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10 Facts That Might Surprise You about the Māori Culture

If New Zealand is your dream destination, getting to know the Maori people will go a long way in understanding the country, its history, and their way of life.

Being one of the oldest inhabitants of the island nation, the history of the Maori will give you an insight into life in New Zealand before civilization.

But despite what the history books may lead you to believe, there is more to the Maori than meets the eye. If you want to know more about the true secrets of their culture, keep reading: this guide will teach you ten curious facts about the Maori people of New Zealand.

Related: 10 Ancient Rituals People May Not Know Much About

10 The Maori were not the first in New Zealand

The Maori may be one of the oldest tribes in New Zealand, but they weren’t the first to arrive. Between 1000 and 1600, an earlier group, the Moriori, set sail from the South Island of New Zealand and inhabited the Chatham Islands.

The islands were virtually uninhabitable to humans, but this did not stop the Moriori from living there. They went to great lengths to adjust and adapt to the environment, even having to change their clothing, diets, and military practices.

Their lives went on like this for a hundred years until the Maori came and changed everything. The Maori only wanted violence by killing the Moriori, seizing the territory and even enslaving most of them.

Even more macabre, cannibalism became a common practice: it was another way for the new tribe to get rid of the Moriori. They are definitely not a group you want to mess with![1]

9 You can’t visit a Marae without an invitation

A marae is a sacred meeting place exclusively for the Maori people. These longhouses contain educational and religious facilities and spaces where the people of the tribe can socialize, eat and sleep.

A marae is also a place where Maori can connect with their spiritual ancestors. A carved face can often be found on the front of the building. These are known as Koruru carvings and represent the ancestral leaders of the tribe. The arms of the ancestors are long beams with fingers or raparapa at their ends. The beams are supported by amos or legs, which support the entire building.

If you wish to enter a marae, you will need a personal invitation from a member of the tribe. A traditional powhiri ceremony must take place for you to be officially welcomed by the Maori people.

The ceremony begins through wero. It is an act of the Maori warriors that challenges the guests. Do not be alarmed by this because it is not a scary event. The entire ceremony usually consists of the guests singing with the Maori. At the end of the event, accepted guests are given a token before finally entering the marae.[2]

8 Maori have their own religion

Maori have historically recognized different gods and spiritual deities. But in the late 1820s, the people of the tribe began to change their religious lives, their moral practices, and their political thinking. It was also during this time that they began to adopt Christianity following the arrival of missionaries from Europe.

By the mid-1840s, more Maori attended religious services led by missionaries. And today, the Anglican Church, Te Hāhi Mihinare, has the largest Maori denomination. However, Maori Christians have their own unique ways of practicing religion.

Some of the commonly recognized traditional spirit beings of the tribe are as follows:

  • Lo—The supreme god
  • Papa and Rangi—The two fathers
  • Haumia—God of uncultivated food
  • Rongo—God of agriculture and peace
  • Ruaumoko—God of earthquakes
  • Tawhirimatea—God of weather
  • Tane—God of the forests
  • Tangaroa—God of the sea
  • Whiro—God of evil and darkness

That may sound a bit strange to us today, but many Maori still believe in spirituality today![3]

7 The warriors colored their tongues blue for battle

It’s no secret that the Maori tribe was home to many great warriors who constantly engaged in battle.

If you happen to see one of the trending YouTube videos on your feed, you’ll notice that they habitually stick out their tongues in a terrifying snarl, a traditional tactic used when facing off against their opponents. Maori sticking out their tongues represent bravery and defiance.

This tactic shows your opponents that you are ready to fight mercilessly to defeat them; Demonstrating ferocity in this way is a surefire way to intimidate enemies.

But why do warriors paint their tongues blue during battle? For most, blue is a sign of peace and tranquility. Maori warriors have their own understanding of color, painting their tongues blue to signify their longing for peace rather than countless battles.

So don’t be too scared if you’re greeted by a blue-tongued demon these days![4]

6 Maori is not just a language

When talking about the Maori language, remember the long history of the tribe. Maori did not natively inhabit New Zealand; they traveled from Polynesia during the 14th century.

And it was only during the 19th century, when Europeans settled in New Zealand, that the language of the Maori split into numerous variations of the Polynesian languages.

Due to centuries of geographic isolation, the Maori had no outside influences. This is why they had a single language with various dialects arising between different areas of New Zealand.

