Volume 77 1968 > Volume 77, No. 2 > The practice of mummification among the New Zealand Maori, by Wayne Orchiston, p 186 - 190
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In a lively debate on the subject of Maori mummification 1 which appeared in Volumes 25-27 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society 2 Hongi brought forward the evidence of two eye witnesses to show indisputably that mummification had indeed existed in former times. In spite of this finding subsequent denials of its existence have appeared in print. 3

In this paper further evidence is presented supporting Hongi's claim. 4 Because caves and hollow trees were sometimes used as primary burial repositories 5, and certain atmospheric and/or geological circumstances sometimes brought about natural preservation of the body 6, it is generally impossible - 187 to determine whether a cave find is in fact a mummy, or merely a dessicated corpse. In view of this limitation an alternative approach is adopted in that evidence is sought for mummies observed in a non-burial context.

The best-documented case of Maori mummification contained in the early literature relates to Cruise's sojourn at the Bay of Islands in 1820. Five days after the “Dromedary” anchored off Kororareka a local chief by the name of Tui 7 visited the ship. By way of apology for his belated arrival Tui related that he had only the preceding evening returned home from North Cape, where he, his brother Korokoro, and a large party of their people had been performing ceremonies of lamentation over a cousin who had died there. The body, which had been mummified, was brought back to the Bay of Islands with them 8. On the following day Korokoro took Captain Skinner, Ensign McCrae, and Dr. Fairfowl, of the “Dromedary”, and the Reverend Samuel Marsden, to view the body. They found it in a canoe,

. . . watched over by two old women, who sat on either side of it. When Krokro mentioned to them his intention of showing it to the strangers, there was an evident opposition on their part, which was overcome with apparent difficulty by the authority of their chief . . . The body was at first enveloped in mats but Krokro raised it out of the canoe and stripped it. The temples were bound with a chaplet of leaves, and the hair was ornamented with the feathers of the albatross; the knees were gathered up and the head rested upon them; the abdomen had collapsed, and the intestines had been evidently removed, though no mark of an incision was visible; the limbs were much shrivelled from the process that had been adopted to prevent their putrefaction, of which, though the person had been dead for a considerable time, there was not the slightest appearance. When the body was replaced in the canoe, the women resumed their station on either side of it . . . 9

Best notes that bodies were sometimes mummified when it was necessary to convey them long distances 10, and it was probably this reason which prompted preservation of the above individual. Without mummification he could not have been brought home, for he had been dead “. . . for a considerable time . . .”

Later in his book Cruise mentions another mummy. “The upper part of the body of a woman was seen at Shukehanga 11, in a high state of preservation, while the remainder, in consequence of decomposition immediately after death, was not preserved . . .” 12

The several other instances of mummification which are documented in the early literature will now be considered chronologically.

There is a possible case of mummification relating to Cook's first voyage. While at “Teegadu Bay” 13 in October, 1769, William Monkhouse, surgeon on the “Endeavour”, visited a solitary whare overlooking the watering place. There he was shown many items of Maori material culture, and finally, - 188

This man finished his civility with a most singular act of complaisance. He brought out a child which was in a dried state, and from the position of its extremities looked as if it had been taken out of the Womb. It had undergone a considerable mutilation. All that we could learn of its history was that it was the child of his wife, that it was born alive and that it died soon afterwards—if I misunderstood him not this was his account. 14

Kendall's papers of 1815 contain a possible reference to mummification. Amongst some enumerated points to be noted in a letter to the Church Missionary Society is, “3. Embalming the dead and putting the corpse in a box.” 15 The memo on which this entry appears is dated September 26. Prior to this date Kendall's journal contains no reference to mummies or mummification; however, the deaths of several important chiefs are noted, and it is not impossible that one or more of these was mummified.

Polack provides some more substantial evidence for mummification. While at Poverty Bay during the 1830's he observed a local chief by the name of Te Kuri carrying around the preserved body of his deceased son in a blanket slung behind his back. When the son had died at the age of four years Te Kuri was inconsolable “until he hit upon a method, in fashion among his countrymen, to preserve the best momento possible of the lamented child. He eviscerated the body and head, and cooked the whole in the same manner the head of an enemy is preserved, 16 stuffing the inside of the body with scraped flax . . .” 17 The body had been in this preserved state for more than five years when Polack saw it.

