Story: Moriori

Page 1. Origins of the Moriori people

All images & media in this story

The Moriori are the indigenous people of Rēkohu (Chatham Island) and Rangihaute (Pitt Island), the two largest islands in the Chatham group, 767 km south-east of mainland New Zealand. It was once believed that Moriori were a Melanesian people, but it is now thought that they share the same Polynesian ancestry as Māori people.

Current research indicates that Moriori came to the Chatham Islands from New Zealand about 1500. Moriori traditions, however, hold that there were already people on Rēkohu when the canoe voyagers arrived.

The dawn of existence (Ko matangi-ao)

Moriori creation stories tell of how in the beginning, Rangi (the heavens) and Papa (the earth) dwelt in darkness. As Rangi clung to Papa, the spirit Rangitokona arose and asked them to separate. They refused, so Rangitokona pushed them apart and propped Rangi up with 10 pillars, one above the other. This was his incantation:

Rangitokona prop up the heaven, Rangitokona prop up the morning. The pillar stands in the baldness of heaven, in the bare part of heaven. The pillar stands, the pillar – the pillar stands, the pillar of heaven.

Then for the first time there was light, and the world came into being. Rangitokona heaped up earth to make the first man, called Tū. This is part of the incantation:

… heap it in the waving of the tree, heap it in the pattern of the tree, heap it in the finishing of the tree, heap it, it grows; heap it, it lives; the heaven lives, e! Stem heaped up, stem heaped up, let the heaven stand which lives.

The descendants of Tū were numerous. The first group, called ‘heaven born’, spanned 30 generations. A group of ancestors spanning 26 generations came next. Then the ancestor Te Ao-mārama (the world of light) was born. His son was Rongomaiwhenua.

The ancestor Rongomaiwhenua

The name Rongomaiwhenua means ‘land god’ (and also ‘peace to the land’, and ‘song of the land’). Rongomaiwhenua had a brother, Rongomaitere (‘ocean god’), who according to tradition travelled to New Zealand, providing sailing directions for the return journey by later generations.

According to Moriori, the descendants of Rongomaiwhenua belonged to a race called Hamata. They were described as ‘no ro hunu ake’ (sprung from the earth). They were said to be very tall, and were living on Rēkohu when the first visitor, Kahu, arrived. In other theories they were descendants of Kahu’s crew or a previous migration.

Kahu, the first visitor

Kahu, captain of the Tāne canoe, was the first recorded arrival from Hawaiki – the homeland in Polynesia, which was also the origin of the Māori of mainland New Zealand. He found Rēkohu and its adjacent islands in an unsettled state, and is said to have joined up their disparate parts and anchored them in their permanent positions. He arrived at the south-west corner of Rēkohu, and left the canoe to travel on foot.

In some accounts Kahu met two people, Kahuti and Te Akaroroa, at Kāingaroa in the north. He planted fern root, and also kūmara (sweet potato), but found this would not grow. Disliking Rēkohu, Kahu returned to Hawaiki.

How to cite this page:

Denise Davis and Māui Solomon, 'Moriori - Origins of the Moriori people', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by Denise Davis and Māui Solomon, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2017