While the main language is Te Rao Māori, this tribe has three main dialects. These three dialects are:

  • Eastern North Island dialect
  • Western North Island dialect
  • South Island dialect

However, only the Eastern and Western North Island dialects are alive and in use today. Also, younger Maori have found a way to combine various dialects, especially in built-up areas.[5]

5 Maori tattoos were not done with ink

Before European settlers arrived in New Zealand, Maori tattoos, or tā moko, were not inked. In fact, the tattoo designs were carved directly into people’s skin.

This method of tattooing used special wide-toothed combs with different chisel blades. Tattooing is considered sacred to the Maori tribe, especially facial tattoos. The chisel blades were dipped in a blackish pigment. Using tā or small mallets, the entire comb is struck repeatedly on the person’s skin. The pigments used used to be soot obtained from burning white pine or kahikatea.

Another interesting aspect of these tattoos is that no two are alike. This stems from the principle that individuals are unique in their wisdom, lineage, and stature within the tribe.

So if you ever come across someone with a Maori tattoo, it’s worth asking what the meaning is. You never know what you may discover![6]

4 The Maori originally did not have a written language.

Before contact with European settlers, the Maori had no written language. Words about the history of the tribe were only passed down orally or in carvings.

During the first half century of European settlement, the best way to communicate was using the Maori language. If people wanted to trade, they had to learn to speak it.

But as the colonists’ presence increased, written communication became a necessity. 1814 was the first year Maori missionaries attempted to write the language of the tribe. 1820 was the year in which the language was systematized, thanks to a professor at the University of Cambridge.

It was also the same year that missionaries in New Zealand taught each other to write and read in the Maori language. They would use materials like leaves, charcoal, and carved wood, and with no access to paper, they would use cured animal skins.

Of course, today, the language has been Anglicized. As a result, you will now find Maori written in the usual way. However, there is no animal skin to worry about these days.[7]

3 Maori recipes are passed down from generation to generation

Before the implementation of the written language, the recipes of this tribe were transmitted orally. What’s even more fascinating is that many of these recipes are alive today.

A perfect example of this is Rewena bread. This unique bread originated from the Maori tribes and is one of their traditional recipes that is passed down from generation to generation. If you love sourdough bread, you’ll love Rewena too. It is a potato sourdough bread that uses fermented potato instead of yeast, which makes the bread firmer. For the best experience, eat Rewena hot with jam or butter.

If you visit New Zealand, you can find Rewena bread in most bakeries. But, if you want the real experience, be sure to stop by Jackson’s Rewena Bread in Whanganui. This bakery serves Rewena Maori-style, using the owner’s great-grandmother’s recipe.[8]

2 Captain Cook’s first landing was not well received

Captain Cook’s arrival at the Maori settlement began badly. In 1769, one of Cook’s men shot Te Maro, a Ngāti Oneone leader, in an unfortunate cultural misunderstanding: what was a ceremonial challenge to the locals was thought to be an attack by Europeans.

Fortunately, this was not the end of the story. Despite the rocky start, the Europeans and Maori were able to make peace. Just one day after the shooting, Captain Cook and Tupaia, a priest, had peaceful and diplomatic talks with the locals. The locals greeted Cook by giving him a hongi, a sacred rock. The greeting marks one of the most important early interactions between Maori and Europeans.

Although there are some political tensions between the Maori and the Pakeha today, you will find that those peaceful early beginnings have left a lasting impact on the culture.[9]

1 They had a unique burial process

One of the most unique things about Maori actually has nothing to do with the people who are alive and well today. Instead, it has to do with a sacred tradition regarding the dead! Tangihanga was one of the main burial practices of the Maori.

The deceased’s body was smeared with oil and red ocher, and then sat upright. The arms of the body are wrapped around the legs, while the knees are tucked under the chin. After being placed in this position, the body is covered with cloaks and mats. It would then be placed inside the meeting house for several days, where the community can say goodbye.

After the initial ceremony, the body is buried in a shallow grave or cavern. Several days or weeks later, the body is exhumed and the bones are washed and scraped. Additional mourning ceremonies will also take place in the Marae, while the bones are buried in out-of-the-way places.

You will still find Maori practicing this tradition today. Although, there are also many Western-style burials that continue.[10]

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