Kiore were an important source of protein for Māori. Because the rats did not carry transmissible diseases, they presented little or no threat to human health. Tribes set rāhui (restrictions on killing) or created forest reserves so kiore could breed, and in the right season they were harvested for food. These reserves were owned by specific iwi and hapū, and were jealously guarded. Special permission was needed for strangers wanting to harvest the animals.
Hunting and preservation
Kiore hunting was well organised. Ara kiore (rat tracks) in the forest or on hillsides, no matter how steep the gradient, were lined with tāwhiti kiore (unbaited traps) and pokipoki (baited traps). Paepae-kiore (pit traps) were dug in a way that made it hard for kiore to escape.
Once caught and killed, kiore were skinned and roasted over a fire or pre-cooked in a hāngī (covered stone oven). They were placed in gourds in their own hinu (fat), which acted as a preservative once set. Kiore huahua (preserved rat) was saved as a delicacy for visitors.
Elevated platforms and storehouses were used to stop kiore stealing food. People building them were warned, ‘He pou pai ka eketia e te kiore, he pou kino e kore e eketia’ (an attractive or carved post will be climbed by kiore, an ugly, uncarved one won’t). Carved posts supporting storehouses or stages provided footholds for kiore. The saying was also a warning that the conspicuous display of wealth encouraged thieves.
Winter provisions were placed on a whata (platform) or inside a pātaka (storage house), both constructed on poles so rats could not get inside them.
Feasts and exchange
Because kiore were a special delicacy, they were a form of currency at many ceremonial occasions. The custom of kaihaukai (feast gifts) was carried out at food feasts between coastal and interior tribes, where preserved rat was served. Sometimes battles between warring factions were played out with reciprocal feasts. The open display of food indicated a tribe’s mana (prestige), and the lesser opponent had to pay homage to the victor in some form.
One great feast, called Ngā-tau-tuku-roa, was hosted by the central Hawke’s Bay chief Te Rehunga in response to a taunt. At the feast he served kiore preserved in fat. His opponent, Tama-i-waho, paid homage to his mana and gifted lands to Te Rehunga. He confirmed the contract with food, and placed kiore huhuti (plucked rats) on hills to mark the boundaries of the gift. The name Takapau was given to this area, after the sacred mat on which Te Rehunga’s feast was presented.