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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Chapter XII — Polynesian Arts and Industries: The — Primitive and the Architectural

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Chapter XII
Polynesian Arts and Industries: The
Primitive and the Architectural

(1) There is no ethnological picture more piquant in the whole world for its striking contrasts than that of Polynesia. We have seen this in its customs, its language, and its religious and mythological ideas. But most piquant is it when we turn to its arts and industries. Here we have co-existent some of the most primitive to be found on the face of the earth, and some of the most advanced, the arts of the savage cheek by jowl with those of the highly civilised, and the strangest feature of it all is that it lies between two great types of civilisation, the ancient type of the Asiatic coasts, bred by long intercourse with other nations and races, and the young or self-bred civilisations of the American Pacific coast. That for thousands of years it was quarantined from these, in spite of its maritime skill and far-voyaging tendency, is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the history of man.

Polynesia remained in the Stone Age

(2) First of all it remained in the Stone Age till Europeans broke into its isolated seas with their metal implements and weapons. It had no trace of any metals, and the romance of it all is that the last migrations from the coast of Asia must have missed first copper or bronze, and then iron, by the page 148merest accident. The last Stone Men that were driven south in their canoes from the Japanese Archipelago must have seen the bronze weapons of the newcomers who drove them out. And if, as the indications of language and religion seem to point out, the final migration from South Asia left either the north-west or the north-east of India some centuries before our era, then they must have seen the copper that the conquering Aryans knew. Nay, they were within an ace of taking iron with them into the far islands of the Pacific; for the iron culture of Madagascar comes, not from the African continent, but from Indonesia, their type of bellows for smelting the metal being much the same as that employed by the Malays, and quite unlike the African. Probably they failed to get it, because they took into their veins none of the new Mongoloid blood that was flushing the archipelago. The Malagasy migrants, we can see from their features, had absorbed or been absorbed by the conquering Malays; and so they took the new and masterful metal with them on their long voyage to the south-west. The Polynesian immigrants doubtless saw and felt the power of the new and incisive weapons of the strange race from the north; but they were driven off in their canoes without learning their use or the art of making them. And these dominant sea-brigands, as they spread southwards through the archipelago, set up the most formidable of barriers, that of piracy, to all return, to all further immigration from either India or Java, and to all peaceful or commercial intercourse between the Pacific immigrants and their birthlands. Nor were they drawn farther afield into the great ocean than the limits of mercantile adventure. It was the coast and island traffic of Asia they preyed upon; and there was no rich prey farther east than Gilolo or Ceram, and farther south than Timor. The piracy of the new masters of Indonesia fixes the limit of Malaysia, and explains the isolation of Polynesia for so many centuries.

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It is Both Palaeolithic and Neolithic

(3) But this last immigration must have found a vast population already settled in the islands, and that probably a population which was itself mixed; for there is found not merely in the ancient shell-mounds and caves of New Zealand, but also amongst the Maoris themselves, a stone culture that is at once palaeolithic and neolithic. They had the most beautifully polished weapons of various hard kinds of stone, that each meant years of patient work, but they also used the chipped weapons and flakes of the early stone age. Some of their axes and adzes were not much more than chipped, and in order to cut the hair and to gash themselves when mourning, and to perform certain ancient ceremonies and sacrifices, flakes of obsidian or flint had to be used, and in many of the islands rough stones were employed as pounders, and smooth beach stones as missiles hurled from the sling. What seems to indicate that the last immigrants did not introduce stone culture is the fact that stone is far less favoured in their weapons than in their implements. Most of their instruments of war, even their meres, when they could not afford greenstone, are of wood or bone. But their axes and adzes and chisels and files and pounders are chiefly of stone. When an adze was put into the hands of the warrior it was of greenstone, and meant rather to be symbolic of authority than to be used as a weapon. Now, the possession of weapons is the mark of a conquering aristocracy, whilst the instrument of daily and despised labour belongs to the conquered and the common; and, though the axe and the adze were tools of the canoe-making, house-building, wood-carving aristocracy, they were also the tools of the tree-felling, canoe-hollowing, and wood-carving aborigines.

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No Pottery in Polynesia

(4) But a far more striking sign of the long isolation of Polynesia is the absence of pottery. Tonga is the only group that makes earthenware vessels; but its proximity to Fiji and intercourse with it sufficiently explains the exception. And what makes the absence more striking is the existence of the art in the neighbouring region of Melanesia amongst a race much lower in the scale. There were undoubtedly refluxes from Polynesia into both Melanesia and Papuasia, as we can see from their carvings, the use of the steam oven, and other features of Polynesian culture. But had Polynesia been peopled by the Melanesians before the lighter-coloured immigrants came into it, we should have found potsherds, if not the art, all over the islands. That neither the art nor its products ever penetrated into them proves of itself clearly enough that they never had any Melanesian immigration. The steam oven, the use of gourds as water-vessels, and the practice of boiling water by throwing red-hot stones into it might have prevented the development of the art; but they could not have prevented its introduction.

