An ancient village in New Zealand

Ancient Arborists – The Maori

Ancient Arborists – The Maori

The Maori people, the original inhabitants of Aotearoa (New Zealand), have a long and profound relationship with their environment, particularly the forests that clothe the landscape. From the earliest times, trees and forests were central to their existence and their worldview, shaping their culture and communities in myriad ways.

Whakapapa – Genealogy of Life

For the Maori, trees are not just plants; they are part of an interconnected network of life, grounded in the concept of “Whakapapa,” which is the genealogical descent of all life forms from the gods to the present time. This deep belief positions trees as their ancestors, making the forest a living kinship group.

Village Design and Construction

Prior to European arrival, Maori villages, known as ‘pa,’ were primarily built using timber and other plant materials. These fortified settlements were often strategically located on hilltops, ridges, or peninsulas, with the natural environment playing a significant role in their design and defense.

The construction of these settlements involved advanced engineering and architectural techniques. Trees provided the primary construction material, and various types of trees were used for different purposes, based on their specific qualities. The Totara tree, for instance, was prized for its large size and durability, making it ideal for building waka (canoes) and whare (houses).

Art and Carving

The forests also provided the raw materials for the Maori’s sophisticated carving traditions. The Maori were renowned for their intricate wood carvings, which adorned their meeting houses, war canoes, and various tools. Each carving tells a story, often related to ancestral heritage or historical events, and the patterns used have specific meanings.

Forest as Pharmacy

The Maori people had an extensive knowledge of native plants and their medicinal uses. Many trees and plants were used for healing, either through consuming parts of the plant or using them topically. The Manuka tree, for instance, was used for its antiseptic properties.

Spiritual and Mythological Significance

Trees and forests also held a great deal of spiritual and mythological significance for the Maori. Each species of tree has a wairua (spirit), and certain trees were considered tapu (sacred). The Tane Mahuta, a massive Kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest, is named after the Maori god of forests and birds and is a sacred site.

The Maori’s relationship with trees and forests was not only practical and aesthetic but also deeply spiritual, reflecting a worldview in which humans are an integral part of the natural environment. This connection continues to shape Maori culture and identity, even in the face of significant changes over time.

Further Reading:
Interesting Facts:
  1. Whakapapa: For the Maori, trees are a part of the interconnected network of life. They believe in the concept of “Whakapapa,” which includes the genealogical descent of all life forms from the gods to the present time. This belief positions trees as their ancestors, making the forest a living kinship group.
  2. Construction Material: Different types of trees were used by Maori for various purposes based on their specific qualities. For example, the Totara tree was prized for its size and durability, making it ideal for building waka (canoes) and whare (houses).
  3. Carving Traditions: The Maori are renowned for their intricate wood carvings, which adorned their meeting houses, war canoes, and tools. Each carving tells a story, often related to ancestral heritage or historical events.
  4. Medicinal Uses: The Maori had an extensive knowledge of native plants and their medicinal uses. For example, the Manuka tree was used for its antiseptic properties.
  5. Sacred Trees: Certain trees are considered sacred in Maori culture. The Tane Mahuta, a massive Kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest, is named after the Maori god of forests and birds, and is a sacred site.
  6. Conservation: The Maori have a deep respect for nature and follow practices that ensure its conservation. Trees were harvested in a sustainable manner, ensuring that they would continue to provide for future generations.
  7. Spiritual Significance: The Maori believe that each species of tree has a wairua (spirit). This spiritual connection informs their interaction with trees, ensuring that they are treated with respect and reverence.
  8. Rongoā Māori: Rongoā Māori is the traditional Māori healing system, which included the use of native plants and spiritual healing. Trees played a significant role in this practice, with different parts of trees being used to treat various ailments.
  9. Flora in Mythology: Trees and plants also feature in Maori mythology and folklore. For instance, according to legend, the god Tane Mahuta created the first woman out of the soil and breathed life into her.
  10. Symbolic Uses: Trees and their parts were also used symbolically. For example, a leafy branch, or rau, is a symbol of peace in Maori culture. It was traditionally offered during negotiations or to signal peaceful intent.
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