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Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands



Of the cultivable food plants that were introduced by the ancestors of the Cook Islanders, the fruit-bearing trees such as the coconut and breadfruit received little attention after they were planted, beyond the clearing away of undergrowth from time to time. The banana and plantain received more attention, as the plants were cut down after the annual yield of fruit and the young plants that grew up at the base of the old were replanted or thinned. The root plants—taro, sweet potato, yam, and arrowroot—received more attention because the ground had to be prepared for planting. The agricultural implements were two, the digging stick and the planting stick.

Digging Stick

The digging stick (ko) was a sharpened stake of ironwood, without a step, and of a length to suit the user. The act of using the implement to dig in the plantations was also ko, or ko'ai. Tamuera Ariki stated that a digging stick of hibiscus wood (ko 'au or patia 'au) was preferred for planting sugar cane (to), as the use of the ironwood stick which had a hard bark would render the skin of the sugar cane hard and also allow worms to get in.

In Mangaia, there was a special implement not present in the other islands of the group. A specimen in the British Museum (9943 c.c.) was described by Gill as an "ancient spade of the Mangaians." The implement is of the same shape as one of the Mangaian clubs but is without serrations. I think that the primary function of the implement was as a weapon so it is described with them (fig. 181, a).

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Planting Stick

The planting stick (also ko) was thicker than the digging stick, with the lower end rounded and the upper end shaped to a convenient grip for the hands. One seen in use in Rarotonga was 5 feet 6 inches long and the lower diameter was 4 inches. The wood preferred was moto because it retains its weight when dry. Candlenut wood (tuitui) was used only when green, for it is too light when dry and weight is essential in driving holes for planting taro. In Mauke, the planting stick was said to be termed pa'eru, and, as it was made of chestnut wood (i'i), the implement was termed pa'eru i'i, according to Tamuera Ariki. Savage (57) states that pa'eru was an ancient spade made of hard wood, the blade of which was generally spoon shaped, but I have nothing to support this.


The sweet potato (kumara) was planted from shoots (kata), hence the ground was dug up with the digging stick only where the shoots were to be planted. The broken earth was heaped into mounds ('akaa'u) and the shoots planted on top, or the shoots were planted on the flat and the earth heaped up as the plants grew. In Rarotonga, there were two plantings during the year: the first in March, April, and even May and the second in August (?), September, and October.

Taro was planted in dry land or in irrigated patches. The planting stick was driven into the prepared ground and levered from side to side to enlarge the holes. The cut off tops of the tubers carrying the leaf stalks, which were cut off short, were planted in rows about 2 feet 10 inches apart. The distance between individual plants was about the same as the distance between rows. Taro matures in about 12 months. As planting can take place at any time, it is usual to plant at intervals that will insure a sequence of mature plants throughout the year. This constant supply from the plantations obviates the storing of large quantities of taro, thus special storage houses for taro are not built.

Large irrigated plantations for taro are a feature of Rarotonga and Mangaia, where fresh-water streams with sufficient fall occur. Such a stream is termed kauvai, and the place where it is dammed for a water race is the matavai. On sloping alluvial soil, a series of terraces are formed by building up the sides (pae) with stones and earth. The water is led from the dam (matavai) by a race (aravai) dug along the banks of the stream and in places built up with rocks to form a level. It is led to the higher terraces to flood the individual patches termed motu repo (repo, mud); and by short channels through the built-up sides (pae) of the patches, the water is carried to the terraces below until all are flooded. The channels between patches may be blocked until the patch has received its share, when the stone or wooden block is removed to allow water to pass. A good deal of supervision is needed to page 250ensure the various families on different terraces of their share of water, and sometimes quarrels break out. Beyond Arorangi in Rarotonga, there is a deserted irrigation system that covers some acres. Though long abandoned, the site of the original dam can still be made out with the dry irrigation ditch leading to the top terraces.

In Atiu and Mauke, which lack suitable streams, swampy ground with sluggish water is drained and the earth tossed up into rectangular areas on which taro is planted with the planting stick.

In Aitutaki taro is planted in damp places and much of the coarse puraka taro is grown.

Yams (u'i) are not grown in such quantities as in western Polynesia. They are cultivated in bush clearings and the vines allowed to run over the neighboring shrubbery.

Arrowroot (pia) is still planted, but the introduced manioc is becoming more popular because of its greater yield.


Under the form of feudal system, the land was owned by chiefs, who sublet their arable lands to farmer tenants who paid their rents with part of the produce of the land and with service. In Rarotongan phraseology, the service of the tenant to the landowner was summed up in the terms, "E ko, e 'ere." The term e ko refers to the digging stick and hence implies the cultivation of the land to produce plenty of taro. E 'ere ('ere, to tie) refers to the duty of fattening pigs, which were tied by the leg to a tree in the plantation and fed daily to fatten them. When the landowner gave a feast, the tenant brought food, which was incomplete without a fat pig. The chief sent a messenger to inform the tenant of the contribution required from him.

The chief who owned the land had command over the irrigation channel and the distribution of water. In an old ledger of the Ariki Kainuku, I noted where he had cut off a tenant's water because the tenant had failed to produce a fat pig when Kainuku demanded it. The actual implements used in horticulture may be simple, but the social implications involved were of great importance.