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The Maori Race

Chapter II. Bodily Characteristics

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Chapter II. Bodily Characteristics.

The best description of the Maoris will be evolved incidentally during the consideration of the whole of their ways and modes of life, but a sketch in outline may give a general impression of the people as to their physical character.

The Maoris were a handsome and well-developed race; muscular, fleshy, with fine figures, good arms and well-shaped legs, but with the feet flat and broad. The men were as tall as the average Englishman, but many of the chiefs, owing to better nourishment than the common people, were far above the middle height. Among a hundred Maoris, at least ten would be six feet high or over, and these by no means weedy, but of corresponding bulk and weight. The women were shorter than the men, but in youth were elegant and graceful; many of them had small and beautifully shaped hands, especially those whose birth removed them from the necessity of heavy and constant work. They differed very much in complexion, some being as fair as Southern Europeans, some almost as dark as negroes, but there were all shades of olive, red-brown, bistre and yellowish-brown. A good page 9 comparison for the Polynesian skin has been made in “the colour of coffee with plenty of cream,” but even in the darkest complexion there was never any trace of that blue-black shade which is often seen in the Fijian and other Melanesians. Of course extraneous circumstances, such as exposure to the sun, etc., affected the colour of the skin, and some tribes were almost uniformly darker than others.

The hair was very black and abundant; sometimes it was closely waved or curly, but never tufted or woolly as in negroid races. If not shortened artificially it grew to a great length, a chief sometimes wearing it long enough to touch the waist. Fair haired people were sometimes met with, especially among the Urewera tribe; these were not albinos, but of true stock. This light hair varied through many shades from reddish-brown to a bleached flaxen; a rarer sort was of dark brown with whitish tips about an inch long. The eyebrows were neither thick nor long, but rather narrower than in English people; the beard generally sparse and wiry, but now and then extremely profuse and bushy beards were to be seen. The eradication of the beard, lest the tatooing of the face should not be visible, made it difficult sometimes to know if the absence of beard was artificial or natural. The hairy chest and shoulders seen in some Europeans were never to be found on a Maori man's body. They retained the hair till old age when it turned grey and became thin, but they seldom lost it, and a bald head was indeed a rarity.

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They had oval heads with well-shaped brows and full brain development. The dark eyes were good, sometimes very large and beautiful; the mouth was coarse and made more so by the tatooing of the lips. The teeth were very fine and regular except among the hot-lake tribes where mischief was worked by the sulphur-fumes; the teeth kept sound generally even to advanced old age. The nose varied very much, sometimes being the “eagle's beak,” sometimes flattened and coarse. The expression of the face was usually happy and good-tempered.

They were a very long-lived race, having few if any fatal diseases. They generally died from what may be called natural causes, if among these may be reckoned a spear-thrust, witchcraft or the violation of tapu. It was difficult for the Maori who, after the arrival of the Europeans, saw any of his people die from illness in youth or middle age not to believe that the sufferer had been bewitched. Briefly put, the Maori died either in battle or in senility. As to what constituted a long life it is difficult to state exactly, because the Maori did not count time by numbered years, but by remarkable events; there were many centenarians among them even in our own days, and their longevity is well attested.*

