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Whakapapa – genealogy

by Rāwiri Taonui

Through whakapapa Māori trace their ancestry all the way back to the beginnings of the universe. Whakapapa orders both a seen and unseen world, and shapes the Māori world view.

What is whakapapa?

Whakapapa is a taxonomic framework that links all animate and inanimate, known and unknown phenomena in the terrestrial and spiritual worlds. Whakapapa therefore binds all things. It maps relationships so that mythology, legend, history, knowledge, tikanga (custom), philosophies and spiritualities are organised, preserved and transmitted from one generation to the next.

Whakapapa is the core of traditional mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge). Whakapapa means genealogy. Other Māori terms for genealogy are kāwai and tātai. Kauwhau and taki refer to the process of tracing genealogies.

East Coast elder Apirana Ngata explained that whakapapa is ‘the process of laying one thing upon another. If you visualise the foundation ancestors as the first generation, the next and succeeding ancestors are placed on them in ordered layers.’1

Types of whakapapa

Ngata listed different forms of whakapapa and their names.

Whakamoe, taotahi

Whakamoe includes the intermarriages on the lines of descent, whereas taotahi gives the names on the lines without those of wives or husbands.


Tararere gives a single line of descent from an ancestor, without showing intermarriages, or giving other kin on the line. This is the usual method of tracing whakapapa.


As the term suggests, tāhū (also meaning the ridgepole of a house) is setting out the main descent lines. In another sense it refers to the common ancestors of a tribe. Thus Paikea, Pāoa, Ira, Toi, Uepōhatu and Ruawaipū would be called stock ancestors of Ngāti Porou and kindred tribes.


The literal meaning of whakapiri is to seek to establish connections. To define a person’s position in respect of another, a common ancestor was traced, counting down the generations to both people. If the two are found to be from the same generation, a speaker would have to consider whether the other was from a senior branch, and should be called tuakana (descended from a senior line), or from a younger branch, so should be called taina (from a junior line). If he stood in the position of pāpā (father or uncle) then the other person was called tamaiti (child).

Tātai hikohiko

Tātai hikohiko omitted names from different generations to form an abbreviated whakapapa designed to emphasise the most important tīpuna (ancestors). This was also known as āhua hikohiko.

Uses of different recitations

Historical genealogy did not list all individuals, marriages and tribes, but focused on those that were important and relevant for the time. Most genealogies were taotahi or tararere (without spouses), each ending in the name of one important family figure rather than a list of all siblings.

A knowledgeable person meeting a new acquaintance would only need to know the name of a father, mother, brother, sister or grandparent to link that person into the wider tribal genealogy. Whakamoe lines (naming marriage partners) and siblings were sometimes given in order to make connections to other important collateral lines.

Whakapiri were included to trigger the names of key ancestors, related groups, other genealogical lines or to invoke important histories. For example there were important tribal alliances through marriage, such as Ueoneone from Ngāpuhi to Reitū from Ngāti Pou in the Waikato; Ruapūtanga from Taranaki to Whatihua of Waikato; and Tūrongo from Waikato to Māhina-a-rangi from the East Coast. Te Huki’s net, using family members to mark tribal boundaries, is another example. Whakapiri lines can vary between tribes.

    • A. T. Ngata, Rauru-nui-ā-Toi lectures and Ngati Kahungunu origin. Wellington: Victoria University, 1972, p. 6. Back

Whakapapa of creation

Creation genealogies

Creation traditions are the most sacred of all traditions because they lay down fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality. Creation genealogies are the foundation from which all other whakapapa derive. Genealogies of creation vary from tribe to tribe, or from region to region, and from tohunga to tohunga.

Genealogies most often begin from Te Pō (representing the unknown darkness of creation). Te Pō is often followed by Te Kore (primal source, potential) and Te Ao (light). Some genealogies envisioned creation as the growth of a forest beginning from Te Pū (the tap root). Others conceived creation as the seeking of knowledge and light. Creation traditions could be highly localised – Te Ati Awa writer Piri Te Kawau wrote that the world was created out of Mt Taranaki.

Genealogical recitations usually culminate in Ranginui and Papatūānuku (the sky father and earth mother), followed by the gods of nature and the beginnings of human and other life, as explanations of how the phenomenological world came to be.

