The Maori As He Was : A Brief Account of Maori Life as it was in Pre-European Days
Chapter I. Physical and Mental Characteristics of the Maori
Chapter I. Physical and Mental Characteristics of the Maori
Physical attributes. Anthropometry. Craniology. Melanesian element in New Zealand. Different types. Urukehu, or fair type. Dr. Scott on Maori osteology. Bodily powers of Maori. Effect of fatalism. Lack of discipline. Features. General health. Senses. Mentality. Remarkable powers of memory. Character. Language. Maori alphabet. Pronunciation. Importance of vowel quantities. Vocabulary. Leading features of the Maori tongue.
Nothing has yet been done in the way of a comprehensive anthropometrical survey of the natives of New Zealand, and we have on record merely such incomplete data as appear in works of a general nature. Most of the information contained in the later works on the Maori seems to have been derived from Dr. A. S. Thomson's Story of New Zealand and Colenso's useful Essay. Some work has been done in Maori craniology, but such papers are not easy of access to many people. The physical attributes of the Maori closely resemble those of the Polynesians in general, although among our local natives is observed a greater variation of skin-colour, features, and hair than appears among the native communities of the Cook, Samoan, Society, and Marquesan Groups, &c. The frequent appearance of Melanesian characteristics among the Maori was noted and remarked on by a number page 2 of early visitors to New Zealand. This peculiarity was long thought to be due to the introduction of Melanesian slaves by the old Polynesian colonizers of these isles; but later researches have led to the disclosure of remarkable traditions preserved by the tribes of the east coast of the North Island that throw a new light on the matter. These oral traditions tell us that, on the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers in these isles, they found the northern half of the North Island inhabited by a dark-skinned folk of inferior culture and non-Polynesian features. The Polynesian new-comers intermarried with these original settlers, and thus we account for the marked Melanesian characteristics so noticeable in many of the Maori people.
Early writers speak of two different types among the natives, in many cases—Polynesian and Melanesian; but a few include as a third type the light-haired, fair-skinned folk occasionally seen, and which type is known as urukehu page 3 to the Maori. This is, and, according to tradition, has been for centuries, a most persistent type, and it may be an illustration of atavism. It is not persistent in the sense of being continuous in a family, as we are told that it may miss a generation and then reappear. Such urukehu have reddish hair that sometimes carries a peculiar bronze-like sheen. This strain is quite distinct from albinism, cases of which were by no means common. The skin-colour of the ordinary Polynesian type is often described as copper-colour.
In volume 26 of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, Dr. J. H. Scott has a paper on the osteology of the Maori and Moriori. It contains some interesting data based on the measurements of a series of eighty-three Maori skulls, obtained from different localities in the two Islands. He remarks: “We know the Maoris to be a mixed race, the result of the mingling of a Polynesian and a Melanesian strain. The crania already examined leave no room for doubt on this point.” He also shows the average or typical Maori skull to be at the lower limit of the mesaticephalic group. Forty-three per cent. of the skulls examined were dolichocephalic. In conclusion he remarks: “If any further proof were needed of the mixed origin of the Maori race it is given in this paper. An examination of the cranial indices and of the extent of their variation shows this clearly. These demonstrate two distinct types and intermediate page 4 forms. At the one extreme we have skulls approaching the Melanesian form as met with in the Fiji Group—long and narrow, high in proportion to their breadth, prognathous, and with wide nasal openings. At the other are skulls of the Polynesian type, such as are common in Tonga and Samoa—shorter and broader, with orthognathous faces. And it must be noted that these extreme forms do not belong to different tribes or districts, but may both be found in one.” In view of our latest information as to the original settling of these isles, a remark by Dr. Scott is of much interest: “The Melanesian characters are therefore more accentuated in the North than amongst the natives of the South Island. The prevalence of the Papuan form among skulls from the Bay of Islands has also been observed by MM. de Quatrefages and Hamy.” This writer also refers to the fact that the teeth in skulls examined often had the whole crowns ground away, but that he had not observed the slightest sign of dental caries.
The researches of Dr. P. Buck will asuredly cast much further light upon the physical peculiarities of the Maori.
In physical form the Maori possesses a stature above the average, but as he is usually more heavily built than Europeans this is not very noticeable. He is heavier-limbed than our own folk, and this is specially so in regard to his legs, which, according to Thomson, are shorter than those of Englishmen of the same stature. This was very noticeable in the case of five hundred troops who marched through Wellington in the early days of the late war. Obesity is common among natives as they advance in years, and indeed is seen in young people. This was not noted as being common by early writers, and some distinctly state that the condition was unusual. An opinion is prevalent that it is largely the result of a less strenuous life and a diet consisting principally of potatoes.
