Pukapuka - Orientation

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 exist—in the lagoon, near the reef, and in open water—but 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.

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