The Study of Oceania: New Zealand

Maori warrior_0

The original Māori explorers and settlers arrived from Eastern Polynesia in several waves of canoe voyages sometime between 1250 and 1300 CE. It’s becoming more clear that through this research, the arrival of the Europeans and missionaries in the 1600’s brought a significant amount of change to Māori way of life. This of course included the purging of traditional music, performing and visual arts. However, anthropologically “New samples of bone (and now also of unequivocally rat-gnawed woody seed cases) match the 1280 date of the earliest archaeological sites and the beginning of sustained deforestation by humans” (David Lowe).

New Zealand: The narrow islands southeast of Australia


To get your ears excited, I’m so excited to share an instrument with you called the Poiawhioohio. Later I go into detail about how this instrument originated, but until then- enjoy, and welcome to the ancient music of New Zealand!

poiWhio (2)

Another compelling piece of research by The New Scientist states that , “A previous study of bones from rats – which Polynesian settlers brought with them as a food source  […] were dated as early as 200 BC.”  If this research is at all accurate, another group of people known as the Potupaiarehe could have been living in New Zealand before Māori settlers had even arrived.



Before colonization sought to reeducate and cleanse-away traditional Māori lifestyle, the native tribespeople told mystifying folklore of the Patupaiarehe people that dominated the mountainous regions of New Zealand. As these people were known to be musically oriented with the Pūtōrino flute or trumpet “which, along with the Kōauau (another flute), were played expertly by [the] Patupaiarehe (fairy-like spirit-people living in the forests and mountaintops of New Zealand.) The flute can be played through the top air channel (held vertically) or through a hole carved in the center of the flute’s body (played horizontally). This pressurizes the air out either end of the flute, creating a low-end, smooth-sounding voice. Generally made from different materials, the customary construction of these flutes were made of wood, albatross bones, or even human bone! The carving skills that these ancient peoples utilized are rather magnificent.


Oh, and now I know that you’re thinking about human bone. Cannibalism is a whole separate topic within Māori Warriors…as a side fact, after battle they would eat various parts of their victims (which were usually conquered people from neighboring tribes) in order to gain “superhuman” powers.

Now back to the traditional Māori music; Taonga Puoro(this music was thankfully revived over the past thirty years by Hirini Melbourne, Richard Nunns and Brian Flintoff.)

The Pūtorino flute is inspired by the sound of a female case moth and its shape’s based on her cocoon. The aerophone, can be played in different octaves with both male & female voices depending upon breath control.


Check out this video by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 

Rumored by Māori folklore to have pale skin and red hair, Writer/Historian James Cowan (noted for his books on colonial history and Maori ethnography) was told that ‘The Patupaiarehe were a lighter complexion than typical Māori; their hair was of a dull golden or reddish hue.” With much lighter skin and hair than the Māori tribe-line, it perplexes the curious anthropologist. The Patupaiarehe’s eye-colors were also said to have ranged from pale blue to a rich sable.  Does the answer lie somewhere between the research and the mythology?


There are many various ideas based on these ancient spirit-people. While some believe them to be merely stories and stories alone, others truly believe that the Patupaiarehe are an under-studied anthropologic goldmine, and in their favor there is new research.


According to Historian Richard Wood, “[The] Maori used umbrella terms like Patu-paiarehe, Turehu and Pakepakeha as names for earlier [New Zealand] inhabitants, but each Maori tribe developed their own regional names, such as Ngati Kura, Ngati Korakorako and Ngati Turehu for the Patu-paiarehe tribes in the Rotorua lakes district of the central North Island.


Believed to be Patupaiarehe/Terhu remains, this Māori burial cave had its skeletal contents examined in 1919 and determined to be “very old when found in isolated country, far from the consecrated ground of a churchyard. The deceased people were, undoubtedly, the white Ngati Hotu, known in local Maori and European folklore to have hidden from the cannibals for centuries in this inhospitable region” (Wood).

