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Yesterdays in Maoriland

Chapter XIII Vanishing Customs

page 197

Chapter XIII Vanishing Customs

I was glad to be able to make the acquaintance of the Maoris while still to some extent in their original state; and gradually in my intercourse with them my mind formed a picture of the many-sided diversity of a disappearing mode of life which I was never to forget. Since my day, the Maoris who live on in New Zealand have become through and through dark-skinned Europeans.

I eagerly seized what opportunities I had, while in the heart of Maoriland, to be present at their gatherings and koreros, and was able to spin together from the narratives of the chiefs and from my own observations a brief epitome of the life of this finest of all the Polynesian tribes.

The chiefs told me the Maoris are a mixed race; tradition has it that their forefathers originally came to New Zealand (Aotea Roa) from Hawaiki in thirteen double canoes. They landed at different spots in the North Island, and found them inhabited by dark-coloured men with curly black hair and small of stature. These original inhabitants — they called them Ngatimaimai — were found to be good husbandmen and hunters, but poor warriors. So the Maoris conquered them, killed the men, and took possession of the women. This union would account for the three differentiated types I noticed.

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Traditions lead only these few centuries back, but the holy bird, Korotangi, about which learned argument was raging when I left New Zealand, may perhaps prove a link with a still more distant past. The Korotangi is the figure of a small sea-gull carved out of dark green serpentine. It is said to have been brought from Hawaiki on one of the traditional canoes, the Tainui, but it does not exhibit the same style and ornamentation as other Maori works of art. It resembles rather an old Egyptian stone sculpture.

Sketch of the Tainui Korotangi

The Holy Korotangi.

Formerly it was prized by the Maoris as a sacred relic, and entrusted to a special guardian, who only disclosed its whereabouts to his successor. Perhaps through the sudden death of such a one, the bird got lost, and thereafter great sadness reigned over all Maoriland. The loss was made known by songs of lament, which spread over both Islands.

One day, while engaged in grubbing up a tree, a Maori found the precious bird. Joy was universal. To give but one instance of this, the Arawa of the page 199Ngatimaniapoto, when he saw the Korotangi once again, placed it before his camp, and uttered a tangi (lament) before it every morning.

An English lady, Mrs. Wilson, finally acquired the relic, and at the time of my stay I obtained permission from the then owner, Major Wilson, to take a plaster cast of it, which is now in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. It is a very difficult matter to estimate the probable age of the bird.

Fairly exact aids to the counting of the generations of the Maoris are the staffs (he rakau papatupuna) of the tohungas. These are hardwood sticks running from a thick end to a point, in which thick notches were cut side by side until the stick looked something like a saw. The priest (tohunga) of every tribe kept it in his possession,, and whenever the head chief died, a tally was cut. The age of a tribe can therefore be approximately determined by the number of notches, which take us back some fifteen or twenty generations.

Writing was unknown to the Maori, but they were well acquainted with the primitive ways of imparting information, e.g. knot-signs … secret signs of the different tribes similar to writing.

The religion of the Maori was not uniform, different tribes having special cults. Still it is interesting that all possessed in common the idea of the soul, the belief in its pre-existence, and in a life after death.

Here are a few brief examples told me from their abundant and thought-provoking mythology.

A story of the creation tells us that the god, Kote Ema, wished to perfect mankind. He created Kote page 200Tahuhunui, to help him with his work, but still mankind remained unperfected. So he created yet another helper, Ranginui, but the work still remained as unsatisfactory as before. At this, Kote Ema became so angry that he drove the good spirit out of mankind; only the body (Aitua) remained. Since that time there has been death and illness among men.

According to another legend, Rangi, the heaven, begat by Papatuanuku, the earth, six sons. They were clasped between the heaven, their father, and the earth, their mother. The eldest, Aitua, disclosed to his brothers that he had seen the light which their father was hiding from them. He urged his brothers to kill their father; but instead they determined to separate their father and mother. They propped their heads against the earth, and their feet against the heaven, and parted them with their strength. The sons remained firmly on the earth, and so it was light.

