Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands



No culture can remain static. As may be seen from the account of the various objects attributed to the second period in the Cook Islands material culture, a number of changes took place. Though some elements may be regarded as stable, few except those of simplest form, remain unaffected by some changes due to material or additional technique. Some losses such as that of the coconut and breadfruit in New Zealand could not be replaced. Other losses were replaced by a substitution of material or by a new process involving a different technique. Changes occurred through the acceptance of objects brought in from without and new processes developed from within the culture itself. It is convenient to discuss the cultural changes under the three headings of substitution, diffusion, and local development.


Substitution means the satisfying of an old need with an article of different material or technique from that previously in use. It usually occurs in the early period of settlement when people are adjusting themselves to the local supplies and the conditions in a new home, or it may be delayed until the conditions arise that necessitate the change.

There are two main forms of substitution. In one, a somewhat similar article is made with a different material, which usually requires some changes in technical details. In the other, a totally different form is made to serve the same function, because similar material is not available or because local conditions render the old form inconvenient.

In the Cook Islands, there was little need for substitution, for the materials required and the conditions of life were similar to those in the Society Islands. page 483Probably the only material lacking for general use was pearl shell, and its scarcity led to the substitution of coconut shell and Turbo shell in the making of fishhooks.

In New Zealand, conditions were entirely different. Of the 14 items; (table 5) which had to be abandoned, five were important enough to stimulate the production of substitutes. Plaited platters, baskets, and mats were too useful to be abandoned, and, as the Maoris were well acquainted with the plaiting technique, all they had to do was to find some local substitute for coconut leaves. The substitute material was found in the native flax (Phormium tenax) which grew abundantly everywhere, but technical adjustments had to be made. In the coconut leaf, the leaflets which formed natural wefts were attached to the leaf midrib and a commencement fixation was provided by nature. The flax grew in large bunches with wide leaves springing directly from the roots. Thus individual leaves had to be split by hand to form the wefts, and as each weft was separate, a technique had to be devised to fix them in a commencement edge. The flax basket was commenced at the bottom and finished at the rim, whereas the opposite sequence was used in the coconut-leaf basket. Flax platters and mats also underwent technical change as a result of different material.

Though flax baskets became the established form, the early settlers must have been struck by the similarity of the leaves of the native nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida) to those of the coconut palm. Maoris at Koroniti on the Wanganui River informed me that baskets were sometimes made from nikau leaves. A specimen in the Dominion Museum figured in Hamilton's Maori Art (pl. 44, fig. 1) is plaited in check with the leaflets that are attached naturally to a length: of nikau leaf midrib, the bottom is closed with a three-ply braid, and the midrib split to form the rim. The technique is identical in detail with that of the Cook Islands tapora made from coconut leaf (fig. 21, d). These nikau baskets were made in the forest where the native flax was not available. The similarity of material rendered the Polynesian technique possible. It is probable that they were the first type of basket made in New Zealand and were in more general use during the early period of adjusting old techniques to suit new local material.

The substitution of plaited oven covers for leaf covers naturally followed the development of plaiting with flax. In Polynesia, the oven covers were formed of the large leaves of the wild hibiscus, breadfruit, banana, and ti. The function of the leaf covers was to prevent the earth sealing from coming into contact with the food. However, large-leaved plants were not so accessible to the cooking houses in New Zealand, hence the Maoris substituted mat covers of plaited flax that were easy to make and much more durable. It is interesting to note that in atolls where large-leaved plants are scarce, the oven covers are made of mats plaited from coconut leaves.

page 484

The substitution of plaited carrying straps for the widely spread Polynesian carrying pole was due to peculiar conditions that arose in New Zealand. With the increase in population and the development of intertribal warfare, the people built fortified villages on the tops of hills and ridges that offered natural facilities for defense. The hillsides were terraced in tiers to accommodate the dwelling houses, and the slopes between the tiers were cut to form steep Walls that were protected by high wooden palisades. The tiers were interrupted with narrow, fenced communication passages to further obstruct enemy attacks. It is obvious that transporting food from, the cultivations up the steep hillsides and through narrow passages with a carrying pole would be difficult, as the efficiency of the carrying pole depends on maintaining the balance between the two ends. The Maoris found it more convenient to carry burdens on their backs, so plaited carrying bands (kawe) like knapsack straps were invented to support the burden. They came into general use and the carrying pole was abandoned. However, heavy weights beyond the strength of one person were slung to the middle of a stout pole with the ends supported on the shoulders of two men walking in file. This form of carrying retained the Polynesian term (amo) which is applied to the carrying pole.