The bodily powers of the Maori have been affected in modern times as a result of intercourse with Europeans. In the first place, they no longer lead the strenuous life of former times, and, moreover, they do not possess the stamina of their forefathers. In their original condition they were, however, undoubtedly inferior to the Indians of North America in endurance and fleetness of foot. Their agility in hand-to-hand combats was remarkable, the result of continued training from boyhood. In marching with heavy packs, lifting weights, and other such tests they are superior to the average European, but not to those whites who are practised in such activities. Bodily injuries page 5 they bear with equanimity, and have been known to recover from very serious wounds, the shock of such to the system being apparently less than in the case of Europeans. Their powers of resistance and recuperation were, and are, often seriously affected by superstitious influences. A curious form of fatalism is also a defect, and is liable at any time page 6 to impair the results of their energies. I have known Maori bush-workers, when they had the misfortune to break a timber-jack, return to their camp in a state of despondency for the balance of the day. European workmen, under similar circumstances, would have condemned their luck, but would have worked the harder to make up the loss. To sum up: in conditions of steady, continuous work, demanding strength, endurance, and steady application, the Maori is not the equal to the European settler. The discipline that produces these qualities is the product of more advanced civilizations, and is not a feature of the lower planes of civilization.
In most cases the Maori shows the true Polynesian hair, black and waved, not the lank straight hair of the American Indian. The frizzled hair sometimes seen is due to the Melanesian admixture. The Maori did not bleach his hair to a reddish hue by the use of lime as did the natives of some northern groups. Baldness was uncommon and excited derision. Men usually extracted hair on the face, as it obscured the close-set lines of tattoo.
The dark-brown eyes of the Maori are a Polynesian characteristic; but though well-shaped noses and lips are seen, yet these features often show the effect of Melanesian admixture in thickness and protrusion of the lips, flatness of nose, and widespread nostrils. These peculiarities are sometimes very marked. One occasionally sees a Semitic type of face, also a flat, Mongoloid form; in fact, there is considerable diversity of feature among the natives. As to head-form, a pyramidal type of forehead is common. In his teeth the Maori possessed his most remarkable feature—they were large, white, regular, and remained sound into old age. In old skulls one notes teeth worn down to a surprising extent, but still perfectly sound. An expert has stated that the Maori has the finest teeth of any existing race. The simple life, hard fare, and industry of the old-time Maori kept him usually in good health, and in many cases he was long-lived. No doubt the law of the survival of the fittest caused weakly children to perish, and helped to produce an energetic, healthy, virile population. Few diseases afflicted them, and, apart from the dangers of war and black magic, men reckoned to die of old age. Epidemics introduced by Europeans, such as measles, have at various times taken heavy toll of native lives.
In the senses of sight and hearing the Maori has a marked advantage over us, and this served him in good stead in connection with many of his pursuits connected page 7 page 8 with his food-supply. Their senses of smell and taste are difficult to define, inasmuch as natives appear to differ from us in regard to certain sensations. On the whole, the Maori character is marked by cheerfulness and good nature, while dignity and punctiliousness were common attributes. They are very susceptible to ridicule, and have a keen sense of the ridiculous. Deformed persons, who were not common, met with little sympathy, and often received a name descriptive of their deformity. The treatment of the sick was deplorable—the outcome of ignorance and superstition.
The mentality of the Maori forms a highly interesting study. When we consider his ignorance of any form of script, his long isolation and narrow life, then we must be impressed by the evidence of his powers of reflection and his ideality, as shown in his mythopoetic concepts and the higher form of his religion. The Maori is mentally acute, and possesses remarkable powers of comprehension. His powers of memory are undoubtedly great, and sometimes appear marvellous to us. Thus an old man of the Tuhoe Tribe recited to the writer no less than 406 songs from memory. Another old fellow recited from memory the genealogy of his clan, a task that necessitated the repetition of over 1,400 personal names. Such powers of memorizing are the result of long centuries of training, of the lack of a written tongue, combined with a strong desire to perpetuate certain forms of knowledge.
The Maori is very imitative, and can quickly learn European trades, though often lacking the spirit of continuity that is so essential to success. Sustained effort in any particular line does not, as a rule, appeal to him, and this casual attitude also often appears in the brief interest he takes in anything new. Their sense of humour is a fairly high one, and their powers of mimicry are notable. In all these matters, as also in his sense and nomenclature of colour, his moral faculties, his sensitiveness, and many other things, the Maori resembles other peoples of his culture stage. Many of the failings of the Maori emanate from some form of irresponsibility, and are the result of lack of training and discipline. His communal mode of life held many advantages for him; its weaknesses being most apparent when the natives are brought into contact with European modes of life. The universal spirit of hospitality was an offshot of communism, and a necessary part of it, but it had not the same spirit and meaning that it has with us.page 9
Our Maori folk were endowed with enterprise and courage, these qualities being exhibited to a remarkable extent in their ocean voyaging. They often showed bravery in war, but superstition might at any time undermine such courage. Ruthlessness, cruelty, and treachery were not uncommon in war, for altruism was ever page 10 confined to tribal limits. On the other hand, a community showed virtues inculcated by such a mode of life, and members thereof were usually on good terms with each other. Such family or clan quarrels as occurred were often the result of unstrained passions, the lack of self-control, and sometimes of the disputes of children, who experienced but little home discipline. The spirit of revenge was ever keen, and offended dignity has been the cause of innumerable wars, the vanity and touchiness of clan chiefs being a common feature. All ranks participated in the industrial activities of a community, and idlers were practically unknown. In former times bodily activity was greater than it now is, as also probably was physical endurance.
