Volume 41 1932 > Volume 41, No. 164 > Maori amulets in stone, bone, and shell, by H. D. Skinner, p 302-309
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C. The headless human figure.

In Section A the hei-tiki was discussed, and in Section B, various forms standing close to the hei-tiki group. In the present section the headless human figure will be considered.

Fig. 10 is a New Zealand rendering of an ideograph which is widely distributed in Polynesia. The locality of this specimen is uncertain. It came to the Otago University Museum in the Hocken Collection in 1910, but no details of locality or circumstance of finding were then given. However, it had been drawn in 1898 and reproduced by Edge-Partington. 1 The drawing, there shown upside down, is described as follows: “Fragment of obsidian figure carved in relief, highly polished. Found by a river-bed at Waitati.” It must in the first place be stated that the piece is not a fragment but is complete. In the second place, the material is not obsidian; it is a dark, fine-grained stone taking a high polish, which cannot be identified with certainty from the hand-specimen. It resembles most closely those compact basalts which the Otago Maori reduced to shape by sawing, though I have not seen any of these which took so high a polish. A piece of what might well have been the block from which fig. 10 was made was found on the site of the great moa-hunter camp on the south bank at the mouth of the Waitaki, beside the ancient dry riverbed, and is now in the University Museum. I believe that Edge-Partington made a slip in recording the locality of fig. 10 as Waitati, and that it - 303 should be Waitaki. On the walls of limestone shelters in that district the headless human figure is rendered several times, but always perfunctorily, never with anything approaching the care used in this amulet. It was probably designed to be worn as a breast-pendant, but it has no perforation, and must have been suspended by a closely-plaited cord passing along the groove above the figure. Why this clumsy method was adopted is not apparent, but the same method was occasionally used with other highly-finished amulets, some of which are figured later.

Fig. 11 is a rendering of the same motive in moa-bone from the Gisborne district. Other examples exist from the North Island, but it appears to be much rarer there than in the south.

Fig. 12 is an example in greenstone of good quality, from Murdering Beach. One leg has been lost. Hamilton 2 suggests that the name applied to this specimen would be tiki popohe.

Fig. 13 is a greenstone specimen from the surface-layer at Murdering Beach. The material is poor.

Fig. 14 3 is an example in whalebone from the Chathams, indicating that the amulet was used throughout the New Zealand-Chathams area. This example has serrations on one arm, as has fig. 10.

The figures thus far discussed in this section all represent a headless human figure seen full-face. Those of the next group (figs. 15-18) are renderings of a headless human figure seen in profile. They are all degenerate, so that the interpretation of them here proposed would not carry conviction were it not for the rendering of bird-headed men in profile to be figured in Part 3.

Fig. 15, which is made from brightly mottled stone, is a profile rendering of the headless human figure. The lowest curve represents the foot, heel to the left. The projection above the heel is the buttock. The lower of the two projections on the right margin represents the knee, and the projection above it is the stomach. This amulet is from Long Beach, which adjoins Murdering Beach to the west.

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Fig. 16 is an unfinished and degenerate rendering of the same motive, from the surface-layer at Murdering Beach.

Figs. 17 and 18 are fragments of this motive rendered in poor greenstone, one from Murdering Beach, surface-layer, the other from Morven, South Canterbury.


In spite of absence of reference to this type in the works of the explorers and the ethnologists, the stratigraphical evidence makes it certain that the type was in use in recent times. Figs. 13, 16 and 17, from Murdering Beach, are all from the surface-layer, secured in excavations under the writer's direction. There is conclusive evidence that Maori occupation continued here until December, 1817. Though no record exists, it is probably the case that that fig. 12 and other examples from the site 4 are also from the surface-layer.

There is at present no stratigraphical evidence of antiquity of the headless human figure, but the evidence of geographical distribution is conclusive. Amulets of the type are present throughout the New Zealand-Chathams area. The ideograph forms an element in the Easter Island script. 5 It also occurs in profusion in the Marquesas, the Australs, and Mangaia, rarely in Tonga, and sporadically in Melanesia. It is to be supposed that future research will reveal it in the Society and Hawaiian groups.

While the full-face rendering of the headless human figure is thus a common-place in other parts of Polynesia, the profile rendering has not yet been recorded anywhere outside New Zealand, where it is at present known only in the South Island. While the acceptance of negative evidence is dangerous it seems not improbable that the profile rendering is a New Zealand development suggested by the birdheaded-man amulet, which in New Zealand is - 306 always rendered in profile. Whether this is its origin or not, the illustrations to Part 3 will show that the designs of both groups are closely allied.

Name and function. It is not improbable that Hamilton was right in suggesting tiki popohe as the Maori name of this amulet. As to function there is no New Zealand evidence.

D. Amulets representing human legs.

The next group (figs. 19-21) resemble most of the preceding pieces of Section C in that they are degenerate, but differ from them in that they represent a pair of human legs only, arms and body being omitted. They are to be considered in conjunction with fig. 7, which shows a similar pair of human legs but combined with a human head.

Fig. 19 is a slightly broken specimen in good green-stone from the surface-layer, Murdering Beach. I have seen a very similar one in private hands in Hawkes Bay; this was figured by Robley in Pounamu.

Fig. 20 is a soapstone specimen from Kaikai's Beach, which adjoins Murdering Beach on the east. It lacks the perforation, due to its being unfinished. The serrations are interesting though poorly executed.

Fig. 21 is made from beautiful translucent greenstone, probably tangiwai, and is from Ruapuke Island, Foveaux Strait. The outer edges are lightly serrated. Hamilton's view that this decorative feature is ancient is supported by the whole of the evidence at present available.