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Their outward senses, like those of most other primitive peoples, were more acute than those of Europeans. The touch was so sensitive that in tracking they could ascertain by its use whether a foot had fallen in a certain spot. The sight was so unusually strong that they saw more stars than we can, and could distinguish nebulæ better. Mr. Colenso asserts that he has proved that natives could see the satellites of Jupiter with the naked eye, as he has stood by the observers with his telescope and watched while they gave the time of a satellite's eclipse.1 The Maoris had a real delight in colour. The different artistic shades used in house-decoration would alone prove this; the dark brown wood of the framework, the yellow reeds of the wall-linings, the scarlet, black and white of the rafters. Their staffs and carvings were often ornamented with iridiscent shell-work; the borders of the mats with subtly blended colour. They had not only a love of colour but a finely discriminating sense of it, for instance when looking at things beyond the vision of a European they could appreciate by the delicate shadings of green on a distant hill of what timber the forest was composed, and when gazing at some far-off point of land in the sea they could tell where was the shallow water about it, where the sea-weed, where the sand, where the channel, even the approach of a fish shoal, page 12 all these painted only in finest variations of colour at an immense distance. They generally distinguished the colour by naming the shades after some natural object; thus, they would say for pale yellow “like sulphur,” for deep yellow “like kowhai-flower” or “like karaka berries,” “red as red ochre,” “red like crayfish,” “red like rata-flowers,” “red like old blood,” blue “like the pukeko,” “like the midnight sky” (always more blue to a Maori than to us), “like the Portuguese-man-of-war (petipeti; Physalia urticalis),” “like the kingfisher.” For green they said “like the paroquet,” “like rimu-leaves;” white, “like flesh of crayfish,” “like pukapuka-leaves (under side),” etc. Although black, white, and red, were the principal pigments, they were never at a loss about shades of tint in these, naming them from the principals by a method resembling our way of describing the points of the compass. Thus, by the use of diminishing or extending adjectives the “points” of the colour could be defined, as if one should say “red, a quarter black,” “red-white-red,” “red-red-white,” etc. It is asserted that there were 90 named modifications of red, but the knowledge of these fine distinctions was by no means universal. Although fond of red as a colour, they never adorned their heads with red feathers or flowers, in spite of one widely-spread tradition in which they are said to have done so. (The Kura of Mahina.)

It has been considered that it needs long culture, some have stated even generations of culture, before the highest efforts of Art page 13 can be appreciated. As an instance that the theory may not be universally borne out in fact it may be pointed out that keen perceptive faculties and acquaintance with good natural models may take the place of long tuition in the principles of Art, as far as appreciation of the beautiful is concerned. An old Maori chief was taken by a European friend to an Art Gallery and the first thing on which the native set his eye was a replica of the Venus of Milo. Entranced, he could not be induced to leave that model of womanly perfection in form. From every side he viewed its symmetrical proportions, nor could he be torn away till the patience of his friends was well nigh exhausted. The same rapture overtook him as he viewed the Quoit-thrower, the Dying Gladiator, and the Apollo Belvidere. His eye, trained to recognise strength and grace in the human form, paid full tribute to the masterpieces of ancient art. Nor is it to sculpture only that the homage of these nature-lovers is paid. In a Picture Gallery the eye of the Maori may be relied upon to pick out the true in drawing and the accurate in colour, where an uneducated European would be utterly at fault, and where even the cultured disciple of some whimsical school may be led to false conclusions by a warped course of training or by minor principles run crazy. It was this sense of proportion and of “balance” that gave their own good work its highest value, almost an “art-value” to quite practical matters. It was this gift that enabled them to hew perfectly the two sides of the hull page 14 of a canoe (without our scientific aids) so that it would sit perfectly level on the water when launched. The sweet-potato (kumara) plantations were pictures of mathematical accuracy and care. The two sides of a tatooed face were perfect doubles each of the other; their dancing, paddling, even digging the ground were executed in perfect time and often to vocal music.

Their sense of hearing was very acute and the power of smell keen in the extreme. They could distinguish between different perfumes when the smell was of the faintest, and they delighted in pleasant odours. The sweet-scented grass karetu (Hierochloe redolens) was spread in the sleeping houses of chiefs, as in Germany the same plant is strewed on festival days before the doors of churches. The fragrant gum of a tree, and some delicately scented ferns (Hymenophyllum sanguinolentum, Polypodium pustulatum, Doodia fragrans, etc.) were sought after by the Maoris and valued for the innocent pleasure they yielded to the olfactory nerves.

