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Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands

Historical Reconstruction

Historical Reconstruction

The material culture of the Cook Islands was based on the pattern which existed in the Society Islands when the ancestors of the present people left to settle in the Cook Islands. This pattern was the result of various changes made by successive generations of Polynesian ancestors as they moved across thousands of miles of sea through centuries of time.

These ancestors had originally moved from the Asiatic mainland into Indonesia, where they adjusted their continental culture to volcanic islands. The volcanic islands provided basaltic stone for tools; and the fertile soil watered by streams produced abundant food, such as the coconut, breadfruit, banana, taro, yam, and arrowroot. The paper mulberry supplied raw material for clothing. Domesticated pigs, dogs, and fowls supplied ample flesh foods. The surrounding sea also commanded attention as a source of food supply, and local development took place in the making of lines, hooks, and nets for fishing and the building of canoes for water transport. A maritime culture developed.

When the Polynesians moved farther into the Pacific, other adjustments had to be made. As they progressed toward the east through Micronesia, the volcanic islands gave way to low lying atolls devoid of basaltic rock and with page 474a surface of broken down coral in which none of the cultivable plants, with the exception of the coconut, would grow.

The social and religious systems of a previous volcanic island home may be preserved on atolls, but the arts and crafts suffer drastic changes owing to the loss of food plants and of raw material both in wood and in stone. The people retrogressed from the stone age to what may be termed a shell age.

Stone adzes were replaced by inferior tools of Tridacna shell, and even the basaltic stones used in the cooking ovens had to be replaced with shells and lumps of coral which lasted for only one cooking. The food plants were reduced to the coconut and the fruit of the pandanus, which, but little used hitherto, became an important addition to the diet. With the loss of the paper mulberry which would not grow on atolls, tapa cloth was no longer possible, and substitute garments were plaited from the leaves of the coconut and pandanus. Coconut-husk fiber was the only available material for making fishing lines, nets, and ropes. Timber was reduced in quantity, hence the available tree trunks were split into planks for building plank canoes in order to make the limited supply go as far as possible. Apparently, domestic animals did not survive on atoll islands, possibly because of the change in food.

The travelers moved steadily toward the rising sun—progressing through the atolls of eastern Micronesia, the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands, and perhaps through Tongareva—to finally arrive at the volcanic group now known as the Society Islands, but anciently known to its discoverers as the near homeland of Hawaiki. They found rest and room for development, a development that had been denied by the atolls that had deprived them of so much. Unknown to them, the new homeland formed the geographical center of the ocean area they were destined to conquer, and here Polynesian culture was to develop so that the near Hawaiki would form the cultural hub of the Polynesian universe.

Early Polynesian Culture

The Society Islands provided an abundance of basaltic rock, thus the shell age Polynesians had the raw material with which to rise again into the stone age. Once more the cooking media became durable stone instead of friable coral. It must have taken thought and experiment, however, to rediscover the technique of dealing with stone in the way to best form the various types of stone tools required. I believe that the stone industry had to begin anew in Polynesia, hence I do not see how any type forms could have been carried over from a previous home in the west. Timber was plentiful and it was no longer necessary to spare it in the building of canoes and houses. Fibers other than coir were procurable, and better lines, nets, and ropes were made.

Immediate use could not be made of fertile soil and abundant streams, for cultivable food plants, except the coconut, had been lost. Thus, for a time, page 475the coconut and pandanus continued to be the main source of vegetable food. In the sea, however, was a rich supply of fish; the encircling lagoons provided shell fish, echinoderms, and crustaceans; and fresh-water streams contributed crayfish and small fish. The paper mulberry had been lost, and clothing continued to be made of the leaves of the coconut and pandanus. Domestic animals had yet to be brought in from the west. There was thus an early period in the development of Polynesian culture in which it remained simple because it lacked the material that would enable it to blossom forth into greater richness.

