History, Early Maori Life
Maori legends, Maori population, Maori history, country rich, Maori culture
Maori history credits the explorer Kupe with the discovery of Aotearoa. Polynesian settlers subsequently came by canoe, or waka. The first Maori settlers found a country rich in easily hunted big game, notably fur seals and giant wingless birds known as moa. Seeking the highest concentrations of seal and moa, as well as sources of the best stone for tools, early Maori appear to have rapidly settled in many areas. Maori cultivated crops brought from central Polynesia, notably the kumara (sweet potato) and hue (gourd). They also fished and gathered wild plants, especially aruhe (fernroot).
By about 1500 the moa and fur seal populations had begun to decline, and the Maori shifted from hunting toward more intensive fishing, gardening, and gathering. It may have been about this time that modern tribal organization began to emerge. Groups began building great wooden forts, called pa, that dotted the country at the time of European contact. Intensive warfare, however, may have been less common than Maori legends and the large number of pa suggest. The Maori population is estimated to have been about 85,000 in 1769, when ongoing European contact began.
Maori culture before European contact was rich and dynamic. The Maori traveled widely and exchanged goods through reciprocal gifting. Mythology, religion, and rituals were well developed, and a vast body of lore transmitted history, identity, and practical knowledge. Singing, dancing, oratory, weaving, and woodcarving were important cultural traditions. Ritual cannibalism was sometimes practiced on the bodies of slain enemies, and prisoners of war were made slaves or low-status wives. Social status depended on mana (repute), which could be acquired through inheritance, such as high-ranking lineage, or individual achievement. Evidence for the status of Maori women, although inconclusive, indicates that mana was a key factor. Some women of esteemed mana ranked among the highest sacred chiefs, warriors, and other community leaders. Women also had important formal roles in social rituals. Both male and female children were cherished.
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