Te Ahukaramū’s versions

Te Ahukaramū, a 19th-century Ngāti Raukawa chief, gave two different whakapapa involving Te Pō, Te Kore and Te Ao. The first shows the progressions from darkness to light:

Te Pō (night, darkness)

Te Ata (dawn)

Te Ao (light, world)

Te Ao-tū-roa (longstanding world)

Te Ao Mārama (world of light).

The second shows the progression from nothing to something:

Aituā (calamity, misfortune)

Te Kore (nothingness)

Te Mangu (darkness)

Rangipōtiki (the sky).

Te Rangikāheke

Te Arawa chief Te Rangikāheke provided this version:

Te Pō, te Pō

Te Ao, te Ao

Te kimihanga, te hahunga, i te kore, i te kore

Ko te nui, ko te roanga

Rangi = Papa.
The night, the dark

The day, the day

The seeking, the adzing out from the nothing, the nothing

The immensity, the endurance

Sky father and Earth mother.

Ranginui and Papatūānuku

In the creation of the world Ranginui and Papatūānuku were the first ancestors. Their children ruled the natural world. Tāwhirimatea was god of the winds, Tangaroa was god of the sea, Tāne-mahuta was god of the forest, Tūmatauenga was god of war and humankind, Rongo was god of cultivated foods and Haumia was god of uncultivated foods. Their children gave rise to both humans and all aspects of the natural world.

Whakapapa of the natural world

In one whakapapa, the kiore (rat) and kūmara are linked by whakapapa: Rongo-māui stole kūmara from his brother Whānui (the star Vega) and then impregnated his wife, Pani, with it. She gave birth to kūmara.

In another, Rongo-māui and Pani had a daughter, Hine-mata-iti, who in turn gave birth to the kiore (Pacific rat).

Haumia (god of uncultivated foods including bracken fern) gave birth to te mōnehu (fine, rusty fern spores), who produced biting insects the waeroa (mosquito) and namu (sandfly).

Whakapapa with links to Polynesia

Atua – the gods and links to Polynesia

There is a similarity in the whakapapa of Māori gods and that of other Polynesian gods. Most Māori had Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother) as their primal gods, although there were tribal variations. Polynesian traditions also have an origin linking earth and sky. While the names of the sky god differ, names for the earth god – in Samoa Papa‘ele, in Tonga Papakele, in Tahiti Papatu‘oi, in Hawaii Papa and in Rarotonga Paparoa-i-te-itinga – all began with Papa. The Māori gods Tāne, Tū, Rongo and Tangaroa are also found throughout Polynesia – Kāne, Kū and Kanaloa are important in Hawaii.

Culture hero sequences

Culture hero whakapapa are dominated by cycles centred on Māui and Tāwhwki. Genealogical sequences vary widely. They can appear either early or later in the genealogy, depending on the composer and their intent. Positions varied between tribes. The most frequently occurring set of names is that of Kaitangata–Whaitiri–Hema–Tāwhaki which is consistent throughout East Polynesia.

Some genealogical subsets are known throughout Polynesia and parts of Melanesia and Micronesia. Culture hero sequences are subject to contraction and expansion. These figures play an important role in connecting back to creation genealogies from which all things began. Many of the traditions associated with them describe the bringing of benefits to humankind, for example slowing down the sun so there was time for work, making fire and hauling land up from the sea.

Polynesian ancestors

Māori whakapapa often trace lines of ancestors back to the most recent canoe on which settlers arrived in New Zealand. Further back, descent lines often include ancient ancestral sequences, including the names of well known Polynesian forebears in recurring genealogical subsets or ancestral traces. The positions of ancestors often vary between tribes and informants, and one or more of these names are often expanded into euphonic sequences (word play).

One of the most typical of these sequences is Whiro–Toi–Whātonga–Rakeiora–Tahatiti found in most tribal genealogies. Whiro is the most widely known of all East Polynesian navigating figures, known as Hilo in Hawaii, Hiro in Tahiti and Tuamotu, and ‘Iro in Rarotonga. Whiro’s name appears in the genealogies of most tribes; however, only Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu and other East Coast and some Bay of Plenty tribes retain traditional narratives about him. Toi and Whātonga are New Zealand-located ancestors, Rakeiora is known in both New Zealand and East Polynesia, and Tahatiti is Tangihia, a well known ancestor in Rarotonga.

