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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Chapter VII — The Stratification of the Maori, as Seen in — his Customs

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Chapter VII
The Stratification of the Maori, as Seen in
his Customs

New Zealand as the Cul-de-Sac of the Pacific is the
Best Polynesian Example of Ethnological Stratification

(1) We have seen that there are traces of a fair race throughout the Pacific, and also traces of a race that erected great stone monuments. And we have seen reason to believe that the two are the same. Even though there may have been different migrations of them from the Japanese Archipelago, spreading over several centuries, if not several thousand years, they are all practically the same Caucasian race that reached the Pacific through the north of Central Asia. The long periods that separate the migrations may even have produced different developments of custom and different dialects of the language. And as one immigration arrived in an island or group of islands, it would master some of its predecessors and drive out others on expeditions in search of further lands. And the last of the land-areas to be reached would certainly be New Zealand, where there was room for many immigrations, and where, doubtless, many different types of immigrants remained and fought it out, or entered into intercourse or alliance and union. Beyond it there was no further land to be found to the south or the east; and refluxes would have scant chance of finding new or uninhabited islands on the route they had come.

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(2) This land is, therefore, the palimpsest or many-times-rewritten record of the prehistoric history of the Pacific. And in its customs it should show better than any other group of islands the migrant wave on wave that has overflowed it; it should show more variety of custom than any other Polynesian land. The last conquering immigration is, of course, the most likely to be dominant in the legends. For it is always the last masterful aristocracy that arrogates to itself the rights of genealogy and birth and the privilege of having a history. The Polynesians of the six canoes, therefore, obliterated all genealogical records. But in absorbing their predecessors they were bound to absorb their customs too, especially those that were suited to the new country and the new climate. We may expect to find more than in any part of Polynesia a tangle of manners and customs and stages of culture. All tribes on the face of the earth were, long before history commenced, cross-breeds, some more, some less. And all show, therefore, an ethnology that is by no means simple or pure. But it is the culs-de-sac of the world, like New Zealand, that are bound to reveal most complexity of culture.

An Astonishing Contradiction in the Emotional
Attitude of the Polynesians

(3) Nowhere else in the world will we find such a mixture of methods of feeling as in Polynesia. There is a rude and primitive phase, and there is a somewhat advanced, semi-cultured phase that proclaim two distinct stages of barbarism or half-culture. Every traveller and observer from the earliest times had called attention to the strange contrast in the South Sea Islanders between the hospitable and kindly, if not gentle, ways in times of peace and the fierce cannibalism and the cruel treatment of enemies in times of war. But even in their page 66peaceful intercourse there is something of the same contradiction. The softer and more humane and often romantic side of their character has drawn many a wanderer from European civilisation permanently into their midst, and especially since the advent of Christianity. And yet human sacrifices, even of men from friendly tribes, disappeared not so long ago.

(4) The abolition of slavery is not so distant an historical event amongst the Anglo-Saxon race as to make them feel superior to Polynesian culture. But in the former case, at least in recent times, the slaves were of an alien and lower race, and meant to work in a climate that was not suited to white labour. The Polynesian slaves were on a level with their masters, like those in ancient Greece and Rome, and usually of their own kin. Hence there was a certain humaneness in the relationship. We can see by the legends and stories that master and slave and mistress and slave were often close companions, showing much benevolence on the one hand and much loyalty on the other. And yet the slaves generally supplied the human sacrifices, and all the victims needed at dedications and ceremonies; at the building of a house or pa a slave was often buried alive embracing each of the great posts, a custom not unusual even in Europe up till mediaeval times.

