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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

Cook Islands

Cook Islands

Lower Cook Group

The Cook Islands proper, consisting of the volcanic islands of Rarotonga, Mangaia, Atiu, Mauke, Mitiaro, and Aitutaki with the small coral atoll of Manuae, lie southwest of the Society Islands on the sea route to New Zealand. The islands have fringing coral reefs with no deep outer lagoons or good boat passages through the encircling reef. The valleys and coastal flats are fertile, and suitable timber for canoes was fair in quantity. Mangaia, Atiu, and Mauke have raised walls of coral, termed makatea, a varying distance in from the coast line, due to volcanic upheaval of the islands.

The definite settlement of Rarotonga was by the ancestors Tangiia and Karika, in about the middle of the thirteenth century. Aitutaki appears to have been settled at an earlier period by Ru. Atiu, Mauke, and Mitiaro have similar traditions of settlement by ancestors from whom the chiefly families claim descent. Mangaia differs in having a mythical origin in which the island emerged from the underworld with the ancestors of the present people upon it. Traditions and genealogies indicate that the islands were settled from the Society Islands, principally Tahiti. All the cultivable food plants were introduced, but the distribution of domestic animals varies, Aitutaki and Mangaia not having the pig. The tribal system and social organization indicate derivation from a central Polynesian pattern, as does the religion with respect to gods, temples, and ritual. In material culture, differences due to local development are present and the island of Mangaia differs much from the others in its arts and crafts.

Captain James Cook discovered Manuae in 1773 and named it Hervey Island, a name which was subsequently applied to the whole group and later changed officially to the Cook Islands. Cook also discovered Mangaia and Atiu in 1777. Bligh discovered Aitutaki in 1789. The most important island, Rarotonga, was not officially discovered until 1823, when it was visited by the missionary John Williams, who also visited Mauke. Native traditions indicate that Rarotonga was visited before Williams, when a ship carried off some of the inhabitants to Aitutaki. Byron called in at Mauke in 1825 and Belcher at Rarotonga in 1840.

The London Missionary Society established a station at Aitutaki and later at Mangaia and Rarotonga. When the people became converted to Christianity, they handed over many of their religious symbols to the missionary and their valuable collection is now in the British Museum. John Williams made various page 93visits to the group, and his work on "Missionary Enterprises" contains valuable ethnological information. The Reverend W. W. Gill, who was stationed at Mangaia, wrote several works on the islands which supply good source material. A work by the Reverend Aaron Buzacott, who was stationed at Rarotonga, describes the mission but is poor as regards native information.

Of Government officials, Frederick J. Moss wrote a general work, Lieutenant Colonel Gudgeon contributed some interesting articles to the Journal of the Polynesian Society, and Stephen Savage compiled an exhaustive dictionary, which has not yet been published. I visited the islands in 1926 under the auspices of the Board of Maori Ethnological Research, which published my work on the material culture of Aitutaki.

Bishop Museum published a vocabulary of the Mangaian language by F. W. Christian and the Diary of Andrew Bloxam, the naturalist with Byron on the Blonde (1824-1825). The Museum also sent me on a field expedition in 1929, when all the islands in the group were visited and measurements taken of the people. Two reports on the lower group were published, one on the arts and crafts containing much information derived from museum material in Europe and America. The anthropometrical observations were worked up by H. L. Shapiro.

Literature on the Lower Cook Group

Early Voyagers
  • Belcher (1836-1842)
  • Byron (1824-1825)
  • Cook (1776-1780)
  • Bligh (1791-1793)
Other Writers

Buzacott, Aaron, Mission life in the islands of the Pacific, London, 1866.

Dodge, E. S., The Hervey Islands adzes in Peabody Museum of Salem, Salem, 1937.

Giglioli, E. H., Delle ascie litiche di Mangaia …: Archivio per l'Antropologia e l'Etnologia, vol. 32, pp. 291-301, 1902.

Gill, W. W., Myths and songs from the South Pacific, London, 1876.

Gill, W. W., Life in the southern isles, London, 1876.

