There were photos on the walls, clothes and suitcases lying abandoned, homes half finished waiting for their occupants.
But where were all the people?
That was Fe'ena Syme Buchanan's question as she explored Mangaia's empty and decaying homes three years ago.
The photos she took and subsequent images of those who remain led to her first solo exhibition at the Runanga Vanaanga - National Museum in Rarotonga this week.
"It was really quite poignant because it made me think that, wow, people really wanted to leave and these homes were quite old as well which also told me that they hadn't been back in years," she said.
The exhibition has raised so much interest about the urgent national problem of depopulation, the 21 year old artist is giving a talk at the end of this week to explain her work.
Mangaia, the most southerly of the Cook Islands, is representative of many in the island group whose young people, with the ease of New Zealand passports, move abroad for education and jobs or at least to the brighter lights of Rarotonga.
After Mangaia's pineapple industry declined in the 1980s its population reduced from 1500 to just under 500.
But Ms Syme-Buchanan's melancholic images of decaying homes are brightened by other photos of traditional activities that still continue.
"I wanted to take things that were quite unique to Mangaia like some of the food, the markets and also some of the things that they do to preserve their traditions like for example, in Mangaia when it rains they go out to get pupu which is a type of snail and they collect these snails and they sell necklaces from them and they make a living.
"I wanted to show agriculture is one thing that may be a solution for Mangaia because it is the island's strength, it is known as the food bowl of the Southern Group and so that's what they need to go back to.
Ms Syme-Buchanan hoped people would be able to see, through her images, that people, with support, can sustain a living on the island.
"What I want them to take away from it is, that despite our country being absolutely stunning , you know, with our sunsets and our mountains and our people, that while this is something that's very real, we need to start doing something about it especially our government.
"In Mangaia there's no doctor, there's no dentist and these are the sort of things that are basic public health services that any island needs but there's none of that."
Ms Syme-Buchanan has her own suggestions for turning the tide on young people leaving places like Mangaia.
She would like to see the government and businesses offering internships to young graduates to encourage them home.
As a recent graduate herself, she's hoping to return to set up her own business in the Cook Islands.