Atiu is a raised volcanic island surrounded by a reef from which rise 6-m high cliffs of fossilized coral (makatea). The makatea cliff forms a mile-wide ring round the island, creating a virtual plateau. Erosion at the innerside of the ring has formed dip of about 30 m into fertile land, which gradually rises again to a central 70-m high flat-topped hill.
Atiuans trace their ancestry from Tangaroa, the principal god of Atiu and universally recognised in Polynesia as tutelary god of the sea. Atiu's area is about half that of Rarotonga. The low swampy land consists of taro plantations, marshes and a lake, Te Roto. This fertile area also grows bananas, citrus fruits, pawpaws, breadfruit and coconuts. The ancient name of the island was Enuamanu, meaning the island of insects and animals, although there is some dispute over whether 'animals' includes 'insects'. The Atiuans understand it as meaning there were no previous inhabitants. The Atiuans call themselves 'worms of Enuamanu' because they were born on Atiu and hope to be buried there. There was once a custom on Atiu similar to that of New Zealand Maori of burying a newborn child's placenta under a newly planted tree. This is the origin of the Atiuan saying: "We come from the land and go back to the land." The Atiuans were a fierce, warrior people and before the arrival of the missionaries busied themselves with making war on their neighbors on Mauke and Mitiaro, slaughtering and eating significant numbers of them.
The first recorded European to arrive to Atiu was Captain Cook. He sighted the island on March 31, 1777 and made tentative contact with some of the people over the next few days.
In common with most islands in the southern group, Atiu has only a small, shallow lagoon. It compensates, however, with many picturesque, sandy beaches. As is usual with the makatea islands of the southern group, the fossilised coral limestone abounds with caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites. One in particular, the Anatakitaki Cave, is inhabited by tiny kopeka (Atiu swiftlet - Aerodramus sawtelli) birds which navigate in the dark using sonar, like bats. Male visitors can enjoy the esoteric delights of the "tumunu" or bush beer party.
Technically illegal and banned ever since the missionaries arrived on these beautiful islands, the tumunu is a hangover from the old-time kava ceremonies. However, they have survived and "invitations" can be arranged for visiting enthusiasts.
Cook Islands Christian Church - Ziona Tapu The first organised religion established on Atiu, in 1823, was that of the London Missionary Society. In later years, its name changed to Cook Islands Christian Church. Early missionaries and other visitors to Atiu commented on the prominence of Atiu's first church building, erected soon after embracing Christianity, which could be seen from the sea when approaching the island.
Today the CICC is renowned for their strong and harmonious imene tuki, the hymns of their forefathers. Women are still required to wear hats during church service, their dress should cover their shoulders, and they should also not adorn themselves with fresh flowers. Men must not wear shorts.
St. Anthony's Catholic Church In 1894 Father Bernard Canstanie from Tahiti brought the Catholic faith to the Cook Islands. Soon after, it found its way into the hearts of a number of Atiu people. In 1904 the church as we see it today was built by the Atiu Catholic congregation. The priest's residence was rebuilt with the congregation's own labour and funds raised in a communal effort. Presently, the less than 200 Catholics remaining on Atiu have worked hard at raising funds to renew also their hall. The first Catholic Community Hall started off as a school. Today, Atiu has a resident Catholic priest from the Mission of the Philippines.
Seventh-day Adventist church - Church Atiu The Seventh-day Adventist denomination was introduced to Atiu in 1926 by a teacher named Chapman. The first church was built the following year and renovated again in 1959. At the beginning of the new century it was felt that the old church building did not satisfy today's modern needs any more. With funds raised amongst the Atiu Seventh-day Adventist communities on the island and overseas, in a massive communal effort a new church was erected on the old one's premises. Pastors invited from Rarotonga officially opened and blessed the new building on the 28th of December, 2002.
Atiu has a long history of growing coffee. Missionaries established it commercially in the early 19th century. By 1865, annual exports of coffee from the Cook Islands amounted to 30,000 pounds. The islands' ariki (high chiefs) controlled the land used for planting and received most of the returns. The commoners often saw little if any reward for their labour. In the late 1890s, Rarotongan coffee production suffered due to a blight that affected the plants. Coffee production declined and had to rely more on crops from the outer islands Atiu, Mauke and Mangaia. World Wars I and II resulted in a further export reduction and eventual standstill.
In the 1950s the co-operative movement in the Cook Islands resulted in the re-establishment of coffee as a cash crop. On Atiu, under the supervision of New Zealand Resident Agent Ron Thorby and the Cook Islands Agriculture Department, new coffee plantations were established. The raw coffee was destined for export to New Zealand where it was processed and marketed.
By 1983, the coffee industry had collapsed. Government stepped back and left the plantations to their landowners. The poor financial return from selling their coffee to a Rarotongan company for processing had prompted the farmers to stop production except for their own private use. The plantations were overgrown with creepers.
Commercial coffee production was revived sometime in 1984, with the founding of Atiu Coffee Factory Ltd. by German economist Juergen Manske-Eimke. As of 2012, the Atiu Coffee Factory managed 39 hectares of land and produced 4.5 tonnes of roasted beans.
It is on the central hill that most human settlements are concentrated. On 12 March 2003, the population of Atiu was 571, in five villages radiating out from the island's centre, giving the appearance of a human figure. The villages have essentially grown together into one since 1823. They represent the tapere subdivisions prior to European contact. With their traditional names, the villages are:
- Teenui Village (Te-Kuru-Kava-Nui)
- Mapumai Village (Mapumai-Nui-O-Ruavari) residence of the Mayor
- Ngatiarua Village (Mokoero-Nui-O-Tautipa)
- Areora Village (Areora-Nui-Te-Are-O-Tangaroa)
- Tengatangi Village (Taturoa-I-Te-Puta-Marama)
Of special interest to tourists are the Kopeka caves deep in the makatea, the Atiuan 'jungle'. The Atiu swiftlet nests inside Anatakitaki cave.
- Atiu, an Island Community: An Island Community. By Ngatupuna Kautai. Published by firstname.lastname@example.org, 1984. ISBN 982-02-0163-2, ISBN 978-982-02-0163-7, 207 pages Books.Google.com
- Atiu Island's website
- Information and pictures
- Atiu on the Cook Islands website
- Island map
- Seacology Atiu Island Project Seacology