Gill, W. W., Historical sketches of savage life in Polynesia, Wellington, 1880.

Gill, W. W., From darkness to light in Polynesia, London, 1894.

Gill, W. W., Mangaia (Hervey Islands): Australasian Assoc. Adv. Science, Report of 2d meeting, pp. 323-353, Melbourne, 1894.

Gruning, E. L., Notes on burial caves in the Cook group, south Pacific: Ethnologia Cranmorensis, no. 1, pp. 21-25, 1937.

Gudgeon, W. E., Phallic emblems from Atiu Islands: Polynesian Soc, Jour., vol. 13, pp. 210-212, 1904.

Gudgeon, W. E., The origin of the ta-tatau or heraldic marks at Aitutaki Island: Polynesian Soc., Jour., vol. 14, pp. 217-218, 1905.

Moss, F. J., The Maori polity of the island of Rarotonga: Polynesian Soc., Jour., vol. 3, pp. 21-26, 1894.

Oldman, W. O., Oldman collection of Polynesian artifacts, Tahiti, Austral and Cook Islands, Polynesian Soc, Mem. 15, 1938-1940.

page 94

Read, Charles H., On the origin and sacred character of certain ornaments of the S. E. Pacific: Royal Anthrop. Inst.Great Britain and Ireland, Jour., vol. 21, pp. 139-159, 1892.

Savage, Stephen, Dictionary of the Cook Islands language, manuscript copy in Bishop Museum.

Skinner, H. D., Notes on pearl shell pendants in the Cook Islands: Polynesian Soc., Jour., vol. 44, pp. 187-189, 1935.

Stolpe, K. Hjalmar, Collected essays on ornamental art, Stockholm, 1927.

Te Ariki-Tara-are, History and traditions of Rarotonga: Polynesian Soc., Jour., vol. 8, pp. 61-88, 171-178, 1899; vol. 27, pp. 178-198, 1918; vol. 28, pp. 55-78, 134-151, 183-208, 1919; vol. 29, pp. 1-19, 45-69, 107-127, 165-188, 1920; vol. 30, pp. 1-15, 54-70, 129-141, 201-226, 1921.

Te Rangi Hiroa (P. H. Buck), The material culture of the Cook Islands (Aitutaki): Board Maori Ethnol. Res., Mem., vol. 1, New Plymouth, 1927.

Te Rangi Hiroa (P. H. Buck), Fish poisoning in Rarotonga: Polynesian Soc, Jour., vol. 37, pp. 57-66, 1928.

Williams, John, Missionary enterprises, London, 1939.

Bishop Museum Publications

Bloxam, Andrew, Diary of, Special Pub. 10, 1925.

Christian, F. W., Vocabulary of the Mangaian language, Bull. 11, 1924.

Shapiro, H. L., andBuck, P. H., Physical characters of the Cook Islanders, Mem., vol. 12, no. 1, 1936.

Te Rangi Hiroa (P. H. Buck), Mangaian society, Bull. 122, 1934.

Te Rangi Hiroa (P. H. Buck), Arts and crafts of the Cook Islands, Bull. 179, 1944.

The Northern Cook Group

The northern Cook group consists of a number of widely scattered atolls which were included in the Cook Islands for administrative purposes. The inhabited atolls consist of Manihiki, Rakahanga, Tongareva (Penrhyn), and Pukapuka. The uninhabited atolls comprise Nassau, Suvorov, and Palmerston, but Palmerston is now occupied by members of the Marsters family. Marsters, an Englishman, rented the island from the Cook Islands Administration and raised a large family from a succession of three wives.

Manihiki and Rakahanga are 20 miles apart, and originally the people lived on one atoll for a year and then migrated to the other for a year. The annual migration ceased in 1852, when the missionaries persuaded the people to divide for permanent location on each atoll. Tradition states that their ancestor, Hiku, came from Rarotonga. Bellingshausen discovered Rakahanga in 1820 and named it Grand Duke Alexander Island. Captain Patrickson of the Good Hope discovered Manihiki in 1822 and named it Humphrey Island. He also gave the name of Reirson Island to Rakahanga. The outer reef in each atoll has no large passages.