Recalling whakapapa

Whakapapa links to landscape were recalled in waiata, particularly oriori (chanted to children), and in stories. Waiata embellished the meaning of whakapapa. Kōrero (stories) and traditions were recalled which also added meaning to whakapapa.

When Māori were laying their claims to land in the Native Land Court hearings, whakapapa, waiata and kōrero were all given in evidence. Claims to land were often based on take tipuna (rights through ancestors) and so it was necessary to trace whakapapa to illustrate particular rights to land or other resources in a given area.

Oral lore

Scholar H. W. Williams noted that Māori formally trained as repositories of oral lore could recite hundreds of names in interlocking genealogies. Ethnographer Elsdon Best described one Māori informant who dictated from memory 341 waiata and karakia (prayers). Tamarau Waiari of Ngāti Koura recited 1,400 names before a 1890s Native Land Court hearing, in a dense interwoven genealogy including all living persons descended from a single ancestor about 20 generations earlier.

These individual experts had contemporaries in their whānau, hapū and iwi, with other traditional knowledge, meaning that the overall collective genealogical memory of tribes was much larger than these impressive individual examples.

Whakapapa experts often had rākau whakapapa, which looked similar to walking sticks, but had small ridges running along the shaft. When recounting whakapapa these experts would use each ridge to represent a particular ancestor.

With the introduction of writing, whakapapa soon began to be written down in manuscripts and books. These books were considered tapu and were handled carefully. In many cases, when their owners died the books would be buried with them or burnt because of the level of tapu they were considered to have.

In the late 19th century, when important people passed away, their whakapapa links to the most important tribal canoes were sent to be printed in the newspapers.

Whakapapa as a whare

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.

Taonui manuscript

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.

Scholars and whakapapa

Problems in publication

Early-20th-century Pākehā writers changed the order of creation from Te Pō (the darkness), then Te Ao (the light) followed by Te Kore (the nothingness) to Te Kore, then Te Pō and Te Ao because their translation of te kore as ‘nothingness’ implied to them that this should be the first order of creation. A better gloss for Te Kore might be unknown potential.

The first Western-trained Māori scholars later taught this version of creation to other Māori, to the extent that today it is widely accepted by Māoridom as reflecting pre-European creation beliefs.

Turning whakapapa into history

Other Pākehā writers, such as Stephenson Percy Smith in Hawaiki (1921), over-historicised genealogies, firstly by assuming genealogies were sequentially human as far back as 50 to 60 generations and beyond, and then by generalising all tribal genealogies into one linear sequence, to say Kupe was the first ancestor to arrive in New Zealand 42 generations before 1900 in 950 AD, followed by Toi in 1150 AD, and a fleet of seven canoes in 1350 AD. Smith’s interpretation of whakapapa became widely accepted by Māori because Māori scholars educated in European institutions promoted it among their own people.

False dates

Pākehā scholars also averaged out long and short genealogies to work out when particular ancestors lived, which often created false dates. Another practice where genealogies varied quite widely in length was to wrongly conclude there were two different ancestors of the same name who lived at different times, which overlooked processes of truncation and elongation. For instance it can be shown that genealogies ranging between 58 and 18 generations for the ancestor Kupe refer to the same person.

Dynamic whakapapa

The problems had an ongoing impact on Māori. For example, genealogies given before the Native Land Court and Waitangi Tribunal became more fixed rather than dynamic, because of assumptions that a Western form of linear history was the measurement of validity. This was also problematic as many of the genealogies given in the Land Court were reshaped to achieve a particular outcome – gaining access to land.

Myth and tradition in whakapapa

The Pākehā model of whakapapa divided genealogy into myth and traditions. Myth referred to the creation of the universe from Te Kore and Te Pō, Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother), the gods of nature, origins of human life and the demigod traditions of Māui and Tāwhaki. According to scholars Bruce Biggs and Ranginui Walker, the myths were timeless. Traditions were more historical and referred to events over the last millennium, including the discovery of Aotearoa (New Zealand), the settlement, founding of tribes and ongoing relationships between them. Margaret Orbell held similar views though she regarded the canoe traditions and many of the ‘historical’ tribal traditions as myth too.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rāwiri Taonui, 'Whakapapa – genealogy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 September 2021)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2015