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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

The Women kept these Primitive Customs Alive

The Women kept these Primitive Customs Alive

(7) If we kept our eyes on this picture of Polynesia, with its half-palaeolithic, half-neolithic stone-culture, its potterless state, and its primeval method of fire production, we should infer that it was the home of the most primitive savages on the face of the earth; but we should be wrong, for there is a complete contrast to this in their maritime and domestic architecture. For centuries they have built canoes that, for their sea-going qualities, were equal to the best of all but recent times, and in their capacity were not far off the largest ships of ancient civilisations; whilst their public or community houses were as large and commodious and as well built as any but those of the great stone-building civilisations. There is nothing of the savage and little of the merely primitive in these two arts of the Maori. They imply, even without considering the ornament, such skill in detail, such engineering knowledge in the cutting and hauling and adjusting of immense timbers, and such fine dexterity and mathematical exactness in symmetrical design as usually belong only to a cultured people.

(8) The contrast is so striking that we need have no hesitation in assuming a composite race and culture in Polynesia, and especially in New Zealand. But, it may be asked, why did the advanced new-comers accept the ultra page 153primitive arts of their predecessors? Why did they not impose all the new culture they brought? The answer is that fire-making and pottery in all early races were in the hands of women. The hunting stage of humanity fixed the division of labour between the sexes for all precivilised times. The strenuous toil needed in the pursuit of wild animals meant specialisation of the muscles, and the long absence from the household in the forest or on the prairie or on the sea left no doubt as to which sex should perform the duties of the hearth and those that demanded patient attention rather than concentration of strength, daring, and skill. And when a race was subjugated, the men-slaves were set at times to aid the women; but the women in the households had the direction of all household arts and their methods. Hence the survival of such primitive arts as the fire-plough, and the absence of such arts as pottery in a cultured race like the Polynesians, that was isolated from other races, unless they came in far-voyaging craft. The absence of pottery is doubtless to be placed along with the existence of palaeolithic or chipped weapons; for in most parts of the world, and especially in Europe and the North Pacific, these unpolished tools are found without any evidence of the potter's art. These chipped palaeolithic implements were used amongst the Maoris chiefly for the rough work of the household, or at best for the cutting of the hair and the gashing of the body, to which women applied themselves with most fervour in mourning. The polished tools were for use in war, and in building canoes and houses, the manly employments. It is the women that are the great conservators of the past, not merely because they have only a limited sphere and seldom come into contact with foreign manners and ideas, but because in primitive times it is they that survive the subjugated race, and carry its manners and arts into the households and the nurseries of the conquering race. Thus it is that in such an isolated page 154region such primitive arts may co-exist with the greatest advancement in those that belong to the men.