(5) Ratzel in his "History of Mankind" seems to rely on one of the older voyagers when he makes Easter Island an exception away on the extreme east, to be placed with Tonga on the extreme west. No pottery has been made on that isolated islet. But he might have made New Zealand an exception; for a find of a red-pottery-like statuette in a native burying-ground in the Marlborough Sounds is reported by Mr. Joshua Rutland in a paper in the third volume of the "Journal of the Polynesian Society." Though it has been lost again, its finder, a Mr. Henderson, describes it as four inches high, with a Maori face, well executed. Not far from it was found a stone head, half simian. This might seem to disprove the absence of Melanesians; but they never went page 151in their potter's art beyond the moulding of vessels for food and drinking. The art of making human heads and busts in terra-cotta belongs to the Pacific coast of America, and especially to Peru; that is the nearest affinity to be found. But we should need far more extensive and reliable finds in New Zealand, and relics in the islands intervening, to infer any racial connection. Standing by itself it is but an accident, and the Polynesians still hold the unique position of being classified with the Fuegians and Australians, at the lowest stage of human culture, as having no pottery, whilst showing themselves in other directions as on the verge of civilisation.

It is Primitive in Fire-making

(6) But there is an art in which they stand lower than even these two races. It is that of fire-making. Tyler, in his "Early History of Mankind," shows that one of the most primitive methods of producing fire is the stick and groove, and that the fire-drill is a step in advance. It is the method of rubbing the blunted point of a hard stick in a groove of a horizontal piece of soft wood till the dust of the latter catches fire. It is common to all the islands of Polynesia, and it is not reported outside of the region, except according to Mason, in his "Origins of Invention," the only authority for the statement, sporadically in America and Australia, and in New Britain, on the coast of New Guinea. The Australians get fire by twirling an upright stick between the hands in a hole in a horizontal piece of wood, the most elementary form of the fire-drill, used also all through pre-Aryan India, in Micronesia, and in Indonesia, although in Sumatra and Borneo some natives strike fire with two pieces of bamboo, whilst others saw one piece across the other in order to get fire; and the Fuegians use a still higher method, that by striking sparks with a flint from a piece of page 152iron pyrites. The use of the most primitive of all methods, the stick and groove, all over the islands, in spite of the employment of a drill for boring holes, and that in the midst of races that use more advanced methods, seems to indicate, as the great basis of the Polynesian population, an extremely ancient race, that by having their women taken into the households of every new conquering immigration dictated to the new-comers their household arts.

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.

Evidence of Stratification in Housebuilding

(9) There are even in the masculine arts, like maritime and domestic architecture, signs in Polynesia of different stages of culture. The whares in a New Zealand pa are not all of the highest type. Some are flimsily built of grass and other temporary materials. Others have earth covered with turf rising up their sides and half over their roofs like the dwellings of the British Columbian and sub-Arctic peoples. But, quite apart from their ordinary houses, there are evidences of the various types of prehistoric architecture having belonged to pre-Polynesian tribes. Little though the Maoris have of the megalithic in their dwellings, there are relics of it in various places. Some of the South Island pas had walls of stone, and on the slopes of Mount Egmont and on the Great Barrier Island are found rough fortifications of boulders, such as are to be seen in the interior of some of the tropical islands as refuges for the non-combatants during war. Even the lake-dwellings of prehistoric Europe have their counterpart in a lake near Horowhenua in the Wellington Province, whilst tree forts have been reported from the Wanganui River and from near Levin; a village was built on a platform resting on the high branches. This takes us to houses in Papuasia and the Philippines; in the latter a white tribe was recently described as living in trees. And Turi, the great navigator, Maori legend tells, came across a people dwelling in trees, and took one of their women to wife.