Tahitian traditions term the earliest inhabitants of the Society Islands Manahune, and they are held to have had a simpler culture than that which developed later. The native historians naturally belong to a later period, and I believe that their story merely records an early stage in their own history. During this early period, marked by the absence of cultivable food plants, the paper mulberry, and domestic animals, expeditions ventured out in search of new lands and actually reached Hawaii in the north and New Zealand in the south. According to Hawaiian tradition, the earliest settlers of Hawaii were termed Menehune, which is significant as it is but a slight dialectial difference from the name of the earliest settlers of the Society Islands. The earliest settlers of New Zealand were referred to by the later immigrants to that country as tangata whenua (people of the land). Both groups of settlers took their women with them and had reached fairly large numbers when the later voyagers arrived. It is certain that both expeditions had ample food and water or they would never have reached such distant lands. According to the traditions of each area, these earliest settlers were without cultivable food plants or animals. Though neither expedition may have known what land they would reach, they were provisioned and intended to settle the land they found. Had there been cultivable food plants in the land they set out from, they would have taken some with them to plant in the new home.

Later Polynesian Culture

The later period of cultural development in central Polynesia began with the regaining of the cultivable food plants, the paper mulberry, and the domestic animals which had been lost during the passage through atoll islands. Probably they were regained by Polynesian crews who took a more southerly course from eastern Micronesia and reached Samoa and Fiji. All the main islands comprising the Melanesian chain are volcanic and formed easy stepping stones for the transmission of the cultivable plants and domestic animals of the Indo-Malayan region. Melanesia had been settled so long before the movement of the Polynesians into the central Pacific that marked differences in language had had time to develop. The food plants, paper mulberry, and page 476domestic animals had evidently reached Fiji long before Polynesian contact. Fiji was the most easterly group occupied by people of Melanesian stock, but Samoa within measurable distance had remained unoccupied until the coming of the Polynesians.

Early communication was established between Polynesian Samoa and Melanesian Fiji. Across the intervening ocean, the plants and animals were carried by trade and gift to Samoa, and the following Samoan tradition supports this contention.

Some Samoan visitors to Fiji wished to take pigs back with them to breed in their own homeland. The Fijians, however, objected to the transport of live pigs but allowed their visitors to provision their vessel with pork. The Samoans tricked their hosts by concealing a number of very young pigs in the abdominal cavity of a large dressed pig which they carried openly to their vessel without hindrance. And so, says the story, the first pigs came to Samoa.

The other animals and the plants probably entered Samoa from Fiji with less trouble. Voyagers from Samoa or visiting crews from central Polynesia ultimately carried the plants and animals to the Society Islands.

At some early period, a lone voyager traveling east must have found his way to the Peruvian coast of South America and returned with the sweet potato (15, pp. 313-316). At all events, the sweet potato reached the Society Islands from the east and added to the variety and richness of the food plants.

Eventually, the introduced food plants cultivated in the Society Islands were the coconut, breadfruit, banana, plantain, taro, yam, sweet potato, and arrowroot. Other useful introduced plants were the paper mulberry and the gourd. The domestic animals were the pig, dog, and fowl.

The advent of a richer supply of plant and animal foods stimulated the development and elaboration of Polynesian culture. The regaining of the paper mulberry restored bark cloth as clothing and gave back to the women a former craft. The food plants and animals not only affected material culture, but they influenced social and religious institutions. For example, the commoners fattened pigs for their chiefly landlords and large numbers were provided for feasts and social gatherings. The head of the pig went to the chief as the symbol of his rank. Pigs became appropriate offerings to the gods and special platforms were added to the temples to hold the offerings at religious ceremonies. Thus, in divers ways, cultural growth was stimulated by a richer food supply.

It is probable that the plants and animals from Samoa were first introduced into Raiatea, for not only was the leeward group of the Society Islands nearer Samoa, but Raiatea was the domicile of the senior chiefs and higher priests. Because of its importance, it had been given the ancestral home name of Havai'i. Raiatea was thus the center of development in the whole group in material culture, social organization, and religion. It was here that the red page 477feather girdle was first used as the symbolic regalia of highest chieftainship and it was here that the famous temple of Taputapu-atea became the religious cathedral of central Polynesia.

