved to sail. Staying behind in Austronesia, was a mix of Lapitan and Papuan peoples. These became known as the Melanesians. Micronesia settled from the New Hebrides–Fiji area in the millennium before the Christian Era. Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests that the earliest migrants worked their way up the chain of islands to the east and gradually spread westward from the Marshalls. When the Lapitans arrived in the eastern pacific, they became known as the Polynesians. These people have gone from Hawaii in the north, Easter Island in the east, and New Zealand in the south.

Melanesians were the most highly developed in terms of trade and exchange. Their communities were generally small scale and non-hierarchical. Because of the extreme diversity of this group, it is extremely hard to find a general description. The Melanesian region is a region of unending contrasts. Coastal populations who have advantages of coastal trading and non-violent cultures, contrast sharply with the isolated and violent culture of tribes such as the ones highland PNG. The Melanesian tribes were generally ruled by a Bigman. The animistic culture of Melanesians is a mixture of magic, sorcery, totemism, and ancestor worship, and was dominated by elaborate initiations, secret societies, and men's clubhouses. In some ways the Melanesians morare e closely relate to the Polynesian and the Eastern Micronesians than the Papuans of interior New Guinea. Now it is made even more complex because the region has been made into separate nations: Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji are now separate nation-states; western New Guinea (Irian Jaya) is a province of Indonesia; and the indigenous peoples of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands are locked in a struggle for independence with French settlers and the French government.

Polynesian life is generally displayed as a paradise, without any worries, in a warm tropical lagoon. The reality is nearly the opposite for the people who live there. Life in the Northern Pacific is quite dangerous. Polynesians had extremely effective adaptation skills, along with a mastery of the ocean environment. The Polynesian lands have the least fertile soil of the three, so food and livestock had to be transported on ships. The Polynesians also showed a remarkable dedication to customs and society. Visit one island, then go to an island that may be 1000 miles away, and the culture will be nearly the same in speech, custom, and physical appearance. As their soil is very poor, they are accomplished cultivators and fisherman. They have mostly dedicated their time to nonmaterial pursuits. A system of kinship that recognized the value of maternal and paternal family ties, supports isolated villages. Secular leaders, thought of as direct descendants of god-like ancestors, served gods and humans alike.

Micronesians were characterized by their belief of stability in culture and society. When disaster struck, they were bent on returning their life to the way it was. War, which was common, was usually started by a dispute over land, which was very valuable in that area. Micronesians had a high interest in fishing, canoeing, and trade between islands, suggested by the fact that farmsteads and hamlets situated by the shore were the most common. Matrilineal clans influenced inheritance of property and traditional titles.

These Pacific cultures show remarkable similarity in some ways, and incredible differences in others. This just proves what is true in life: Everything is unique in its own way.

Appendix B: Money (N)

These people are using shells and bones for money?

What makes money “money”?

People accept money because they know that others will accept it. Everybody thinks that money is valuable because that is the experience they have had so far. It is basically an agreement between people. It does not matter what you use for money, pieces of paper or shells.

Money is important because you can buy things with it: goods and services. You give someone money, and they give you something else in return. Even though “shell” money isn't really used to actually “buy” something, you do get something in exchange when you give it to someone else.

Now that I have presented these two reasons, do you think that shell money can be thought of as money?

Appendix C: Geckos, class Reptilia (N)

Geckos are from the class Reptilia. Reptiles were once more diverse in size than today. Dinosaurs are the best known example of this. They were replaced by warm blooded animals. So there is a tendency to regard today's reptiles as a mere shadow of their former glory. Reptiles are in no way more primitive than birds and mammals. They are equally adapted to the surprising varied environments they inhabit. All reptiles have the inability to produce sufficient internal metabolic heat to maintain a constant body temperature. For this reason they are often termed “cold blooded” or “ectotherms”, which means “external heat” in latin. No reptile can maintain a body temperature higher than their surroundings.

Geckos are from the class Reptilia, subclass Lepidosauromorpha, order Squamata, suborder Sauria (Lizards), family Gekkonidae (Geckos). We've mentioned that New Caledonia has possible the largest diversity of reptiles on earth, and especially geckos are abundant as a species. Remote oceanic islands usually have very few species of reptiles, the ones that are there are mainly those capable of surviving long voyages. Certain reptiles, and especially geckos are usually well presented because of several adaptations. Many lizards live in or under driftwood on beaches. Logs are washed out to sea and eventually drift to a distant shore carrying a gecko and their eggs. Some geckos even have salt tolerant eggs, which stick tightly to sides of cracks and crevices on driftwood. There might be a problem with colonization if no males arrive on the island. The females in this situation might survive if they happen to be of a Parthenogenetic species. These females do not need to worry about mating, because they can lay fertile eggs without a mate.

One other possible reason for the success of geckos might have to do with their nocturnal habits. The majority of geckos are active at night or at twilight and right before sunrise (crepuscular). No other large group of lizards has specialized to such a degree in night time activity. Geckos are therefore able to take advantage of the lack of competition from other lizards.

Another unique feature geckos have is their ability to climb up almost everything. Underneath their feet are small overlapping plates, called “lamella”. Each lamella is covered with “setae”. These are microscopic projections of the skin. There may be more than a million setae per toe. The tips of the setae are brought in close contact with the surface. Then, something happens to the molecules of both the gecko toe pad and the surface it is on. This is what makes it stick. The gecko wants to make sure that as many as possible setae come in contact with the surface, and it does this by expanding a complex network of blood vessels with the help of the “blood sinus” (one in each toe), so that the toe pad can conform as closely as possible to the surface it is on. When the toe pad needs to come off the surface, an opposite operation takes place. All this happens in every single step a gecko takes.

[Paraphrased from: The Encyclopedia of Animals: Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians.]


A (T) in the title indicates that Tristan wrote that section while an (N) marks sections written by Nicoline.


  • Flannery, T. (1994). The Future Eaters Reed New Holland, Australia.
  • Marc, J. , Rombeau, M. and Blackman, R. (2001). Cruising Guide to New Caledonia, Savanna Editions. Noumea, New Caledonia.
  • The Encyclopedia of Animals: Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians (1993, reprint 2002, 2003) Fog City Press. San Francisco.
  • Logan, L. and Cole, G. (2001). New Caledonia. Lonely Planet Publications. Australia.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica 2003 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD
  • Information gathered during the following field trips:
    • Centre Culturel Tjibaou (opened in 1998, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piana, from Centre Pompidou in Paris-fame, a testimony to the richness of Kanak culture and its determination to live on)
    • Musee de Nouvelle-Caledonie (exploring Kanak and other South Pacific cultures)