The Maori As He Was : A Brief Account of Maori Life as it was in Pre-European Days
Effect of isolation. Primitive arts. Fire-generation. Weaving. Mode of drilling. Mechanical aids. Unique device employed by tree-fellers. Stone adzes. Agricultural tools. Numeration. System of measurement. Time. Maori year. Star-lore. Medicine—why it was not studied. Sickness. Decorative art. Melanesian influence. Pukiore or harapaki work. Wood-carving.
The absence of any form of script doubtless tends to delay the acquisition of knowledge and the development of a people. Thus the Maori had made but little advance in regard to industrial arts and science. Owing to his long period of isolation in New Zealand and Polynesia, the Maori has preserved some extremely primitive forms, not only in his implements, but also in his processes or methods, and in other ways. Not being in a position to acquire and adapt more advanced forms from neighbouring peoples, his ancient methods became, as it were, fossilized in his scattered island homes. We thus find that the Maori practised some remarkably primitive forms of certain arts. For instance, his mode of generating fire is the most primitive of all known methods. The “fire-plough” of Polynesia brings no knowledge of mechanics to aid the operator; the manipulation of the “push-stick” but calls for strenuous and continued effort. A certain amount of practice is necessary in order to acquire proficiency, and that is all that can be said for the “fire-plough.” The requisite paraphernalia consists of two pieces of wood, that of the kaikomako tree (Pennantia corymbosa) being the most suitable for the purpose. It is necessary that the wood should be dry, well seasoned. The under-piece (kauahi and kaunoti) is about 16 in. or 18 in. in length as a rule, 3 in. to 4 in. wide, and about 1½ in. in thickness. When about to be used one end of this piece is placed on the ground and the other supported on a stone or block of wood. The operator kneels at the higher end, and, holding the small rubbing-stick firmly in both hands, rubs it heavily on the under-stick in line with the grain. Ere long a groove page 117 is formed in the lower stick, and at the lower end of the groove is collected the dust-like particles of wood produced by abrasion. It is this dust that is kindled by the heat produced by the energetic use of the rubbing-stick. By the help of a little dry kindling-material a fire is soon obtained. Under favourable conditions an expert will kindle a fire in a very few minutes. The kaurimarima, or rubbing-stick, is 10 in. or 12 in. in length, and fashioned from the same wood as the under-piece.
The native method of weaving is also a peculiarly crude process; indeed, it is not true weaving, but merely a kind of plaiting or tying process, in which vertical threads are enclosed by passing horizontal threads on either side of them.page 118 page 119
Yet another simple device was the Maori drill, the same being the cord or thong drill manipulated by means of free cords; no form of cap, head-piece, or other controlling device being employed. This drill was used for boring holes in stone ornaments, weapons, &c., and consisted merely of a spindle to the lower end of which was lashed a pointed piece of hard stone, such as quartzite. To the upper part of the spindle were secured the two cords for manipulation. To work the drill the spindle was revolved so as to cause the cords to twine round it. A little practice enables one to produce the required reciprocal motion of the spindle by alternately pulling and slackening the cords. In order to acquire the necessary impetus a small fly-wheel was attached to the spindle, or two stones were lashed to it. The pump-drill and bow drill were unknown to the Maori in pre-European times.
The Maori understood and utilized the powers of the wedge, the lever, inclined plane, and skid. He employed a rude form of Spanish windlass. But perhaps the most interesting of his few appliances was a form of the old Roman balista, used in connection with tree-felling. This page 120 unique device consisted of a strong but pliant sapling which served as a bow and which was secured by the middle in a horizontal position at one side of the tree near its base. The strong cord secured to either end of the sapling served as a bowstring, and to this bowstring was attached a stout shaft with a heavy chisel-like stone tool lashed to it. This shaft worked on horizontal rails. Several men hauled on it as an archer pulls his bowstring with arrow in position, and then when the shaft had been pulled as far back from the tree as possible it was suddenly released. The strength of the pull resulted in the heavy stone tool being dashed with much force against the trunk of the tree. Two parallel horizontal grooves were thus formed—bruised rather than cut—and the intervening timber was split out with a stone adze. Thus a deep imu, or scarf, was gradually formed in the trunk of the tree. This method was apparently not a general usage, but was certainly employed in the Bay of Plenty district. This unusual adaptation of the principle of the bow is the more remarkable because the Maori did not use the bow either in war or sport.
