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Identification. Pukapuka is a small Polynesian atoll located among the northern atolls of the Cook Islands. Today, dwellers on the atoll refer to themselves as "Pukapukan," though the name appears to lack a specific meaning in the indigenous language. The traditional name for the atoll is "Te Ulu o te Watu," which means "the head of the rock."

Location. Pukapuka is located at 165°50 W by 11 °55 S, which makes it roughly 640 kilometers northeast of Samoa and 1120 kilometers northwest of Rarotonga. The total land area of the atoll is approximately 500 hectares; its highest point is 12 meters. The tropical climate has an average mean temperature of 27.9° C and an annual rainfall of 284.1 centimeters. Prevailing winds are from the east and southeast during May through October, from the north and northwest during November through April. The island technically lies outside the "hurricane belt." But it has been ravaged several times by hurricanes in its history. Consisting of a relatively poor soil of sand and coral gravel, vegetation is somewhat limited compared to higher Polynesian islands. Tropical plants and trees do, however, grow in reasonable abundance in the middle of the island. To facilitate growth, banana trees and taro plants need to be fertilized with leaves usually twice a year. A considerable variety of fish existin the lagoon, near the reef, and in open waterbut the atoll seems to lack the large supply reported for certain northern Cook Islands such as Manihiki. While Pukapukans report that no dogs previously existed on the island (and indeed, there is no traditional word for them), archaeologists discovered dog bones from a site on the atoll dated at 2310 B.P.

Demography. The 1976 Cook Islands census lists the atoll's total population as 785 with an additional 123 Pukapukans living on Nassau (a nearby island owned by Pukapuka). In 1974, Julia Hecht counted approximately 600 Pukapukans in New Zealand (mostly in the Auckland area) and another 200 in Rarotonga. Decimated by a hurricane roughly 400 years ago, the atoll's population reputedly dropped to less than 50 individuals. It subsequently rebuilt itself, but following raids by blackbirders and an epidemic during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the population again dropped, this time to around 300. Since then, it has increased steadily, reaching 505 in 1902, 651 in 1936, and 732 in 1971.

Linguistic Affiliation. Pukapukan is classified within the Samoic-Outlier category of Polynesian languages. While its closest relations are with Tokelauan and Samoan, it also shares linguistic features with languages of Eastern Polynesia.

History and Cultural Relations

From genealogical information, anthropologists Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole deduced that the island was settled around 1300. More recent archeological data (Chikamori and Yoshida) suggest the atoll was settled perhaps during the third century b.c. Traditional accounts indicate that prior to Western contact immigrants came from two sources: Yayake and Manihiki. Reports also describe voyages by Pukapukans to other Polynesian islands, mostly to the west of the atoll, such as the Tokelaus, Samoa, and Tonga. Pukapuka was Formally "discovered" by the West when Spanish explorers Alvaro de Mendaña and Pedro Quiros sighted the atoll in 1595. Byron sighted it again in 1765. Because the rocks surrounding the atoll made a landing dangerous, Byron called the atoll's three islets "islands of danger," a phrase from which the name "Danger Island," still used on certain maps, derives. In 1857 native missionaries from the London Missionary Society landed on the island. Pukapuka became a British protectorate in 1892 and in 1901 New Zealand took over its administration. It was incorporated into the Cook Islands in 1915. The Cook Islands became self-governing in Internal matters in 1965. The Beagleholes suggest Pukapukan culture shows strong affinities with both eastern and western Polynesia but, overall, is not part of the western Polynesian core.


The atoll consists of three major islets. Permanent settlement is allowed only on one of these. During the copra season, many Pukapukans live on the other islets, but when copra production is finished people are required to return to the main islet, Wale. The atoll's three villages are located here, spread out in ribbon fashion along the inner lagoon. In 1976, 219 people lived within the geographic boundaries of Ngake village, 274 within Loto village, and 292 within Yato village. It is important to note that social membership in a village overlaps but is not coterminous with geographic residence. People may reside in one village but belongin terms of Social membershipto another. Each village possesses its own large area of reserved land. A meetinghouse is centrally located within each village. Previously, most houses were constructed of pandanus and coconut materials. Today, cement-walled homes with galvanized tin roofs are the norm. The Beagleholes discuss traditional house types at some length.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Fish and taro were the traditional mainstays of the Pukapukan diet prior to Western contact. According to the Beagleholes, pigs and chickens became regular parts of the diet subsequent to Contact. Today, despite its isolation, the island is very much tied into a wider economic system. It imports large amounts of sugar, rice, flour, and canned meat as well as a host of other products such as building materials, outboard motors, and benzine lanterns. Still, despite its poor atoll environment, the island could in theory be nutritionally self-sufficient. The Island possesses roughly 15.2 hectares of taro swamps, more than 280 hectares of coconut palms, reasonable marine resources, and some papaya, banana, and breadfruit trees. As elsewhere in Polynesia, domesticated pigs and chickens Supplement the regular diet. A number of privately owned trade stores exist on the atoll. These stores produce a limited income at best. Ships call at the atoll three to five times a year with supplies.

