What is rongoā?
Rongoā is traditional Māori medicine – a system of healing that was passed on orally. It comprised diverse practices and an emphasis on the spiritual dimension of health. Rongoā includes herbal remedies, physical therapies such as massage and manipulation, and spiritual healing.
Tohunga ahurewa (priestly experts) were often responsible for rongoā, especially its spiritual aspects.
Rongoā before European arrival
Māori systems for treating illness were well developed before Europeans arrived in New Zealand. There is evidence of quite detailed knowledge of anatomy, understanding of physiological principles, and recognition of the healing properties of various plants.
18th-century Māori health
When Europeans first visited New Zealand, the average age of death for Māori adults was around 30. However, apart from this the people were fit and healthy, and troubled by few diseases. Scientist Joseph Banks, travelling with British navigator James Cook around 1770, noted that Māori were ‘as vigorous a race as can be imagind’. 1
No doctors needed
In the 18th century, scientist Joseph Banks observed that Māori were in good health and appeared to suffer from few diseases:
‘So simple a diet accompanied with moderation must be productive of sound health, which indeed these people are blessd with in a very high degree. ... I do not remember a single instance of a person distemperd in any degree that came under my inspection ... Such health drawn from so sound principles must make physicians almost useless.’ 2
The only herbal treatment observed during Cook’s voyages was a herbal steam fire. Stones were heated, put on a handful of ‘green celery’ and covered with a mat, which a woman then squatted on. Cook believed it was probably meant to ‘cure some disorder which the steam arising from the green celery might be a specific for’. 3
In 1824, French naturalist René Lesson described the use of herbal remedies in his medical journal, writing that Māori ‘drink only the juice extracted from certain herbs, which they call “rongoā”, meaning “tonics” or “remedies”. ... [T]hey designate by the name of “tangata rongoā” those men who know how to prepare some remedies.’ 4
Rongoā – new or old?
The good health, lack of disease and minimal use of herbal treatments that Cook’s crew observed has led many to believe that Māori discovered herbal medicine after Europeans arrived in the country. It is likely that Māori already used native plants for healing to some degree, though they were probably not a large part of the tohunga’s therapeutic repertoire.
Illness was often seen as spiritually based. Māori saw themselves as guardians of the earth, and the focus of their existence was to remain at one with the natural (and supernatural) world. Rather than a medical problem, sickness was often viewed as a symptom of disharmony with nature.
Illnesses were divided into mate atua (diseases of the gods) and mate tangata (whose symptoms were more clearly due to physical causes). Mate atua were often attributed to attacks by malevolent spirits, because the person had broken a tapu (religious restriction) – for instance, if they took food from a river where someone had died, or took a stick from a tree that had held their ancestor’s bones, and placed it on a cooking fire.