Polack also relates that a chief of nearby Tokomaru had in a similar manner mummified the bodies of two of his children who had died. 18 Whether or not Polack actually saw these two individuals is not known, but since Tokomaru lay on the return route from Poverty Bay to the Bay of Islands it is not impossible that he stopped off there on the way.

Finally, reference must be made to the investigations of Reischek, who interested himself in the topic of Maori mummification while visiting New Zealand in the 1870's. After receiving some information relative to this subject Reischek began searching for specimens, and was finally rewarded when two Maoris led him to a cave near Kawhia. There he found four mummies, two of which were in a perfect state of preservation. Reischek subsequently removed these two bodies from the site and spirited them out of New Zealand; they were eventually lodged with the Vienna Museum. 19 In view of the nature of - 189 Reischek's investigations 20 it seems probable that what he observed in the Kawhia cave were indeed mummies, and not dessicated remains, as has been claimed by both Firth and Buck. 21 Firth was apparently helped to his conclusion by the fact that “. . . the posture, with knees drawn up and hands folded on the chest, is that in which the corpse was commonly trussed by the Maori prior to interment or concealment.” 22 However, evidence presented by Best, 23 and in Cruise's account given above, shows that trussing of mummies was practised.

The foregoing information, supplementary to Hongi's earlier findings, suggests that mummification was known in most of the occupied regions of the North Island. Evidence from the South Island is negligible, although Teohi Taihi 24 states that mummification was formerly practised in Otago.

There can now be little doubt that in former times the Maoris occasionally made use of mummification, but it is unlikely that this practice was particularly common to the old-time Maoris as has elsewhere been claimed. 25

