Ma wai e moe te tane
Mangere ki te mahi-kai?
Who will marry a man
Too lazy to till the ground for food?
This proverb, and many others like it, indicate that the search for food was the primary activity for Māori before the 19th century. Whether by growing, gathering or hunting, the acquisition of food dominated daily life from the time of the first arrivals around the 13th century. As a result, for nearly all Māori the day began early, before the sun was fully risen.
Prayers at sunrise
In certain tribes and at certain periods, the first regular activity of the day was to worship the rising sun. John Savage, a surgeon who visited the Bay of Islands in 1805, observed that during their dawn prayers the local people spread their arms and bowed their heads ‘with the appearance of much joy in their countenances, accompanied with a degree of elegant and reverential solemnity.’1 At this time they also sang a song, described as cheerful and harmonious.
Māori traditionally divided the year into months named for the main activities carried out in each period. Some tribes had names for only 10 months. The 10th, Poutū-te-rangi, corresponded to February–March. The following two months had no special activities associated with them so they were counted as one. Ample seasonal produce meant this time could be spent visiting, feasting, in recreation and sleeping.
Then followed several hours of work in communal gardens, fishing or gathering shellfish and other seafood. Hunters pursued moa (while these giant flightless birds lasted), other birds and seals. The first meal of the day was usually consumed mid-morning, at about 10 or 11 o’clock by European measurement. The work then continued, often carried out by whole groups together, with special songs to direct the rhythm of shared tasks such as digging.
Most chiefs were expected to work alongside their people, and they often proved the most expert and energetic. A few specialised in occupations such carving, tattooing or making feather cloaks. Children also worked alongside their families, learning adult tasks by imitation. Even very old people helped with light tasks such as plaiting and mending fishing nets, or shaping greenstone tools and ornaments.
A meal of fern root
A French naval officer watched fern root being eaten in the Bay of Islands in 1771. ‘They need quite a long time to eat a lot of it and so they spend a long time over their meals, which they usually take in common … It is most amusing to see fifteen or so of them gathered together, men, women and children, vying with one another in putting pieces of this root on the fire, beating it over and over again and chewing it with gusto.’2
Preparing for evening
As the sun began to sink, the workers laid down their tools and returned to their home village. Fresh water, bundles of firewood and prepared food were carried to the cooking fires by women and slaves – never by free men. The chief would distribute a haul of fresh fish, game or produce to his entire village, to ensure fair shares. Earth ovens and open fires were lit to cook the evening meal, and this part of the day was therefore named ahiahi, or ‘many fires’.
The rest of the evening was spent in games or conversation between people of all ages. Even at four or five years old, a chief’s son might sit among people of rank on the marae, paying close attention to what was said. In some areas an evening prayer was offered to the setting sun, and the song sung at this time was mournful. People typically retired to sleep once darkness fell. Apart from certain hunting or fishing activities, working at night was not encouraged since evil spirits were believed to be active after dark.