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Mokomokai: Preserving the Past

Among Maori 'Curios' collected by Captain Cook in 1770, was a preserved Ngaitahu head; the first of many Mokomokai to be exchanged for muskets over the next Century by whalers, sealers and traders, who often negotiated for heads even before Maori had been killed.

Condemned men, usually slaves and war prisoners would be taken aboard ships, and captains would decide which man's head he wanted and it would be delivered later-in return for weapons.

Often, prisoners were tattooed before death: while occasionally, Ta Moko was incised shortly after killing.

During the early years of the 19th Century, trading in Maori heads was a thriving and very profitable business, a business described by Australia's Governor Darling as 'barbarous'.

In 1831 he issued a proclamation in Sydney condemning the trade in 'baked heads' but failed to end the traffic.

Not until 1840, when New Zealand became a British Colony, was any progress made against resistance among tribes in the interior, who continued the custom (among themselves) as late as 1870.

The method used by Maori in preserving human heads was unique and extremely simple.

First, the brain was extracted, the eyes removed and all orifices sealed with flax fibre and gum before the head was boiled or steamed in an oven.

A[gap — reason: illegible] being smoked over an open fire the Upoko was finally dried in the sun for several days before being treated with shark oil: finely incised tattooing of the head being perfectly preserved, along with the likeness of the deceased.

It was common for preserved heads of tribal enemies to be set up on the Marae and reviled or mocked.

A missionary, Rev W Yate recorded the following speech by a warrior to the preserved head of an enemy chief: You wanted to run away didn't you? but my greenstone club overtook you! and after you were cooked you were made food for me!.

And where is your father? he is cooked
And where is your brother? he is eaten.
And where is your wife? there she sits, a wife for me.
And where are your children? there they are [gap — reason: illegible] loads on their backs carrying food as my slaves.

The preserved heads of relatives, perhaps a son or husband, was treated with tenderness and kept, sometimes in famines for generations; being brought out, decorated and publicly displayed on all important tribal occasions-such as the tangi of a high chief or Ariki, or during inter-tribal of family meetings.

Among relatives, the heads of both women and children were also preserved, and stored in carved wooden containers.

Normally the heads were wives and offspring of chief s [sic], and notable Toa or warriors.

From the 19th Century, preserved Maori heads became a subject of scientific study by ethnologists, who have documented in detail tattoo and techniques of preservation.

At present it is estimated that over two hundred Mokomokai are in Museums both in New Zealand and overseas-with one to be presented to Ngati-Porou by Lady Tavistock.

Forming part of a very early collection of 'Pacific Curios' the head will possibly be the centre of controversy.

If, in turn it is gifted to the Gisborne or the National Museum, the many Maori advocates of burial for preserved heads will protest; while if buried, Museums will regard it a dangerous precedent that may create public demand for burial of all heads in Museum collections-something Museums will strongly resist.

Advocates of burial for Mokomokai claim that no scientific purpose is served by continued retention of preserved Maori heads in Museums as research is exhausted: all that can possibly be known about them is known.

Consequently a traditional burial, out of respect of ancestors or tupuna is called for.

To persist in the public display or conservation of head s [sic] in Museums, reflects not a disinterested scientific concern but (essentially) expresses a disquieting pre-occupation with the heads; something peculiarly European.

Ethnologists deny such claims, believing that there is still much to be learnt from the heads.

Traditionally, the human head was the most sacred part of the body and most subject to tapu; neither hands nor food could touch it, particularly if the head was a chief or Tohunga.

Related to Mokomokai, were ancient beliefs in the magical powers of such heads-which were connected to special prayers and ceremonies when publicly displayed in times of tribal and family mourning; the sacred head of a chief being the taumata or resting place of the ancestral spirit-communicated with through special priests.

In times of war, chiefly heads were focal points of tribal resistance: appealed to and placated on the same level almost as Atua or gods-their mana increasing with time and degree of success in prophesy and protection.

Painted with red ochre (Kokowai) and shark oil, Mokomokai were the highly valued possessions of a people remarkable for their cultural achievements, and deep sense of human continuity through the generations.

It was not until European intrusion that the traditional world of the Maori underwent radical change-under the pressure of missionaries, traders, settlers and the demands of a new warfare involving firearms generally exchanged for preserved heads-and all the highly esoteric beliefs and practices associated with them.

Inevitably, this loss of belief and practice contributed to the undermining of an ancient supportive religious system that, in turn led to wide-spread demoralisation and ultimately almost extinction of the Maori.

Such was the importance of Mokomokai and respect for them.