Trade. The atoll's major exports are copra and people. Copra exports vary widely. During the 1970s they annually ranged from under 100 to a little over 200 metric tons. The income from copra production and remittances can be considerable, but the mainstay of the economy is government salaries and grants. On the atoll, sharingof both a formal and an informal natureis pervasive. While some food resources are shared by the island as a whole, most sharing occurs on a formal basis among village members and on an informal basis among friends and relatives. Copra income as well as food resources within a village's reserve, for instance, are shared out by village food-sharing units (tuanga kai). Individual shares vary. But men and women usually possess equal shares, Children somewhat smaller ones.

Division of Labor. Division of labor is based on sex and age. Although flexibility exists, men tend to fish (inside and outside the lagoon), build canoes, gather coconuts, prepare pigs for cooking, conduct food divisions, and carry out major political responsibilities. Women tend to fish near the shore (or on the reef), plait mats, work in the taro swamp, cook, and carry out domestic chores. Young men climb coconut trees and do much of the heavy labor. With symbolic implication, Hecht suggests women tend to work in the wet center and men on the dry periphery of the atoll. Elderly men and women are both viewed as important sources of traditional knowledge.

Land Tenure. In modern Pukapuka, two alternative patterns of land tenure coexist. Village reserves (motu ) are owned by the village as a whole. They are located on the northern portion of Wale (for Loto) and on the other islets (for Ngake and Yato). They involve more than half of the atoll's landmass. Traditionally, each patrilineage used a particular section of a reserve. But today only a slight tendency to continue this practice existsprimarily within Loto and secondarily within Ngake. Village-owned taro swamps are Divided annually among members for their personal use during the year. The second pattern of tenure involves cognatic groups termed koputangata. Their land is located mostly in the nonreserve portion of Wale. (Certain taro swamps in Loto and Ngake reserves, however, are also owned by koputangata.) While one must have genealogical ties to a particular ancestor (or ancestress) in order to claim land tenure, a host of other factorsincluding residential proximity to a site, need, and personalityalso play a role. Importantly, a person usually belongs to a number of koputangata at the same time; considerable ambiguity surrounds the delineation of koputangata membership and ownership. From an anthropological perspective, such ambiguity provides a degree of flexibility in adjusting land/population ratios to meet various contingencies.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Beagleholes describe traditional Pukapukan kinship as a case of double descent. Matrilineal groupings were subsumed under two overarching moieties (wua ). Major subdivisions (keinanga or momo ) existed within these. None of the units were localized. In contrast, patrilineages (po ) were localized. Ngake had two patrilineages, Loto three, and Yato three. An individual's burial sitea status marker with important symbolic significancewas traditionally traced patrilineally. Recent Studies (Borofsky and Hecht) question the degree to which Pukapukan kinship actually constituted a case of double descent. Both suggest traditional kinship groupings involved a more fluid situation than described by the Beagleholes, with cognatic ties playing a significant role. Modern groupings are now cognatic. Today burial-site affiliation is based on cognatic ties to a deceased relation. Still, while a person may in principle join any village, a patrilineal bias remains regarding who actually becomes a member of which village. A patrilineal bias also remains in the selection of chiefs.

Kinship Terminology. Hecht suggests Pukapuka has an Iroquois-type cousin terminology for opposite-sex cousins; the Beagleholes report an Eskimo-type cousin terminology. Terminology for same-sex cousins and siblings involves a Simple Hawaiian-type pattern.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Reflecting a relaxed attitude toward sex, it is not uncommon for couples to live together in informal unions, though if these unions endure formal marriage usually occurs eventually. Monogamy was and is the rule. Other than restrictions on marrying a relative three generations removed and, in earlier times, on marrying within the smallest matrilineal unit, no formal prescriptions or proscriptions exist regarding marriage choice. Hecht intriguingly observes, however, that more than half of all marriages appear to be endogamous within a five-generation span of a cognatic Descent group, and about a quarter are endogamous in respect to village membership. Initial postmarital residence follows a bilateral pattern with a patrilocal bias. Later choice of house sites is flexible depending on the options open to the couple.

Domestic Unit. The immediate nuclear family constitutes the basic household unit, though it is also common to have an extended family share the same household. Formal adoption (tama kokoti ) involves about 20 percent of the population; fosterage (tama wangai ) involves 8 percent.

Inheritance. According to the Beagleholes, the traditional system of double descent involved children inheriting land, sections of smaller taro swamps, and burial sites through their fathers and sections of larger taro swamps through their mothers. Today inheritance is cognatic, with all childrenin principle, at leastreceiving equal shares.

