Polynesians, the ancestors of Māori, thought of sharks as guardian spirits. Many Hawaiian families had an aumakua, or shark protector.
In Māori mythology, the demi-god Māui placed the shark Te Māngōroa in the sky, forming the Milky Way. Sharks and rays, along with other animals living in the sea, were considered to be the children of the ugly god Punga.
Several Māori legends relate to sharks. In the far north, the ocean taniwha Ruamano took the form of a mako shark. If a waka (canoe) overturned, the crew called upon Ruamano to deliver them safely to land. In another legend, when the canoe captained by Tamatekapua was voyaging towards New Zealand, it met Te Parata, an ocean creature who almost swallowed the canoe and its crew. They were saved by a shark, and in its honour the crew renamed the canoe and their tribe Te Arawa (shark).
Māori likened their warriors to sharks, invoking them in battle cries such as: ‘Kia mate uruora tātou, kei mate-ā-tarakihi’ (let us die like white sharks, not tarakihi fish).
Sharks were an important part of the Māori diet. Fishing expeditions used to bring in thousands of sharks, which were dried on racks as long as 400 metres. The stench was tremendous – some European explorers remarked that fishing villages could be smelt up to 13 kilometres away.
Each year, the northern Te Rarawa tribe set aside two days for shark fishing. The first day was close to the full moon in January; the second was two weeks later. People catching sharks outside of these days were stripped of their property.
In order to catch the fierce mako shark, Māori would first catch a ray or skate to use as bait. Once a mako took the bait, a lasso was placed around its tail so as not to damage its precious teeth. The shark was then made to tow the canoe until it was exhausted.
Small species, such as school sharks, were usually taken. Large numbers would swim into harbours at high tide, where they were intercepted and caught with hooks before they could escape. Observing one shark-fishing expedition in 1855, the European naturalist R. H. Matthews counted 1,000 people in a fleet of 50 canoes, catching about 7,000 sharks.
Jewellery, tools and cosmetics
Māori used sharks’ teeth in necklaces or earrings. Particularly prized were the teeth of the mako and great white shark, which were valuable trading items. The teeth of broadnose sevengill sharks, or tuatini, were set in wooden handles and used as knives. Shark liver oil was mixed with red ochre to make the distinctive paint used on carvings. Blended with scented shrubs such as raukawa or manakura, the oil was rendered into a cosmetic for the body and hair.