The higher culture of Raiatea spread to the island of Tahiti, where the earlier stage of culture had been retained by the local people, the Manahune. After some conflict with invading forces, the Raiatean developments became the cultural pattern for the whole group. The later Polynesian pattern was carried to the Hawaiian islands in about the thirteenth century, together with the accompanying material benefits of introduced animals and plants. All of the three domestic animals were introduced and thrived until the introduction of new breeds by Europeans and Americans, when they became extinct. All the food plants (with the exception of the plantain), the paper mulberry, and the gourd thrived in a tropical climate similar to that of the islands from which they had been transported. The later pattern of Polynesian culture replaced that of the earlier Menehune, who were absorbed by the newcomers.

In the same period, the later Polynesian culture was carried to the Cook Islands. A century or so later, it reached New Zealand and replaced the earlier culture of the tangata whenua. In the New Zealand climate, however, some of the food plants would not grow. The colder climate and different endemic flora necessitated greater changes in adjustment, and the material culture of New Zealand departed greatly from the later Polynesian pattern that had been brought from the Hawaiki of Maori tradition.


The early settlers of the Cook Islands brought with them a complete culture by the process of fission, or budding off, from the parent culture that had developed in the Society Islands in about the thirteenth century. It was transported in its entirety and not by the diffusion of scattered elements into a settled region. It is impossible to gain an exact picture of what that culture was, because changes and local developments have occurred in the last 600 years as much, if not more, in the Society Islands than in the Cook Islands. After comparative analysis, however, I assume that the elements described as belonging to the early period of Cook Islands settlement derived from the culture in the Society Islands.

The Cook Islanders came in their own canoes and brought with them their tools and household goods preparatory to settling in a new home. They brought with them the food plants that flourished in Tahiti—the coconut, breadfruit, banana, plantain, taro, yam, sweet potato and arrowroot—and other useful plants, such as the paper mulberry and the gourd, as well as the domestic animals. The climate was similar to that of the Society Islands, and even the native plants and trees of the two volcanic groups were much alike. The page 478imported plants grew just as well as in their previous habitat. Hence, as regards the raw material upon which the arts and crafts depend, there were no losses and climate did not force any drastic changes in housing and clothing.


In Cook Islands material culture, all the articles listed as belonging to the early period may be regarded as stable, for they continued in use during the 600 years of occupation previous to the advent of Europeans. Some of them are still functioning. To find out the factors which made for stability, let us consider the items on page 481, which are connected with food. Fire was a necessity, and the Polynesians adopted the fire plough method of producing it. There was no incentive to change until Europeans introduced matches. Cooking was another primary necessity, and the use of hot stones with a cover of leaves and earth proved so satisfactory that the earth oven (umu) remained permanent. Iron pots and pans were impossible to a stone age people and earthenware pots were just as impossible, owing to the absence of clay in the Polynesian islands. Thus the liquid foods, such as arrowroot and coconut cream were heated by dropping hot stones into the liquid in a wooden bowl. An implement was necessary to pick up the hot stones from the fire and place them in the bowl, so the fire tongs, consisting of a doubled length of coconut midrib, continued to be used. Experience proved that an easy way to husk a coconut was by means of a pointed stick stuck in the ground, and as no other method proved as practicable, the husking stick came to stay. The grating of coconuts was necessary to obtain the creamy fluid contained in the flesh and a grater was made with a serrated piece of coconut shell attached to a wooden arm. The tripod form of coconut grater made the work easier, for the person could sit at his task. This form lasted until the later manufacture of four-legged stools led to a change in form. Fiber strainers were also necessary for wringing the coconut cream out of the grated nut and at the same time straining the fluid. The use of half coconut shells as cups was not dictated by necessity but was primarily due to their abundance. Coconut-shell and gourd water containers were so practical that they became permanent. Plaited food platters, baskets, and mats were all so useful that they practically figured as necessities, and coconut leaves provided suitable material which could be easily and quickly worked. Breadfruit grows on tall trees and those out of reach were more readily procured by a long pole with a forked end for twisting the stem of the fruit. In culinary operations, the cooked taro formed a better dish when pounded and so stone pounders became a necessary item in the kitchen equipment. As a means of carrying burdens, particularly food from the cultivations to the home, was required at some time in the past, the Polynesians adopted the carrying pole. The method was satisfactory and no circumstances arose to cause a change.