Socialization. Multiparentinginvolving a number of adults and older siblingsis common on the atoll. The general Polynesian pattern exists in which an indulgent, nurturing period is followed by a separation from the parents and the child's increasing affiliation with his or her peer group. The learning of everyday activities is mostly done informally, through observation rather than direct instruction. In learning, both cooperation and competition play important roles. Other themes include repetition, ridiculing mistakes rather than praising successes, and learning through performance. While parents beat their children for a variety of offenses, this practice rarely manifests itself in later adult violence. Violent crimes are extremely rare on the island.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The most prominent element of modern Pukapukan social organizationother than the above-cited social units relating to land tenureis a pattern of crosscutting ties that binds individuals of different groups together. As noted, a single individual may well belong to a number of koputangata at the same time. Also, residence within a village does not necessarily coincide with Membership (especially in Ngake village). The traditional matrilineal units also provided crosscutting ties for the localized patrilineages. Such ties fit with a general pattern among Polynesian atolls: group boundaries are not demarcated to the extent that individuals cannot readily cross them in time of need. Today, the production of copra and sport competitions are organized on a village basis.

Political Organization. Like other Polynesian islands, Pukapuka traditionally possessed a number of chiefs. Paramount among these was the chief associated with the i Tua (the founding ancestor) patrilineage. But like other atolls, egalitarian orientations were also emphasized and chiefly status did not have the markers or privileges common on higher islands. Today the overall allocation of funding for the atoll is made by the Cook Islands' parliament in Rarotonga to which Pukapuka elects one member. On the island itself, a government-appointed chief administration officer wields considerable power in interpreting and carrying out the national government's orders. An island council with two representatives from each village conducts much of the islandwide business. Along with a more traditional "Council of Important People" (in native terms, "Kau Wowolo"), it represents the central law-making body on the island. At a lower level, villages hold meetings every fortnight in which all adult Members participate.

Social Control. There are relatively few formal criminal violations on the island. The rare occurrences are handled by the government's single police officer. Each village has its own pule, or council of elders, that enforces village decisions. Being reduced to a child's share in village food divisions (wakatamaliki ) is perhaps the most serious punishment outside of the rare jail sentence.

Conflict. Armed conflict occurred between various groups in precontact times, though not on a continuing basis. Today, competition in the form of status rivalries pervades the island. It finds its most prominent expression in sports. Winners proudly display themselves before losers, ridiculing them in victory speeches. But very rarely does such verbal humor lead to physical conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practitioners. According to the 1976 Cook Islands census, 76 percent of the population were Cook Islands Congregationalist (derived from the former London Missionary Society), 14 percent Catholic, and 10 percent Seventh-Day Adventist. All three groups practice a conservative form of Christianity in which the Sabbath is strictly observed. In recent times, the Congregationalist and Adventist ministers have been Cook Islanders, the Catholic priest European. Along with traditional Christian beliefs, there exists a belief in ghosts who are perceived as causing a variety of maladies. In the atoll's traditional religion, a god was associated with each patrilineage. Just as the head of the i Tua lineage was the dominant chief of the atoll, Mataaliki (the main god of the i Tua lineage) constituted the principal god of the atoll. Communication with these gods was usually through a priest. Major religious structures involved both a god house (wale atua ) and a sacred enclosure (awanga ya ).

Ceremonies. The most significant islandwide ceremony today is Christmas. All men of a village travel to another Village where they partake in a feast prepared by that village's women. Dancing follows. (The following year roles are reversedthe women visit, and the men act as hosts.) The sports competitions surrounding the holiday last well into January. At various times villages may decide to hold other feasts. (Although the food is gathered collectively, each Family usually eats it separately.)

Arts. The major art forms today are chanting, dancing, building canoes, plaiting, and singing. Most chants possess a traditional aura and are sung on special occasions. Dancing, especially line dancing, occurs at victory celebrations. New dance steps are often created for special events. Pukapukan women plait pandanus into a variety of products, especially mats. The singing of modern songs is common among the younger generation.

Medicine. According to the Beagleholes, sickness in precontact times had a strong moral component in which diseases were related to moral infractions and antisocial behavior. Responsibility for such infractions extended beyond the individual to other members of the individual's family. Sickness might be sent by gods, a malicious spirit, or a spirit from a foreign land. Treatment involved communication through a seer with one or more gods who would indicate the cause and treatment for the malady. Pukapukans had (and still practice) a number of folk remedies and physical therapy techniques, most prominent being deep-pressure massage.

Death and Afterlife. Today Pukapukans mostly follow Christian doctrine regarding life after death though, as noted, a belief in ghosts also exists. Prior to missionization, the Beagleholes report a belief existed that a person died when the soul permanently left the individual's body. The soul then journeyed to the underworld (po ) where it took up residence enjoying various pleasures denied it in the upper world.

See alsoCook Islands, Manihiki


Beaglehole, Ernest, and Pearl Beaglehole (1938). Ethnology of Pukapuka. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin no. 150. Honolulu.

Borofsky, Robert (1987). Making History: Pukapukan and Anthropological Constructions of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frisbie, Robert (1930). The Book of Pukapuka. New York: Century.

Hecht, Julia (1977). "The Culture of Gender in Pukapuka: Male, Female, and the Mayakitanga 'Sacred Maid.'" Journal of the Polynesian Society 86:183-206.

Hecht, Julia (1981). "The Cultural Context of Siblingship in Pukapuka." In Siblingship in Oceania, edited by Mac Marshall, 53-77. Landham, Md.: University Press of America.