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All three of these pieces illustrate departure from realism, a process satisfactorily described in the present case by the term degeneration.

The next group (figs. 22-24) represent a single human leg.

Figs. 22 and 23 are from adjoining burials at Waipapa Landing, north of Kaikoura. They were found by railwaymen laying the track now abandoned, and were, in their realism, so unlike anything previously known that their authenticity was at first doubted. A careful examination of the other pieces sold with these, and presumably associated with them, led to their acceptance, and this was confirmed by work on the spot by Mr. David Teviotdale.

Fig. 24 is a crude rendering, in greenstone, of the same motive, from Murdering Beach.


The stratigraphic evidence as to age is unsatisfactory. There is no record of the associations of the two pieces, figs. 22 and 23. In a neighbouring burial, perhaps in the same burial as one or both of them, was found a beautiful hei-tiki 6 of Variety B, which it has already been argued is a modern variety. There is no evidence as to the depth at which fig. 24 was found, but it was probably from the - 308 surface-layer. It thus seems probable that the human-leg amulet was in use in modern times.

The distribution of the human-leg motive is interesting. It occurs in the South Island as just recorded. In the North Island it has been recorded only once 7 and is there not an amulet but part of the apparatus of religious ritual. It has not yet been recorded from the Chathams nor, so far as the writer is aware, from any other part of Polynesia. The Otago University Museum has an old and fine specimen in wood from Santa Cruz, about the same length as fig. 23, but with a much larger foot. It is not perforated for suspension and hence must be classified as a charm rather than an amulet. Though further records as to geographical distribution are greatly to be desired this single authenticated Santa Cruz record, in conjunction with the New Zealand examples, seems conclusive as to the antiquity of the form.

Name and function. There is no evidence as to the name applied by the Maori to these amulets. As to function there exists no direct evidence. But evidence which will be set out in the section following indicates that the human-leg motive was used on occasion in Maori religious ritual. The Rev. George West, who collected the Santa Cruz piece already mentioned, states that this was used in sickness by a native doctor, and it does not seem unduly rash to conjecture that it was used for diseases of the leg, perhaps for elephantiasis affecting that limb. This specimen had an individual name—Dikamamba.

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  • Fig. 10. Headless human figure in dense, black, highly-polished stone. Otago University Museum, D. 10. 279. Upper margin of right arm notched. Height 3 inches. Locality, probably moa-hunter camp at the mouth of Waitaki River, Otago.
  • Fig. 11. Headless human figure in moa-bone. Otago University Museum. D. 21. 414. Height 3½ inches. Locality, Gisborne district.
  • Fig. 12. Headless human figure in greenstone. Field Museum, Chicago. Height 2 inches. Locality, Murdering Beach, Otago.
  • Fig. 13. Headless human figure in greenstone. Otago University Museum, D. 25. 150. Height 1¾ inches. Locality, Murdering Beach, surface-layer.
  • Fig. 14. Headless human figure in whalebone. Chatham Island (after Skinner, “Morioris of Chatham Islands, ” B. P. Bishop Museum, Memoirs 9, p. 69, fig. 8B).
  • Fig. 15. Headless human figure, profile, in mottled stone. Otago University Museum, D. 32. 429. Height 2⅞ inches. Locality, Long Beach, Otago.
  • Fig. 16. Headless human figure, profile, in greenstone. Unfinished. Otago University Museum, D. 26. 1. Height 2⅜ inches. Locality, Murdering Beach, surface-layer.
  • Fig. 17. Headless human figure, fragmentary, profile, in greenstone. Otago University Museum, D. 25. 2504. Height 2⅞ inches. Murdering Beach, surface-layer.
  • Fig. 18. Headless human figure, fragmentary, profile, in greenstone. Otago University Museum, D. 30. 576. Height 2⅛ inches. Locality, Morven, South Canterbury.
  • Fig. 19. Human legs in greenstone. Otago University Museum, D. 29. 1311. Width ⅞ inch. Locality, Murdering Beach.
  • Fig. 20. Human legs in soapstone, unfinished. Otago University Museum, D. 23. 188. Width 1¼ inches. Locality, Kaikai's Beach, Otago.
  • Fig. 21. Human legs in transparent greenstone. Otago University Museum, D. 12. 8. Width 2⅞ inches. Locality, Ruapuke Island, Foveaux Strait.
  • Fig. 22. Human leg in spermwhale-ivory. Otago University Museum, D. 31. 335. Height 2 inches. Waipapa Landing, north of Kaikoura.
  • Fig. 23. Human leg, left, in spermwhale-ivory. Otago University Museum, D. 31. 967. Locality, Waipapa Landing.
  • Fig. 24. Human leg, left, in greenstone. Otago University Museum, D. 27. 1405. Locality, Murdering Beach.
  • (To be continued)
1   Album, Series 3, plate 177, no. 3.
2   Maori Art, p. 342.
3   Skinner, “Morioris of Chatham Islands, ” B. P. Bishop Museum, Memoirs 9, fig. 8B.
4   Two others are figured in J.A.I., vol. 46, 1916, p. 312.
5   It appears, e.g., in the tablet figured in Man, July, 1932, plate G. Recto, line 6, second ideograph; line 9, ninth ideograph; and verso, line 11, twenty-ninth ideograph. The last of these is the most satisfactory.
6   Otago University Museum, D.31.727.
7   Downes, J.P.S., vol. 41 (1932), p. 55, figs. 9, 10, 12.