The Treatment of Women most easily tests a

(5) In their attitude to women we observe the same contradiction in the Polynesian manners and customs that reveals the mingling of two different stages of culture. The women do not only all the household work, and especially the despised duty of cooking, but most of the field work, the raising and the collecting of the food, and the dressing of page 67materials and the making of garments, just as amongst the most primitive and savage races; whilst the men do the hunting and fishing and fighting, the building of houses and canoes, and everything connected with art and religion, carving, tattooing, and oratory. This represents the early stage when the wives were also the slaves, when the women of the conquered tribes were taken into the households to raise children and to do servile duties. The result is that the men retain their erect attitude and handsome form till far on in life, whilst the women, the burden-bearers, grow early old and hag-like. This contrast between the sexes belongs to a primitive stage, in which polygamy prevails, and the chief occupations of the male are war and hunting.

(6) But there are other aspects of female life in Polynesia that are a direct contradiction to this low polygamic stage. Women often occupied the position of distinction given to them by the Teutons, as described by Tacitus in the Germania. They were priestesses and seers, whose utterances were received with awe, and whose persons were guarded with reverence. They mingled with the men in warfare, and contributed not a little to the enthusiasm of the battle and the success of the victory. Nay, we hear not infrequently of chieftainesses who led the defence of a pa or the march of the warriors into battle. For the women had practically equal rights of inheritance with the men. The only limitation of it was that if they married into another tribe they did not take their rights with them as the men generally did.

(7) But perhaps the most striking contrast in the situation was the romance that hung round youthful love in all their legends, arguing great independence in the daughter of the household, although polygamy was not uncommon, and the marriage rite, unlike those of all other events in life (birth, baptism, tattooing, cutting of the hair, initiation, death), was insignificant, a mere handing over of the bride by her page 68brothers and uncles into the hands of the husband as his property. And a similar antithesis lies between the attitude of the Polynesian to maidenhood and to married life. There was no value attached to purity in the former, either in practice or theory; the girl was left to do as she pleased without let or blame. In theory, though perhaps not always in practice, the bonds of marriage were strictly respected. The latter was doubtless due to the inheritance of tribal and family rights to the land, which any ambiguity in the descent would mar. A people that kept such careful genealogies could not but pay great attention to purity of family life and descent. And yet in their legends and stories there is evidence of considerable interference with it, and of considerable toleration of such interference. Perhaps there is no more piquant antithesis to be found in ethnology than this combination of polygamy and female inheritance, the romance of love and the complete licence permitted before marriage. It seems to be due to the conquest of a primitive people by warriors, who married the women of the conquered, and accepted many of their marriage customs.

(8) There are two significant traits in their treatment of women that point in this direction. One was that the women had to do all the cooking, and had to eat apart. The men were too sacred to take any share in the culinary work. They were often too sacred even to touch cooked food with their hands, and they had to be fed like little children, the women cramming the food into their mouths. The steam of cooked food must never cross the head of a great warrior. And the women had usually to cook their own food in a separate oven. The other feature was that the women had no part or lot in religion. Like the Patupaiarehe,. who stand for one tribe of pre-Polynesians, they had no karakia. If we piece these together with the abhorrence of cooked food exhibited by this legendary people, we may conclude that the warriors of the page 69six canoes furnished their households with aboriginal women. Yet the chiefs and their families would take their place beside the women and the slaves in the work of the field. And in some of the Polynesian groups, as in Tonga, the women were largely relieved from being burden-bearers. In New Zealand the primitive combination of wife and drudge formed a striking contrast to the romance of love, the power of inheritance by women, and the honour paid to priestesses and chieftainesses. The same piquant antithesis existed in their treatment of old men and of children. The old were neglected and left to die like the sick. And yet none were so honoured in their assemblies as the old men. They dote upon their children, even when adopted; no race has ever shown more fondness for the little ones. And yet the warriors would not object to feasting on the flesh of an infant, even when absolute need did not demand it: and infanticide, although not nearly so common as in Polynesia, was not unknown.

