Story: Whakairo – Māori carving

Page 3. Carving before 1500

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Earliest examples

Due to the perishable nature of wood and the difficulty of its preservation, few wooden carvings from the earliest era of Māori society have survived. However, stone amulets and necklace reels made in this era from moa or whale bone, stone or whale ivory are very close in appearance to similar objects found in other islands in eastern Polynesia. There are also masterly carved adzes that are close in form to the ceremonial adzes of Rarotonga and the Austral Islands.

Transitional styles

In this transitional phase some objects carved by Māori began to reflect their adaptation to their new home, while others still strongly approximated those found in other eastern Polynesian cultures. This may indicate that two-way voyaging between New Zealand and Polynesian islands occurred during this period, and that successive waves of migrants were still arriving.

Kaitāia ‘lintel’

An ancient carving that was found near Kaitāia in 1920 was once thought to be a pare (lintel), but is more likely to be a roof decoration. It has a central figure and decorative notching very close in appearance to a carving from the Austral Islands. The dog form of south-east Polynesian sculpture has been given a manaia-like (beaked) head. This simplified manaia and the composition, with a central figure flanked by the two manaia, foreshadow pare of the post-1500 period.


Uenuku, an early carving of special significance to Tainui tribes, is often compared with Hawaiian carvings of the god Kū, with its strong emphasis on form and lack of surface decoration. It was possibly a copy of a talisman or mauri (a material emblem that embodied the life principle) that came on board the Tainui canoe from Hawaiki.

Two canoe prows

Two further examples from this period demonstrate a change in their makers’ response to the flora and fauna of Aotearoa. A 15th-century haumi (canoe prow) from Taranaki has regular rows of decorative notching in keeping with the carving of other Polynesian islands. However, some of the rows have been curved to form spirals, like early variations of the takarangi or rauru spirals that characterise later classical whakairo. Another haumi from Doubtless Bay features a beaked head form that is a bold and sculptural forerunner of the manaia profiles that would emerge in later Māori art.

How to cite this page:

Brett Graham, 'Whakairo – Māori carving - Carving before 1500', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 January 2020)

Story by Brett Graham, published 22 Oct 2014