Story: Moriori

Page 3. Moriori life

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After the conflict among the tribes in the Chatham Islands was resolved, Moriori lived peacefully there for 600 years, developing a unique culture.

Social and spiritual values

A delicate balance

Ancient Moriori on Rēkohu (Chatham Island) killed only the old male seals and left no carcasses on the rocks, as this would deter the seals from returning. But English sealers in the early 1800s destroyed the island’s seal colony, depriving Moriori of their main source of food and clothing.

At its peak the population reached about 2,000. The people belonged to nine tribes: Hamata, Wheteina, Eitara, Etiao, Harua, Makao, Matanga, Poutama and Rauru. Birth control consisted of castration of some male infants. To prevent inbreeding, marriage between first, second and third cousins was strictly forbidden.

Moriori society was egalitarian compared to that of other Polynesian peoples. Ieriki (chiefs) were chosen for their ability in a vital role, such as fishing or bird catching, rather than on the basis of heredity.

Carving a link

Rakau hokoairo – dendroglyphs or tree carvings – made by Moriori over the centuries can still be seen on trunks of kopi (karaka) trees in parts of Rēkohu. Theories about these carvings abound: they have been said to be memorials to the dead, tributes to the gods, or comparable to the carved ancestral figures in Māori meeting houses. Whatever their original meaning, today they are a powerful spiritual link with the Moriori past.

Strong spiritual beliefs underlay the people’s sense of harmony with the natural world. Resources were conserved by an intricate system of rules and rituals that were strictly adhered to. Moriori were later described by their Māori tormentors as a ‘very tapu [reverential] people’.

An innovative raft

Moriori adapted to their new environment, developing such innovations as the wash-through raft. This craft, which had a base of inflated kelp and sides of bound reeds, became partially waterlogged and was therefore stable in rough seas and high winds. It could navigate the seas around the islands without capsizing as a conventional canoe would. The largest of these vessels, the waka pahi, was over 12 metres long, and was used for voyages to gather albatross chicks from offshore islands.

How to cite this page:

Denise Davis and Māui Solomon, 'Moriori - Moriori life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

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