Shape of tribal whakapapa
In 1843 Āperahama Taonui wrote the earliest tribal whakapapa manuscript. The manuscript contains about 350 names spanning 40 or more generations. When mapped out from past to present the genealogy can be seen as taking the shape of a wharenui (meeting house).
The wharenui has a tekoteko (a carved figure on the apex of a house) which sits at the top of the maihi (barge boards) and then main body of the whare (house). A tekoteko spans 27 singular generations recording older ancestors and creation. This flares out to the maihi, spanning two to three generations covering the formation of the tribe. From there the genealogy rapidly expands into a rectangle or whare (house) including 80 collateral lines with a depth of 8 to 10 generations, which form a cross-checkable matrix.
In the Taonui manuscript, about 300 of the 350 names trace more than 80 separate collateral descent lines. Each line culminates in the name of the head of an important sub-tribal or related family group in the generation of Taonui, his family and contemporaries. Though impressive, the Taonui manuscript provided but a single snapshot of Taonui’s individual genealogical memory at the time he wrote it.
Maihi of whakapapa
It has been argued that beyond a certain point oral memory narrows. The apex of Māori whakapapa typically sits above the broader whare of genealogy. This part of the genealogy remembers the founding ancestors of the tribe. In Tainui this narrowing occurs with Tāwhao and his sons Whatihua and Tūrongo and their wives Ruapūtahanga and Māhina-a-rangi. In Ngāpuhi the narrowing occurs around Rāhiri and his wives Whakaruru and Ahuaiti.
Limits of whakapapa
Narrowing may occur because there is a limit to people’s ability to remember oral history. Most important ancestors are remembered and the less important are forgotten. Those who can remember the complexity of the interlocking genealogies of the house of whakapapa could easily remember quite a few more ancestors further back. The reasons they choose not to is that the house of whakapapa represents the histories of hapū (sub tribes) in the detail required to negotiate day-to-day affairs, whereas the apex retains those ancestors needed for broader pan-regional connections – fewer are required to do that so some are expunged from memory. The apex also forms a threshold between the variable genealogy of the more timeless tekoteko and the consistent interlocking genealogies of the whare down to the present. This illustrates how whakapapa evolves.
The tekoteko of whakapapa
Above the apex of whakapapa, genealogies become more singular the further they extend into the past. Strict human sequentiality begins to change. In the Taonui manuscript Taonui recited 27 names in singular fashion from the ancestor Rahiri to Kupe, which he described as follows:
Ko te mutunga o te popoarengarenga. Ka timata i te tua tangata. E tata kuna ana enei mea, i te hokinga mai i te tapu i te tupapaku, hei whakanoa, kia kai tango ai nga ringaringa.
This is the end of the people passed on and scattered about [widely known to many tribes]. Start with the people beyond this point [locally known – Nga Puhi]. These old names were recited when returning from burying the dead, so that the tapu would be removed, and hands could take up food.
The people ‘passed on and scattered about’ above Rahiri are a select list of ancient and famous ancestral figures rather than an unbroken sequential human genealogy.