The Maori As He Was : A Brief Account of Maori Life as it was in Pre-European Days
The Art of Agriculture
The Art of Agriculture
Agriculture an old Polynesian industry. Food plants introduced into New Zealand. Range of agriculture here. The ari. Economic plants carried by Polynesian voyagers. Suitable soil, &c., for cultivation of kumara induced a dense population. Taiamai district. General aspect of agriculture. Agricultural tools. Moon was tutelary being of agriculture, as in Babylonia. Ceremonial observances. Belief in life-principle of plants. Mythical origin of kumara. The mare tautane. Planting crops. So-called kumara gods. Human skulls as producing agents. Crop-lifting. Invocation to stars. Storage pits. The yam. The taro. The gourd. The cultivation of Cordyline. Introduction of European food plants.
It seems clear that the ancestors of the Polynesian folk were acquainted with the art of agriculture ere they reached the eastern Pacific and settled in its many isles. Otherwise the cultivation of food products would not have been so page 166 widely practised; it may be said to have been universal, save in small islets where agriculture was impossible. The few cultivated products known to these islanders were carried by them to all parts of Polynesia. In the case of New Zealand, the immigrants from northern islands succeeded in introducing the kumara (I pomoea batatas); the taro (Colocasia antiquorum); the uhi or uwhi (Dioscorea sp.), or yam; and the hue, or gourd (Lagenaria vulgaris). Of these the yam seems to have called for the most care and to have had the most constricted range. Its cultivation seems to have been confined to the northern half of the North Island, and it disappeared soon after the arrival of Europeans. The kumara, or sweet potato, was grown as far south as Banks Peninsula, but the taro and hue did not, apparently, extend so far south. A number of the food plants of his Polynesian home, such as the breadfruit and coconut, had to be discarded by the Maori when he settled in New Zealand. Those that were successfully introduced also called for a greater amount of care and labour in culture in these southern lands. In high-lying and cold districts their culture was impossible or precarious, and other sources of food-supply had to be relied on. Thus the Maori came to rely largely on the edible rhizome of the common bracken (Pteris aquilina).
As to what food plants were cultivated in the original homeland of the Maori (wherever that may have been) it is impossible to say. Of the few names of such plants as have been preserved that of ari is the most interesting; it is the Dravidian word for rice. The only description of it preserved is that it was a small seed and a “bloodless food.” In India sap was known as the blood of trees. The breadfruit, coconut, and some other economic plants have been carried by man to the isles of Polynesia from the west.
A few districts of the North Island possessed conditions of soil, altitude, and climate suitable to the growth of the sweet potato—such districts as Taranaki, the Auckland Isthmus, parts of the Bay of Plenty, Taiamai, Oruru, &c. In such places only was the Maori enabled to produce food in sufficient quantity to enable him to live in large communities. The Auckland Isthmus, for example, must, at some time in the past have supported a large population. For instance, when all the artificial residential terraces of One Tree Hill were occupied, that old fortified village must have contained five thousand people or thereabouts. When Williams first visited the Pouerua pa, Taiamai district, he found 1,400 natives living on the eastern page 167 terraces alone of that picturesque cone, the rest of the terraced area being deserted, on account of lessening population. It was in such communities as these that the life of the Maori was marked by a steady food-supply and more comfortable conditions than could have been known in less favoured localities. There is clear evidence to page 168 show that large areas have been under crop in the northern peninsula and elsewhere in former times.
Early visitors to these shores remarked on the careful tending of crops performed by the natives, and the extremely neat appearance of the fields, in which weeds were carefully eradicated. From Cook downwards they emphasize the peculiar regularity of the sweet-potato fields, with each plant occupying a small mound, and the mounds arranged carefully and precisely in quincunx order. These labours were deemed to be of great importance, and the growing crops were rendered tapu and placed under the protection of the gods. When the season arrived for the preparation of the ground for planting, then all the people of a village turned to work with a will. Chief, commoner, and slave, men and women, all joined in the work, which moved briskly until the ground was ready for planting. In pre-European times there were no predatory animals in the land, no quadruped that had to be fenced against; but in some places light barriers were put round the crops to protect them from the meddlesome pukeko, or swamphen. The introduction of the pig greatly increased the labours of the Maori husbandman, for that creature keenly appreciated kumara and was most persistent in his attempts to reach them.
Different kinds of soil could be described by Maori terms, as he was provided with about fifty soil-names, and he was naturally a good judge of soils. Much care was displayed in selecting ground for cultivation, inasmuch as certain stiff, unkindly soils called for much extra labour. This consisted of carrying, perchance for a considerable distance, great quantities of gravel to be placed round the plants of kumara. In some districts are seen pits of great size from which gravel has been taken for kumara crops.
