Story: Anthropology and archaeology

Page 3. ‘Salvage anthropology’ and the birth of professionalism

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The Polynesian Society

By the 1880s Pākehā anthropologists were convinced that Māori and other Polynesian peoples were rapidly losing knowledge of their customs and traditions, perhaps even dying out as a ‘race’. In 1892 S. Percy Smith and Edward Tregear founded the Polynesian Society, an organisation dedicated to recording material before it was lost. Other founding members included noted anthropologists Walter Gudgeon, Alexander Shand, W. H. Skinner, H. W. Williams and Elsdon Best. In the early years eminent Māori joined, including Tūreiti Te Heuheu, Hōne Mohi Tāwhai, Mohi Tūrei and Hoani Turi Te Whatahoro, along with the young Māori intellectuals Apirana Ngata and Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa). From the 1860s Māori had been carrying out their own ‘salvage anthropology’ (attempts at preserving cultural information before it is destroyed), with collectors such as Te Whatahoro and Hare Hongi (Henry Stowell) writing down traditions from a wide range of sources.

The early Polynesian Society was basically a Pākehā organisation of amateur anthropologists. Despite this, it had more Māori members, and more Pākehā members who spoke Māori, in its early years than at any later stage in its history. From the 1890s to the 1930s the Journal of the Polynesian Society mainly published articles about language and traditions, with limited coverage of material culture.

Moriori and the 'great fleet'

S. Percy Smith and Elsdon Best were the major promoters of the idea that a non-Polynesian ‘Moriori’ were the first people in New Zealand, later wiped out by the superior Polynesian ‘Māori’ arriving on a great fleet of canoes. This idea was based on the writings of the Ngāti Kahungunu scholar Hoani Turi Te Whatahoro. Te Whatahoro had combined a wide range of distinct tribal narratives to produce a single ‘traditional’ account of the migration to New Zealand.


In the 19th century all the major New Zealand museums were run by natural scientists. In 1903 Augustus Hamilton, whose principal interest was Māori art and artefacts, became director of the Colonial Museum in Wellington. Elsdon Best was employed at the museum from 1910 to work on Māori subjects.

There were further museum appointments of anthropologists, with H. D. Skinner at Otago Museum in 1918 and Roger Duff at Canterbury Museum in 1938. In the 1930s the director of Auckland Museum, zoologist Gilbert Archey, began producing a series of highly respected books on Māori art.

The first trained anthropologist – H. D. Skinner

In the late 19th century European and North American universities began establishing anthropology and archaeology departments. These were set up by scholars who were self-trained pioneers of the disciplines.

New Zealand’s first trained anthropologist was H. D. Skinner. He studied anthropology at Cambridge University in England, enrolling in 1917 after recovering from wounds he received at Gallipoli in the First World War. In 1918 Skinner was appointed to the dual roles of ethnologist at Otago Museum and anthropology lecturer at the University of Otago.

Skinner did not have the skills in Māori language that the early Polynesian Society scholars possessed, but had been trained in systematically analysing material culture. He made extensive studies of Māori and Chatham Island Moriori artefacts, including field trips to the Chathams in 1919 and 1924. He concluded that Moriori and Māori were very closely related Polynesian peoples.

Mākereti Papakura

Mākereti Papakura of Tūhourangi achieved fame in the 1890s and 1900s as ‘Guide Maggie’. She guided tourists around the thermal wonderlands of Rotorua and led concert parties on overseas tours. In later years she lived in England, enrolling in an anthropology course at Oxford in 1926. She based her thesis on her own extensive notes on tribal life. Papakura died suddenly in 1930, before she could present her thesis examination. In 1938 her work was published under the title The old time Maori.

Peter Buck

Peter Buck, also known as Te Rangi Hīroa, of Ngāti Mutunga, originally trained in medicine. His interest in comparative anthropology was stimulated by medical work in Niue and Rarotonga and among Northland Māori. While serving as an officer with the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion during the First World War, Buck measured the physical features of a large number of Māori soldiers. In the 1920s he wrote anthropological papers based on field trips to remote Māori villages and to the Cook Islands. In 1927 Buck was appointed as an anthropologist at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii.

Buck carried out extensive Pacific-wide studies of the Polynesian peoples. His books on Polynesian origins and migrations, particularly Vikings of the sunrise (1938), reached a wide popular audience. While Buck questioned aspects of the accounts of Whatahoro, Smith and Best, he accepted that there had been several waves of Polynesian settlers culminating with the ‘great fleet’.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Anthropology and archaeology - ‘Salvage anthropology’ and the birth of professionalism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014