The myths dealing with immortality have much in common with our belief in heaven, purgatory, and hell. After death, so the Maoris believe, the soul journeys into the Rainga, the underworld. It lies northwards from the North Island. The souls of the departed on the way thither spring over a rocky cliff into the sea, through which they arrive in the Rainga. The Rainga is divided into three parts. The lowest is dark … there go the souls of the miscreants; they must hunger and wither. In the middle part it is still dark, but the souls receive nourishment, and through the prayers of the tohungas can be freed into the upper part. This part is filled with light, and is the abode of incessant page 201feasting. In earlier times, after the death of a chief, his widows and several slaves were killed, so that they could accompany him to the Rainga and attend to his needs.

Among a tribe in the south I found the following original cult ceremony:

The priest stuck a staff, out of the upper end of which the figure of an idol was carved, by its sharp end in the ground. He then fastened a string of flax round the neck of the god, and held the string in his hand. Before he began to pray, the priest tugged at the string in order to make the god aware that he was about to pray, and after each prayer he stuck a little stick in the earth so that he could keep count of the number of prayers said. Sometimes the god answered him, quite audibly too, the priest showing good form as a ventriloquist, as I soon discovered.

The Maori world of the immortals was quite as large and material as that of the ancient Greeks. Every animal, every plant, had its own creator…. Pawi, for example, was the god of the sweet potato (kumara); Papa, the god of the kiwi; Tangaroa, the god of fishes and of the sea. Also the souls of the departed were believed to resort at night to the dwelling-places of the living; the good ancestors would protect, and the bad do them harm.

Naturally the Maoris were very superstitious; they had so many good and bad demons whom they must not offend. Their greatest dread was of lizards, especially of the tuatara.

If a lizard ran out at a Maori and he did not im-page 202mediately kill it, he thought he must die. This superstition, which, as the excavation of lizard bones in old Maori cooking-places shows, could only be of recent origin, worked so suggestively in many cases that Maoris were known to die from auto-suggestion through fear of the tapu.

The horror they had of these animals expresses itself in a legend. A long time ago the Maoris ate great lizards as delicacies. A chief's wife who was pregnant asked her husband one day to go to the bush and fetch her a really big lizard. The chief went, but ordered his wife to eat nothing until he came back. The woman, however, became so hungry that she ate, in spite of his orders. Owing to her disobedience, when the chief came back with a number of lizards, they slipped out of the cage and killed him.

The conception of tapu, which played such a significant rôle in the conduct of state and family life, has been often described. I need only say that it was still a potent force, and that on occasion even my luggage was declared tapu as a precaution against thieving.

I had frequent occasion to admire the wonderful carvings fashioned by the Maoris with primitive instruments of stone. Most splendidly decorated of all were the posts and beams of dwelling and meeting-houses, patakas or storehouses, and the ornamental parts of the old war canoe; but weapons, tools, and articles of adornment were also richly carved, and I have made a particular note here of two rare and original pieces, both toys.

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The one, now in the possession of the Imperial Museum in Vienna, shows two persons, a man and a woman, engaged in fire-making, old style, since they are rubbing a pointed stick of hardwood into a groove of tinderwood to start a glow. The second is the kahu, or flying hawk, shaped out of flax-leaves, of which I have a picture.

I will neglect the marvellous building and carving technique of the Maori to describe the launching of the
Kahu, or indigenous kite

Kahu, a Maori Plaything.

last Maori canoe to be fashioned entirely by primitive means in accordance with time-honoured custom. This I had the good fortune to witness while I was in the King Country.

When it was ready, great preparations were made for the consecration feast, to which I was invited. On the morning of the feast, the ariki, Te Witiora, went into the bush with a numerous following. To the front and sides of the new boat, cords of vine were tightly bound. The ariki stepped to the front and page 204spoke a solemn karakia (prayer), and when this was finished he called me out to help him take the first pull at the ropes — a special favour.

A party of natives then seized on behind us, and the procession moved off, Te Witiora leading, beating time with his club, while the rest of us chanted as we dragged the canoe through the woods. As soon as one party was tired, another stepped up and took its place, and so it went on for some miles, until we reached the village of Hikurangi.

Here we were met by the girls and the women, who came, gaily painted with ochre and adorned with flowers, singing and dancing, to meet us. A halt was made before the chief's hut. The Maoris seated themselves on the ground in a circle, and each received a piece of roast pork garnished with sweet potatoes, set before us in little kits plaited out of tafra leaves; and a piece of uncooked meat in a flax-basket (kit) to take with him. Before my place of honour, and as a special surprise, stood a basket full of fine apples!

