Volume 25 1916 > Volume 25, No.100 > Maori mummies, by Edward Tregear, p 167-168
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- 167

IN the latest issue of the “Polynesian Journal,” Vol. XXV., page 122, there appears a review by Mr. H. D. Skinner of a paper called “A Study of the Migrations of Peoples, etc.,” by Professor G. Elliot Smith.

In this review Mr. Skinner challenges Professor J. Mc Millan Brown to produce his authorities for the statement that Maoris made mummies of their dead. Mr. Skinner, or any other member of our Society, is well within his rights to challenge assertions unsupported by expert authority. He, however, goes further and denies the existence of any mummified Maori bodies in any museum in the world. This would demand, not only intense knowledge of each particular museum, but also acquaintance with their cellars and stored specimens. Even medical and university museums would have to be explored. Such wide denials are dangerous. Locally, it would be easy to deny that Maoris cremated the bodies of their relatives; that Maoris had the custom of circumcision; that Maoris filed their teeth to sharp points. Yet, we have good evidence that in the northern parts of the South Island the dead were cremated; that near Cape Palliser circumcision existed; that at Kawhia families with pointed teeth (“shark-teeth,” artificially pointed) have been found. 1

This danger in denial applies to the question of native mummies. I enclose a photo of a Maori mummy. I have no notes about it, but perhaps if Mr. Skinner can find the photographer, Mr. R. B. Graham, he could trace the whereabouts of the mummy. The photo is dated March, 1893. It is probably a record of one of the mummies found in a cave at Kawhia about twenty-four years ago. The resident natives denied knowledge of the remains, and said that the bodies were those of strangers—probably of tangata whenua.

Mr. Skinner's knowledge of the subject is not only negative, but is, possibly, like my own, confined to the North Island. 2 In the South - 168 Island I consider that there is evidence of mummification. In the list of words given in the late Augustus Hamilton's magnificent book on “Maori Art” is Atamira, “a platform for a corpse”—thus following the accepted meaning of the word. However, later in point of time, he discovered in the south wooden burial cases, carved and roughly shaped to human form. These, Hamilton explained, were not coffins, but mummy cases, and were called Atamiru (not Atamira). Thereupon, I tried to verify the statement, and applied to the late T. Parata, M.P., who was an authority on South Island lore, being descended both from Ngati-Tahu and from Ngati-Mamoe. Parata insisted that the name was not Atamiru, but Atamiro, and that the dead body was made into a mummy before being put into the box. Two of these mummy-cases are now in the National Museum, Wellington. 3

The main authority, however, is the impartial statement of a dead author, who has preserved a recital of an ancient legend. In the late John White's “Ancient History of the Maori,” Vol. IV., page 81—Hia-poto, having grown old, addressed her sons thus—“When I am dead, do not take my body and place it in the cave, but rather make a coffin and carve it all over, and place my body in it. Then erect a stage in the courtyard of our pa, and build a small house on it, and place the coffin in the house, and let my body remain in it there.”

Although I believe with Mr. Skinner that the Maoris did not mummify their dead, yet I consider that some tribes or families of Maoris did so. The preservation of the dried body, the shaping of the mummy case (roughly) to human form, the carving and sex-emblems thereon, all point to relationship of ideas with those of other peoples who preserved the bodies of the dead.

1   And also at Whanganui.—EDITOR.
2   Mr. Skinner is well acquainted with the South Island Museums. He is at present serving his country on the other side of the world, and has earned the Military Cross.—EDITOR.
3   Others from Waimamaku, near Hokianga, are in the Auckland Museum.—EDITOR.