For about 12-years during the mid 1860’s-70’s Robertson’s Mill in Onehunga, Auckland [New Zealand] ground-up tens of thousands of Patupaiarehe skeletons from the Auckland and Northland burial caves to make fertilizer. Maori leaders had told Governor Bowen at Te Kopuru in 1869, ‘Do with them what you wish for these are not our people’ (Source: Noel Hilliam, former Curator of the Dargaville Maritime Museum)

Scarcely seen, these perplexing spirit-people were known by the Māori as being avid flute players living in mist covered hill-tops and deep within mossy vine-covered forests. As they lived off the natural sustenance from the land, the Patupaiarehe were hunter-gatherers, consuming mainly raw forest food, and fishing along the seashore or within forest lakes.

According to the New Zealand Encyclopedia, “In different traditions, albino birds and eels, red flax and red eels were considered  property of the [Patupaiarehe] , and trouble befell upon the Māori who took any of these. If they sincerely did exist, it’s clear there may have been tribe-to-tribe rivalries.


Instrumentally, both the Pūtōrino and  kōauau flute was said to be played expertly by the Patupaiarehe, and that “while playing their music they were able to lure young women into their clutches” (The Encyclopedia of New Zealand). Acting sprightly throughout nighttime hours, the Patupaiarehe people were physically distressed by light, and rather disliked being unshielded by the mists of the mountains. Intermingling between the Māori and the Patupaiarehe was preferably rare, and would have potentially caused tribe-to-tribe conflict.


Alongside the vocal tradition of chant and song, Māori people played a wide variety of drum percussion and wind instruments. “In traditional Māori society the voice, chant and instrumental sounds played a significant role in the social and ritual activity of the community” (’s6.htm) 


This was in essence due to the absence of any sort of written literature within Māori society. Like the orally passed-down traditions of the Torah in Judaism, Māori oral literature was passed-down through significant musical traditions that formed a large part of society.

“Haka”: are shouted speeches by men, combined with a fierce dance. Haka Taparahi are performed without weapons and they can give expression to different emotions depending on the situation for which they are performed. Performed with weapons, Haka Peruperu were associated with war-dances that frightened and intimidated the opponents in order to achieve power.



In this next Youtube video, there are various examples of Māori song and dance. Though it’s mainly vocal and hand-percussion based, it is no doubt that “Waiata” are passionate expressions of song sung in groups.

Waiata tangi are laments for the dead. The word tangi means weeping. This form is mainly composed by women. During burial ceremonies women were expected to show signs of deep grief, for example by wounding their faces with sharp stones. Sometimes these waiata were very personal, telling about the composer’s emotions and feelings towards the dead. When composed by men the waiata tangi can also instruct us about the warrior qualities of the dead person.”’s6.htm

The Pukea, also an aerophone, was a wooden trumpet used for war and enemy intimidation. On a more positive note, they were also used to announce the rituals associated with the planting of kumara (sweet potato) and other crops” (Dr. Richard Nunns)



The Nguru was a small flute made out of either wood, stone, clay or whale bone. With anywhere from 2 to 4 finger-holes, like many flutes, the lips (or nose!) blow through the open end of the instrument. While air is forced through a small curved hole at the end of the aerophone, the Nguru has a high pitched and smooth sound (a bit like an Ocarina)


The Putatara (Conch Shell) is also found in other islands throughout Oceania, and is used to let people know something was about to happen (including seasons changing.) The bigger the shell, the deeper the sound.

This tradition is consistent throughout Polynesia. When my husband and I hiked to the summit of Haleakala with our 2 friends, (10,000 ft. Volcano), it was our intention to stargaze in a location with very little light-pollution. When the sun-rose around 7am, a man played a howling Conch Shell to symbolize the new year, as it was now January 1, 2014!


Back within traditional Māori instruments, the Pahu Pounamu is a jade gong used in “The House of Learning.” It’s made from the bone of a Pilot Whale, and a natural hardwood called Akeake. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any solo recording samples of what this instrument sounded like.