In order to show my gratitude I offered some to the chiefs, and as no one paid any attention, I laid an apple before each of them. I did not know then that among the Maoris it was considered a grave insult to offer a present to other guests, and was surprised when they silently put the fruit back in the basket. To show I meant no ill, I explained our European custom to them, but even then none of them would accept an apple.

After the feast the whole company started off again. page 205At each hut we came to there were further scenes of welcome, dancing, and feasting. In this manner we reached the Waipa River, in whose waters the canoe was to make its first voyage.

Tattooing was usually begun in the twentieth year. The priest of the tribe was the operator. The pattern was first indicated with charcoal; then the priest cut this in with a lance-like instrument of bone. At a single sitting only one or two ornaments were completed, further tattooing being then left until the scars had healed.

During this painful procedure, in order to incite the sufferer to courage and stoicism, the assembled members of the family sang songs, of which the following is an example: 'We sit together and look at the lines; they are curved as the foot of the lizard! Be patient! the maidens will gather food for thee. For the man who knows vengeance, let the lines be plain; for the man who knows not vengeance, let them be beautiful! Make them curved and leave them open! Our song shall soothe thy pain!'

The open wounds were sprinkled over with powder, either powdered kauri gum (Dammara australis), or powdered Aweta caterpillars.

Poetical gifts were held in high esteem by this impressionable race; so much so that one of the duties of every chief was to qualify himself as poet and orator. He was expected to deliver, in metrical language, the whole tradition of his tribe, and at all debates he was expected to express his views in perfect language.

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As an example of the Maori language, I will quote the following letter, sent to me by King Tawhiao, together with the poem included in it — an old chaunt sung or chaunted after a farewell speech when a chief returns to his own home after visiting another chief:

'Kia Raiheke,

'Tena ra koe, Kua tae mai tau reta mihi mai kia au, me tau pene aroha i tuku mai nei kia au.

'E hoa tena ra koe kua mea nei ki te hoki atu ki tou Kainga. Ae, e hoa, e whaka pai ana ano hoki ahau ki tau kupu i mea nei koe ka tae mai ano koe kia kite taua i mua o tou haerenga atu ki tou Kainga.

'Ae, e pai ana te haeremai Kia Kite taua, Ka hoki atu ai Koe Ki tou Kainga.

'Heoi nga Kupu, he Waita aroha tenei naku Kia Koe:1

Tawhiao's Chaunt of Farewell.

'Tera koia te ao Haere Matariaki mai teripa raro,
kia ringia kote roimata,
kia runa ko taku Tinana,




October 20, 1882.

'To Reischek, greetings! I have received your letter of good wishes and your gift of a pen. O, Friend, greetings to you! You say that you are thinking of returning to your Homeland. Good, my Friend, I approve of your resolve, and the promise of your words, that you will come once again to see me before you leave. Yes, it is good that you will come, that we may see each other again before you return to your own country. I will end these words with a chaunt of friendship for you.'

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whaka pa Rawaiho kira rora,
keite ngaru kahorao,
Te Awa kei tohu ete Rau Kamauru terangi,
nianako atu kite Tau,
whaka orua ana tearoha note. Tane ite ahiahi,
kati koia ete Wairua,
te kai whaka toro Mai te po,
Kia oho rawa ake kite ao,
Koau anake Te ehuri nei,
kei whaka pau noa te Manawa,
Mate otini raro eho Mai koe,
Mate Tonga Hau e pupuhi atu Tauarai tia kitawhite.'—
Kotoku aroha tenei Kia Koe Naku
Na Kiingi Tawhiao.' 1

To the Maori folk, life was once a continual alternation between fight and bacchanal. Feasting occupied the foremost place in the tribal scheme of life. Feasts were held upon the arrival of guests, after successful hunting or a rich catch of fish, at the launching of a war canoe, after a victory, and even to celebrate the event of death. The Maori regarded hospitality as a sacred duty. As among the old Teutonic tribes, mountains of provisions were heaped up for the guests, and the feast would only come to an end when the tribe was eaten quite out. They would then often move along to the next village and continue celebrating in the same manner.

