Ethnology in the mid-19th century
In the mid-19th century the western view of relationships between human groups was dominated by the idea of race. Europeans ranked races hierarchically, with themselves at the top. In the 1860s the new concept of Darwinian evolution appeared to explain why indigenous peoples often seemed to decline in numbers when their lands were colonised by Europeans.
Governor George Grey explained his reasons for studying Māori language and mythology: ‘I soon perceived that I could neither successfully govern, nor hope to conciliate, a numerous and turbulent people, with whose language, manners, customs, religion and modes of thought I was quite unacquainted.’1
Colonisation and anthropology
In the colonial era Pākehā who produced anthropological writings were generally those whose work had led them to learn the Māori language and spend a lot of time with Māori. These scholars recorded much valuable information, but always interpreted it through the lens of their own cultural biases.
- George Grey realised on becoming governor in 1845 that to deal effectively with Māori he needed a good knowledge of their language and traditions. Grey worked with Ngāti Rangiwewehi scholar Te Rangikāheke and other Māori experts, learning the language and collecting manuscripts on mythology, tribal history, proverbs, songs and whakapapa (genealogy).
- Edward Shortland, an interpreter, police magistrate and ‘sub-protector of aborigines’, published works on Māori language, customs and traditions based on his work at Maketū in the Bay of Plenty and his travels in the South Island in 1843–44.
- John White was an interpreter and official with the Land Purchase Department and Native Land Court. A collector of Māori traditions from an early age, White was commissioned to write the first ‘official’ ethnological work, The ancient history of the Maori, published in six volumes between 1887 and 1890.
- Native Land Court judges Francis Dart Fenton, John Alexander Wilson and Walter Edward Gudgeon all wrote their own interpretations of Māori traditions and migration history, based on evidence given to the court.
- Alexander Shand, a farmer and interpreter on the Chatham Islands worked with Moriori elder Hirawanu Tapu to produce the largest surviving account of Moriori history and traditions.
- Surveyors S. Percy Smith, Edward Tregear and William Henry Skinner developed a deep knowledge of Māori language and traditions.
- Elsdon Best worked in the Urewera district between 1895 and 1910 with a road-building team and as a health inspector. Through his relationship with Tūhoe elders such as Tūtakangahau he recorded a large body of local history and traditions.
Ethnologists were particularly intrigued by the question of where Polynesians came from. While debates were continuous, many scholars agreed with Tregear that Māori shared a north Indian ‘Aryan’ ancestry with Europeans. Tregear, Percy Smith and Best were all strongly influenced by research on folklore and by philologists such as Max Müller who argued that human history could be traced by comparing related languages.
Geologist Alexander McKay worked with Julius Haast at Moa-bone Point Cave excavation. He disagreed with Haast’s idea that the bones and artefacts unearthed indicated the presence of an early moa-hunting people. McKay published a paper stating that the evidence actually suggested a relatively recent Māori population had killed off the moa. Haast was furious that McKay, who had been one of his paid assistants, would publicly dispute his theories.
Moa bones and moa hunters
In 1847 Walter Mantell carried out what was perhaps New Zealand’s first organised archaeological dig, retrieving moa remains from Waikouaiti in Otago. He carried out a similar dig the same year at Waingongoro in South Taranaki, and in 1852 dug a large number of moa bones, oven stones and stone tools from a North Otago site he named Awamoa.
In the 1860s and 1870s German geologist Julius Haast carried out major excavations of moa remains near the Rakaia River, in the Glenmark swamp and at Moa-bone Point Cave near Sumner. Haast was influenced by English archaeologist John Lubbock’s ideas of ancient cultural phases such as the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age). Haast believed that the flake-stone tools found with moa bones showed that a very ancient primitive people had killed off the moa. He argued that polished stone tools found at the sites were produced by Māori, who he believed were a more advanced people who arrived more recently in New Zealand.