There are also nose flutes made of globular shaped gourds called Koauau Ponga Ihu as well as whistling and chattering bird lures called Poiawhiohio (also made from a hollowed out gourd). When the Poiawhiohio was able to entice the birds… an easy meal was to follow.

I purchased this recording from (New Zealand’s Centre for Music) Believe it or not, this was the only place I was able to find a good recording of what the Poiawhioohio sounds like…This is the same recording you heard

poiWhio (2)

My personal favorite instrument is called the TumuTumu. Like the Pahu Pounamu/ Jade Gong, it was used in the “House of Learning” to accompany intoned learnings. It was made from the jaw bone of the Upokohue (pilot whale) and the striker is made from the native New Zealand hardwood, Akeake. Throughout my exploration on traditional Māori music, I thought that the overall construction involved to create this hand-percussion instrument was wonderful with the teeth-enhancements. The sound itself also reminded me of the sound of hollowed-out chattering teeth.

Here’s the link you can hear the TumuTumu recording


Early Christian missionaries sought to take the music away from those who inhabited native New Zealand. However regardless of the intended cultural-purge, today there has been a strong revival of traditional Māori music! Thanks to Dr. Richard Nunns, Māori descendants have been able to rediscover many of their lost instruments and culture. The voices of the traditional instruments had rarely been heard since the early nineteenth century.

Nunns’ musicality and facility in playing the instruments are underpinned by his extensive scholarship and research.

Maori Women hard at word (circa 1930)


The Oldtime Māori (1938) Photo by Mākerti Papakura


Pocket groups of these first inhabitants survived into the 20th century and are well-remembered by old-timers as the red headed, freckle-faced Maoris or Waka blonds, (perhaps there was some previous intermarrying with the Patupaiarehe?) 🙂


“James Cowan (New Zealand Writer).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Feb. 2013. Web. 31 Jan. 2014. <>.

Lowe, James. “Polynesian Settlement of New Zealand and the Impacts of Volcanism on Early Maori Society: An Update.” Dating Human Arrival in New Zealand. Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Waikato, Hamilton, n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2014. <>.

Nunns, Richard. “Dr Richard Nunns — Nga Taonga Puoro, Traditional Maori Musical Instruments.” Richard Nunns. International New Zealand Artists, n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2014. <>

“Rat Remains Help Date New Zealand’s Colonisation.” Rat Remains Help Date New Zealand’s Colonisation. New Scientist: Life, 04 June 2008. Web. 03 Feb. 2014. <>.

“Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.” Urukehu – Patupaiarehe –. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2014. <>.


Wilmshurt, Janet. “Dating Human Arrival in New Zealand.” Dating Human Arrival in New Zealand. Landcare Research, n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2014. <>.



  1. I really enjoyed reading about each instrument’s construction and use within the culture. It’s fascinating some of the events the Māori chose to accompany with music. I especially like that they fashioned an instrument to accompany “intoned learning.” I wonder how it was used during the lesson. Perhaps they taught and learned through song, or perhaps it was just an intermittent reminder of the purpose of the gathering.
    I also wonder if the materials used to construct each instrument have anything to do with its purpose. It looks like the Pukea could not only intimidate an enemy, but also club them to death, cultivate the soil for the sweet potatoes, and leave the warrior enough time to make it home for supper.

  2. Rachel,
    You outdid yourself here. Awesome. I look forward to digging deeper into this post, as I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from it! I’ll have more feedback at that time, but for now… Bravo!! PK

  3. Rachel,
    I don’t have much to add here. Excellent work. Your section on the Patupaiarehe is fascinating. One thing you might consider for future posts is to narrow your focus, going into even more depth in one particular area of a culture. Not that the above approach isn’t working. This is a great overview of Maori culture with tons of interesting material. Having a couple posts that are more focused in scope may be a nice contrast though. Just a thought! PK

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