The term diffusion is applied to the introduction of a cultural element from outside the group after the local culture has been established by the process of fission. If the introduction proved useful or attractive and similar raw material was available, it was incorporated into the local culture. In the process of reproduction, it was liable to undergo changes similar to those which would occur in substitution. If an introduction was not accepted by the culture, it remained an importation which disappeared when it was worn out.

The first step toward diffusion is connected with ocean transport and the causes that led to continuance of voyages between island groups. One should imagine that after the various island groups had been settled by emigrants from the Society Islands, the voyages would have ceased; but a sentimental attitude toward the old home in central Polynesia survived for some time, and tradition records that return voyages were made to visit relatives and to pay respect to the gods on the old established temples. The islands which were closer to the center—the Cook Islands, the Australs, and the western Tuamotu—maintained communication for a longer period, and marriage alliances between chiefly families provided a cause for ceremonial visits and the interchange of gifts and information. With succeeding generations, personal sentiment became tradition and communication between the distant ends of the radials and the center ceased. There was plenty of scope for development in the new lands, and they became home both in sentiment and reality.

page 485

Internal wars in the Society Islands led to the flight of defeated groups to neighboring islands, to which they took their goods and techniques. Occasional voyages were stimulated by the love of adventure and the desire to visit other islands. Some such voyages were organized by the younger sons of chiefs who saw no prospects of advancement at home. The Rarotongans tell the story of a younger son, who, when his father tried to dissuade him from leaving, replied, "Why should I stay? Have I a name that is called?" The incident refers to the custom of calling the name of the eldest son at public ceremonies when distributions of food and gifts were made. Even one stray voyager from some more distant island might bring some new item acceptable to the local craftsmen. Hence, there were various opportunities by which later developments which had occurred in the second period could be diffused. Some of the obvious objects that diffused to the Cook Islands are listed below, under their probable island of origin.

Society Islands: inverted triangular adz heads, toe haft, and triple triangle lashing; four-legged stool, four-legged coconut grater, and pounding table with legs; bark cloth poncho (tiputa).

Austral Islands: medium type of food pounder: Raivavae (fig. 258, e) and Mangaia (fig. 258, d). Animal-like carving: Rurutu (fig. 268) and Mangaia (fig. 58, h-l). Coiled coir cap: all Australs and all Cook Islands, except Mangaia. Ring feather carrier and bar holders: Rurutu and Aitutaki.

Tonga or Samoa: pitching discs: Mangaia (fig. 158).

All the items listed under the Society Islands, with the exception of the triple triangle lashing, were present in the Austral Islands, and it is probable that they spread from the Society Islands to the Austral and Cook Islands. Thus, the Society, Cook, and Austral Islands form a secondary culture area. The elements listed under the Austral Islands are not shared by the Society Islands. It is probable that the coiled caps and special feather decoration spread from the Cook Islands to the Australs and that the medium food pounder and animal-like carving came the opposite way, from the Australs to Mangaia, and got no farther.

The spread of the game of disc pitching from Tonga is supported somewhat by the Mangaian tradition that the Tonga'iti people who settled in Mangaia came from the west. The priests of the Tonga'iti were credited with a secret process of making thick tapa. It is possible that the thick tapa was made by pasting sheets together, a technique used in Tonga and Samoa but unknown in the Cook Islands. A voyage from the west was comparatively easy during the season that the westerly winds prevailed. John William (81, p. 309) recorded that he sailed from Niue Island to Rarotonga in seven days, "having sailed in that time a distance of eight hundred miles due east."

The elements which spread by diffusion to the Cook Islands are listed in Table 6, where their presence or absence is shown for all the volcanic island page 486groups of Polynesia. Atolls are omitted because they did not have raw material such as basaltic stone and the paper mulberry, but it may be noted that the western Tuamotu had the four-legged stool. The Gilbert Islands are included in the table because of the presence there of the coiled cap. The triangular adz complex includes adze head, heel haft, and triple triangle lashing and excludes triangular adzes with the toe haft found in other groups.

