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Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave

20. Cultural Evolution in the Cook Islands

page 67

20. Cultural Evolution in the Cook Islands


The Cook Islands Maori are Polynesians. This fact turns one's mind to the familiar question: Where did the “Vikings of the Sunrise” come from? Today's answer is quite simple: The Polynesians developed as Polynesians in Polynesia itself. They are all the descendants of a small group of people, who once settled in the Tongan Islands.

Remain the question: Where did these original Tongan settlers come from?, and from where are their remote ancestors?


Up to about 40,000 years ago the Pacific east of Java and Borneo (Indonesia) was uninhabited by human beings. Then, some 40,000 years ago small groups of people, who did not practise agriculture and did not make pottery, entered Oceania to settle in Australia (from the Latin: Terra Australis: Southern Land), and Melanesia (Black Islands). The other two parts of Oceania: Micronesia (Tiny Islands), and Polynesia (Many Islands) remained still unsettled for thousands of years.

Some 8,000 years ago civilized peoples, who practised agriculture and made pottery, lived in South East Asia, Eastern Indonesia, and the Philippines. Their languages belonged to a language-family, known as “Austronesian”. At present this language-family includes some 500 languages (that is 10–15% of the languages of the world), spoken in Malaya, Indonesia, Philippines, Madagascar, Formosa (Taiwan), Vietnam, Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia (1).

Some 5–6000 years ago some of these Austronesians from the Formosa-Philippines-Celebes region came to Oceania along the north coast of New Guinea, and finally reached the Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides, and Fiji. When entering Oceania, their language developed into a sub-branch of the Austronesian language-family, now called “Oceanic”. Whether they passed through Micronesia or not, is still disputed (2). The languages now spoken in the Southeast Solomon Islands, the Northern New Hebrides, and the Central Pacific (Fiji and Polynesia) belong to a branch of the Oceanic languages, called “Eastern Oceanic”, which was spoken more than 4000 years ago.


From Fiji a group of migrants sailed to the Tongan Islands some 3500 years ago (about 1500 B.C.). It was there that these Austronesians developed into a new race over a period of a thousand years: they became direct ancestors of all Polynesians. Their language evolved into a new language, now called “Proto (first or earlier)-Polynesian”, a sister language of Fijian.

At about 300 B.C. some Tongans migrated to Samoa, and in a few hundred years their language became “Nuclear Polynesian”. Soon after the beginning of the Christian era migrants from Samoa reached the Marquesas and perhaps the Society Islands. From this Eastern Polynesian centre canoes brought people to Easter Island at about A.D. 400, and to Hawaii, Austral and Cook Islands between A.D. 500 to 800, and also to Mangareva and New Zealand. Niue was settled from Tonga by the 4th century A.D.; Pukapuka was probably settled from Samoa (and Tonga?). (3).

In 1944 Sir Peter Buck proposed the following phases of the Cook Islands cultural evolution, based on the material culture and the traditions (4): page 68

period: 1100–1300: original discovery and settlement from the Society Islands with the possibility of some migrations from Samoa and Tonga;


period: 1300–1820: internal development in relative isolation, but with possible influence from the Society or Austral Island;


period: 1820– : post-missionary period.

Roger Duff suggested “a theoretical order of succession” of adz types found in the Cook Islands as a whole (5). The Proto-West Polynesian phase (500 B.C. — A.D. 100) was followed by the

Proto-East Polynesian phase (A.D. 0–500): from this period might be six adzes found in Tutakimoa and now in the Cook Islands Museum;


Early East Polynesian phase (500–1100): from this period are two adzes from Mangaia, two from Rarotonga, and one from Nassau, Rakahanga and Palmerston each;


Resettlement or Transitional phase (1100–1400): two adzes from the Southern Cooks;


Classic phase.(1400–1821): many adzes of the Southern Cooks;


European Contact phase (1821–1888).


In his “Farewell Message” after the first archaeological expedition to Rarotonga Dr Duff wrote; “In Rarotonga…many people believe that their history began with Tangiia-nui and Karika, about 600 years ago. But to build their Marae and Kouti ariki, these ancestors travelled along the Ara Metua, which Toi built 300 Years earlier. Such a road could not have been built without a large population, and, for the population to have grown large enough, we must allow 500 years before Toi. It is likely then that Rarotonga and the Southern Cook Islands have been occupied by Polynesians for 1500 years” (6).


In an address to a general meeting of the Cook Islands Library and Museum Society Mr H. Parker said: “It was thought likely that the 16,000 acres of available land (in Rarotonga) had been occupied by human beings for a period of not much less than 2,000 years” (7).

Peter Bellwood wrote in the Cook Island Library and Museum Newsletter, no.9, 1972 that the main settlement in the lower Maungaroa Valley (Rarotonga) may have been occupied from the 16th century, while in the upper valley intermittent occupation took place from the 14th century, with village construction about 1700. The Maungaroa Valley contains the best preserved single group of ancient structures (no less than 73) in the Cook Islands, as far as is known. At the Tutakimoa site in Avarua a series of house floors with artifacts are known to date back to the 13th century.

Excavations behind the beach at Ureia, Aitutaki, have shown that this island was settled as early as A.D. 900.

Before going to Penrhyn (in 1972) Dr Bellwood expressed hopes that settlement in this area will be found to go back some 2000 years, to parallel dates of this age known already from Samoa and the Marquesas.


37: 70; 140


48: 49; 38


111; 71; 15




25; 327