The agricultural implements employed by the Maori were of a remarkably crude nature, and here, as in the working of timber, the absence of metals was a disadvantage. The principal tool was the ko, which much resembled the old Highland spade in form, and was used in a similar manner. The blade was but about 3 in. wide, the lower end pointed, and the whole implement formed of one piece, save the foot-rest, and often 10 ft. in length. Its extreme upper end was often fashioned into a crescent form. This crescent is called the whakamarama (cf. marama = the moon), and it is evidently connected with the moon. This is of some interest when we remember that all crops were placed under the protection of the page 169 moon-god by the Maori. The crescent-shaped upper part of the ko was adorned with pendent feathers when the tool was being used in breaking up land for a crop. It was on this part of a ko that Maui, the culture hero, alighted when he had assumed the form of a bird. In Maori myth Maui is the brother of Hina, while in Hawaiian story he is the son of Hina, and Hina is the personified form of the moon. The Hawaiian version also has it that Hina later assumed the name of Lonomoko (Rongo-motu in the New Zealand dialect).
This turning to the moon-god as the patron of agriculture is a puzzling usage, and difficult to understand. Inasmuch as the Maori recognized full well that the sun is the fertilizer of the earth, why did he so often appeal to Rongo in his agricultural ritual? A precisely similar custom prevailed in Babylonia, where the moon-god was the patron or deity of agriculture, and not the sun-god. Some stone figures that represented Rongo seem to have been double figures, in which case they may possibly have represented the dual Rongo-ma-Tane.
The ko was employed for loosening soil, not for turning it over as we do with a spade. The latter was not an old native process. A form of wide - bladed wooden spade page 170 page 171 called a kaheru was used in cultivation grounds, and for other purposes, but only in soil already loosened by the ko. A small paddle-shaped implement, known by several names, as pinaki, ketu, and wauwau, was used in cultivating. A form of wooden spade with a triangular blade has been described by Waikato and East Coast natives. A kind of wooden grubber, called a tima, timo, and timo-timo, was also used in former times. The ko was provided with a foot-rest that was detachable, being lashed on to the shaft; this teka, or rest, being used when the operator was forcing the implement into the ground. A few specimens of the ko have been found in which the foot-rest and shaft are of one piece, and the foot-rest was sometimes adorned with carved designs. There were two forms of this implement, the smaller one being employed in cultivating a crop.
When breaking up new ground a number of men, working in a row, drove their ko into the ground, and, using them as levers, turned over a long mass of earth. This mass was broken up, pulverized with wooden clubs, and all roots picked out and thrown away. Women entered largely into this latter task.
Among all peoples of neolithic culture, and even others of a higher plane, the cultivation of food products has been connected with ceremonial observances, or what may be termed religious ceremonies. Such ceremonial, as a rule, pertains to the most important of the food-producing plants of a people, be it wheat, rice, maize, or any other cereal or root crop. In the case of the Maori of New Zealand the kumara, or sweet potato, was by far the most useful and highly valued of cultivated foods, hence nearly all the ritual and ceremonious page 172 procedure was connected with that tuber. As Indonesian folk assigned to rice an indwelling spirit, so did the Maori credit the sweet potato with the possession of a mauri. The object of the various formulae and observances was to protect this life-principle of the plant, and to cause it to produce a bountiful crop.
An old myth explains the origin of this tuber by teaching that it was obtained from Whanui by his younger brother Rongo-maui, who brought it to earth, where one Pani-tinaku, wife of Rongo-maui, became its guardian or tutelary being. Whanui is the star Vega, the heliacal rising of which marked the commencement of the harvesting season. This Rongo-maui may be the same as Rongo the patron of agriculture. One version has it that Pani was the wife of Maui-whare-kino, and we may note how these names Rongo and Maui are connected with the moon.
Prior to the planting of the crop in former times the priestly experts prepared a small plot of ground, and planted therein a few tubers. Each hamlet brought a seed-tuber to be planted in the mara tautane, as it was called, so that every crop in the district was represented. Over these representative plants the tohunga (priests) performed the ceremonial, or recited formulae, that was believed to influence the gods in their favour, and to secure a healthy and bounteous crop.