Table 6 shows some direct communication between the Cook and Austral Islands with elements not present in the Society Islands. On the other hand, there are some elements shared by the Society and Austral Islands which are not present in the Cook Islands. They are not shown in the table, because they are outside the scope of this work. The multiple lozenge carving motif of Raivavae and Mangaia, which is usually regarded as due to diffusion, is not listed in the table, because I regard its presence in Mangaia as an independent development which took place in the third period. However, the diffusion between the Cook, Society, and Austral Islands was sufficient to justify regarding them as forming a secondary central culture area within Polynesia (fig. 269).

The presence of the four-legged grater in the Marquesas and of the poncho in Samoa and Tonga I regard as due to diffusion in the third period. The Cook Islanders hold that the coconut-leaf ridge sheet (fig. 20, b) and the o'ini basket (fig. 21, c) were introduced during the third period from Samoa and Tahiti respectively. Diffusion in the third period, though interesting, does not have the same significance as diffusion in the second period, for interisland communication was facilitated by European transport provided by missionaries and traders.

It is significant that the pitching discs from Tonga or Samoa form the only instance of diffusion from a Polynesian group outside of the secondary central area. It narrows diffusion down to islands which were fairly closely situated, but it does not exclude the fact that a stray canoe might have introduced something from farther away. The only element which might have entered the Cook Islands from outside of Polynesia in the second period is the coiled coir cap from the Gilbert Islands. The Gilbert Islands are atolls in which coconut-husk fiber is practically the only material available for any technique requiring the use of fiber. It seems to me that the development of coiled work with coir fiber is more likely to have originated on an atoll than on a volcanic island where other fibers were available. In the Gilbert Islands; the coiled cap formed part of a warrior's defensive dress in which a stiff breastplate was also made with a coiled technique. The cap had side flaps which projected downward from the rim to protect the ears from drawing strokes with the long shark-tooth weapons peculiar to the group. In the Cook Islands coiled caps, some incomplete turns were made with the foundation coil to form a slight downward projection on part of the rim circumference. In the Aitutakian page 487
Table 6.—Diffusion in Polynesia
Triangular Adz Complex Four-Legged Stool Four-Legged Grater Pounding Table Poncho Coiled Caps Medium Type Pounder Animal-Like Motif Pitching Discs Feather Rosettes and Clamps Y-shaped Stanchion
Society Islands x x x x x o o o o o o
Cook Islands x x x x x x x (Mg) x (Mg) x (Mg) x (Ak) x (Ak)
Austral Islands x x x x x x x (Rv) x (Rr) o x (Rr) o
Marquesas o o o (?) o o o o o o o o
Mangareva o o o o o o o o o o o
Easter Island o o o o o o o o o o o
Hawaii o o o o o o o o o o o
New Zealand o o o o o o o o o o o
Samoa, Tonga o o o o o (?) o o o x o o
Gilbert Islands o o o o o x o o o o x
page 488 caps (fig. 40), the incomplete turns are ten in number; and in the caps of Atiu (fig. 33 , a) and Rarotonga (fig. 36 , a), they range from two to four. In Aitutaki and Atiu, the projection is on the back of the cap, but in one of the Rarotongan caps (fig. 35, a ), it is on the front. The Austral Islands caps (pl. 15, A) have no downward projections, but the end of the foundation coil stops dead without being doubled back to form incomplete turns.

If the Y-shaped stanchion of the Aitutaki canoe was really present in that island during the second period, not introduced in the third period as I surmise, there is a possibility that it accompanied the coiled cap from the Gilbert Islands, where it is. still present. The story may then be reconstructed by assuming that some voyager from the Gilbert Islands made his way east and, missing the Society Islands, was driven farther south to Aitutaki. His coiled cap appealed to the Aitutakians who adopted the technique as well as the Y-shaped stanchions which supported the outrigger booms of his canoe. In the course of time, the coiled cap underwent slight changes in shape and the side flaps, having no special function in Aitutaki, where shark-tooth clubs were not used, was represented by a shorter posterior projection. The cap was also decorated with feather ornaments of which rosettes, formed of superimposed ring carriers and horizontal clamps formed of coconut-leaflet midribs to support rows of feathers, were the principal features. The coiled cap spread to the other islands of the Cook group but it was not adopted in Mangaia. The other islands adopted the ring carrier and rosette technique but not the horizontal clamps, and the posterior flap was reduced even more than in Aitutaki. The posterior flap was a kind of technical carry over and it became a vestigial remnant. In Rarotonga, the craftsmen did not even bother to keep it to the back of the cap. The Y-shaped stanchion did not spread beyond Aitutaki.