Before leaving the subject of their bodily powers, it is desirable to speak of the weaknesses and diseases to which their physical frames were liable. As I mentioned above there were few if any fatal maladies; skin disease of a not very virulent form was the principal ailment, if we except a few rare cases of leprosy. As soon, however, as white men came among them there was record of disease, perhaps because for the first time a real knowledge of the subject was gained, but also, there page 15 is little doubt, because diseases were introduced, sometimes in unsuspected ways as that in which influenza arrives; sometimes by means only too well known, as in the venereal complaints. The early European settlers record then that the following diseases affected the Maoris. Typhoid fever, consumption, scrofula, rheumatism, ophthalmia, and several kinds of skin-affection, such as shingles, itch, and (in children) ring-worm and scald-head. Children also suffered from worms and epilepsy, but the latter complaint affected adults also. Rare diseases were asthma, paralysis, dropsy, and a kind of leprosy, but a case of leprosy was seldom to be found. It was a painful sickness, attacking the sufferer at the extremities and causing the loss of toes, fingers, and even of hands and feet. The Maoris did not consider leprosy (ngere-ngere; tu-hawaiki, or tu-whenua) as contagious, but the odour of the disease was most offensive, so that the affected person was rigorously isolated. It was looked upon as a “prohibited sickness” (mate-tapu) and it is said that if the wood of a house in which a person had died of leprosy ten years before should be used in a cooking-fire it would tapu the user and even the partaker of the food. This statement is weakened, however, by the consideration that the wood-work of a house in which a person had died of any other complaint would scarcely have been considered wholesome material for a cooking-fire. Very few persons even of the oldest settlers in New Zealand have ever seen a case of leprosy, although one page 16 was recorded at Otago in which the woman had lost hands and toes as though they had been frost-bitten, but the stumps were healed. Her limbs appeared as if shrivelled and were darker in colour than her other bodily parts The natives of Mahurangi (near Auckland) were supposed to be descendants from a canoe-load of leprous persons, yet so keen and travelled an observer as Dr. Shortland had never seen a case of leprosy in the North Island.2

Insane persons were few and were looked upon almost with awe; certain localities were supposed to have a bad reputation for inducing these mental disorders. Children were seldom born as idiots, or deaf and dumb, or blind. There were a few albinos with pink eyes and light hair resembling those found in other races. Hunch-backs were now and then seen. Stammering was rare, and a lisp very seldom heard. The hare-lip was not to be found. Sometimes children were born with six fingers and six toes, but a boy with six toes on each foot would be expected to grow up a great warrior. The peculiarity often ran in families. Venereal disease was unknown.

A curious epidemic afflicted the Maoris rather more than a century ago; before the coming of the white settlers. They called it rewharewha (te upoko o te rewharewha) a name now applied to influenza, but it was evidently not a disease of that character, those seized by the complaint being covered with an eruption of spots. It swept through the country, almost depopulating portions of it; more than half page 17 the inhabitants of the southern part of the North Island disappeared before its fatal ravages. An old Maori who was speaking about the past glories of his tribe and their deserted fort (Pukehika), was asked what had reduced the numbers of his people so quickly. He answered “Rewharewha. The garrison of that pa was 700 men in my father's day. We tried to nurse the sick at first, but they died so fast that we were frightened and a few of us escaped to the forest. That is how a remnant has survived.” In a small bay near Molyneux only two persons escaped out of 300. The story is that the disease came from a ship that was wrecked in Palliser Bay; the crew being killed and eaten. The natives give the name of the captain as Rongotute. There is reason to suppose that the vessel was owned by a Scottish gentleman who with 60 people sailed in 1782 for the purpose of planting a colony in New Zealand; nothing was ever afterwards heard of the emigrants. It is possible that some traditionary memory of Captain Cook's name has become mixed up with the tale, as Rongo was the Polynesian and Tute the European name (on native lips) of the great voyager.

