The People

The people are mostly Polynesian, Cook Island Maoris, related to the New Zealand Maoris and the Tahitians. The Pukapukans however are unique in that they are closer to the Samoans. Most of the population lives on Rarotonga and in the southern group. They are an open, friendly people who are happy to introduce you to their way of life. Their local greeting is "kia orana" ("may you live on").


Though spread across a vast empty expanse of ocean; the Polynesians knew all these islands by heart long before the first Europeans came. Rarotonga was first sighted by the Polynesians between 600 and 800 AD. Many anthropologists believe that these people may have originated in Peru and migrated to Malaya in "Asia Minor" which, in this case, refers to Southeast Asia and beyond, to such places as India, and then to Polynesia. However, one local legend says that they came from a land called Avaiki, (place you were before, which is understood to refer to Raiatea in French Polynesia). Another Rarotongan legend states that an ancestor named Tu-te-rangi-marama dwelt in the land of Atia-te-varinga-nui which means Atia-where-vari-was-abundant. In Rarotonga, the word vari means mud, but a connection has been seen between vari and the south Indian word padi meaning rice. 

It has thus been thought that the Polynesian ancestors lived in a land where rice was grown in mud and that after they had left the rice lands behind them, they applied the word vari to the mud of taro swamps. One eminent authority believed that Atia was located in the basin of the Ganges. Perhaps the location is right, but the name Atia looks suspiciously like a Polynesian form of Asia. And so by isolated words and place names students have tried to prove that the Rarotongans travelled from the Land of the Pharaohs to India en route to the shores of the Pacific. ( See Polynesian Voyaging )

The Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana first sighted Pukapuka in 1595. He was followed by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros who discovered Rakahanga in 1606. In the 1770s Captain James Cook made contact with Atiu, Mangaia, Manuae, Palmerston and Takutea which he called the Hervey Islands. In 1789, the Bounty Mutineers visited the bays of several islands on their way to Pitcairn Island. It was the Russian cartographer Johann von Krusenstern who named the southern group the Cook Islands in 1824.

New Zealand law took effect in 1901 and after pressure from the UN the group became a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand on the 4th August 1965, a day which is now celebrated as Constitution Day.