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A Maori Warrior

The Maori: A Rich and Cherished Culture at the World’s Edge

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New Zealand was one of the last landmasses to be colonized by humans. When Pleistocene megafauna had gone extinct elsewhere in the world, New Zealand was still inhabited by the moas, giant flightless birds that were hunted by early Maori settlers. The ancestors of the Maori settled one of the last truly pristine wildernesses without human activity and they continue to adapt to new environments as the world changes.

Origins of the Maori Culture

The Maori likely originate from East Polynesia near the Society Islands and the southern Cook Islands. In Maori legends, the Maori homeland is a place called Hawaiki which appears to be at least semi-mythical. In Maori mythology, it is also the home of the gods as well as the place where people go after death.

The Maori first arrived in New Zealand around 1300 AD or a little earlier. Since New Zealand, or as the Maori call it, Aotearoa, represented the southwestern edge of the known world to the Polynesians of the 13th and 14th centuries, the Maori could be considered a people living at the world’s edge.

Model of a typical Pā (hillfort) built by Māori on headlands (for defense). (Public Domain)

Model of a typical Pā (hillfort) built by Māori on headlands (for defense). (Public Domain)

Early Maori History

At the time of the Maori arrival, New Zealand was covered in forests inhabited by primordial beasts. It was cooler than the Polynesian homeland of the Maori, which meant that some staple Polynesian crops were more difficult to grow there or simply could not be grown, such as breadfruit, coconut, and banana. This made it more difficult for the original Polynesian settlers, who were used to the tropics, to adapt to the temperate climate that characterizes the New Zealand archipelago. The first settlers lived along the coast hunting moas and seals, later moving into the deep forests. Humans impacted the New Zealand environment, driving animals such as moas and Haast’s eagle into extinction.

Haast’s eagle attacking New Zealand moa. (John Megahan/CC BY 2.5)

Haast’s eagle attacking New Zealand moa. (John Megahan/CC BY 2.5)

By the 18th century, the Maori had established stable farming communities across New Zealand and were divided up into tribes, called “iwi.” The most high-status individuals in ancient Maori society were the chiefs, followed by commoners and slaves. Tohunga, priests or experts, are also sometimes considered to have been a class of their own. During that time, many important concepts were created which still define Maori society and religion to some extent today.

Maori History After the Arrival of Europeans

The Maori began to trade with Europeans in earnest in the 19th century. Some of the most important European trade goods among the Maori were pigs and potatoes. These were quickly added alongside traditional Maori foods such as kumara, pikopiko, and karengo. In 1840, New Zealand became a British colony after the treaty of Waitangi. The Maori resisted at first, but were gradually subdued and lost much of their land to European settlers.

Beginning in the 20th century, the Maori began to revive their culture and integrate into Pakeha (White European) society without losing their heritage. There are over 500,000 Maori people living today. Most of them live in urban areas. The earlier 20th century movements to reinvigorate and preserve Maori culture have largely been successful. Maori art, language, and oral tradition all thrive today alongside Pakeha lifeways.

“A view of the Murderers' Bay, as you are at anchor here in 15 fathom", a drawing made by Abel Tasman's artist on the occasion of a skirmish between the Dutch explorers and Māori people at what is now called Golden Bay, New Zealand. This is the first European impression of Māori people. (Public Domain)

“A view of the Murderers' Bay, as you are at anchor here in 15 fathom", a drawing made by Abel Tasman's artist on the occasion of a skirmish between the Dutch explorers and Māori people at what is now called Golden Bay, New Zealand. This is the first European impression of Māori people. (Public Domain)

Core Concepts in Maori Society

Since the Maori are descended from Polynesian voyagers who settled the islands in the 13th or 14th century, the Maori have many social, metaphysical, and religious concepts in common with other Polynesian groups. These concepts include mana and tapu.

Mana is not identical from culture to culture, but it is a concept that is ubiquitous across Oceania. New Zealand is no exception. In Maori tradition, mana is related to prestige and authority. In ancient times, the greatest amount of mana was held by those who were of high status such as the Maori chiefs and tohunga.

Tapu is a word that essentially means “sacred.” Objects or people that are tapu are considered set aside for the gods and off limits to all but certain individuals such as tohunga. Objects or people that were tapu in ancient New Zealand included tohunga who specialized in making tattoos and sacred religious sites.

Tohunga under tapu. (Public Domain)

Tohunga under tapu. (Public Domain)

Maori Religion

The traditional Maori religion was essentially polytheistic. The Maori believed that the world was created by the gods, atua. Their pantheon included, among other deities, a sky father, an earth mother, a god of forests, and a god of warfare. Tane, the god of forests, played an important role in the creation of humans by making the first woman. Tohunga were responsible for being the intermediaries through which the atua and spirits communicated with the human world. The Tohunga were also responsible for ensuring rituals were carried out properly in warfare and food production.

A carving of Tāne nui a Rangi, a Māori god, sited at the entrance to the forest aviary at Auckland Zoo. (CC0)

A carving of Tāne nui a Rangi, a Māori god, sited at the entrance to the forest aviary at Auckland Zoo. (CC0)

During the colonial period, many Maori adopted Christianity. In the mid-19th century, numerous Maori Christians used their faith as a justification for resisting the British government, as the British encroached on their ancestral lands. Most Maori Christians are part of the Anglican tradition today. There are also many Maori Methodists and Catholics.

Maori Art and Tattoo Culture

The traditional artforms in ancient Maori society were weaving, sculpting, tattoos, dance, and singing.

A particularly important Maori artform is ta moko - tattoo art. Maori tattoos consist of spiral designs made from grooves or scars cut into the skin. Ta moko has its origins in mourning rituals. Over time, it became an indicator of status. Men received tattoos across their entire faces while women received them on the chins. Originally, chisels made from bird bones were used to make the tattoos. These chisels were replaced by metal chisels after European arrival, which in turn were replaced by needles by World War I. Today, ta moko artists use many of the same tools as non-Maori tattoo artists.

 ‘A portrait of Tukukino’ (1878) by Gottfried Lindauer. (Public Domain)

A portrait of Tukukino’ (1878) by Gottfried Lindauer. (Public Domain)

Maori Cultural Dances

Two other important and closely related artforms in Maori society are song and dance. A common example is haka. Haka is a class of dances involving lively movements with the body accompanied by chanting and energetic vocalizations. There are several different types which vary in style and form depending on their purpose. Haka can be performed without weapons for ceremonial purposes or to motivate a group to accomplish a task. It can also be used as a war dance, in which case it is often done with weapons. The Maori war dance traditionally consisted of the warriors intentionally making ugly faces and sounds while dancing to frighten and demoralize the enemy.

A Maori haka. (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/CC BY 2.0)

A Maori haka. (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/CC BY 2.0)

The Future of Maori Culture

The Maori are one of the many indigenous cultures that have been able to thrive, relatively, in the aftermath of European colonization. Even two centuries after the arrival of the Pakeha, the Maori have retained many aspects of their culture and are continuing to grow in number and influence in New Zealand society. The people at the world’s edge continue to move closer to what has become the world’s center.

Top Image: A Maori Warrior (Geof Wilson / Flickr)

By Caleb Strom


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There are other people in NZ that claim to be the original inhabitants of the island – many of them have blue eyes & blondish hair & they claim they are descended from Persians. This needs a special investigation – I foget where I read the article, it was some years ago, and they are nothing like the Maori people. Just pointing out that these other people are NEVER metioned in excited articles about the Maori ‘discovering’ NZ !!!

Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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