Dancing, games, and sport played an important rôle at these gatherings. The warlike Maori loved, above all things, the rivalry of sport. Fighting according to

1 Mrs. Staples Brown, to whose kindness I am indebted for the translation of the letter from her native language, writes: 'I am sorry it is not possible for me to translate the chaunt, as most of the words used in these old chaunts are lost.'—Ed.

page 208precise rules, jumping, swimming, rowing, and (after the arrival of the Europeans) riding, best loved-sport of all were cultivated with zeal from childhood up.

The head chief (ariki) led the tribe like a father. Besides being head priest, he had to see that the fortified places and the plantations were kept in good order, and that the hunting and the catching of fish were carried out at the proper season. He it was who called the meetings and fixed the times of the feasts. It was part of his duty also to see the young men properly trained in the art of war, in hunting, fishing, and navigation, and in the arts of carving and rhetpric.

I found the chiefs throughout full of fatherly affection for their tribe, the foremost and bravest in battle, just and dignified men; and I nowhere observed signs of sponging or other misuse of power. The chief was supported in his office as head priest by the professional priests of the second and third order, the tohungas and the horomatuas. The tohunga was 'medicine man' and magician.

Propriety and order reigned also in the family life. The Maoris were polygamous, though it was usually only the chiefs who had a large number of wives, the ordinary members of the tribe contenting themselves with one, or at the most two. King Tawhiao had six wives.

The head wife of a chief had to be of noble birth; only her first-born child inherited the rank of chieftain, all her other children, as well as those of other wives, remaining ordinary members of the tribe. It is interesting that the rank of chief also devolved on a girl if she happened to be the first-born.

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Black and white photograph of the New Zealand bush, showing a mountain peak in the background

Bush and Mountain

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Just as the ariki was father, so his head wife was mother of the tribe. It was her duty to see that the maidens were educated in the arts of plaiting mats, of cooking and household work, and to superintend the other duties of the women. The women of lower rank had to give her their assistance.

On getting married, a piece of land and slaves were assigned to the girls by their own tribes. Should a man wish to marry a girl from another tribe, he had to attach himself to the tribe to which the girl belonged, or they both had to migrate and look for new land, where they would found a new tribe.

Children were often engaged to one another by their parents. In cases such as this, if, on reaching a ripe age, a girl should leave her intended husband and go away with another man, then the legitimate husband had the right to confiscate the property of the other and to fetch back the maiden. In earlier times the seducer was killed. But if the woman were badly treated by her husband, then the tribe took her away from him.

As a sign of courtship, the tihihihi, a piece of flax with open knots, was employed. If a Maori were pleased with a maiden, he would look inquiringly into her eyes; if she smiled, he would take her by the hand and stroke her lightly on the palm; if she made any reply to this sign he would then hold out the knotted flax, the tihihihi. If she drew the loose knots tightly together, it meant that she was ready to become his wife; but if she untied the knots and threw away the piece of flax, then the wooer knew he had been refused.

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There were sometimes cases of abduction (with the consent of the girl), but these were sanctioned by the tribe if the abductor paid some compensation (utu) to the girl's parents, in the shape of mats, provisions, and so on.

The different tribes settled in villages and pas. These consisted of a number of scattered huts and storehouses. In the centre of the village was always situated the usually wonderfully carved communal meeting-house (runanga or wharepuni), and before it was the village place (mare). Round about the village, and surrounded by high palisades, were the plantations. These were looked after with particular care, and kept well concealed from the prying eyes of stranger tribes. It was considered an affront if a stranger asked a chief after the state of the harvest, because he would suspect behind the question some intention to attack him by surprise.

Before they came in contact with Europeans, the Maoris planted principally kumara, or sweet potato (Ipomoea chrysorrhiza), taro (Caladium esculentum), para (Marathia salicina), an edible fern-root, and hue (Curcurbita), a kind of pumpkin, from the shell of which were fashioned drinking-vessels. Later, they took to planting potatoes, maize, tobacco, and other useful crops introduced by the Europeans.

While I was in New Zealand there were no signs of anything suggesting the least shortage of food or of the common necessities of life. Countless wild cattle, pigs, sheep, and native birds were living in the bush, the rivers and the sea provided their rich booty, and page 211a good deal of corn and many kinds of vegetables flourished in the plantations.

