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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
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.



Houses and Domestic Life

The warmth-loving and scantily clad Polynesians soon discovered that at night, particularly during winter, it was warmer to sleep below ground level than on the surface. In New Zealand, therefore, most of the buildings were excavated over the floor area to a depth of anything up to 18 in. and, in some instances, to 3 or 4 ft. This follows a Northern Hemisphere custom and is the response of primitive man to a major environmental discomfort. Side walls, if exposed, were piled with earth to add to the security and warmth within. A small charcoal fire surrounded with stones added to the interior warmth. Walls of sleeping houses not seen from the exterior were usually of tree-fern logs set upright as these minimised the risk of fire.

The first settlers appear to have introduced the oval and circular types of Polynesian houses, modified to suit local conditions. The oval house had sometimes a porch attached (Phillipps, 1952). This house persisted right down to the end of last century among the muttonbirders of the South Island.

In the Classic Maori period, which followed the migration of 1350, rectangular houses became better established while, in the North Island, circular and oval houses were gradually relegated for use as kitchens, storehouses for implements, and the like. In the South Island oval sleeping houses persisted until the arrival of Europeans. All rectangular houses had two main upright poles which supported the ridge pole or tahu. From the ridge pole depended the rafters (heke), which were supported below by main wall slabs (poupou), securely sunk in the ground. With the earth well piled up at the sides, such a house was known as a wharepuni or warm house. Larger houses of assembly gradually developed. These were used for tribal gatherings, etc., but were not common until after European contact when steel tools were used for felling trees and working timber. Such houses were whare runanga. Many were ornamented with carving, while spaces between the poupou were filled with ornamental panels of tuku-tuku designs.

Kitchens were for the most part primitive structures barely adequate to keep out the rain, though in large communities log houses were built, the logs being usually of mamaku (Cyathea medullaris), while in others logs were placed horizontally and used as required for fuel. Less consideration was accorded to cooks and those concerned with the preparation of food than to any other section of the community. As food destroyed the tapu of man, kitchens were established well away from the houses of chiefs. All food was consumed outside dwellings in the open air. It was usual to have two meals per day, the main meal being in the evening. In the kitchen was the earth oven, or umu, also known as hangi, a pit some 3 to 4 ft in diameter and up to 18 in. deep. Quantities of wood, large and small, were piled in the pit, and selected oven stones (taikowhatu) were spread over the wood. As the wood burnt, the stones became heated and gradually sank into the oven cavity. Embers were raked aside and the stones levelled out, some being put aside for placing on top of the food when it was arranged in the pit. The pit was liberally soused with water; quantities of green stuff were placed over the stones, and then food such as kumara and fish, and greens such as sow thistle, were arranged in alternate layers. The hot stones set aside were then placed on top. Again liberal quantities of water were used, and a mat to cover all. On this the earth was piled. Food was ready in one and a half hours.

Mats or whariki were much used on floors of whares. Some were coarse and made of raw flax used in strips while others were plaited with finer strands of partly prepared flax, each strand passing over two others in the plaiting. The making of mats was women's work and some became specialists in this work.

Fire was produced by the friction of wood upon wood, the fire plough of Polynesia. Three trees supplied the necessary material. These were the kaikomako, (Pennantia corymbosa), makomako (Aristotelia serata) and the mahoe (Melicytus ramiflorus). The upper rubbing stick was known as hika or kaurima and the lower grooved stick as kaunoti. It was correct and customary in firemaking that a woman should steady the lower stick while a man operated the rubbing stick. In ritual ceremonies sacred fires were kindled to add mana to the proceedings.

Next Part: Stone Tools