Kiore or Pacific rats (Rattus exulans) are found throughout Asia and the Pacific. They are believed to have originated in South-East Asia, and dispersed through the Pacific in the canoes of Polynesian seafarers. The Polynesian ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand around the 13th century with kiore on board.
Kiore are small for a rat – about 11–13 centimetres long excluding the tail, and 60–80 grams in weight. They are brown, with a grey-and-white underside.
Kiore is the usual name given to this species in New Zealand, although other names have also been used: maunga-rua is a ‘large rat’; tāpapa a ‘well-grown rat’; torokaha a ‘big buck’; toko-roa a ‘light-coloured rat’; while hāmua refers to a rat considered an ill omen that was seldom eaten.
During the day, kiore stay in holes in the ground or in hollow tree trunks, emerging at night to feed. Māori trapped kiore in winter, when the rats were in prime condition – in summer they were thin. When kiore fattened and their fur changed colour, it indicated plentiful forest berries and the approach of spring. Hīnau berries were their favourite food, as signalled in the proverb, ‘Mā wai e kai te hīnau, te kame a te kiore’ (for whom is the hīnau, it is food for the kiore). They were also known to eat miro, tawa, tawai, karamū, taraire, kohekohe, pūriri and patatē berries. The tāwhara fruit of the kiekie plant was another favourite. It was common to tie kiekie leaves over the fruit to stop kiore eating it before it could be harvested.
Kiore also ate the eggs and chicks of birds, as well as lizards, frogs and insects. They contributed to the extinction of a number of species.
Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) were introduced by Europeans in the 18th century, and ship rats (Rattus rattus) in the 19th century. Māori names for these rats included pou-o-Hawaiki and muritai. Their introduction, together with that of the mouse, led to a decline in kiore numbers because of competition for resources. By the early 1920s kiore were considered extinct. However, some survive in Fiordland, on Stewart Island and on several offshore islands.
Kiore might be small, but they loom large in scientific research. Ancient Polynesian voyages have been traced by analysing the DNA of kiore from different Polynesian islands. In New Zealand, carbon dating of the bones of kiore, and the seeds and snail shells kiore gnawed, tells us that Māori ancestors arrived around the 13th century.
A northern tribe, Ngātiwai, sees itself as kaitiaki (guardian) of kiore. Ngātiwai and a number of Māori believe there are historic and cultural reasons these rats should survive. However, kiore are not protected by law, and evidence of their predation on endangered native birds, lizards and insects have seen them eradicated from Crown-owned islands by the Department of Conservation. The department recognises that kiore may be of cultural interest, and consult with tribes before carrying out eradication programmes.
The whakapapa (genealogy) of kiore is associated with kūmara (sweet potato). Rongo-māui stole celestial kūmara from his older brother, Whānui (the star Vega), and brought them back to earth in his scrotum. He impregnated his wife Pani, who gave birth to earthly kūmara. She cooked them to break the tapu from their celestial origin. But the demigod Māui had watched Pani giving birth to the kūmara, and told the people they were eating her impurities. In shame she fled to the underworld of Mataora with her youngest daughter, Hinemataiti (‘the small-eyed girl’). Hinemataiti was to become the ancestor of kiore. And just as her father Rongo-māui had stolen kūmara from the sky, Hinemataiti stole them from Pani while they were overwintering in underground storage pits.
Some tribes believe Hinamoki is the father of kiore. Hinamoki is also the name given to a type of rat.
The traditions of the Aotea, Horouta and Māmari waka (canoes) mention that kiore were passengers on their voyages to New Zealand. Carvings on a window frame of Te Ōhākī wharenui at Roma marae in Ahipara depict the story of Ruanui’s kiore. Ruanui was captain of the Māmari canoe. On arriving in Hokianga Harbour, he released his kiore onto an island now called Motukiore (rat island).
Kiore are remembered in the names of people, houses, landscapes, plants and animals. Nihootekiore (rat’s tooth) and Motukiore (rat island) are places, Hine-kiore (rat girl) is a name, and tūtae-kiore (rat excrement) is a plant. Kiore is the name of a star cluster, while kiri-kiore (rat skin) and Pū-kiore (rat’s nest) are patterns in carvings and tattoos.
Although appreciated as an energy-giving food, kiore were used as a metaphor for weakness. A weak person was said to have ‘he uaua kiore’ (sinews of a rat), compared with a strong person’s ‘he uaua parāoa’ (sinews of a whale). A person whose boasts exceeded his abilities might hear the saying, ‘He nanakia aha tō te kiore nanakia?’ (How fierce is the kiore?)
Kiore feature in proverbs, songs and dance. ‘Ko tini o para kiore’ (a swarm of rats) refers to a heavily populated area. ‘Honoa te hono a te kiore’ (gather as rats do) was used by the Ngāi Tūhoe ancestor Karetehe to rally warriors who were facing defeat. His warriors knew to group together like rats and run straight through enemy ranks.
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.
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.
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.
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Best, Elsdon. Forest lore of the Māori. Wellington: Te Papa, 2005 (originally published 1942).
Best, Elsdon. The Māori. Christchurch: Kiwi, 2002 (originally published 1924).
Haami, Bradford. Cultural knowledge and traditions relating to the kiore rat in Aotearoa. Part 1: a Maori perspective. Science and Mathematics Education Papers. Hamilton: University of Waikato, 1993.
Roberts, Mere. Scientific knowledge and cultural traditions. Part 2: a Pakeha view of the kiore rat in New Zealand. Science and Mathematics Education Papers. Hamilton: University of Waikato, 1993.
Roberts, Mere, and others. ‘Whakapapa as a Maori mental construct: some implications for the debate over genetic modification of organisms.’ The Contemporary Pacific 16, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 1–28.