If the art of the physician was little needed by the ancient Maoris, clean of blood and healthy of occupation, the help of the surgeon was very frequently necessary. Cannibalism with all its horrors has one redeeming point, it makes those who emerge from the struggle well acquainted with the anatomy of the human frame. They became masters of rude page 18 surgery so far as dislocations and fractures were concerned, setting the bones and applying splints of totara-bark or the base of flax-leaves to broken limbs with considerable deftness. Skulls were often severely fractured in the desperate fight with clubs and stone axes, but the sufferers frequently recovered. They practised amputation of maimed fingers, toes, hands, feet, and even legs and arms, but not having proper knives or instruments, a stoical disregard of pain was necessary on the part of the patient. Flesh wounds were generally left to heal the best way they could, but sometimes a plaster of the leaves of cutting-grass (toetoe) was applied and sometimes the wounds were held in the smoke of a fire. The blood taken from the ear of a dog and boiled was a remedy (toto kuri) for spear-wounds, whether taken internally or used as a lotion. The smoke-cure was also resorted to in cases where drowning had been prolonged to unconsciousness; the body was suspended so that a dense smoke could enter the lungs—priestly incantations, if procurable, of course hastened the process of restoration.3 In cases of poisoning and to induce vomiting, the patient was taken to a river and his head forced under water till he was nearly drowned and had swallowed much liquid, then he was pulled ashore and rolled about till sickness caused him to eject the contents of his stomach. In case, however, of poisoning by having swallowed the seeds of the tutu or tupakihi plant (Coriaria ruscifolia) the smoke remedy was resorted to, and when the danger proceeded from the unprepared page 19 kernels of karaka (Corynocarpus lœvigata) the sufferer was at once buried up to his chin in the earth, his hands being bound and his mouth gagged. This was the only means of preventing the spasmodic convulsions of the patient, and if done at once it is said to have preserved life and restored use of the limbs. For rheumatism and skin-diseases they usually took a journey to the natural sulphur-springs and hot baths if these were in possession of a friendly tribe. In midwifery they were very expert, and in difficult cases of parturition would remove the fœtus piece by piece to save the life of the mother. Toothache was supposed to be caused by a worm gnawing in the tooth, and this had to be charmed out. They sometimes wove a small wicker shield or boss to prevent pressure on an old wound or ulcer.

Having seen the practical side of their ailments and remedies we will now turn to the mental side of their afflictions. It will be seen further on that even the hurts received in battle or by accident had relation in some way to the persons that inhabit the supernatural world. If this was the case in regard to wounds, the direct cause of which was visible, much more was it true of the mysterious source of a disease. If a person fell ill, the Seer (Matakite) of the family was consulted by the invalid's father, or, if the father was prevented, by the mother or brother. The Seer would be almost certain to inform the enquirer that the sickness was caused by a breach of religious duty, such as having left page 20 a comb in a cooking-house, or placed on a cooking-fire a stick taken from a tree in which an ancestor's bones had once been deposited, etc., etc. For this breach of tapu the anger of the gods had directed illness upon the offender, and a malignant spirit had been sent into the vitals of the sufferer. The most deadly spirits were those of unborn infants, because these had never learned to know the people of their tribe, and so had no feelings of friendship to check their animosity; but if it was only the spirit of an ancestor, angry for some neglect of religious rites, the mischief was not so serious, as he would not inflict extreme torture on a kinsman. Of course the illness could have been induced by the wicked spells of another person, but that was a distinct issue and needed a particular course of conduct. It was the duty of the Seer only to diagnose the disease and its cause; it was for another, the wizard or priest (tohunga) to prescribe the remedy. Recourse was then had to this physician whose first duty was to find by what path the demon approached. To do this he went to the side of a river, or to the sea-beach, and wading into the water ducked his head beneath the surface, while the anxious relatives seated themselves along the shore. If the magician could not find the spirit's road while his head was under at the first dip he ducked again and generally succeeded by the third repetition of the action. He usually informed the enquirers that the spirit had ascended by means of a stalk of cutting-grass, or up through the centre page 21 of a flax-bush, but the difficulty then remained to locate the particular plant. So the wizard would start off to some swamp near at hand and pull out the centres of different flax or cutting-grass bushes till on extracting a stem or blade it gave a particular sound or squeak. That stem or blade was taken to the home of the invalid and hung over his or her head, the proper incantations necessary being repeated, a process that so worked upon the demon of the disease that it, seeing its path below now opened, would disappear and the patient recovered. Both Seer and wizard had to belong to the same tribe and sub-tribe (hapu) as the afflicted person; there was always a Seer and several wizards in each sub-tribe. A Seer had to be very particular not to sleep on a woman's bed or use her clothing as a pillow. Women's garments and resting places were tapu to men set apart as Matakite. Seers would be afflicted (if erring in this way) by dimness (kahupo) of spiritual vision. Sometimes invalids were taken to a stream by the priest who sprinkled the sufferer (both standing in the water) with a sprig of veronica (koromiko). The sick person was afterwards plunged into the stream after prayers had been offered to the gods Maru, Uenuku, or some other deity; the prayer and washing being supposed to remove all illness.4 One magical remedy for sickness was the rite called horohoro wherein the priest made an offering of sacred food to a god and then buried the remainder of the food in the ground, thus fastening the disease into the page 22 soil. The place where this was done was afterwards sprinkled with water.5 At the point of death the wizard-doctor could revive a man if there were certain favourable conjunctions at the time; thus if the robin (toutouwai) was to sing for the first time just as the morning star (Tawera) was seen, if also the Pleiades (Matariki) were high in the sky, and the dying man had a shivering fit, then, with all these auspicious signs occurring, a certain invocation would bring back the departing soul.6 Of course there were spells and invocations for general diseases, for burns, scalds, blindness, broken limbs, etc., etc.7 Insane people were treated to a very intricate ceremony in which the hair was cut in a peculiar manner and the flint knife used for the purpose destroyed. The hair was afterwards tied to a stalk of grass and set floating in the water while spells were recited.