The Maoris had a peculiar taste in the preparation of food, what they loved most of all being things half rotten. Rancid potatoes, maize soaked in water until fermentation had set in, which furthermore stank horribly, were cooked as a special delicacy. Wild pigeons and other birds were eaten, including the entrails. Other delicacies, the dearly loved flesh of shark and eel, when hung up to dry around the huts, filled the air with a frightful stench.

Te Witiora explained to me that in earlier days the Maoris, owing to incessant inter-tribal wars, were often obliged to leave their plantations for months on end uncultivated, so that the crops were often rotten before they could be harvested. Out of sheer necessity they were then compelled to live on rotten food, until finally they preferred it to any other.

Before the arrival of the pakeha with his 'gift' of alcohol, the Maori knew of only one intoxicating drink, made from the fermented juice of the tutu berry (Coriaria sormentosa), which had a sweet taste.

The Maoris were a warlike race. The young men were reared like Spartans. The handling of club and spear was learnt according to fixed rules, and personal courage was considered an implicit duty. Inhuman as the causes of the countless war expeditions of the Maori tribes must appear to us Europeans, yet, generally speaking, they detested in the extreme any cowardly attack on the defenceless.

I witnessed one fight in the north part of the North page 212Island, and also learnt the methods of fighting from the war exercises and from the narratives which were told me.

The chief causes of fighting, besides cannibalism, were land and the robbery of women, and revenge for the insulting or killing of members of one tribe by another. In these last-named cases the declaration of war was preceded by a debate. If the parties could not come to an agreement, war was declared by means of recognised words and signs. The challenging chief would step up to his opponent, distort his face into a grimace, roll his eyes, and stick out his tongue. If the opponent also stuck out his tongue, it was a sign that the challenge was accepted.

On returning from a war expedition the ariki would offer up a prayer to the war god, Tu.

The warriors now danced a dance called the tupeke, during which they again struck their thighs with the palms of their hands. The slaves placed three ovens before them, in which the hearts of the fallen enemy chieftains were cooked. As soon as they were ready, the ariki offered a piece to the god of war, and the remainder was eaten. After the meal the ariki lifted the tapu, the untouchableness, from the warriors, and the tangi, the lament for the fallen, began.

The bodies of the chiefs were set up in a sitting position, clothed in their most beautiful mats, and decorated with all their adornments. They were left thus until decomposition set in.

It sometimes occurred that the widows of those who had fallen in battle would fall upon the page 213prisoners that had been brought back, and kill them.

At the time of my stay among the Maoris, burials were conducted in the following manner:

When a chief died, he was put on a bier in a sitting position, clothed in beautiful flax mats. His hair was adorned with feathers, and his stone axe (mere) was placed in his hand. His other weapons and articles of finery were laid at his side. In this position and thus clad, the body was left until decomposition set in. During this time tangis were held: that is, mourning ceremonies, to which friends and relatives came to show their esteem for the departed.

The widow received the arrivals before her hut with songs of lament, in the course of which she executed various movements with her arms and with the upper part of her body as a sign of her grief, and in her song she glorified the good qualities of the dead. The arrivals seated themselves around her in a semicircle, bodies bent, and let out a melancholy howling. Then a chief or an old chief's wife would stand up, go through the same movements as the widow during her salutation, and answer her with another song of lament.

Nose rubbing, the proper form of greeting, followed, all the assembled taking part. Thereafter the corpse, together with all objects which had been used by the dead during his illness, was carried to a hole, or laid in a coffin prepared out of an old canoe or a hollowed-out tree-trunk, or buried in a hollow tree.

There the body would remain until the flesh was completely decomposed. This finished, the priests page 214brought back the bones and the effects of the deceased, the ariki lifted the tapu from them with a prayer, and any objects of value were distributed among the relatives.

This ceremony was solemnly celebrated, all the friends of the deceased being invited. Upon the arrival of these guests, further tangis were held.

Thereupon began the bone-scraping, in which all took part. The bones were scraped with knives of obsidian, then rolled in a mat, and placed by the tohunga in a hole or the hollow of a tree.

These abodes of the dead were tapu, and also the tohunga, for a period of from four to six weeks afterwards, according to the rank of the dead chief. During this time, food was given to the tohunga by the old women by means of sticks of wood or mussel shells. The place in which the chief had died was deserted, and in many cases also burned down. This place also became tapu.

