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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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Origin of Maori Carving

According to the tradition of some tribes, carving was invented by Rauru, the son of a remote ancestor named Toi. Others say that an ancestor named Rua, after defeating the Ponaturi, a people who lived under the sea, brought back the carved slabs from the Ponaturi meeting house and used them as patterns for the first Maori carved house. European students have suggested many origins, including Melanesia, Peru, and India. The fact that Maori carving differs from that of tropical Polynesia has given rise to many theories. There is little doubt, however, that the basic patterns came with the Maori from Polynesia. With the exception of Samoa and Niue, carved representations of humans were reasonably common in all of the larger Polynesian islands. Only one figure is known from Samoa, and that may be of Tongan origin. Tongan carved figures are naturalistic, with a pointed chin, the arms normally extended down the sides, and the knees bent. The same pointed chin occurs in the Society Group, the Austral Islands, and some of the Cook Islands. But throughout Eastern Polynesia there is a tendency towards a more grotesque, stylised figure. There is a strong family resemblance among the carved figures of Hawai'i, the Marquesas, and New Zealand. Gilbert Archey has shown that the very common arrangement found in Maori carving (a full-faced relief figure flanked by figures in profile) is also found in Rarotonga. Many of the Maori surface patterns could have evolved from these found in the Cook Islands. Although Maori carving differs from that of the Polynesian islands, it is equally true that the styles of the different islands also differ quite widely from one another. Even neighbouring islands in the Southern Cook Group show considerable divergence. Rarotongan carving is immediately distinguishable from that of Mangaia, its nearest neighbour, while Mangaian carving is quite unlike that of Mitiaro, and so on. This being so, it is not in the least surprising to find that the Maoris, separated from their kinsmen by long distances, and for centuries, have developed a characteristic style of their own. Nevertheless, there is a common thread running through Polynesian art which shows its evolution from the same basic designs.

It is apparent that Maori carving has developed greatly since the first Polynesians came to New Zealand. The earliest settlers probably brought with them a fairly simple set of basic designs and a small range of largely geometrical surface patterns with straight lines rather than the curvilinear patterns almost universally used when the Europeans first arrived. Archaeologists, particularly in the South Island, have recovered a number of archaic objects decorated with rectilinear patterns or simple notching similar to those found in many parts of tropical Polynesia. At the same time, the Maoris were not the only Polynesians to use spirals and other curvilinear patterns. The supposed absence of the spiral from the rest of Polynesia has been one of the arguments for tracing Maori carving to other areas, such as South America. The spiral, however, occurs in other Polynesian cultures, especially in the Marquesas, where it is used as a conventionalised ear on human figures, as the antennae of insects, and sometimes as a decoration on the knees of human figures, just as in Maori carving. Multiple spirals of the Maori type are also found in old tapa designs in Niue. The great development of carving in New Zealand was probably due to three factors. First, there was an abundance of straight-grained, easily worked totara timber, quite unlike the dense, cross-grained timbers of tropical Polynesia. Secondly, there was nephrite (greenstone), which could be fashioned into adzes and chisels far superior to the basalt, shell, or limestone adzes of the Pacific Islands. Thirdly, the population of New Zealand was far greater than that of most individual islands in Polynesia and probably contained elements from different parts of Polynesia. This would naturally lead to a faster development than would be expected in a small insular community.