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The Māori
Whakapapa (genealogy)

Māori genealogy is described using the term "Whakapapa". "Papa" is a reference to something broad and flat. "Whakapapa" means taking place in layers. This is how the various orders of genealogies are seen according to the Māori.

A descendant is an "Uri", which means offspring. The Māori trace their descent back to the arrival of the first canoes from Hawaiiki (presumably near to Hawaii) The most famous wakas (canoes) were the Arawa, the Tainui and the Mataatua. The word "waka" means both "canoe" and/or "tribe", in the social sense of the word. From here, each waka separated into "iwi" (tribes), being descended from each individual crew member.

The whanau is a group of closely related persons from related tribes or sub-tribes. A number of whanau grouped together would become a sub-tribe, or hapu. When a hapu group came together, to form a tribe, it became "iwi". A prefix to a tribal name would indicate the tribe, such as "Ngati" Toa.

Whakapapa is the actual recital of genealogy, and a genealogical stave is used when the whakapapa recital is taking place. These are wooden sticks, called "whakapapa rakau", with knobs running down the shaft. The knobs on the genealogical stave serve to help the memory when a person is reciting the whakapapa - the knobs representing the different ancestry.

A genealogical stave may count up to 18 successive generations in its carvings, and most original whakapapa rakau averaged over a meter in length.

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Arts and Crafts

[1]Before the arrival of the Europeans Māori literature, stories and legends were handed down both orally and through weavings and carvings. Some carvings are over 500 years old.

Te Toi Whakairo is the art of Māori carving, and Tohunga Whakairo were the great carvers - the master craftsmen. A master carver was highly considered. The Māori believed that the gods created and communicated through the master carvers.

While modern artists can learn their art at an online art class, the master carvers had to learn through handed down traditions.

Carving used to be a tapu art, subject to the rules and laws of tapu. The pieces of wood falling aside as the carver worked were never thrown away, neither were they used for the cooking of food. Women were not permitted near the carvings. The history, traditions, language and religion of the Māori make up an integral part of the carving art. To the Māori, all things possess a spirit (wairua), and a mauri (life force).

Felling a tree was to cut down a descendant of Tane, the god of forests and of man. Before committing such an act, a karakia (ritual incantation) was recited by the Tohunga, in order to ensure that the act of felling an offspring of Tane could be carried out safely.

The Māori differed from other Polynesians in that they preferred curves to straight lines in much of their carvings. Many carvings take the distinctive koru spiral form, similar to that of a curving stalk, or a bulb. The koru form represents the basis of the red, white and black rafter patterns, such as those illustrated in the image below.

Picture : Porch of Te Rauru meeting house in Whakarewarewa, showing poupou (upright wooden slab carvings forming the solid framework of the walls of a whare, tukutuku panels (ornamental lattice work) and kowhaiwhai (rafter patterns).Date unknown, circa 1910? Photographer unidentified.
Porch of Te Rauru meeting house
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mätauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any reuse of this image.

click here to enlarge this image (64k)

Often Manaia, a side-faced and sometimes birdlike figure, may be found in Māori carvings. Easter Island is known for its distinctive Manaia, made up of a side-faced man with a bird-head. In Hawaïi Manaia also exists, referred to by the Hawaïians as a bird-headed deity. In South America, and particularly in Peru, a number of different mania types estimated to have been carved around 2 000 years ago may also be found, leading to speculation as to whether early Polynesian voyagers visited South America, or whether South American voyagers traveled to the Pacific, introducing their Manaia to the Polynesians.

Marakihau carving represents deep sea taniwha (monster) and ocean gods, particularly to be found in the Bay of Plenty area of New Zealand. In Māori legends Marakihau was often a mythical sea monster. Marakihau may decorate the porches of carved houses. A typical feature of Marakihau is its human form, but including a long tongue by which the Marakihau monsters were capable of swallowing up canoes or men. Quite often a type of crown form was situated on the top of the head.

Sometimes a one-eyed human face can be found in older carvings. It is thought that this particular figure may represent a demi-god who lived equally well on land or in the sea. Certain legends speak of one-eyed monsters, being part fish, part god and part man.

The lizard is the only animal represented in Māori carving - possibly inspired from the native tuatara. Contrary to other depictions, the form of the lizard was never deformed or misshapen, possibly because the lizard was so revered. The small green lizard, found in the forests, was the most dreaded of all lizards. In carvings the green lizard embodies Rakaiora, seen as a god.


Māori weaving was made from the New Zealand flax (phormium tenax). From the flax, baskets, floor mats, skirts and cloaks were and still are made. There are more than fifty different varieties of the New Zealand flax, and the Māori know the advantages of each type of flax for its respective use.

The first Polynesians brought the art of weaving and plaiting to New Zealand. Because of the cooler climate, weaving techniques adapted and developed into those used today.


[1] Bibliography for carving :
Māori Carving Illustrated - W.J. Phillips - Reed Publications
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Related Links
Arts and crafts
Maori carvings - bone, jade wood. Spiritual meanings, historic backgrounds.
The Tiki
More Māori art and craft links here
Guides to Māori whakapapa research :

Māori genealogy resources - Whakapapa Māori from


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 Please be aware that this website is a personal homepage. It would therefore be wise to cross check information which I have presented here. A list of many official New Zealand history sites may be found within my Links section.