Tongareva was discovered by Lieutenant Watt or Captain Sever in the Lady Penrhyn in 1788, hence the alternate name. It is on latitude 9° S., and passing sailing ships checked their latitude by it. It has a large central lagoon with three deep passages which will admit vessels of fair size. Native myth-page 95ology gives descent from Atea and Hakahotu, and tradition also gives descent from early voyagers named Mahuta and Taruia who visited at different periods. The dialect has the s sound, in addition to h, and the sibilant tch in place of t in some words. A number of maraes on the various islets were in a fair state of preservation in 1929.

Pukapuka, or Danger Island, is the most westerly of the group, lying in longitude 165° 45' W. and 10° 53' S. The origin of the inhabitants is clothed with myth connected with the growth of the island and the emergence from a rock of the first inhabitant, Mataliki. A god instructed him where to obtain a wife, and so their world began. Pukapukan culture has more affinity with that of Samoa than with that of the Cook Islands. The island was definitely sighted in 1765 by Commodore John Byron, who named it Danger Island because the high surf on the reef prevented boats from landing.

Little information is to be obtained from the early explorers, as the atolls were rarely visited. Tongareva was visited by Kotzebue in 1816, and his artist, Choris, made some additional observations. The Porpoise, one of the ships of Wilke's Expedition, called in in 1841. Neither expedition landed, but observations were made on the people who came out in canoes. A trader named Lamont was wrecked on Tongareva in 1853, and his book contains the best description of atoll life. The Reverend W. W. Gill contributed some information in his works.

The first Zaca expedition called at Pukapuka, and Gordon Macgregor contributed some notes on the ethnology of the atoll. Ernest Beaglehole, on a Bishop Museum Fellowship, made a field survey during seven and a half months in 1934-1935, assisted by his wife, Pearl Beaglehole. They wrote a comprehensive study on ethnology which the Museum published. Manuscripts on myths, stories, and chants and on string figures await publication. Physical measurements were also made.

On the Bishop Museum staff expedition to the Cook Islands, I visited Rakahanga, Manihiki, and Tongareva, and my reports were published. Physical characters were included in the work on the Cook Islands prepared by H. L. Shapiro.

Literature on the Northern Cook Group

Early Voyagers
  • Byron (1764-1766)
  • Choris (1815-1818)
  • Kotzebue (1815-1818)
  • Wilkes (1838-1842)
Other Writers

Beaglehole, ErnestandPearl, Personality development in Pukapukan children. In Language, Culture, and Personality: Essays in memory of Edward Sapir (Ed. by Leslie Spier and others), Menasha, Wisconsin, 1941.

page 96

Emory, K. P., Manihiki inlaid bowls: Ethnologia Cranmorensis, no. 4, pp. 20-26, 1939.

Gill, W. W., Life in the southern isles, London, 1876.

Gill, W. W., A word about the original inhabitants of Pukapuka Island: Polynesian Soc, Jour., vol. 21, pp. 120-124, 1912.

Gill, W. W., The origin of the island of Manihiki: Polynesian Soc, Jour., vol. 24, pp. 144-151, 1915.

Lamont, E. H., Wild life among the Pacific islanders, London, 1867.

Bishop Museum Publications

Beaglehole, ErnestandPearl, Ethnology of Pukapuka, Bull. 150, 1938.

Beaglehole, ErnestandPearl, Myths, stories, and chants from Pukapuka, manuscript.

Beaglehole, Pearl, String figures in Pukapuka, manuscript.

Macgregor, Gordon, Notes on the ethnology of Pukapuka, Occ. Papers, vol. 11, no. 6, 1935.

Shapiro, H. L., andBuck, P. H., Physical characters of the Cook Islanders, Mem., vol. 12, no. 1, 1936.

Te Rangi Hiroa (P. H. Buck), Ethnology of Tongareva, Bull. 92, 1932.

Te Rangi Hiroa (P. H. Buck), Ethnology of Manihiki-Rakahanga, Bull. 99, 1932.