From Aitutaki, the coiled cap must have spread, directly to Rurutu in the Australs after the Aitutakian technique of feather ornamentation had been developed. In Rurutu, the coiled technique underwent change from the close figure-of-eight to the easier lazy squaw, the caps were made shorter in height, and the vestigial flap was not reproduced. The feather rosettes formed of ring carriers were copied in detail, but the horizontal clamps underwent change in the substitution of two thin pieces of wood for the composite leaflet midribs of Aitutaki.

Folded tapa was also substituted for the wooden framework and leaflet midrib bundles for supports for the ends of the horizontal clamps. Additions were made by lining the cap with tapa and using side pendants of pieces of pearl shell (pl. 15, C). The coiled cap with the lazy squaw technique (pl. 15, A) and the tapa lining spread to Tubuai (pl. 15, B) and Raivavae (pl. 15, D), but each island developed independent forms of feather ornamentation. This attempt at reconstruction is the best I can offer, but it may be only partly correct.

page 489

Local Development

A survey of the material objects attributed to the second period shows that a good deal of local development or independent evolution occurred and added many new things to the original patterns. It appears likely that at the time of separation from the Society Islands, some of the arts and crafts had not crystallized into set patterns which the craftsmen might feel obliged to reproduce exactly. It is hardly possible to reconstruct by comparative study the stage the more complex crafts had reached in the later Polynesian culture, because as many, or more, changes have since taken place in the Society Islands as in the Cook Islands. We can only assume that certain fundamental techniques were known and that after each island in the Cook group was settled the local people developed their own crafts independently. Unfortunately, some of the island differences in technique and art motifs have been obscured in study material through lack of exact information as to the particular island of origin of various artifacts.

In the art of tattooing, the technique was identical in each island. All used the tattooing comb and the light mallet for tapping the comb after the teeth had been dipped in a black pigment mixed from soot obtained by burning the oily kernels of candlenuts. The motifs used and the exact parts of the body treated differed in each island. An island developed its own tattooing patterns, which were respected by others as much as if they were protected by patent rights. One of the old Rarotongans, on the back of whose neck I saw the rauteve motif (fig. 72, a), told me that he was tattooed with a group of other young men who planned a visit to Tahiti and who all wanted the rauteve to show that they were Rarotongans.

A similar process of island development took place in wood carving. Each island developed its own individuality in art, as regards form and the details of carving motifs applied for aesthetic enhancement. In no way can this individual development be better illustrated than by religious symbols. It is apparent that Rarotonga and Aitutaki (pl. 13) retained some elements of an early pattern of the human figure developed in the Society Islands, such elements being the position of the arms and legs and the square cut across the shoulders. They diverged, however, in the treatment of anatomical details of the head and body with the result that the images from the two islands bear no resemblance to each other or to the images made in the Society Islands. The other islands of the group abandoned the human figure and substituted non-human symbols of their gods in patterns that also differed from each other (pi. 14).

Another example of island diversity occurred in the forms of weapons. While spears and slings probably underwent little change from early forms, each island developed different forms in their clubs. However, the special feature of a flanged butt point spread within the group. It must be remem-page 490bered , however, that each island in the Cook group was settled independently and that the settlers coming from different districts or different islands in the Society Islands, may have brought some of the differences in tattooing, weapons, and other crafts with them.

