Friday, September 03, 2010

Maori mere (war club) stolen from tomb recovered

When I first saw the news alert about this theft of a mere, I thought someone who had tried to translate a foreign news release into English had simply misspelled mirror but when I checked the article I learned that a "mere" is a Maori war club:

"A priceless greenstone mere stolen from the tomb of one of the founders of Parihaka Pa in Taranaki has been recovered.

The mere, which belonged to the revered Maori peace prophet Te Whiti O Rongomai, was stolen last week after thieves smashed through a glass casing which protected the mere within the tomb. A mere is a traditional Maori hand club." - New Zealand Herald

I found this very interesting and informative site about Maori weapons that further describes the weapon and its ritual symbolism:

"A short flat club usually made from wood, bone, or greenstone. Also know as a Patu or Waihaka. Used in hand to hand combat. Typical strike zones for warriors included the temple, the jaw and the ribs. The greenstone mere was particularly highly prized as it requires an incredible amount of work to make one. Warriors who carried a greenstone mere were considered to posses great strength and honor. Today the mere represents the facing and overcoming the challenges life presents." - Maori Source

I was surprised to see that the Maori seemed to prefer clubs of various types rather than bladed weapons even though their typical strategy was to kill all enemies in an engagement to prevent revenge attacks.  The single weapon illustrated on the web site that included a greenstone blade was said to be for ceremonial purposes only. 

I found another very good summary of Maori warfare that mentioned they did, at times, use a thrusting spear but never developed the bow and arrow and typically did not throw spears.  Killing at close range appeared to be preferred to impart the appropriate honor on successful warriors.

The summary also described cannibalism that was a common practice during Maori warfare:

Cannibalism was the regular practice in Maori wars. Human flesh was an important part of the food supply of war parties. The bodies were cut up with obsidian flakes and then cooked on heated stones which were laid in pits in the ground. Sometimes, flesh was kept as a supply for the journey. Such meat would first be boned, then dried and packed in flax baskets; alternatively, it was potted in fat in gourds. Prisoners were sometimes taken alive, tied together with flax ropes and kept on the hoof for future slaughter and use...

Mortality in Maori wars must have been considerable in spite of the small forces usually engaged. No quarter was given in battle so that life could only be saved by flight, but it was during flight that the pursuers killed most of their enemies. Not many war parties were completely exterminated but more than a few lost a very large percentage of their members. Most captives were killed and eaten; some—especially women and children—were enslaved. But often these also were eaten.

Some of the bones of the slain were saved, as further indignity, for making flutes, heads of bird spears, fish hooks, rings for captive parrots, pins and needles. Heads were sometimes thrown on a heap in a grisly ball game, occasionally they were impaled on the stockades of a pa. Heads of both friend or enemy, if belonging to great chiefs, were at times taken home and preserved. - National Library of New Zealand
Maori warrior photographed at the
Polynesian Culture Center on the
island of Oahu, Hawaii by Mary Harrsch
This made me wonder if the brain disease "kuru" (similar in symptoms to mad cow disease) was ever a recorded problem among the Maori but I could not find any definitive references.  I did find a post that said researchers are now questioning cannibalism as the cause of kuru in the Fore culture in Papua New Guinea anyway.  It seems that further research indicates kuru was apparently not present before contact with Europeans even though the Fore had practiced mortuary cannibalism for centuries. However, scientists point out that after the kuru epidemic reached a high point in the 1960s, kuru among the Kore pretty much vanished after cannibalism was eliminated.  So there appears to be at least some connection although the two factors may have been a simple coincidence. 

I had the opportunity to meet a Maori warrior when I visited the Polynesian Culture Center on Oahu, Hawaii in 1982.  Maybe someday I'll be able to visit New Zealand to learn more about this fascinating culture.

*Image of mere war club courtesy of the Maori Source

Maori   Maori myths & legendary tales   New Zealand Maori Culture Traditions and History   The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Maori Myth and Legend   An Intellectual History of Cannibalism   A History of Cannibalism: From Ancient Cultures to Survival Stories and Modern Psychopaths   Eat Thy Neighbour: A History of Cannibalism