The woodworking tools of the Maori consisted of stone adzes of great diversity of form and size, also chisels and gouges of the same material. The Polynesians hafted the larger tools as adzes, whereas Australian natives, Indians of America, &c., hafted them as axes. The stone axe was also employed in the western Pacific area. Agricultural tools were of the most primitive type; the principal one was a digging stick (ko) with a detachable foot-rest, and resembling the old Highland spade. Wooden spades (kaheru) were also used, while the pinaki was a small implement in the form of a paddle used in weeding and soil-loosening operations.
The Maori possessed no domestic animal save the dog, an inferior breed which his ancestors brought hither from the isles of Polynesia. His only vehicle of common use was his canoe, though litters (amo) were occasionally used for the carriage of sick or wounded persons.
The native system of enumeration may be termed a compound one, for both the single and binary systems were employed. The word for ten (ngahuru) is a very far-spread one. The word now used to denote ten—namely, tekau—formerly denoted twenty, as in Polynesia. The binary system was in everyday use, and persons were often so counted in “braces.” In former times there was also a system of counting in twenties, apparently the intermediate numbers being given in terms of the binary system. It may thus be said that the decimal, binary, and page 121 page 122 page 123 vigesimal systems were all employed by the Maori. In counting baskets of produce, game, &c., the binary system seems to have been in common use; but in counting the smaller birds, such as the tui, there is some evidence to show that, in at least some districts, four birds were reckoned as a brace. This method seems to have been practised also in eastern Polynesia.
The Maori had no precise standard of measurement, no universally-employed unit. Inasmuch as the units consisted of various measurements of the human limbs and body, it will be seen how they must have varied—how each person was a standard unto himself. For instance, the maro, or fathom, was a unit commonly employed, and represented a person's arm-span, the distance between the finger-tips of his two hands when the arms were stretched out horizontally in line with the shoulders. Now, the present writer has an armspan of 6½ ft., but another man's span might be a foot less, showing how variable such a standard may be. The same may be said of the other units, all of which were based on the human body, a system common among uncultured peoples. The konui was the page 124 length of the first joint of the thumb; the matikara was the finger-span; and the tuke was the cubit measured from elbow to finger-tips. The hau was half the maro—i.e., the length of the arm plus half of the breadth of the body. The pakihiwi maro was the length of an arm plus the whole width of the body. There was probably another mode of measurement between this and the maro that was occasionally employed: it was the addition of the upper arm to the foregoing, so that it was a cubit less than the maro. The takoto method of measuring was by means of the extended body, the human standard lying down and extending his arm. When measuring the circumference of a tree by means of the maro unit, the natives styled it a pae, as in “Pae toru te rakau na” (“Yon tree is three fathoms”—“in circumference” understood). Several other terms and standards were employed, though perhaps not universally, such as the awanui, which is the width of both hands plus the outstreched thumbs, which are placed together tip to tip.
With regard to measures of capacity, the lack of trade meant that such were not needed: thus, the kete, or basket, was the only thing known in connection with produce—so-many baskets of kumara, &c.
In his division of time the Maori was by no means precise in regard to divisions of the day. He had expressions to signify the dawn, sunrise, morning, midday, sun-ascent, sun-descent, sunset, evening dusk, night, midnight, but had not divided the day into periods of equal length. page 125 Thus absolute precision was impossible, and his terms and phrases denoting “formerly,” “presently,” &c., were about as vague as our own. The Maori had divided the year into lunar months, and each night of the moon had its proper name, so that he could state that a certain event occurred on the ari night of the moon (or month) Akaaka-nui, or the turu night of the moon (or month) Marua-roa. Here the Maori's division of time failed him, and he had no mode of recording the fleeting years. The next unit he employed was the generation, which is but an unstable quantity and suited only for long periods of time. The Maori year was as well defined as that of many other barbaric folk, but he had not evolved any system of chronology, or tale of years. The year began with the first new moon after the heliacal rising of Matariki (the Pleiades), about the middle of June, among the East Coast tribes. Quite possibly the Pleiades year was brought into the Pacific area from southern Asia in past centuries. In some areas, as the far north and the Chatham Islands, the rising of Puanga (Rigel) seems to have marked the advent of the new year.