A great deal may be said concerning Maori character, but the reader will encounter many illustrations of other phases in the following pages. The Maori himself shall tell us of his virtues and vices, his mentality and other attributes.
The Maori language is a dialect of the far-spread Polynesian tongue that is spoken from New Zealand northward to the Hawaiian or Sandwich Isles, and from Easter Island westward to Samoa. It is also met with in a number of isles of the Melanesian area that are inhabited by Polynesians, and at far-distant Nukuoro, or Monteverde, in the Carolines. The vast area over which Polynesians have settled naturally contains many dialects, some of which have been affected by foreign tongues; thus a comparative study of these dialects is of much interest.
The Maori alphabet has ten consonantal sounds, those of h, k, m, n, p, r, t, w, together with the nasal sound represented by ng, and that of the aspirated w, written wh. The sound of the Maori n differs from that of ours, the tongue being brought further forward in the mouth. The same may be said of t, which has a dental sound. Ng represents a sound that is difficult for some Europeans to acquire when it begins a word; that of wh being much easier learnt. With the exception of these two improvised symbols no two consonants can come together in Maori; they are always sundered by a vowel. Of the five vowel sounds, a is always sounded as is a in “father”; it may, however, be short or long. The vowel e is pronounced as e in “egg” and the initial e in “enter”; i as the initial e in “eve”; o as in English; and u as our double o in “hoot.” All vowels have long and short sounds, and one has to be extremely careful with vowel quantities in Maori. An error may quite alter the meaning of a sentence. As an illustration of page 11 this fact, observe the four forms of the word kaka, and their diverse meanings:—
Kăkă—garment, fibre, stalk, &c.
Kākā—name of bird, a parrot.
Kākă—(1) name of bird, bittern; (2) affected by tutu poison.
This shows that an error in vowel-lengths, perhaps not detected by English ears, may lead to serious misunderstanding. To learn to pronounce Maori words cannot be considered a difficult task, apart from the ng stumbling-block. The person who does not trouble to learn makes, of course, many errors, most of which render native sounds harsher to the ear, such as omitting to sound the final vowel, with which every Maori word ends. The pronunciation of the vowel a so as to resemble that of a in “pat,” “mat,” page 12 page 13 &c., is a common error, and is even explained as a Maori usage in a number of works.
The vocabulary of the native tongue has been a copious one in the past, though now much restricted. The system of nomenclature in certain departments is remarkably full and precise, but there is a lack of words to denote abstract qualities and concepts, as is common with all barbaric folk. Owing to the absence of harsh consonantal sounds, and the abundance of vowel sounds, the language is euphonious. It also lends itself to mythopoetic imagery in a marked manner, and is remarkable for its display of metaphor, similes, and aphorisms, its allegories and personifications. The mode of diction employed in debate and addresses is highly interesting, the Maori being an easy and fluent speaker. Their songs and proverbial sayings are well worthy of study. Rhyme was unknown to the native, but his keen appreciation of rhythm caused that element to permeate every department of Maori activity.
The Maori employs the aid of gesture to a considerable extent, and exercises this art in a facile and appropriate manner. In describing any incident he brings hands, arms, body, head, and features into play in his animated description. These gestures are in most cases of a natural and easily understood nature—indeed, they serve to illustrate the narrative. A few call for some knowledge of native usages ere one can understand them. Whether used as an accompaniment to spoken language of intercourse, or to posture dances, these gestures are never awkward or unpleasing to the eye. One sometimes detects in half-breeds something of the stiff, ungraceful limb-movements of our own folk.
So given was the Maori to song and the love of rhythmical sound that he always intoned any recitative form of speech, such as charms. Moreover, this harmonious, ear-pleasing mode of intoning was employed in cases wherein we should never think of using it. Thus, should a travelling party meet a number of strangers, or should a people be attacked by persons they did not recognize, their principal man would call out the inquiry “Na wai taua?” (“From whom are we?”—“sprung” or “descended” understood). This query was not spoken simply, but was intoned. The reply would be delivered in a like manner: “We are from Rangi above and Papa beneath.” Then would follow some explanation as to who the speaker was.