page 479

The factors that resulted in the continued use of the articles enumerated may be summed up as follows. First, the need for them continued throughout the period of occupation. Second, they were effective for the purposes for which they were designed. Third, they were so simple in form that there was no room for change except in the tripod grater, which, however, was retained in Mangaia where the four-legged stool was not adopted. Fourth, there was a continuous supply of the raw material from which the articles were made. Thus, the coconut-shell cup and the coconut-shell water container depended on the continuous growth of coconut trees and the gourd water container on the continued cultivation of the gourd plant. Both these plants flourished in the Cook Islands, but of late years the gourd plant seems to have been neglected. I saw no gourd water containers in these islands. The neglect of the plant probably occurred after European contact when metal vessels were readily procurable. Last, there was a continuance of the purpose for which the articles were made. For instance, the climbing bandage, husking stick, coconut grater, and fiber strainers were made for the purpose of procuring and preparing the coconut for food, and their stability depended not only on the continuous growth of the coconut but on its continued use as food. Hawaiians had the coconut, but as they apparently did not use coconut cream in cooking, they did not have coconut graters and fiber strainers. They did have the husking stick, however. It is apparent that the simple articles in every day use in every household, capable of being made by any individual, are likely to persist in a culture as long as they remain free from outside interference.

An example of the stability of certain simple techniques is furnished by New Zealand (p. 481). Out of a food complex of 18 items, only the following four items remained stable: the fire plough, earth oven, gourd water container, and wooden bowl. The technique of the fire plough was as applicable to dry wood in New Zealand as elsewhere, and not only the method but the Polynesian names of the lower grooved piece of wood and the upper rubbing stick remained unchanged. The earth oven continued in use, with but minor changes in detail. The gourd water container persisted because the seeds of the plant (Laginaria vulgaris) were introduced and grew. Wooden bowls did not lack for material.

The manufacture of more complex objects and structures led to specialization and to the development of expert craftsmen. Complex objects, during the course of their evolution, were elaborated upon and improved until improvements were exhausted and they acquired a set traditional pattern. To gain stability, additional factors were involved which Piddington (82, p. 246), in discussing the specialization of Maori clothing, has listed under the two main headings of human interests involved and traditional factors.

The necessity to satisfy the needs and interests of life applied to other arts and crafts, as it did to food. The continuance of those needs and the supply page 480of raw material were factors toward stability in complex objects as well as in the simpler articles made by unskilled labor.

Of the traditional factors, education in the traditions and technique of a craft was important when the technique had reached a set pattern. The craftsmen took pride in reproducing the patterns they had been taught. Sometimes magico-religious beliefs and practices grew up around a craft, and departures from the recognized technique were liable to be regarded as ill omens presaging misfortune for the erring craftsman. If the craft developed some form of organization, such as that of the Samoan guild of carpenters, a set of rules was observed which insured adherence to the established pattern. The Samoan guild added to their social status by claiming divine descent from the god Tangaloa, and the various elements in the framework of the houses with rounded ends were named after mythical ancestors who assisted Tangaloa in the building of the first house, which formed the pattern for subsequent buildings. The guild, when building a house, brooked no interference from the house owner. Any criticism was regarded as an insult and, unless an abject apology was made, the carpenters abandoned the work.