The bodily frames of the Maori possessed enormous stores of endurance. Like most races nearer the fountain-head of primitive life than ourselves they held a recuperative force which may have resembled that of our Viking ancestors, but which appears to the ordinary European little short of marvellous. The native, in matters of exposure to heat and cold, was perhaps not better nor even equal to the exceptionally sturdy Englishman or Scandinavian, but in his power of sustaining life under wounds or fearful injuries there could be no comparison. It may have been through the nervous system having been less sensitive, or perhaps from long descent page 23 through men whose blood was innocent of the microbes of disease, but it was certain that an incomparable vitality allowed the Maori to sustain hurts which would have destroyed a white man from shock if not from loss of blood. During the war in the North (A.D. 1845), a chief named Hetaraka Repa received a wound from a bullet that striking the front of the thigh ran along the whole length of the femur (Repa was squatting at the time) and lodged in the lumbar muscles, traversing the whole thigh from the knee to the back. This painful wound would have disabled almost any person. Not so Repa. The whole of the ensuing night, a night of drenching rain and thunderstorm, he spent in prowling round the enemy's fort looking for a chance of revenge. In the same war, a brother of our ally Waka Nene was shot from the side right through the head behind the eyes. Blinded by the shot he still groped about for his gun so as to continue fighting, but was led away by his friends, and lived for many years. Another native was struck by a partly spent ball on the end of one of the little finger bones. The bones of the finger were driven down between the hand-bones of the third and fourth finger. It did not stop him fighting, and the wound afterwards healed with the tip of finger and nail peeping out between the joints of the knuckles. In 1863 a Waikato chief had the whole of the lower part of his face carried away by a shell. Treated with the rude surgery of his people he recovered and lived for many years with a black handkerchief page 24 wound round the cavity below the nose. Seen in profile, this gave him a curious birdlike appearance. He had, however, much difficulty with his food, and had to reduce his victuals to a pulpy or semi-liquid state, then, retiring to some secluded place he would remove the handkerchief, and in some way get the food down his throat. These examples of endurance in our own times may serve to let us feel that many of the feats attributed to their heroes in pre-historic days may not have been so incredible as may at first sight appear.

