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.
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.
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
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
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.
Mate atua were supernatural afflictions, sometimes caused by malevolent spirits when a person had broken a tapu (religious restriction). Dealing with mate atua required a tohunga (priest). His first job was to determine the hara (transgression) committed, and to identify the spirit. The tohunga took a thorough case history of all the patient’s actions before they got ill, sometimes including the patient’s and family’s dreams.
Tohunga were experts in various fields, including the arts, agriculture, fishing, warfare and healing. They were also seen as the earthly medium of the gods, and were intensively trained in whare wānanga (houses of higher learning). Tohunga held a position of authority and respect, but also had the huge responsibility of keeping their people healthy.
Finding the cause was the first stage of treatment, followed by exorcism of the spirit that had possessed the patient. The next stage was a whakahoro (purificatory rite) to remove the effects of the tapu. This usually involved dipping the patient in a stream while the tohunga performed a karakia (prayer) or incantation.
The Ngāti Porou leader Tuta Nihoniho described the mariunga – a wand of wood such as karamū, māpou or maire, which was touched to the body of an invalid and received their essence. It was then taken to a tohunga, who could tell whether the patient would recover.
Another rite, the takutaku, involved touching the patient with a karamū leaf, which was then floated downstream. The malevolent spirit would be carried to sea and then to Te Waha o te Parata (a huge whirlpool, caused by a great monster), and finally to the underworld. Freed of the spirit, the patient was then sprinkled with, or immersed in, water.
Mate tangata, or human afflictions, were approached more pragmatically, often using herbal remedies. Warts were pared down and medicinal leaves were applied. Boils were incised and the core squeezed out. Heat was used to relieve the pains of childbirth and difficult menstruation.
Rongoā was used to heal a leg injury sustained by George Nēpia, the great All Black rugby player. A doctor advised an operation, but Nēpia went for help to a friend’s mother, Mrs Paewai. She prepared medicine from kōwhai bark for Nēpia to bathe in, and nicked his leg in affected areas. Two weeks later, he played rugby again. Later, the doctor admitted he had believed Nēpia’s career was over.
Blood-letting – cutting the affected area with a toetoe leaf to release blood – was practised for painful conditions such as headaches. For near-drownings, the patient was held upside down over the smoke of a fire. Herbal remedies were used for both constipation and diarrhoea. The sap of some plants, particularly the rātā vine, was applied to wounds to promote healing. Fractures were splinted with bark and flax leaves, along with an incantation to promote bone union. Wounds were cauterised with the burning end of a fire stick.
More than 200 plants were used medicinally by Māori. Harakeke (flax), kawakawa, rātā and koromiko had many recorded uses.
Most medicinal uses of kūmarahou were recorded in the 1900s.
Tētēaweka (muttonbird scrub) was found on the Tītī Islands, where muttonbirds are caught – hence its English name. This scented plant was used in steam ovens, for feverish patients.
Colonisation by Europeans had a significant effect on traditional Māori healing. Tohunga had limited ability to combat the diseases brought by Europeans. Though Western medicine was also relatively ineffectual at the time, this failure still strongly affected Māori confidence in tohunga.
Some Pākehā missionaries attributed the spread of disease to a lack of Christian faith. As their own healers appeared impotent, many Māori accepted this explanation and turned to Christianity. Over time, the whare wānanga (schools of higher learning) which had trained tohunga started to close. The tradition of the tohunga declined.
Mary Joseph Aubert was a French Catholic nun who became interested in medicinal uses of native plants. She spent much time among Māori, particularly on the Whanganui River, and created a number of herbal remedies. She had knowledge of botany, chemistry, nursing and medicine, but also learnt about rongoā through her work with Māori. Her products, a blend of Western medicine and rongoā, were sold throughout New Zealand.
Many Māori continued to seek rongoā. While some traditional tohunga continued their work, another type appeared – lacking education and authority. These ‘second-class tohunga’ played on the superstitions of a people caught between two cultures, often travelling from pā to pā claiming to cure all kinds of illness. By the early 20th century there were so many that they were seen as a threat by both Pākehā and Māori authorities.