Another important factor was the social significance of the products of expert skill for their possession and use formed material marks of distinction between the artistocracy and the lower orders. The aristocracy were the patrons of the arts and crafts, and the craftsmen were paid for their work in food, material goods, and sometimes in land. The expert craftsmen established a social position, and they disdained to engage in the simpler tasks, which they regarded as beneath their dignity. The Samoan carpenters will not thatch the roof of a house, for they regard thatching as unskilled labor to be left to the houseowner and his relatives. They will not make the ordinary dugout canoe (paopao) because it calls for no special skill. Thus the simpler techniques were left to the masses and practically every individual could build his own dwelling house and cooking house, make a dugout canoe, plait lines, ropes, and coconut-leaf baskets, tie knots and lashings, and provide the material needs of everyday life. Thus, the simpler crafts, which supplied the necessities of life, were more likely to maintain their stability than the specialized crafts, which were dependent on chiefly patronage and were liable to deteriorate and be abandoned if their material and functional values were not sustained.


When the emigrants from the Society Islands arrived in the Cook Islands, they suffered no losses, because the geographical background of their new home was similar to that of the old and their introduced plants were readily acclimatized. The local flora also provided them with similar raw material for their crafts.

The only actual loss of the Cook Islanders appears to have been the bonito hook. This loss may be attributed to the fact that the usual range of the bonito page 481does not extend as far south as the Cook Islands rather than to the lack of pearl shell to make the shanks of the hooks.

New Zealand, on the other hand, lost many foods. When Captain Cook landed in New Zealand in 1769, all that he found were the taro, sweet potato, yam, gourd, paper mulberry, and the dog. Evidently the coconut, breadfruit, banana, and arrowroot did not survive in the cold climate. Subsequent experiment has proved that they will not bear in New Zealand. Whether the pig and fowl were left behind originally or disappeared subsequently, cannot be determined. What happened to the Polynesian food complex is illustrated by the comparison between the Society Islands, Cook Islands, and New Zealand given in Table 5.

Table 5.—Polynesian Food Complex
Item Society Is. Cook Is. New Zealand New Zealand Substitutes
Climate Tropical Tropical Temperate, Cold
1. Fire plough x x x
2. Earth oven x x x
3. Leaf oven cover x x o Plaited mat cover
4. Fire tongs x x o
5. Climbing bandage x x o
6, Husking stick x x o
7. Coconut grater x x o
8. Fiber strainer x x o
9. Coconut-leaf platter x x o Flax platter
10. Coconut-leaf baskets x x o Flax baskets
11. Coconut-leaf mats x x o Flax mats
12. Coconut-shell cup x x o
13. Coconut-shell water container x x o
14. Gourd water container x x x
15. Breadfruit picker x x o
16. Stone food pounders x x o
17. Wooden bowls x x x
18. Carrying pole x x o Plaited carrying straps
Total 18 18 4

Of the 14 losses sustained by New Zealand, eight were associated with the loss of the coconut palm. Not only did the Maoris lose the coconut as a food, they lost useful articles, such as the coconut-shell cup, the coconut-shell water container, and the platters, baskets, and mats made from the leaves. The cup was no real loss, and the water container was not missed because the gourd container sufficed. The platters, baskets, and mats were replaced by similar page 482articles plaited from local material. The articles used in procuring and preparing the coconut—the climbing bandage, husking stick, coconut grater, and fiber strainers—ceased to be of use and were no longer made. The loss of the breadfruit tree rendered the breadfruit picker of no further use.

Though the fire tongs were made from coconut-leaf midrib, they could have been reproduced in other local material, but they lost their function with the loss of arrowroot and coconut cream. Though taro survived in New Zealand, it was limited to the warmer areas and its supply was restricted to one crop a year through climatic conditions. It was more of a luxury than a staple article of diet and evidently there was never enough to warrant the extra luxury of pounded puddings. With the abandonment of pounding, the stone food pounders ceased to be made. It was not convenient to make the leaf oven covers of Polynesia, so plaited covers were substituted. Plaited carrying straps were found to be more suitable than carrying poles.