(10) But perhaps the most interesting and most primitive of all the types of dwellings in New Zealand are the pit-dwellings described by Mr. Joshua Rutland in the "Journal of the page 155Polynesian Society," and by Mr. Lindsay Buick in his "Old Marlborough." Many examples of this type have been found in the sounds on the south of Cook Strait, dug out of the clay or earth, and occasionally out of the solid rock, to a depth of from four to eight feet. Some are duplicated with a thick wall between, sometimes with the floor of one room higher than the other. They are always on the sunny slopes of hills or on the top of spurs looking to the north, and broad terraces are generally made in front of them. They lie in clusters or series, and they were evidently by no means kumara pits. On the floor of some were found the ashes that indicate a hearth. But they had been so over-grown with centuried forests that they were not discovered till all the bush was cleared. The Maoris of the district point out certain families that are descended from, or have the blood of, the people that inhabited these pits a small dark raceand say that they had canoes, which they used to haul up the slopes to their dwellings by means of ropes. And Mr. Buick identifies them with the Morioris of the Chatham Islands, who have a tradition that they were driven out from these sounds by the new-comers from Polynesia, and who live in dwellings half underground like these. They themselves are not of the small, dark type, and must be a Polynesian cross with the pit-dwellers; they have a genealogy that goes back 182 generations, or more than 4,500 years; and not far from Rangi and Papa in it comes Toi, the name of the aboriginal people in the Urewera country. In Dusky Sound similar ancient pits are described as existing. Now in South Island legend Maui is said to have handed over the land he had fished up to the Kui, who when dispossessed by the Tutumaiao, went to live underground.

(11) This habit of digging out the earth as the main part of a dwelling to be roofed over, it has been shown, cannot page 156belong to a people that had lived long in the tropics. There the rankness of the soil makes it dangerous to disturb it. It is a natural custom of dwellers in cold regions, in the north temperate or sub-Arctic zone. And it is there, in the Japanese Archipelago and northward, that we find the custom again in the Pacific. The pit-dwellers preceded the Japanese, nay, preceded the Aino, and were either contemporaneous with, or immediately subsequent to, the Stone Men. That they lived in islands long separated from the continent shows that they were maritime; and there is no improbability in the idea that they joined or followed the migrations of the megalithic people southwards, except that there are no traces of their pit-dwellings between Japan and the South Island of New Zealand, and that potsherds are found in the hollows of Japan that formed part of their dwellings. Of course the tropical forests would soon obliterate all traces of their pits, even if they dug them as they ventured from tropical island to tropical island; and the terra-cotta bust found in the Marlborough Sound may be a relic of their pottery habit, just as the korotangi, or weeping bird, a beautifully sculptured petrel in steatite that came with the Tainui canoe to New Zealand (the canoe that brought a Patupairehe, or fairy woman, evidently one of the fair-skinned aborigines), may be a relic of another pre-Japanese race that migrated southwards by sea. The habit and the art of sculpturing in steatite and pottery true to nature may have been abandoned in the new lands, if the materials were hard to get. The pit-dwellers in the sounds, like those in Japan, were evidently a feeble, unwarlike folk, ready to migrate anywhere in seach of solitude and peace, easily abandoning their rights and habits, and easily getting absorbed and losing their individuality.

(12) All these types of dwellings, though they may not indicate difference of race, reveal different stages of culture, page 157or at least differences of culture that are due to differences of original climate and environment. The tree-dwellers come from the tropics, the lake-dwellers from the warmer temperate zone, and the pit-dwellers from the colder zones of the north.

Evidences of Stratification in Canoe-building

(13) There is a similar variety of culture revealed by the canoes and maritime habits. There is first of all the singular anomaly of a people so daring and skilful in navigating the Pacific, the greatest ocean in the world, and so capable as builders of large ocean-going canoes, adhering to the primitive method of propulsion by paddles. Even the Esquimaux, though keeping to the double paddle in their one-passenger skin canoes, use the oar in their large open-sea cargo and women's canoes. That the primeval substitute for and copy of the arm nd outspread palm should be kept to the last by the builders and sailers of ships hundreds of feet long and capable of carrying hundreds of people, is not the least strange of the contradictions in the life of the Polynesian.

(14) And yet we have evidence of the fixed leverage, the rowlock, having existed in New Zealand. The Morioris, primitive though they were in the sailless raft-canoes, and in their adherence to the paddle, used the latter like an oar, turning their backs to the bow, and pressing the handle against a thole-pin. So the Easter Islanders, poor though they are in canoe timber and canoes, use the paddle by way of a scull. It is clear, in short, that one of the pre-Polynesian peoples had advanced as far as the principle of the oar. But they were of an unobtrusive, unwarlike type, and their advance in the maritime art was shouldered aside by the energy and push of the new-comers from Indonesia with their outriggers. The outrigger was a bar to any development of oarage, and it evidently came with the immigrants from page 158the south of Asia. The double canoe, belonging only to Polynesia and probably developed there, was as unsuited to the oar. And when the conquerors in New Zealand came to discard both of these and adopt the single dugouts of the conquered, the habits of the art were too deeply rooted in conservatism and religion to allow the abandonment of the paddle for the oar.