There is Nothing that a Race conserves so long or
so Tenaciously as Eurial Customs

(9) But affinities of peoples are to be sought most successfully in their disposal of the dead. And where there is much diversity in this we may be sure that there is much intermixture of blood. In their burial customs the Polynesians, and especially the Maoris, display much hesitancy between one system and another. The commonest form was to bury the bodies or place them on a platform or in the fork of a tree for a time, and then take up the bones and hide them in their final, and always sacred, resting-place. The slaves, of course, were huddled into the earth anyhow and anywhere, as having no souls. This method was natural to a people page 70accustomed to land-migrations. A second system much less common, but more suited to a maritime people, was to set the dead adrift in a canoe or in a coffinlike boat; this was noticed by some of the old European voyagers in the islands and in Cook Straits. A third system was cremation; though this was especially adopted in war in an enemy's country so as to prevent the flesh of their dead being eaten and their bones being used in an ignominious manner for the making of implements, it was not confined to war times; it was by no means uncommon in peace, especially among the dwellers on the plains. In the Marlborough Sounds, and in parts of the southern parts of the North Island, cremation-mounds are found rich with the ashes of the dead and the oil or fat of the porpoise; whilst burial in the active or extinct craters of volcanoes is not unknown. A modification of this was burning the body and preserving the head so that it could be kept in the dwelling and wept over and honoured by the bereaved. As a sharp contrast and pendant to this was the custom of cutting off the heads of dead enemies, drying them, and setting them up as an object of mockery and cursing and vituperation, perhaps a relic of the passage of at least one Polynesian migration through the head-hunting regions of Indonesia. A fourth but rare method was embalming. This could be done in only a partial way, because of the lack of proper preservatives; after the extraction of the softer parts, oil or salt was rubbed into the flesh, and the body was dried in the sun or over a fire; then the mummy was wrapped in cloth and hidden away. In the islands this method was adopted with adults; but it preserved the body only for a short period. In several parts of New Zealand the bodies of children have been found thus preserved and wrapped in cloth. In several Polynesian groups the body is doubled up and then swathed; and in some parts of New Zealand the skeletons of mummified bodies are found in this crouching or page 71sitting posture. The Maoris assert ignorance of the people thus buried, and the lack of respect for the burial-places seems to confirm this assertion. It is doubtless a method of the megalithic people that have been traced into Polynesia and New Zealand. And the great dolmen-like slabs of wood often set up over the graves of chiefs were probably derived by the Maoris from the same source, wood being substituted for stone in so well-forested a country.

(10) Whatever the system adopted, its object was to prevent the bodies of the dead falling into the hands of enemies and being desecrated or absorbed by them. The megalithic chamber was the first effective sign of this fear, and was evidently adopted by the neolithic Caucasians when they came to wander over the face of the earth. They made the houses of the dead such fortifications as would resist all the attempts of an enemy to enter them. Cremation was the next method; for the ashes could be carried by the emigrants whithersoever they went, and were ultimately deposited in barrows or graves. In less migratory communities mummification or embalming was next adopted, so that the bodies might be kept often within or near the houses of the living. The preservation of the hones after burial for a time was a modification where embalming was impossible; and head-preservation was a second. Burial at sea was the measure naturally adopted by a maritime people to baulk their enemies and send their dead on the way to their primeval home. The adoption of all or most of these methods in Polynesia, and especially in New Zealand, is one of the most striking proofs of mixture of races and stages of civilisation in a region that has usually been supposed to be especially the home of a pure race.

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But the most Fundamental Phase of a People's Culture
is its Social Order and its Relationship to Land;
and here there is evidence in polynesia not
merely of adaptation to environment, but of
Inter-mixture of Race

