Herea, later known as Te Heuheu Tūkino, was born around the middle of the eighteenth century. He was the son of Tūkino, leader of the Ngāti Tūrumakina section of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, and his wife, Parewairere. Through his mother, Herea was related to powerful leaders of Ngāti Maniapoto and of Waikato tribes. As well as Ngāti Pēhi hapū (known later as Ngāti Tūrumakina), he belonged to Ngāti Te Aho (known today as Ngāti Kurauia and Ngāti Tūrangi), who lived in the Tokaanu area.
The name Te Heuheu derives from an incident which occurred during the lifetime of Herea. Te Rangi-pūmamao, a major leader of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, died while with his Ngāti Maniapoto relatives. The people who set out to return his body to Taupō found the journey difficult, and placed the body in a cave at Kaiwhā, on the north-west side of Lake Taupō. They returned to their homes after carrying out appropriate rites. A few years later, when a party came from Taupō to take the bones to the ancestral burial ground, they found the entrance to the cave concealed with brushwood called māheuheu. The name Te Heuheu was then given to Mananui, the eldest son of Herea and his first wife, Rangiaho. Herea himself, after becoming paramount leader, was widely known as Rangimāheuheu, which became Te Heuheu. From that time on the name has been given to the oldest in the family's male line in each generation.
Herea first distinguished himself in the wars against Tūhoe in the late eighteenth century. Then, when Te Rangituamātotoru died, he became one of three contenders for the leadership of the tribe. It was the custom of Ngāti Tūwharetoa to select a leader from among high-born ariki, those who were direct descendants in the senior male line from the ancestor Tūwharetoa. The position was not necessarily a hereditary one; it was conferred on the most suitable man, irrespective of seniority. It was the prerogative of the senior ariki to install the new leader.
At this time Ngāti Tūwharetoa had special problems. They needed to remain friendly with their western and northern neighbours – Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Maniapoto and Waikato tribes. In addition, it was realised that Ngāti Tūwharetoa were beginning to divide into separate branches, living to the east and the west of Lake Taupō, and that the tribe needed to be unified. Of the three contenders for the leadership, Te Wakaiti, of Ngāti Manunui, seemed to be the logical choice. He was of good lineage and an excellent war leader, and possessed the tribal god Rongomai. He was supported by several leaders. Another contender, Tauteka, of Ngāti Te Aho, with influence among Te Arawa and the Bay of Plenty peoples, was considered unsuitable because he lacked connections with the tribes to the north and the west. The third was Herea, a renowned warrior with Ngāti Maniapoto connections through his mother, Parewairere, and through his wife, Rangiaho, who was also influential among Waikato.
At first Te Wakaiti, with his good connections with Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Maniapoto and Waikato, was favoured as likely to bring unity to the tribe. But he was an arrogant man, who considered that the position was his as of right. To show his power he decided to kill the senior hereditary ariki, Te Whatupounamu, when he attended the installation ceremonies. When they heard of this, the ariki immediately offered the leadership to Herea.
Herea prepared himself for conflict with Te Wakaiti, who was renowned for his skill with the pouwhenua, a sharp, pointed wooden weapon. When asked to accept the leadership, Herea told Ngāti Te Aho that before he could do so he must become skilled in the use of the pouwhenua. He went to Rangitoto in Ngāti Maniapoto territory for instruction from Huahua, a relative of his mother, and he returned to Taupō with a pouwhenua named Arerokapakapa.
With Ngāti Te Aho leaders Herea went to the pā where Te Wakaiti lived and told Te Wakaiti that they had come to install Herea in his place. With his pouwhenua Herea defeated Te Wakaiti, and became the undisputed leader of Taupō and custodian of the god Rongomai. For a time he found it difficult to live up to the high standards of his predecessor, and some of the hapū to the north and south of the lake did not acknowledge him. But eventually he was able to establish his leadership and keep peace and order in Taupō.
Some time after his installation he visited his mother's Ngāti Maniapoto people and met Tokotoko, a cousin of his first wife, Rangiaho. Tokotoko became his second wife; when Rangiaho heard of this she hanged herself from the palisades of Whakatara pā. She is remembered for two songs: the first was a love song for Herea, when she heard the news about Tokotoko, and the second was composed just before her death. For his part, Herea paid tribute to her in a lament:
Ascend, O Lady, to the first heaven,
And to the second heaven! I pay tribute
To you as mother, and to you as fond parent.
I unthinking have lost the spray of the ocean
Into the limbo of the void.
Herea and Rangiaho had at least three sons, two of whom succeeded Herea as leader of Ngāti Tūwharetoa – Mananui Te Heuheu Tūkino II and Iwikau Te Heuheu Tūkino III. The third, Pāpaka, was killed by Te Āti Awa at Haowhenua in the Ōtaki district in 1834. Some accounts mention other offspring, who were possibly from other wives – a son, Manuhiri, killed in an attack on Maungawharau pā, to the west of Waimārama; and a younger daughter, Hurihia, who mourned the death of Manuhiri. With Tokotoko, Herea had a son, Tōkena Te Kerēhi.
Herea lived in the fortified pā Waitahanui, at the mouth of the Tongariro River. He ruled wisely over Ngāti Tūwharetoa for many years. During his time the goodwill between his tribe and Ngāti Maniapoto and the Waikato tribes increased. He died at Waitahanui probably in the early 1820s. His body was taken with much ceremony to Motuoapa, the peninsula between Kōrohe and Te Rangiita. Later his bones were removed by Ngāti Te Rangiita and taken to a cave at Pari-karangaranga, a rocky cliff close by.
For a brief time after his death each hapū of Ngāti Tūwharetoa tried to go its own way. However, Mananui Te Heuheu Tūkino II was chosen to succeed his father, and the Te Heuheu line has lasted to the present day. Recent generations have continued to use Tūkino in the name, and have adopted Te Heuheu as the family surname.