In pre-European times, Māori were tall and muscular, even by today’s standards. Their average life expectancy of around 28–30 years seems low. But when European explorer James Cook arrived in New Zealand, the populations of both France and Spain had a life expectancy below 30 years.
Early European visitors often described Māori as a fit and healthy people. They led active lives, and many of the infectious diseases common in other parts of the world were unknown to them. However they were probably affected by pneumonia, tetanus, gastroenteritis, arthritis, rheumatism and various skin diseases.
Bracken fern root was an important staple for many iwi. Eating this increases the chance of cancer. The fibrous Māori diet meant people tended to wear their teeth out, which over time led to malnutrition, disease and death.
Beliefs about ill health
Māori medical treatment was closely linked to religious beliefs and practices. People became ill when they offended the gods, or violated the tapu associated with the supernatural world. Scientific ideas about hygiene and infection were little understood anywhere in the world. Nevertheless Māori belief in tapu played an important role by guiding practices for sanitation and water supply. For example, the turuma (latrine) was a separate space in Māori villages. Tapu also affected childbirth and death ceremonies, ensuring healthy practices. Tapu limited contact with the dead, which helped prevent the spread of disease.
Illness was treated by karakia and rituals, and also by rongoā rākau (medicinal plants), physical massage, and the use of water for sprinkling or immersion. Central to healing was the tohunga, an expert and a spiritual and religious leader. The emphasis was on finding the cause of the illness, and getting rid of the spirit or dealing with the transgression responsible for it, rather than on patient care. The spiritual dimension in the treatment may have aided recovery. Some maladies were seen as mate tangata (human in origin) rather than mate atua (divine in origin) and were treated more pragmatically – cuts were sewn up with muka (flax fibre), broken bones were bound with splints, and boils were incised and squeezed.