(11) It is not in ceremonial customs alone that the social life shows signs of stratification. They are evident in the constitution of the Polynesian societies. The fundamental feature of these is the village community, which has been found among the Aryan Hindoos, the Slavs and the Teutons, and has been proved to be a primitive feature of most of those races that have for long ages spoken Aryan languages. Amongst Aryan-speaking peoples it consists of the division of the district surrounding the village into belts or zones, one held in common by the village for pasture, another split up into meadows for culture, each of which had a strip or strips apportioned to each family in the village; and these strips had to be cultivated in a fixed order of crops, so that all of a meadow should be in fallow at once, or in wheat or rye at once, and the village council, generally consisting of the elders, but in India of representatives, decided all questions of possession and culture of land. Now in Polynesia this method of constituting the relationship of the people to land is as evident, with adaptations made necessary by the environment. In islands where there are no mammals and no cereals there could not be the same distribution. There is no pasturage; but instead of it there is a belt of wild fruiting trees, where berries may be gathered, and birds and rats may be snared by all the people of the village, but under certain restrictions as to seasons, times and methods carefully prescribed, partly by long custom, partly by the chief or priest of the village, guided by the men of the village in council. Then there is the patch or belt of cultivated fruiting trees, page 73the cocoanut or breadfruit in the tropical groups, the karaka and other berried trees in New Zealand; and here the family that plants the trees is allowed the use of them, so long as it keeps them in order, even if the patch on which it plants them belongs to some other family, but has been left waste by it. Effective occupation is the true claim to land in Polynesia, and especially in New Zealand. Then close to the village are the patches cultivated from year to year. But, as there are no cattle to graze and no cereals to sow, there is no rotation of crops. It is always the taro or yam or sweet potato; and the root crop does not seem to exhaust the soil of a special element like some of the cereals, yet it manifestly did in time impoverish the ground, for from time to time the cultivated patch or belt was changed. Near the villages there are frequent signs of sections of cultivated land having been abandoned.

(12) And now come in the features that differentiate the Polynesian from the Aryan system. First of all there are clear proofs of the Polynesian and most of his ancestry being a maritime and fishing people. For every village has a sea frontage, or if too far inland, then a lake or river frontage, where it can find a variation in diet in the fish and other products of the water. Its canoe life is one of its most predominant features, and hence it must also have the rights to a section of forest, in which it can cut down trees to hollow into canoes. It is this necessity that caused the Maori soon after he came to New Zealand to make far inland in many parts, although by nature and tradition a sea-haunting people. On the other hand, he retained from some previous continental ancestry the traces of land nomadism, and even of the hunting stage. For the Maori never abandoned the right and the duty to migrate by land to some other part of New Zealand, even if he had to fight for it. And wherever he settled he took care that he had a considerable tract of hunting-ground, page 74chiefly forest. He had no large mammals to kill, until Captain Cook's pigs multiplied, and then he took to pighunting as if "to the manner born"; but he had rats and birds to snare. This hunting habit was doubtless resurrected or at least emphasised in him by his intermixture with aborigines who had not reached the agricultural stage. His abhorrence of manure he probably got from these pre-agricultural predecessors. Another strange predilection seems to point back to a riding ancestry, though it might be attributed to the squatting attitude. He admired knees slightly bent outwards, and a common occupation of the grandmother when she had the baby on her knee was to massage the little legs in this direction.

(13) There are other differentiating features that cannot be due to the new environment. There is, for example, something of the old patriarchal system that must have preceded in many races the village or localised community. It is the family that is the unit in the Maori clan or tribe as far as the possession of land is concerned; the family has its section carefully defined, and hunts and fishes and cultivates by itself, and can dispose of it by common consent, provided the approval of the tribal chief and council of elders is obtained; it stores its food in common, and acts generally as if it were an individual; within its own community it practises socialism; in the tribe it is an individual, with its ariki or tohunga to act for it. And, in spite of this internal socialistic democracy, it has the germs of aristocratic oligarchy, and even of monarchy in it; the council of elders or representatives is the final appeal in all matters of dispute, and has great influence over the actions and decisions of the ariki or chief. On the other hand once war has begun the chief is supreme, although when it is over he lapses into not more than the member of the oligarchy, or even the common member of the democracy. He has no more right to the page 75land than any other in the family. If he is a priest, or in any way sacred, he has first-fruits given to him as the representative of the gods. And, though primogeniture prevails, it has its limitations, for lack of character or courage or hospitality may depose the eldest son or heir from his rights. There was scope left for the rise of a minor, and the council of elders and the general community had as much to do with the selection for the chiefship as heredity; and the beginnings of modern property were seen in the permission to individuals to acquire land by marriage and other means.