The Tohunga Suppression Act grew out of concern over the practices of some self-appointed tohunga. The influential Te Aute College Students’ Association was particularly critical, believing that tohunga might harm patients, and could hinder Māori progress. Tohunga also came under attack from the prominent Māori doctors Māui Pōmare and Te Rangi Hīroa (Sir Peter Buck).
The Tohunga Suppression Act was presented by Māori MP James Carroll and supported by the four Māori members of parliament. It was passed in 1907. The preamble read:
Every person who gathers Maoris around him by practising on their superstition or credulity, or who misleads or attempts to mislead any Maori by professing or pretending to possess supernatural powers in the treatment or cure of any disease, or in the foretelling of future events, or otherwise, is liable on summary conviction before a Magistrate to a fine not exceeding twenty-five pounds or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months.
There were few prosecutions under the Act, and very few convictions – its main effect was to drive tohunga underground. In 1962, it was repealed.
The Act has been seen by some as an attempt to control the Ngāi Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana, who built an independent settlement at Maungapōhatu in the Urewera from 1907.
The Act has also been viewed as a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi, as it challenged traditional Māori wisdom – considered to be one of the taonga (treasures) that Māori were promised under the second article of the Treaty.
From the later 20th century, there was renewed Māori interest in rongoā. This was due to several factors:
Although Māori largely accept Western concepts of health and illness, and use the mainstream health system, there is significant demand for rongoā today. This is particularly the case for unusual illnesses, or those that fail to respond to standard medical treatment. Some conditions are seen as ‘mate Māori’ (Māori sickness) – caused by an infringement of tapu (religious restriction).
Today’s healers differ significantly from the tohunga of old times. Training is highly variable, usually informal, and often less tribally-bound than the rigorous education of the whare wānanga (house of higher learning).
Many modern healers work in urban clinics, some alongside mainstream health professionals. They experiment, incorporating knowledge and practices from Western and other medical systems. As a result their work is idiosyncratic, with no standard system of diagnosis or consensus about treatments. Despite this, many healers are recognised as having knowledge and ability that has been passed down from their whānau, hapū or iwi.
Ngā Ringa Whakahaere o te Iwi Māori, a national body of Māori healers, was set up in 1993. It aims to be an authoritative and unified voice for traditional Māori healing, and to uphold, promote, protect and sustain its practice. It is the only legally constituted body that speaks for a large number of healers.
The approaches of modern-day tohunga have some common features. The use of wai rākau (plant-based medicines) is virtually universal, although the actual method depends on the practitioner. Spirituality is usually emphasised – or at least acknowledged. Many healers also see the Māori language as an important part of their practice.
Plants that are often used as remedies today include kūmarahou, kawakawa, mānuka, kōwhai and harakeke. Their medicinal uses have been recorded from the 19th century.
Te Rangi Hīroa (Buck, Peter) The coming of the Maori. Te Whanganui-a-Tara: Maori Purposes Fund Board, Whitcombe and Tombs, 1949.
Durie, M. H., and others. Traditional Māori healing: a paper prepared for the Core Health Committee. Te Papa-i-ōia: Te kura Māori o te whare wānanga o Massey, 1993.
Lange, Raeburn. May the people live: a history of Māori health development 1900–1920. Tāmaki-makau-rau: Auckland University Press, 1999.
Lange, Raeburn. ‘The tohunga and the government in the twentieth century.’ In University of Auckland Historical Society Annual, 1968: 12–38.
Riley, Murdoch. Māori healing and herbal: New Zealand ethnobotanical sourcebook. Paraparaumu: Viking Sevenseas, 1994.
Tipene-Leach, D. ‘Māori medicines.’ New Zealand Pharmacy 18, no. 8 (Hereturikōkā 1998): 26–28.
The Ministry of Health website lists government funded Rongoā providers.