The Maori tells us that the planting season was marked by the stars Puanga (Rigel), Atutahi (Canopus), Tautoru (Orion's Belt), and Whakaahu. According to place and season, the time differed, but we may say that crops were planted from September to November. An old folk-tale has it that Mahuru (personified form of spring) sends the cuckoo hither from Hawaiki to tell the Maori people when to plant the kumara. Natives say that of old the page 173 tuber was planted at certain phases only of the moon: on certain days. Three of these were the Ari, Otane, and Orongonui (11th, 27th, 28th), the two last phases being named after Tane and Rongo. These fancies and superstitions probably differed among the various tribes. The task of planting the tuber was a very tapu one, and no woman was allowed to take part in it on the east coast. Taranaki natives differed somewhat in their customs to those of the opposite coast. Accounts also differ as to the way in which the digging of the field was done, or rather the forming of the small mounds in which the tubers were planted. The whole field was not dug up, nor was the soil turned over as with us. In breaking up fern land it was desirable to loosen the whole and pick page 174 out the fern-roots (rhizomes); but scrub or bush land, or fallow land, was not so worked—only the little patches where mounds were formed was loosened. These little mounds, about 20 in. in diameter, were made by thrusting the ko well down into the soil, and then forcing the shaft downward. This leverage loosened and raised the soil to some extent. The tool was withdrawn and thrust in twice more with the same action; these three thrusts and accompanying upheavals of soil were from different points, as ∵. The next process was to break up the clods and work the loosened earth to a good tilth. Judging from various accounts of this work, it would appear that different methods were adopted as to the position of the diggers and their mode of progression. Archdeacon Walsh says that they commenced in one corner and walked back diagonally across the field, each man forming a row of tupuke, as the little hillocks were called. An East Coast native explained that the diggers walked straight ahead, but in echelon formation, which would give the row of delvers a diagonal aspect. This peculiar formation was evidently adopted in order to facilitate the work of forming the mounds in exactly the right places. Each digger formed his hillock opposite that made by his companion, thus: No. 1 forms his first two mounds and commences his third; then No. 2 forms his first. When No. 1 has finished his third and begins his fourth, then No. 2 commences his second. When he finishes it, then No. 3 commences his first; and so on. When No. 1 finishes his tahu row, as it is termed, he awaits the completion of No. 3 row. Then No. 3 turns and works back on the fourth row to the side of the field they commenced at. No. 2 wheels outside of No. 3 and takes row 5; No. 1 takes row 6. This singular countermarching is continued until the field is finished so far as the digging is concerned. In some districts the mounds of the second row were not formed opposite or in line with those of the first row, as shown in fig. 73, but midway between.
When a large field was cropped it would be divided so that each family group had a certain portion (wakawaka) of it. During the planting, tending, and disposal of the kumara crop great care had to be taken to preserve the tapu of the life-principle of the tuber, or disaster would follow. Working songs or chants, termed tewha, were sung while the men were digging the field, and a number of religious ceremonies and charms were employed in connection with agriculture. Strangers were not allowed page 175 to enter cultivations, and they would probably be slain if they did so; tapu is not a condition to treat lightly.
There were really four processes in connection with the planting of a crop—viz., the digging or loosening of the soil, then the pulverizing of the earth and formation of the mounds, then the distribution of the seed-tubers at the mounds, while the kairumaki, or planters, attended to the actual planting.
When it was seen that a poor crop was to be the result, then it was known that the gods were punishing page 176 the people for some wrong act, or desecration of tapu, or error in the performance of ritual. There were different methods of placating the gods and endeavouring to have the disability removed. One of the strangest acts performed in connection with this rite was to obtain some bones of dead forbears and recite certain charms over them. Skulls of enemies seem to have been utilized in the same way, and in some unexplained way such ceremonial was supposed to be very effective. Here we note a survival of human sacrifice.
As a means of protecting the crop and causing it to be a plentiful one, certain stone mediums were employed in some cases. These were stones carved into a very rude resemblance to the human figure. Such figures are termed “kumara gods” by us, but it is not a happy name. The Maori views them as taumata atua, or mediums representing the gods of agriculture—resting-places or shrines in one sense. Offerings of firstfruits were made at these rude images, which were kept at the head of the field. Rongo was represented by such crude stone forms.
Weeding of crops was not a heavy task here in former times, for no very persistent weed was known—nothing like our dock, sorrel, &c. The ground was kept loosened round plants until the growth of runners stopped such work. A large caterpillar called awheto was a pest that infested the kumara and called for vigilance.
When the star Poutu-te-rangi marked the coming of the tenth month of the Maori year preparations were made for the harvest. Much ceremonial, tapu, and superstition pertained to the lifting and storing of the crop. The storage of the kumara was a matter that called for very great care, for that tuber cannot be treated in the manner in which we handle our potato (Solanum). The least bruise or abrasion causes decay, which quickly affects the rest of the stored crop. The baskets of tubers were carried on the back to the storage pits, and counted in braces—as ngahuru pu = twenty; hokorua pu = forty.