(14) In the larger areas like New Zealand, where great forests and mountains allowed scope for the development and escape of aboriginals, and for conquest, there are the germs of feudalism; for there had been growing up, probably from the time of the great migration from Polynesia, a system of vassalage of varying character. A tribe that had been conquered was often allowed, instead of being reduced to slavery, to occupy its old territory on condition of contributing, as rental to the conquering tribe, a certain proportion of the products, or a certain amount of assistance in war. So an allied tribe was often given a piece of land as reward for assistance in warfare on condition that they returned every year a proportion of the fruits or game. Nay, there was an incipient feudalism in the constitution of the tribe itself. For every family in it that had land was expected to contribute all its available warriors in time of war. This might easily have passed into that military tenure of land which was the essence of mediaeval European feudalism, as of Japanese feudalism, if the service had been to the individual chief, instead of to the tribe, if, as occurred after the introduction of firearms, the capable leader, like Hongi or Rauparaha, had acquired permanent power by making war a profession, and had grown into the divider of conquered lands amongst his followers. In Hawaii and in Tonga this actually occurred page 76even before the coming of Europeans. A monarchy as the head of a feudalistic aristocracy had arisen.

(15) Thus we see in the social order and in its relationship to land not merely an evolution produced by new environment, but an intermixture of primitive and more advanced systems, the patriarchal and the village-communal, the family and the tribal, the socialistic and the feudal, the oligarchic and the monarchic.

Religion is the Greatest Conservator of the Past

(16) Even in religion this stratification is apparent, although the conservatism of this sphere renders the evidence of it more ambiguous. But as a rule it is only obscure traces or relics of cruder stages that are retained in the more advanced. And where there are broad tracts of several stages or phases manifest in a race or people, we may be sure that the civilisation is mixed as well as the race.

(17) Now, amongst primitive peoples, especially amongst most of those that spoke Aryan languages, the earliest sign of religious evolution was the development of a priesthood and priestly domination. The earliest prehistoric stage in which we find those peoples is the patriarchal, in which the father of the family performs all or most of the family rites, and the hearth is the altar; it is especially characteristic of nomadic shepherd races. When the Hindoos, Greeks, and Romans come on the historic scene, there is fast developing amongst them the dominance of a priesthood. For they have evolved the tribe, which throws household worship into the background, and the nation is tending to take its place. Amongst the Polynesians the two stages, the family and the tribal, are intermingled, in the tropical islands the family religion being the most prominent, in New Zealand the tribal. But even in the latter, though there is a great development page 77of the priesthood and its power, it has still a rival in the household; the separate family has many rites it can go through without the assistance of the priest. But the growing importance of the tribe through the almost permanent state of war tended to make the tribal rites and the priest supreme.

(18) But in another form the primitive or patriarchal stage persists more clearly. For the early household religion is based on the worship of ancestors. And in Polynesia, and especially in New Zealand, the preservation of the genealogy is one of the chief functions of the priesthood, and not only of the priesthood, but of all the elders and learned men of the community. They are all able to trace back their ancestry to the gods. Nay, the chiefs at least were able to boast that not only would they join the divine ranks at death, but they were divine already. And as a rule it is on the disappearance of ancestor worship that an elaborate priestly fabric is reared. Yet here we have the two intimately allied.

(19) Another mark of a highly primitive and especially Aryan religion is the absence of temples, or, rather, the performance of the rites in the open air. Though the Polynesian as an islander has no trace of the pastoral about him, and is a careful house-builder, he conducted his worship in the open. The innumerable rites and incantations necessary at every stage and movement in life were performed under the sky, often in the marae or public place; but an altar could be set up anywhere, on a journey or expedition, wherever there was a priest, a victim, and the materials for an oven. And yet in New Zealand at least there was generally in every village a building sacred to the teaching of the genealogies and cosmology, the wharekura; it was, in fact, a school of the priests. Here the youth of priestly or noble family assembled in the winter months, and under strict religious discipline learned the sacred traditions of the tribe and the race, the karakias or incantations, and the rites and ceremonies. It page 78was strictly tapu or forbidden to any but the sacred persons. Here we have the germ, at least, if not the full-grown institution, of a temple, or church, or synagogue, that essentially conflicts with the open-air character of most of the ceremonies. The wharekura belongs to a very advanced religion; the performance of all or most of the rites under the sky belongs to the most primitive stage of religion.

