Polynesian migration dating back to 5th century AD
Cook Islanders have a rich oral history that, in common with other Polynesian people, tells of ancestors of ancient times originating from the homeland of Avaiki. It is uncertain when the first settlers reached the Cook Islands but modern historians believe that the Polynesian migration through the Cook Islands began around the 5th century AD. Oral history traces Rarotongan ancestry back about 1400 years.
On Aitutaki marae excavations started two years ago that are revealing information about ancient contact between Pacific Island populations and also about the ceremonies and activities that took place on these ancient marae.
On Rarotonga, Highland Paradise is an important historic site that has been set up as a cultural centre. It has interactive information, walks and tours about the lives of the early inhabitants of this ancient site.
The first European visitors
Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to sight any of the islands - Pukapuka in 1595 and Rakahanga in 1606. There is no record of further European contact for over 150 years.
Captain Cook explored much of the group in 1773 and 1777 but he never saw Rarotonga. The first Europeans to arrive in Rarotonga were the mutineers on the HMS Bounty in 1789. The mutiny actually took place after the Bounty sailed from Aitutaki.
After the explorers came the missionaries. In 1821 Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society (LMS) came to Aitutaki. The height of the missionaries' power was from 1835 to 1880.
These European missionaries had an enormous impact on Cook Islands life - spiritual, social, economic and political. But they left the actual government of the islands to the tribal chiefs or ariki. The traditional system of land inheritance and the indigenous languages were also left intact.
The British took formal control of the Cook Islands in 1888 and then followed a debate with New Zealand about who should be responsible for the islands.
The combination of disease, slavery and migration meant the islands' population of about 17,000 just before contact with Europeans fell to less than half. The population now is about 13,000.
During WW2 the USA built airstrips on Aitutaki and Penrhyn but essentially the Cooks remained a quiet dependency. In 1965 the Cook Islands became self-governing.
Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens and carry New Zealand passports