(15) Canoe-building and canoe-management were ever in New Zealand aristocratic employments, and it is these that most resist the modern spirit, where there is no rising urban or commercial plutocracy to break down the old convention; and the conquerors would scorn the methods of the conquered. These were not in the sphere of woman; the Maori war-canoes were too sacred, like the chiefs, to have the steam of cooking near them; even the fishing canoes had parts that were sacred from cooking and women; whilst in the Marquesas no woman was allowed to approach or touch any part of a canoe. Thus the arts of navigation were not modified by the conquered, as the household arts were. It was doubtless the abandonment of far-voyaging and the predominance of river and inland navigation in New Zealand that led to the ultimate substitution of the single canoe for the double and outrigger. Yet they clung to these sporadically up into the nineteenth century. So, probably, the great trees so common in the New Zealand forests, along with the frequent and heavy storms and seas on the New Zealand coast, may have led to the abandonment of the South Sea plank-sewn canoe for the huge dugout with its one-plank gunwale.

(16) There are, however, survivals of much more primitive seacraft in many districts of the country. Polack saw, early in the nineteenth century, between Kaipara and Hokianga, a canoe of bulrushes sixty feet long. It is just such a canoe that is described in the legend of Kahukura as belonging to the Patupaiarehe, or fairy fishers. On the east coast open-page 159seamed rafts made of poles lashed together were frequently used in deep-sea fishing, whilst the Morioris, of the Chatham Islands, made their canoes of flax-flower stems, that floated like rafts on sea-kelp bladders, the deck level with the water; but they had the high bow and stern of the Maori canoe, and could sometimes hold sixty fishermen, even out on the ocean. And some of the early voyagers saw the double log with cross-pieces and a platform, probably the origin of the double canoe, used off the coasts of New Zealand.

(17) One curious instance of the localisation of customs as revealing differences of stock is the black colour that the natives of the north of the North Island give their canoes in contrast to the rest of New Zealand. If this is placed alongside the fact that the Patupaiarehe, or fairies, that represent fair-skinned European-like aborigines, belonged to this northern region, and the other that they abhorred kokowai, or the red ochre of the Maoris, we see an explanation of the localisation in differences of aboriginal race or tribe.

(18) But these primitive craft were the relics of an earlier stratum of population, though even these must have been able to navigate wide spaces of ocean in order to reach New Zealand. Not only the South Asiatic immigrants, but their predecessors, must have been bold navigators; for Polynesia was a region of widely scattered islets from before the period of the evolution of the mammals. None except a bat is indigenous to either New Zealand or the islands, and wings and a partial land-bridge would account for its presence. Never since the appearance of man has there been any unbroken promontory of land thrust out into the Pacific from either Asia or America. Indonesia may have been less broken up than it is; but to the east of that there were nothing but widely intervalled islands. No race could ever, therefore, have found its way into this region that was not expert in navigation.

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(19) And we find amongst the Polynesians, as contrasted with the Melanesians and Papuasians, a good working knowledge of the stars, such as was absolutely necessary to the inhabitants of so vast an oceanic archipelago. They were keen astronomers, and knew minutely the relative positions of the stars and the heavenly bodies, and even their changes and phases. So, too, did they know the set of the currents and winds; nor did they fail to have, to some extent, a knowledge of the periodicity of the weather. They had even maps of the geography of the region, rudely made of small twigs and sticks.

(20) All this meant a true art of navigation. And yet in the New Zealand wharekura, or advanced institution for technical teaching, there was no school for this art. There was the school of mythology, history, and theology, confined to the consecrated class. There was also a school devoted to the practical arts of lifeagriculture, astronomy for use in agriculture, the making of weapons for war and implements for hunting and fishing; and to this women were admitted a fact that shows the secrets of these arts common to both conquered and conquerors, aboriginals and aristocratic immigrants. But there was no school for navigation, such as one would expect amongst so far-voyaging a race. Clearly all the constituents of the people were maritime in every sense of the word, expert fishermen and sailors. And the cessation of intercourse with the islands, caused evidently by intense absorption in domestic politics and war, would allow the knowledge of oceanic navigation to sink into desuetude, and ultimate oblivion. It failed to become a part of their knowledge handed on from generation to generation; and coastal sailing and management of canoes became an instinct. Every boy, from the time he was able to walk, took to the water, both as a swimmer and paddler. His whole environment taught him canoe-craft.