The Spread Of Peoples And Civilizations, New Zealand
Author: Schwartz, Stuart B.
Date: 1992

The New Zealand Landfall And The Development Of Maori Culture

Perhaps as early as the 8th century A.D., the crews of canoes or rafts
from the Society Islands and other parts of eastern Polynesia had sailed
thousands of miles to the southwest and by chance discovered the two large
islands that today make up New Zealand. Over the centuries additional bands of
seafarers reached the islands, where they embarked on a struggle to survive in
an environment that was colder and harsher than their home islands in
Polynesia. Their success is evidenced by the large numbers of Maoris - the
people descended from the Polynesian seafarers - who lived in the islands when
the Europeans first came to stay in the late-18th century. If the high
estimates of 200,000 people at this point in time are correct, the islands
contained the highest concentration of Polynesian peoples anywhere in the
world.

Early Settlement And Modes Of Survival

The "land of the long white clouds," as the Polynesians referred to the
mist-covered islands that made up New Zealand, had few edible plants beyond
berries and fern roots. There were no native land mammals except bats and
various kinds of moa, or large wingless birds. However, overhunting led to the
extinction of the moa, and both early settlers and later migrants had to find
new sources of subsistence. Fishing and the introduction by later migrants of
many of the staple crops of Polynesia, including the sweet potato, taro, and
yams, filled the dietary gap left by the disappearance of the moa. Perhaps to
compensate for the shortage of protein in their diet, settlers ate dogs and
rats, which had also been brought to the islands by migrants from Polynesia,
and human flesh, usually carved from enemies killed in war.

The relatively moderate climate and rich soils of the north island
rendered it more suitable for settlement than the cold and desolate south
island that stretched beneath the fortieth paral el toward the South Pole.
Consequently, Maori tribes numbering in the thousands warred over control of
the forests and croplands on the north island. Long before the arrival of the
Europeans, tribal territories with clearly defined boundaries had been
established throughout most of the north island.

Maori Culture And Society

Maori tribes were given the names of the semimythical canoes that were
believed to have carried their ancestors to the islands. Each tribe was
divided into subgroups called hapu, the primary unit of identity and
community. Within hapu villages the Maori lived in extended families, which
included up to five generations, in large, elaborately carved wooden houses.
All the land the Maoris farmed for their subsistence was owned by the hapu
village and allotted by a communal council to each of the extended families
for their support.

Each hapu was led by a male chief who was not a specialized political
leader, but rather a particularly skillful warrior. Chieftainships were
hereditary although weak leaders were soon displaced by more able warriors.
Despite the magical aura associated with the hapu and tribal chieftains, their
actual power was limited by village and tribal councils made up of the free
males of a given group. Virtually all hapu communities also included slaves,
who were usually prisoners of war or their descendants.

Though they had a s rong voice within the family, women were clearly
subordinated to men. Male dominance was evidenced by the monopoly they enjoyed
with regard to positions of leadership and to highly prestigious activities
such as making war and wood carving.

Maori society had not reached the level of development where full-time
specialists could be supported, but many kinds of religious and craft experts
were recognized. Several kinds of priests varied according to social status
and functions. The most esteemed were the chiefs who were also trained as
priests. The chief-priest presided over communal ceremonies and knew the
special prayers designed to protect the tribe or hapu from human or
supernatural enemies. The Maori world was alive with spirits, gods, and
goddesses who intervened constantly in human affairs. At the other end of the
social scale were shamans who specialized in healing and served as the
mediums, by which gods and spirits made their desires known to humans.

A Society Oriented To War

In addition to priests there was a wide variety of experts in Maori
society, ranging from those who built canoes and made the ornate wood carvings
that decorated Maori homes to those who tattooed the men's faces, thighs, and
buttocks and women's lips and chins. The most important experts, however, were
those with skills relating to making war. Maori society was obsessed with war.
During the appropriate season, tribes and hapus fought regularly with their
neighbors or distant confederations. Young males proved their worth as
warriors, and leaders could not long maintain their positions without
demonstrating their martial prowess. Much of the time and energy of Maori
males was devoted to planning campaigns against neighboring tribes or building
the intricate hilltop fortresses found throughout the north island. Though the
loss of life in Maori wars was low by European standards, their combats were
fierce. Hand-to-hand fighting with spears and exquisitely carved war clubs was
the preferred mode of combat. Successful ambushes and surprise attacks were
highly admired. The priest-leader of a hapu or tribe would cut out the heart
of the first enemy killed in battle and offer it to the gods of his people.
Enemy casualties were sometimes eaten; enemy prisoners, including women and
children, were enslaved.

On The Threshold Of Civilization

Polynesian seafarers had accomplished much in the harsh but beautiful
environment of their New Zealand landfall. Mainly on the basis of imported
crops, they had developed a fairly steady and productive agricultural system.
Though they did not work metals, their material culture was quite impressive.
In woodworking and decoration in particular they excelled the Polynesian
societies from which their ancestors had come. They had also developed a
wonderfully rich oral tradition, which placed a premium on oratorical skills
and produced a complex and fascinating collection of myths and legends. Though
divided and politically decentralized, the Maori had developed closely knit
and well-organized communities within the hapu and tribe.

Their isolation and limited resource base prevented the Maoris from
achieving the full occupational specialization that we have seen was critical
to the advance to true civilization elsewhere. Isolation limited technological
advance and Maori resistance to disease. These limits rendered them vulnerable
to peoples such as the Europeans, who possessed more sophisticated tools and
weapons and transmitted diseases that decimated the tribes of New Zealand
severely. Though their skills in war and their adaptability allowed the Maori
to survive in the long run, they could do little to prevent the disintegration
of their culture and the destruction of much of the world they had known
before the coming of the Europeans.
 

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