Some minor differences may be overlooked because they are overshadowed by major similarities. In the complex pearl-shell breast ornaments the main elements consist of one valve of a pearl oyster shell and a suspensory coil of many strands of human hair braid. Minor differences are the amount of the hinge border of the shell that is removed to form the top edge, a straight or curved top border, the retention or lack of a strip of the outer rim surface, the technique of attaching the shell to the braid coil, and the treatment of the ends of the coil for fastening around the neck. In Mangaia, two forms of technique were developed (pl. 8, A, C), and it is certain that the other islands had also developed differences that lack of old specimens have prevented me from ascertaining. All that was necessary to perpetuate the pearl-shell ornament was for early settlers to carry with them the memory of a pearl-shell ornament attached to human hair braid. In the subsequent reproduction of the ornament, the craftsmen of each island fastened the essential parts together according to their own ideas. It might almost be stated as a technical axiom that craftsmen on different islands cannot reproduce the same idea in exactly the same way.

Piddington (82, p. 246) has listed among the factors for change individual variations which comprise skill, initiative, inventiveness, and aesthetic preferences. The expert craftsman earned his reputation by technical skill. He added to his reputation by improving older patterns and by creating variety in form, by making more elaborate additions, and by improving or inventing new ways to obtain better finish, ornamentation, and efficiency. Probably the craftsman himself initiated aesthetic preferences in his work which, if they appealed to his community, became a style or fashion that was likely to spread. Sometimes improved techniques did not spread beyond the island of origin. I have found the people of one island expressing pride in their own technique and stressing the point that it differs from that of the other islands. Perhaps it is this local pride that has prevented the adoption of some techniques from other islands.

The frame dye stamp of Aitutaki and the shell beads recorded by Cook for Atiu appear to have been confined to those islands. The open sennit decoration of adzes, the Mangaian variation of the triple triangle lashing of adzes, and some other forms of sennit decoration did not spread from Mangaia. The Mangaians were such good craftsmen that their satisfaction with their own culture may have made them extra conservative about accepting additions from the other islands.

Mangaia refused to accept the plaited mats, coiled caps, throwing discs, four-legged seats, four-legged coconut graters, and pounding tables which page 491spread through all the other islands, and the present inhabitants take pride in the fact that they never had them.

Interisland Spread

An example of the interisland spread of a new local technique is the decorative colored borders of pandanus sleeping mats. The unique method of attaching new wefts to the side borders and dealing with the corners (fig. 263) shows that the technique is a distinct invention in plaiting, and its confinement to the Cook Islands proves that it was invented locally. It must have originated in one island, where it became the style for the best kind of sleeping mat. In the frequent interisland communication, some of these mats were probably taken to other islands as presents. Apparently, the aesthetic attraction of the colored borders led to the adoption of the technique in the other islands of the group, except in Mangaia which preferred tapa-cloth bedding. Lacking a legendary history of origin, I suggest that the island of Aitutaki was the focus of origin for the colored-bordered mats, because the women of that island are regarded as the best makers of these mats. Interisland marriages were probably important factors in the interisland spread of techniques. The making of tapa and the best forms of mat were accomplishments of women of rank. An Aitutaki chieftainess, given in marriage, let us say, to a chief of Atiu, would use her own technique of plaiting mats in her new home, and the superiority of her work, backed by her social position, would lead her relatives by marriage to copy her technique. Thus the new style would be adopted in Atiu and by similar steps would spread to the other islands of the group. The art has survived to the present day and during my visits to the Cook Islands, the best gifts which the people could provide were the sleeping mats with the colored borders.

Elements which entered the group by diffusion from without must have spread in a manner similar to the interisland spread of local developments and local inventions. Some elements such as pitching discs, the medium form of food pounder, the specialized thick tapa and the animal-like form of art motif reached the island of Mangaia but spread no farther. The Mangaians substituted calcite for basalt in the stone pounder and the lateral projections underwent a slight change. They also substituted wood for coconut shell in the pitching discs. The animal-like motif that formed part of the bowls and spear heads of Rurutu were carved as detached pieces of bone to hang as pendants from their necklaces. Other diffused elements, however, after becoming established in the first island of contact spread in the same ways as the decorated borders of sleeping mats and the coiled cap. The four-legged stools and graters and the pounding table spread in this way to all the islands except Mangaia. The triangular adz with its heel haft and triple triangle lashing and the bark cloth poncho spread to all the islands including Mangaia, but the Mangaians page 492elaborated on the triple striangle lashing by inventing an introductory form of decoration with an open sennit pattern (fig. 108) and making a distinct variation (fig. 109) to the lashing pattern. They also devised a novel form of decoration for the ponchos by using perforated patterns.