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The Coming of the Maori

Origin of Maori Curvilinear Art

Origin of Maori Curvilinear Art

Various theories are held regarding the presence of curvilinear art, particularly the double spiral, in New Zealand. The double spiral has been traced back to the Mediterranean whence it was carried through India to south-east Asia and Indonesia. From Indonesia, it seemed feasible enough for the early Polynesian ancestors to bring the double spiral with them into Polynesia and for the Maori ancestors to carry it on to New Zealand.

The objection to this simple sequence is that curvilinear art is not present among the other branches of the Polynesians. The objection was met by assuming that Polynesian art was originally much more highly developed but that it degenerated into using rectilinear forms. The ancestors of the Maori escaped the degenerating process and so the double spiral survived in New Zealand. The theory of such wholesale degeneration in Polynesia is based on very flimsy grounds. Apart from sheer rationalization, the evidence for degeneration appears to be based on the carving of Raivavae in the Austral Islands and Mangaia in the Cook Islands. In Raivavae, the ceremonial paddles were carved on the enlarged shaft knobs with female figures and on the shafts and blades with geometrical figures. In some more modern paddles with a rectangular flat page 326expansion in place of the shaft knob, the female figures were carved in rows. Sometimes, owing to lack of depth in the rectangular field, a second row of figures were carved without heads. As the figures had laterally flexed arms and legs, adjoining figures formed a geometrical pattern of lozenges. The geometrical lozenges incised on the shafts and blades of the paddles were therefore regarded as degenerated forms of headless human figures. The same theory was applied to similar geometrical figures on the shafts of the Mangaian ceremonial adzes. Instead of the lozenge pattern proving degeneration, it merely indicates that the carvers exhibited sense in using a motif that was more suitable for the parts of me articles they were decorating. There is no reasonable evidence that a curvilinear art ever existed in Polynesia or that it was more highly developed man it was at the period of European contact.

As against wholesale degeneration in Polynesia, I believe that when the Polynesian ancestors entered Polynesia after a gradual infiltration through Micronesia, their arts and crafts had been reduced to the level of an atoll culture. If the double spiral and curvilinear art had started off with their ancestors from Indonesia, they were lost or dropped in Micronesia and not in Polynesia. The shell implements available in an atoll area are not conducive to the production of complicated patterns on wood. In the high islands of western and central Polynesia, a rich supply of raw material became available, and the Polynesians began to build up rather than break down.

Another theory is diffusion from outside of Polynesia. This is based on the presence in the Solomon Islands of a scroll motif formed of the interlocking beaks of frigate birds; and in the Massim area of New Guinea, of the scroll and the single spiral. The possibility of diffusion from Melanesia gained some support from the interpretation of an unreliable Maori legend that the first settlers of New Zealand were of Melanesian stock. However, Skinner (72, p. 229), from an analysis of the decorative art of the Pacific, regarded the evidence as insufficient. The story of early Melanesian settlers, who might have brought the scroll, has been proved to be a myth.

Turning to New Zealand, it is regrettable that no pieces of carved woodwork associated with the moa hunters have survived decay. However, the Awanui swamp in the far north has preserved a priceless relic of the past in the well-known Kaitaia lintel. The chevron motif so boldly executed evidently belongs to an early rectilinear period of art and Skinner (74, vol. 43, p. 213) links the chevron amulets (Fig. 82) with it as archaic Maori. Other carvings recovered from northern swamps and described by Archey (5) probably belong to the period of the Kaitaia lintel and though the specimens are all too few, it is significant that the double spiral does not appear on them. It is possible that these archaic forms of carving page 327illustrate the rectilinear art which the moa-hunter ancestors brought from Polynesia. The descendants of the moa hunters of the north possibly carried on the older art for a longer period owing to their marginal position with regard to a centre of development further south.

With regard to local development, mention has been made of Archey's theory that the manaia and marakihau were both developed locally by exaggerating certain parts of the human figure. From an analysis of carving designs, he (4, p. 179) also concluded that the interlocking mouths of manaia figures, particularly on the lower ends of barge-boards, had progressed into the double spiral motif. It is possible, or even probable, that two curved ends could form the commencement or centre so that if the two curves were continued parallel to each other, the double spiral with its typical centre would develop automatically.

An artist's view, held by Page Rowe (63) is that the spiral could have been developed geometrically by the Maori artists without any evolutionary assistance from the manaia or any other object.