The natives told me they had frequently burnt dead bodies or thrown them into an active volcano. The Maoris of to-day bury their dead according to European custom, preferably in sand.

In earlier times the corpses of the more prominent chiefs were mummified. In 1875, old settlers in the northern part of the North Island told me that when they first came to New Zealand some fifty years before, they used to find mummified bodies in holes and also in trees, preserved in a sitting position.

This information interested me exceedingly, and I sought to get more information from the Maoris themselves; but at first they refused to speak of it. page 215Only later on, when I had won their trust and confidence, did they tell me how in former times their famous chiefs were mummified.

The intestines were removed, and the pit of the stomach stuffed with dry seaweed. Then the body was tightly bound up in a sitting position, smoked, and dried in the sun. The brain and the more fleshy parts were removed, and the head steamed in a cooking-pit, and afterwards smoke-dried.

I searched hill and wood, high and low, for signs of these mummies, but for a long time had no success. It was in Aratipu, in some hidden caves, that I found for the first time the remains of mats, a mouldering stretcher, articles of adornment, single skulls, and bones — but no mummy! Only at last, when I got right into the heart of Maoriland, the King Country, did I succeed in finding any.

Two Maoris, who had already become sufficiently Europeanised to be willing to renounce their national and religious principles for gold, led me one night to a cave near Kawhia, There I found four mummies, of which two were in a state of perfect preservation.

The undertaking was a dangerous one, for discovery might have cost me my life. In the night I had the mummies removed from the spot and then well hidden; during the next night they were carried still farther away, and so on, until they had been brought safely over the boundaries of Maoriland. But even then I kept them cautiously hidden from sight right up to the time of my departure from New Zealand. Now both these ancestors of the Maori adorn the ethnographical page 216collection of the Imperial Natural History Museum at Vienna.

Several interesting cases of cannibalism were related to me. On the Kaipara River lived the chief, Kantatu Winga. He received one day a visit from a friendly chief. As there was no meat for the entertainment of his guest, he ordered one of his wives to fix up a hangi, or cooking-pit.

When the woman had got ready the hangi, her husband ordered her to bring along their two-year-old child. Bitterly weeping, she brought it to the chief, but he, tearing it out of her arms, killed it, and ordered the mother to put it in the hangi.

Then he ordered her to prepare another and a larger hangi. When she had finished this, he gave her a blow on the back of the skull with his greenstone club, which stretched her dead on the ground, whereupon he pushed her body into the hangi with his foot, and ordered the hangi to be covered with earth. When the body was cooked it was eaten by the chiefs. After this gruesome meal they danced a war dance.

Another case of cannibalism took place in the village where Missionary Baker lived. He had taken a Maori girl, the twelve-year-old daughter of a chief, as nursemaid in his house. One day her father came and asked if he might take her away for a brief holiday, as a feast was being celebrated in his village.

She was given permission to go, and after several days returned. Her whole character now seemed changed, for whereas formerly she had been shy and quiet, she was now continually in a boisterous humour. page 217The missionary questioned her as to the cause of this change, and she told him, beaming with joy, that she had never before in her life had such a good time as at this feast. There, with her father's permission, a great honour had been conferred upon her — she had been allowed to kill a slave with her own hands!

The poor fellow had had his hands bound together, and had been forced to seat himself on the ground while a stone-axe was solemnly handed over to the girl. With this she had killed the sacrifice with a blow on the back of the skull, for which deed the Maoris held her now in high esteem. The missionary, on hearing this strange confession, dismissed her instantly.

Chief Pairama told me that in Aratapu, where to this day the remains of a great Maori fortress are to be found, the inhabitants of the pa once received a visit from a 'friendly' tribe. Immediately the cooking-places were fitted up and the food prepared. When, however, the guests saw they were to get no human meat, they fell upon their hosts, killed most of them, and ate them.

One explanation of the causes of cannibalism was given me by Te Witiora. He said that the Maori tribes, always very warlike, had been at constant war with each other, and as a result their plantations and their hunting and fishing had fallen into neglect. The resulting famine at length drove them to eat the flesh of their fallen enemies. Of their own tribe they killed only the criminally disposed and the superfluous or useless. Finally they became so accustomed to eating human flesh that they began to prefer it to any other food.