(20) The same contradiction appears in the Maori attitude to images. On one side of their religion the Polynesians seem to have none, and by many travellers and observers are reported to have none. They have no permanent human form in wood or stone that they worship; although the Maoris represent their deified ancestors in the monstrous carved figures on the doorways and walls of their public buildings, these are by no means objects of worship. And yet there is a feature of their religion that is distinctly fetichistic. The priest in his incantations and ceremonies sets up representatives of the gods in mounds of earth or pieces of toi-toi or stones, and to these presents special portions of the cooked food. And in the legends of the Maori immigration we hear of gods being carried in the canoes, some of which, as a lock of hair and the Mokoia stone-god, were preserved till the nineteenth century in their sacred places. And in the tropical islands the primitive totemistic system is manifest in the bird or beast or plant that a household or village adopts as its god and will not eat. Thus alongside an imageless system of worship, that usually belongs to an advanced stage of religion, there stand the evidences of two of the most primitive, if not savage, forms, the fetichistic and the totemistic.

(21) Nay, there was developed elaborately, especially in New Zealand, a religious feature that is essentially fetichistic. This was the famous tapu, that fettered life amongst the Maoris at almost every step in it. It was a plague of sacredness. Whoever was sacred infected everything he touched page 79with consecration to the gods. And whatever had thus the microbe of divinity communicated to it could communicate it to other things and persons, and render them incapable of common use or approach. Not till the priest had removed the divine element by ceremonies and incantations could the thing or person become common or fit for human use or approach again. The only thing that was always common and unclean, and therefore to be kept away from every person or thing that was sacred, was cooked food. The abhorrence of cooked food attributed to the Patupaiarehe or fairies, set beside this, seems to indicate an aboriginal source for the extraordinary strength of this feeling amongst the Polynesians.

(22) There is another curious trait of this legendary people that seems also to point to the primitive religion of aboriginals. It is that they had not the power of karakia or incantation. In other words, there was no priesthood amongst this indigenous population to deal with the tapu and other religious dilemmas of life; there were no sacred formulae or ceremonies, such as only a family or caste set apart for the purpose could remember accurately enough to make efficient, In short, the religion of the aboriginals was evidently in the primitive household or family stage, and had not developed into that use of magic and incantations which especially belongs to the priestly and monarchic concentration of a race or people, and which is especially characteristic of the older Babylonian religion. The life of the Polynesian was saturated with witchcraft and its attendant magic, which, according to their legends, went back right into the times of the gods. And in New Zealand makutu attained to such proportions as to sap and embitter the existence of the Maori. Everything seems to indicate that this dominance of witchcraft and magic came with the conquerors from South Asia, and did not originate with the people whom they subdued in the Pacific.

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(23) Thus in the most conservative of all phases of human culture, the religious, we find evidences of various contradictory stages in Polynesia, the primitive household-worship of the patriarchal stage, and the rise of a powerful priesthood that means advanced political organisation, the templeless worship of early nomads, and the beginnings of the sacred building that concentrates the art and the devotion of the community upon it, the imageless worship of an advanced people, and the totemistic, and even fetichistic methods of an uncultured race. The most striking contrast to this last is the splendid fragment of cosmology that Maori myth begins with, classing it as it does with the most imaginative and abstract mythology of the Aryan peoples. If these violent contradictions be taken along with those in the social customs and the social constitution, we can see that they are not due to development. Development obscures or obliterates most of the superseded stages, retaining only faint traces of them. Nothing but the intermixture of two or more races can explain them.