It is generally believed that the Maoris decreased very fast in numbers during the last century or two, and there is certainly much ground for such a belief, although not perhaps to the extent supposed. The furious tribal wars that raged and the slaughter, especially after the introduction of guns and powder, was very great, as well as the ravages caused by introduced diseases. At the same time too large estimates of the native population, based on little more than rough guesses or wild efforts at computation, gave probably far too large a number as living a century ago, although, certainly a dense population inhabited New Zealand in the remote past. There has been a great falling off within the time for which records are available. In the South Island for instance this is very marked. Two thousand Maoris were living, at one time within the century, at Otago Heads, now there are not more than fifty in the entire district. There were two thousand at Molyneux, where there are now only twelve, and page 25 at Akaroa fifteen hundred people were exterminated by Te Rauparaha at one pa only.8 From an epidemic of measles only two people out of three hundred in a small bay near Molyneux escaped. In the North there were battles where two thousand people were killed in a day, and that at a time when the reproductive power was failing. So that there are plenty of reasons for knowing that the numbers have rapidly decreased, even if not to such an extent as the early estimates would cause us to believe.

The introduction of European diseases and the altered habits of native life account for much of the mortality. Their own dress was hygienic; the clothing-mats, without being too warm or too close in texture, protected them from the cold far better than the blanket or the tight new clothes which, when heated, they would throw off in a reckless way. They lived in forts on high hills, and while they had cultivations on lower lands, retreated at night to their palisaded abodes in a pure lofty air. With the introduction of guns the old terraced positions (so suitable for defence against spear and club) became untenable, and the necessity, the absolute necessity, of preparing ship-loads of flax that they could barter for guns drove them down to the neighbourhood of the flax-swamps, the germ-beds of fever and consumption. The potato, “the soul-destroying potato,” less nutritious than the sweet-potato (kumara) and requiring less industry in its cultivation, brought habits of laziness and idleness. The varied food of old page 26 had made them search sea and river, cliff and forest to find it, but now their agility grew less and perceptive faculties dim. Strong drink brought its curse for body and mind of those yielding to its insidious temptations. Sick people were doomed by the circumstances under which they were placed on falling ill. They were often hurried off to some miserable shed, so that in case of death a good house might not be spoilt by tapu. Diet was not attended to nor the most elementary principles of nursing considered; a person suffering from fever or consumption would cool himself by a bath in the ice-cold water of a river. Disease and changed conditions ruined the stamina of the woman and caused sterility, instead of fruitfulness. The race had left the old paths and wandered to death on the new.

Beside the patent and unmistakable causes of the decay of the Maori, there were one or two of a subtler nature. The suppression of polygamy was one of these. A chief with many wives had a home in which, by the cheerful labour of many hands, food for the children was plentiful. Children were also many, for if a woman did not bear offspring the fault was always attributed to her; her husband would send her away and get another wife. The missionaries, wishing to check unchastity before marriage, encouraged the half-grown youths and girls to marry and become parents, with a most disastrous effect on the physique of their offspring, for whatever license girls formerly had before wedlock they brought mature frames and experience page 27 to their warlike lords and became, after a year or two's rest and forgetfulness of youthful adventures, well fitted to become “mothers of men.” Other causes, too intricate to be descanted on here, helped to make for the decadence of a physically-admirable people.

* Of these we may instance Taringa Kuri who was about 112 years old when he died, Patuone of Ngapuhi, 108, and Te Heru 115; both of the latter had talked with Captain Cook. Etera te Muru of Kaiapoi was said to have been over 120 years old when he died in 1874. Pohipi Tukirangi of Taupo swam the Mohaka River in flood when he was nearly 100 years old; Epiha te Moanakino, Tutuki Peehi of Te Aroha and Ahuriri of Ngapuhi were all centenarians; Pinga, a woman of Taranaki, was nearly 130. Te Matenga of Hawke's Bay in 1887 nursed his descendant in the 6th generation.