Among the objects suggested as providing a pattern for the spiral are a lizard's tail, a seahorse, and a doubled rope coil. A lizard's tail coiled into a spiral seems a rather fanciful source of inspiration. A dried seahorse used as an ornament might give the maker of a circular fishhook, the idea of continuing the curve into a koropepe ornament. However, the koropepe is a single spiral which could have been developed artistically by continuing the curve of the curved point. The looped rope coil that a European sailor may make on a broad deck was not possible in the narrow hold of a canoe even if the Maori sailor had a spare rope with which to experiment.

Another originating pattern is suggested by the application of the terms pitau and tete to the large pierced double spiral motif in the figure-heads of war canoes. Both pitau and tete refer primarily to the young shoots of a plant, especially the circinate frond of ferns. The phrase "pitau whakarei waka" means literally "the fern frond which beautifies a canoe". Unlike the other suggested patterns of origin, the spirally curved fronds of ferns were a common sight and they had a practical significance in the life of the people. The curling fronds of young bracken fern (rarauhe), when they began to open out, indicated the season for shark fishing. The rhizome of the bracken fern was used for food. The curling shoots of forest ferns (pikopiko, mauku) were gathered as a green vegetable. Tree ferns (ponga) were cut down and the leaf heads lopped off to obtain the edible pith in the upper trunk. Tree-fern slabs were used for kitchen walls and fences. The young fronds of the large tree ferns (Cyathea dealbata) had a majestic appearance as they rose from the centre of the leaf head to expand into the new leaf that would take the place of the old in the page 328family of leaves. The symbolism of decay and growth was expressed in the saying:

Ka mate he tete, ka tupu he tete.
As one frond dies, another frond grows.

A variation of the saying to apply specifically to chiefs was made by adding kura (red) to tete so that tete kura symbolized the chief who had the privilege of adorning his face with red ochre.

Hinga atu he tete kura, ara mai he tete kura.
As one red frond falls, another red frond rises.

Two objections have been raised against the fern frond forming the inspirational pattern of the carved spiral One is that the names pitau and tete may have been given after the birth and adoption of the large spiral motif. The other is that Maori art was not representational and, though the lizard appeared rarely as a motif and the whale (pakake) was depicted very conventionally on the barge-boards of houses, no floral motifs were ever used. We do not know what motifs may have been used in the forgotten past but in the curvilinear art which had progressed to the stage of curves and loops, the spiral fronds of ferns seem to be about the only appropriate inspiration that could have been derived from the New Zealand flora. In the wide range between the small single spiral of the koropepe type and the large double spiral of war canoes, more than one factor may have influenced the development of variations in the spiral motif. The koropepe ornament, which is rare, may have been developed from a circular fishhook and the small or short spirals may have been developed from the interlocking curves of manaia mouths or even geometrically from other curved ends. The Maori carver, however, was an artist as well as a craftsman and he was a close observer and lover of nature. When he was carving curved lines, it is difficult to see how he could have avoided being influenced in thought by the spiral curve of fern fronds which he admired to the extent of using as a symbol of chieftainship.

The double spiral of war canoes differed materially in technique from the smaller, incised spirals used as subsidiary motifs. The pitau spiral is pierced or open work with short connecting pieces or nodes fairly closely spaced between the spiral ridges. In a coiled tree-fern frond, the spiral is formed by the leaf midrib and the unopened pinnae of the leaf appear as knobs at close intervals between the spiral turns of the midrib. Though the connecting nodes in the carved spiral were a structural necessity, the large tree-fern frond with its unopened pinnae may have suggested the large pierced double spiral of war canoes as a further development of an already established spiral motif.

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The activity in woodwork which took place in New Zealand was never approached in any other part of Polynesia. Instead of the richness of Maori carving causing surprise when compared with that of their Polynesian kinsmen, it should be regarded as a natural result of the extra work which eventually led to the development of schools of carving. On the present evidence, it appears that Maori curvilinear art was a local development which was at its height at the time of first European contact. I agree with Archey (4, p. 184) mat "the most satisfactory interpretation of Maori carving designs may be made in terms of local development, rather than in ethnological associations", or in other words, in local development rather than diffusion from abroad. Its beginnings were probably associated with me activities which took place after the arrival of the Fleet when the later mixed tribes had developed and tribal rivalry and competition took place not only in war but also in the arts and crafts.

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