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First Published: October 2000

The Cook Islands

by Michael Sones

Woman with Mango
Woman with Mango
Gauguin, Paul
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"These people sail in those seas from Island to Island for several hundred Leagues, the Sun serving them for a compass by day and the Moon and Stars by night; all the stars of which they distinguished separately by name and they know in what part of the heavens they will appear in their horizons; they also know the time of their annual appearance and disappearing with more precision than will readily be believed by any European astronomers." From the Journals of Captain James Cook

Polynesia is one of the three main divisions of Oceania in the east central Pacific Ocean. The Polynesians were both great sailors and great astronomers who navigated the great expanse of the Western Pacific Ocean with both daring and apparent ease.

The word 'Polynesia' summons up images of tropical palms, beaches, rolling surf and physically beautiful people. It had an irresistible appeal to Gauguin who left homeland, family, and career to live in Tahiti.

The principal island groups include the Hawaiian islands, Tonga, American and Western Samoa, French Polynesia and the Marquesas, and the Cook Islands. Because so many Fijians are of Polynesian descent it is also sometimes included.

The Polynesian languages are of Malayo-Polynesian origin. Current archaeological evidence suggests that these islands were first reached by a series of brown-skinned migrants from Southeast Asia between 5000 and 1500 BC. DNA specialists have now dated the forebears of the Polynesians as reaching Papua New Guinea around 7000 years ago. This then became the jumping-off point for the initial advances into the South Pacific Ocean. Genetic evidence indicates that these peoples coexisted with the Melanesians before moving on eastwards to what is now Polynesia without taking any Melanesian genetic elements with them.


Ocean going canoes took these ancient mariners to Micronesia, then Fiji and later Tonga. From there they moved on to Samoa, the Tokelaus and right across to the Marquesas. About 500 AD the Marquesans set sail once more to Tahiti and Easter Island, from there to Hawaii, west to the Cook Islands and then to New Zealand. Within a span of 300-400 years these ancient voyagers (often called Lapita peoples after a type of pottery they produced) successfully colonized the majority of the islands in Melanesia: the Solomons, Hebrides, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. By 1200 BC a proto-polynesian culture was beginning to develop in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Here over a period of some thousand years, the Polynesian language, culture and art evolved. Pottery, characterised by fine craftsmanship and a refined sense of proportion, was produced about 1500 BC to the time of the birth of Christ and has been discovered at many archaeological sites through Melanesia to Tonga and Samoa. This pottery provides evidence of the existence of a widespread culture, termed Lapita, which was ancestral to the later Polynesian cultures.

Tahitian Women
Tahitian Women
Gauguin, Paul
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In beauty and complexity ancient Polynesian tattooing rivals the best work of modern masters of the art. Lapita pottery is of special interest for the history of tattooing because it provides us with the oldest evidence as to the nature of the ancient Polynesian tattoo designs. Much Lapita pottery bore incised decorations consisting of V-shaped elements, interlocking geometrical patterns, and stylized motifs resembling masks and sea creatures. Figurines decorated with similar designs have been found together with tattooing instruments at many archaeological sites. Some are over 3000 years old. They consist of flat, chisel-shaped pieces of bone measuring two to four centimeters in length and filed sharp at one end to form a comb-like series of pointed teeth. Tongan warriors were tattooed from the waist to the knees with a series of geometrical patterns consisting of repeated triangular motifs, bands, and areas of solid black (not dissimilar to the contemporary subculture penchant for similar tattooing), For the Tongan, the tattoo carried profound social and cultural significance. In ancient Samoa religious ritual and warfare were the popular pastimes, and tattooing played an important role in both. The Samoan warrior's tattoo began at the waist and extended to just below the knee. Samoan women were tattooed as well, but only on the hands and lower part of the body, and limited to delicate flower-like geometrical patterns.

Island Paradise - French Polynesia
Island Paradise -
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History describes Polynesians as isolated and protected from natural enemies, predators and disease. The Polynesian seemed the prototype of the mythical noble savage living in a state of innocence. Unlike the inhabitants of many other parts of the world, Polynesians did not spend their days struggling to obtain the bare necessities of life in a hostile environment.

The Cook Islands, an unspoiled Polynesian paradise, are located in the south Pacific Ocean nearly 3000 km. northeast of New Zealand. There are fifteen islands several of which are raised volcanic islands. The others are coral reef atolls. These tiny islands with a total land area of 236 square kilometers (91 square miles) are spread out over 2.2 million square kilometers of ocean. The ethnic composition is mostly Polynesian.

The principal languages are English as well as a language similar to that of the Maoris of New Zealand. Many customs of the Cook Islanders are related to those of  their distant relatives, the New Zealand Maoris. The population of the Cook Islands is approximately 18,000 inhabitants of which about 600 are of European descent. The capital is Avarua on Raratonga.

The economy is agricultural based with fruit and cash crops. Tourism is the leading industry. The Cook Islands are a tax haven and so attract a great deal of international finance. Mother-of-pearl is also collected. The only native wildlife are lizards and birds though settlers have introduced chickens, pigs, dogs, and cats.

The Cook Islands were originally colonized by Polynesians who are the finest seafarers of the vast Pacific. Folk lore has it that the first settlers are believed to have arrived on Rarotonga around 800 AD probably by migrants from Samoa and Tonga. Evidence to support such an expedition lies in the old road of Toi, the Ara metua which runs round most of Rarotonga and is believed to be at least 1200 years old. The Portuguese and Spanish reached the islands in the 1500 and 1600s. Captain James Cook, the renowned English explorer after whom the islands are named, explored them in 1773.

In 1965 the Cook Islands took control of their internal affairs under an agreement with New Zealand which had administratively controlled the islands since 1888. The inhabitants of the Cook islands are citizens of New Zealand which takes responsibility for defense.

The women of the Cook Islands are renowned for both their beauty and for their textile art work and making of tivaivai. Traditionally, bark-cloth was decorated. The wives of nineteenth century missionaries introduced the idea of quilts and quilt decoration. This has been adapted by the Cook Island women as a means of expressing their own culture and values. The making of tivaivai is a communal activity, similar to the quilting bees of frontier America, when women gather to piece together these unique tivaevae. Flowers, plants, butterflies, and sea-life are among the motifs used to decorate them. These tivaivai are highly valued as gifts and given on special occasions such as the first time a boy or young man has his hair Tivaivaecut, one way in which his coming of age is marked, or to visiting dignitaries. They are also sometime used at funerals and the body of the deceased may be wrapped in one. The production of them involves considerable time and effort. Two methods are used to produce them. Piecework, when tiny pieces of cloth are sewn together on a backing, and appliqué, when one colour is used for the background and another for the pattern. They are often hung like a curtain or to adorn a wall in a place, such as a village hall, where a special ceremony is taking place.(The photos above are copyright Mr. John Walters and used with kind permission. More photos of tivaivai can be seen at The Cook Islands.

One of the smaller Cook Islands

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