After the crop was stored a sort of harvest-home festival occurred and continued for some days. In a special steam-oven, called the umu tuapora, was cooked food for ceremonial purposes. Some of this was “waved” toward the gods. Pani seems to have received offerings as well as Rongo, for both are closely connected with the kumara. The stars were also viewed as being concerned with the food-supply, and firstfruits ceremonial included an appeal to the principal stars. This is a very old and very singular chant; it calls upon the stars to send a page 177 page 178 bountiful food-supply. The wording is peculiar, as seen in these two lines:—
Whanui atua ka eke mai i te rangi e roa e
Whangainga iho ki te mata o te tau e roa e.
The semi-subterranean storage pits used by the natives are known as rua taranga, rua tahuhu, &c.; the well-like pit stores are termed rua kopiha. Crops were stored in such pits, not in the elevated store huts called pataka and whata.
The yam, known to the Maori as uwhi and uwhikaho, was cultivated to some extent in the northern peninsula and on the east coast. Cook mentions seeing them, as also does Banks. Evidently its cultivation was restricted in area, and was given up soon after arrival of Europeans.
The taro (Colocasia antiquorum) was apparently grown in many parts of the North Island. Its cultivation has now almost ceased, but the small crops occasionally seen are of the introduced kind. The sweet potato we see in shops is not the old kumara of yore. The taro may be seen growing wild by and in streams in the far north, but apparently it was not grown in water here as a crop, as it was elsewhere. A goodly amount of gravel was used in cultivating this product; in fact, it is said that it will grow well in pure gravel if not too dry. The old taro here grown was much less hardy than the introduced variety. Cook gave us a good account of the irrigated taro fields of New Caledonia; here it was a dry-land crop.
The hue, or gourd-plant (Lagenaria vulgaris), cultivated by the Maori, served two useful purposes. The fruit in early stages of its growth provided a dish much like our vegetable marrow, while the matured fruit provided him with his water-vessels, as also bowls and jar-like vessels for containing food-supplies. Of the taro we hear nothing in Maori myth, or but little, but we have a personified form of the gourd, or gourd-plant, in one Putehue, whose name was repeated in a charm recited over the seeds when planted. In the South Island the gourd-plant would not flourish, hence seaweed and bark vessels were much used there.
The fruit of the gourd-plant was made to assume different forms by means of constriction. Seeds were planted at the full of the moon.
The cultivation of the Cordyline by the Maori simply amounted to his occasionally planting it in his cultivated fields or at the village home. This was done with the two species, C. terminalis and the unnamed one known to natives as ti-para, ti-tawhiti, and ti-kowhiti. The species page 179 C. australis, also used as a food-supply, was a much commoner and hardier plant; it flourished in both Islands. The ti-para seems to have been confined to the North Island, and C. terminalis to the far north. The long taproots of these plants contain a considerable amount of fecula, especially the last two mentioned. C. terminalis is apparently extinct here save in a few gardens; quite possibly it was introduced by man from Polynesia in past centuries. As to the ti-para, I cannot ascertain that it ever grew wild, but it was certainly cultivated. I have never seen a flowering specimen. The large roots were dried for winter use in some districts, and, after a process of pounding and long-continued steaming, produced a sweetish granular substance that possessed a secondary taste of some bitterness. Colenso seems to show that the mauku page 180 (C. pumilio) tap-root was also eaten, but I have never heard that that of the toi (C. indivisa) or that of C. Banksii was eaten. Taylor, however, says that the tap-root of the toi was eaten; probably he is correct. South Island natives used C. australis as a food product to a considerable extent, especially in the Canterbury area, and termed the product kauru. Here at least the trunk was utilized, as well as the tap-root. Only young plants with stems of 4 ft. or so were used for food purposes. There was always a very large proportion of fibrous refuse. The South Island natives applied the name of ti-para to C. australis, but it is not the plant known by that name in the North Island. The word para denotes the edible fecula contained in the fibrous matter.
The expression rua ti denotes a store-pit in which supplies of ti are kept for future use. It has come to be employed as denoting a person possessing a goodly store of food-supplies generally; hence the saying, Ka tu te rua ti o te tangata, ka kiia he tangata (When a man possesses a rua ti he is deemed a person of importance). This is a Whanganui expression.
The introduction of European food-producing plants, notably the potato, had a very important effect on Maori life. The prolific potato, so much hardier than the kumara, reduced necessary labour by a very important percentage. The effect of this reduction in his period of manual labour was by no means beneficial to the Maori, who is no longer the hard, virile man his forbears were. He now runs to soft flesh and fat.
Maize and swede turnips were also appreciated by the Maori, but many of our vegetables he has little liking for. Pumpkins and water-melons they approve of, and they will eat fruit, but take very little trouble in the way of growing fruit-trees.