The Maori of former times had a remarkable knowledge of the stars, and had assigned names to many of them. At the time when he was making deep-sea voyages his study of the heavenly bodies was his salvation. Since his isolation in New Zealand it is quite possible that the study of the heavens has not been continued so diligently, inasmuch as there would be less need of it. At the same time, he derived much more from a study of the stars than we do, for he believed that from their appearance might be known coming weather conditions, the aspect of an approaching season, &c. Also from them were derived omens, signs of future fortune; and they likewise served as time-measures to some extent. As observed above, they marked the commencement of the Maori year, and the appearance (heliacal rising) of certain stars was the signal for the initiation of certain activities, as the planting and gathering of crops. By means of carefully observing the movements of the stars the Maori was enabled to correct his lunar year quite well enough for his purpose. Some of the tohunga, or priestly experts, spent much time in studying the heavenly bodies, and it is interesting to note that a peculiar sentimental regard for them was entertained by the Maori. This feeling apparently sprang from several sources. Those stars he believed to possess much influence over his food-supplies; they were personified and spoken of as ancestors; their warnings often preserved him from page 126 danger. Above all, those stars had looked down upon his remote ancestors in the lost fatherland, and had watched the gallant old sea-rovers explore the vast Pacific in times long passed away. Some of the star-names are known over a wide area, as from New Zealand to the Hawaiian Isles.
Native knowledge of medicine may be described as non-existent in former times. No attempt was made to study it, simply because it was believed that sickness and disease were caused by atua (evil spirits). This formed part of the belief that offences against the gods are punished in this world, not in the spirit-world. As all complaints were so caused, inflicted by the gods, then it would be highly absurd to administer human remedies. And so we see that the superstition-laden religion of the Maori blocked advancement in the science of medicine. The Maori, when ill, was in the truly unhappy position of being in the care of a priest instead of a doctor. He was dosed with charms and incantations and mummery until he died, or recovered in spite of his friends. The priests kept up their absurd practices naturally, as they not only received presents for such services, but were able to retain authority over the people, which has ever been the aim of priesthoods the world over.
The artistic taste of the Maori seems to resemble that of certain peoples of Indonesia, and their decorative art is assuredly a remarkable production. As carvers in wood the Maori accomplished marvellous results with his rude tools. His decorative painting and sinnet work, his textile designs and love of symmetry, are all worthy of study. One of the most noticeable features in Maori decorative art is a keen appreciation of the curved line—that art is essentially curvlinear. This is a remarkable fact when we remember that such art in Polynesia is markedly rectilinear and yet the two peoples are of the same origin. We know that the ancestors of our native folk came hither from those very isles wherein rectilinear decorative art is practised. How and why did the Maori acquire his local knowledge of curvilinear designs? Why also did he become a constructor of heavy earthwork defences and stockades round his villages here in the isles of New Zealand, when he never did so in his former home in eastern Polynesia? How did he acquire the decorative designs of Melanesia, which are unknown in eastern isles? And why did he use the Melanesian gong instead of the Polynesian drum? These and other similar questions are of considerable interest, but no satisfactory answer has been given thereto. Quite possibly these matters are all due to the presence in page 127 New Zealand of a people with Melanesian affinities in pre-Maori days, that folk being the Mouriuri, or Maruiwi, people already alluded to. The Maori employed rectilinear designs only when forced to do so by the methods he practised, as in weaving and plaiting.
Some of the painted designs of the natives, as seen in the decoration of their superior houses and cenotaphs, are very remarkable productions, and carry the mind back to similar work among more advanced folk of Indonesia. A close study of these designs, and an expert description of them, is one of the many tasks that calls for workers in the field of Maori ethnography. Nor have we ever produced a comprehensive account of native wood-carving, which is another striking feature of Maori art. Its singular designs, conventional figures, and grotesque rendering of the human form tend to place the wood-carving of the Maori in a position of its own. It differs much from that of Polynesia, to which place we would naturally turn to look for its origin.
The designs employed by weavers, as seen in the ornamental borders of native cloaks, are of a geometric form, and are largely composed of different dispositions of the triangle. Those seen in baskets, belts, and floormats were also rectilinear.