  • ANGAS, G. F., 1847. Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand. Volume II. London, Smith and Elder.
  • BEAGLEHOLE, J. C. (ed.), 1955. The Journals of Captain James Cook. I. The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • BEST, E., 1924. The Maori. Volume II. Wellington, Tombs.
  • — 1926. “Notes on Customs, Rituals and Beliefs Pertaining to Sickness, Death, and Exhumation Among the Maori of New Zealand.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 35:6-30.
  • — 1952. The Maori as He Was. Wellington, Government Printer.
  • BUCK, P., 1962. The Coming of the Maori. Wellington, Whitcombe and Tombs. (Second edition.)
  • CHAPMAN, F. R. (ed.), 1928. Journal Kept in New Zealand in 1820 by Ensign Alexander McCrae. Wellington, Alexander Turnbull Library, Bulletin No. 3.
  • CRUISE, R. A., 1823. Journal of a Ten Months' Residence in New Zealand. London, Longman et al.
  • ELDER, J. R. (ed.), 1932. The Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden 1765-1838. Dunedin, Coulls et al.
  • — 1934. Marsden's Lieutenants. Dunedin, Coulls et al.
  • FIRTH, R., 1931. “Maori Material in the Vienna Museum.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 40:95-102.
  • FLETCHER, H. J., 1917. “Maori Mummies.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 26:74.
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  • HONGI, Hare, 1916. “On Mummification.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 25:169-172.
  • MAIR, G., 1923. Reminiscences and Maori Stories. Auckland, Brett.
  • MANING, F. E., 1863. Old New Zealand. Auckland, Creighton and Scales. Missionary Register, 1822, pp. 386-396.
  • MONKHOUSE, W. B., 1769. “Journal of William Brougham Monkhouse.” In Beaglehole 1955:564-587. (Appendix IV.)
  • NOTES AND QUERIES, 1918a. “Mummification among the Polynesians.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 27:95.
  • — 1918b. “Mummification among the Maoris.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 27:96.
  • — 1923. “Mummification Among the Maoris.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 32:49.
  • — 1926. “Mummification Among the Maori.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 35:177.
  • — 1935. “Mummification Among the Maoris.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 44:189-190.
  • ORCHISTON, D. W., 1967. “Preserved Human Heads of the New Zealand Maoris.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 76:297-329.
  • POLACK, J. S., 1838. New Zealand: Being a Narrative of Travels and Adventures in that Country between the Years 1831 and 1837. Volume I. London, Bentley.
  • — 1840. Manners and Customs of the New Zealanders. Volume I. London, Madden and Company.
  • REISCHEK, A., 1930. Yesterdays in Maoriland. London, Cape. (Translated from the German by H. E. L. Priday.)
  • SKINNER, H. D., 1916. Review of “On the Significance of the Geographical Distribution of the Practice of Mummification”, by Professor G. Elliott Smith. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 25:122-124.
  • — 1917a. “Mummification among the Maoris.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 26:70-71.
  • — 1917b. “Mummification among the Maoris.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 26:188-189.
  • SMITH, G. Elliot, 1917. “Mummification in New Zealand.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 26:71-74.
  • TREGEAR, E., 1916. “Maori Mummies.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 25:167-168.
  • — 1917. “Maori Mummies.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 26:98.
  • WILSON, O., 1963. “Tooi, Teeteree and Titore.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 72:267-269.
1   In this paper “mummification” is held to include any method of artificially preserving the human dead.
2   Fletcher 1917; Hongi 1916; Notes and Queries 1918a, 1918b; Skinner 1916, 1917a, 1917b; Smith 1917; Tregear 1916, 1917.
3   Buck in 1949 (see Buck 1962:424), and Graham, in Notes and Queries 1935:189.
4   The author is indebted to the Librarians of the Turnbull Library and the Auckland Public Libraries for providing information of relevance to this study.
5   Best 1926:13-14, 1952:116; Buck 1962:425-426; Notes and Queries 1926:177. For specific examples see Angas 1847:83; Mair 1923:69, 71; Maning 1863:220; Notes and Queries 1935:190. The remains mentioned in the last reference may well have been mummified despite Graham's opinion to the contrary. He does not explain, for example, why it was that the neck cords, etc., suffered disintegration, while the bodies were “in a perfectly preserved condition”; surely cordage is more resistant to decay than is human tissue.
6   The geological circumstances relate to the preservative properties of pumice. Mair lists several cases with which he was personally acquainted in which dessication had been affected by way of this medium (Mair 1923:69-71).
7   There is some controversy as to the correct spelling of this chief's name—see Wilson 1963.
8   Chapman 1928:17; Cruise 1823:36-37.
9   Cruise 1823:48-49. See the Missionary Register 1822:392 and Chapman 1928:18, for accounts by Marsden and McCrae respectively. Marsden's journal contains a probable reference to this mummy (Elder 1932:244).
10   Best 1926:13.
11   I.e. Hokianga.
12   Cruise 1823:136.
13   Beaglehole (1955:183, note) identifies this as Anaura Bay.
14   Monkhouse 1769:584-585. Because this mummy is not mentioned in any other accounts of the voyage there is no reason for doubting the authenticity of Monkhouse's account. Almost all other individuals ashore at the time were engaged in wooding and watering. In reference to Monkhouse's journal Beaglehole says: “This is a document of the highest value . . . if the original journal was continuously as perceptive, fully detailed and well-written as this fragment it provided a description of eighteenth century New Zealand quite as good as Banks's, and perhaps better . . .” (Beaglehole 1955:ccxxxi).
15   Elder 1934:90.
16   Actually, at least four different methods of “cooking” heads were utilised by the Maoris (Orchiston 1967:322). From the above, and other fragmentary accounts of the mummification process (Hongi 1916:170-171; Notes and Queries 1923:49; Reischek 1930:215; see also Polack 1840:127-128), it would appear that two distinct methods were utilised, one involving the complete enclosure of the body within a hangi, and the other, the exposure of the body to a fire.
17   Polack 1838:375.
18   Polack 1838:375-376.
19   Reischek 1930:215-216. See also Notes and Queries 1926:177. The two mummies in the Vienna Museum are described in Firth 1931:96.
20   Reischek was specifically looking for mummified, not desiccated remains, and must have made this known to his two Maori guides.
21   Firth 1931:96; Buck 1962:424-425.
22   Firth 1931:96.
23   Best 1924:56.
24   Notes and Queries 1918b.
25   Hongi 1916:171.