The whānau, an extended family group spanning three to four generations, continues to form the basic unit of Māori society.
Before Māori came into contact with Europeans, whānau comprised the elders, the pākeke (senior adults such as parents, uncles and aunts), and the sons and daughters together with their spouses and children. A whānau generally numbered between 20 and 30 people. Depending on size, they could occupy one or more sleeping houses, known as wharepuni. Large whānau had their own clearly defined compound in the papakāinga (village settlement) or fortified pā. Whānau also had their own plot in the kūmara field, and their own fishing and hunting places, eel weirs and berry trees. The small size of the whānau and the close nature of its internal ties made it an efficient group for subsistence activities. The whānau was self-sufficient in most matters except defence, when it usually depended on the iwi (tribe) or hapū (sub-tribe).
Tamariki (children) and mokopuna (grandchildren) were particularly important to whānau. When parents were away, engaged in food gathering or other activities, all other adults in the vicinity cared for and disciplined the children. Children were therefore used to receiving attention and affection from many people besides their parents. In the security of the whānau, the loss of a parent by death or desertion was not such a traumatic matter. Orphaned children (pani), or children from families that were too large to support them, were adopted out and known as whāngai.
The whānau looked after any aged or debilitated members. Older people were revered for their wisdom and their nurturing of the young. They were also valued for the useful tasks they performed for the livelihood of the group. Light tasks, such as rolling taura (twine and rope), weaving, or the time-consuming job of grinding an adze could be done by elderly people.
In whānau today, male and female elders (kaumātua, mātāpuputu) head the family. Koeke, koro, kokoro, koroua, koroheke, kauheke and poua are the male elders, and kuia and taua, the female elders. Elders are the storehouses of knowledge, the kaiārahi (guiding hands) and the minders and mentors of children.