Rats: Telling the ‘tail’ of Maori voyages across the Pacific

The story goes that the Maori people came here in waka (canoes) from a land called Hawaiki. We don’t know for sure where exactly Hawaiki is – we know it’s somewhere in Polynesia – nor where the Maori peoples’ ancestors originally came from.

It is thought that people started to colonise ‘near’ Oceania around 40, 000 years ago, that is the area closest to Asia and Australia – New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. They gradually began to move east, into ‘remote’ Oceania – Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and beyond. Their progress was complex, slow, and involved lots of interactions with other populations along the way. This makes it hard to figure out exactly where the ancestors of Pacific people came from. Image

This map shows approximate Pacific migration routes and times. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A piece of the puzzle comes from an unlikely creature – the Pacific rat, kiore (Rattus exulans). Image

Wikimedia Commons.

Kiore came across the Pacific with the Maori people. The rats were probably brought deliberately, because they were a good source of protein. They are bigger than ship rats (Rattus rattus), and don’t carry disease, so they made for a good feed. The rats did well when they got to New Zealand, because there were plenty of animals with no defences to feast upon.

A study by researchers from the University of Auckland looked at the genetic history of kiore, as a way to gain a better understanding of where Maori ancestors came from. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down the maternal lineage of rats (from mother to daughter) without getting mixed up, like regular DNA does. The rate that mitochondrial DNA mutates is also very regular and predictable. These two features of mitochondrial DNA (that it is preserved from mother to daughter, and that mutations are regular) meant that scientists could look at distinctive sequences, to compare the relatedness of rats from different parts of the Pacific. Image

Wikimedia Commons.

Closely related kiore will have the most similar mitochondrial DNA, and mutations can be tracked back through generations, by comparing modern kiore DNA to that of ancient bones.

What they found was that the rats were from three distinct populations. This suggests that there may have been three groups of people, which may have interacted as they migrated around the Pacific.

We still don’t really know where the Maori people originally came from, but at least we have a rough idea of their migration paths from Asia to near Oceania, and eventually to their settlement in the remotest part of remote Oceania.

Pounamu: Treasure from the first quest to Middle Earth

When my dad was a kid he found these toki (adzes) in a paddock on his family’s farm in Western Southland. They are Maori tools, made out of Greenstone/Pounamu, a relic of pre-European settlement in the South Island. Image

Maori came down from the North Island to collect Greenstone for tool and jewellery making. The greenstone from the South Island was so important to them that they named the island after it – Te Wai Pounamu – Waters of Greenstone.

Expeditions for Pounamu involved traversing high mountain passes, walking hundreds of kilometres, and carrying huge amounts of heavy stone. They were really the first people to go on a quest for treasure through Middle Earth, and they didn’t have ponies or wizards to help them!

The Routeburn Track – one of New Zealand’s famous ‘Great Walks’, hiked by thousands of people each year – was originally formed as a Pounamu route from the West Coast to the much more inhabitable East.


The Humboldt Mountains, terrain traversed by Maori on Pounamu expeditions. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Pounamu was formed under intense heat pressure, 10km under the Southern Alps. The hot fluids and pressure caused a chemical reaction between greywacke (sedimentary rock) and dunite (volcanic rock), which produced narrow bands of pounamu. The uplifting forces that pushed up the Southern Alps also brought Pounamu to the surface. Erosion from water and glaciers has broken away the much softer surrounding rock to expose chunks of Pounamu. These rocks are rarer than gold, and much harder to spot. To the untrained eye, uncut and unpolished Pounamu looks just like any other rock.

In 1997, parliament declared all Pounamu in its natural form was now the property of the South Island Maori tribe, Ngai Tahu. Since then, they haven’t mined it, which means it’s pretty hard to get your hands on these days. The demand for it far outstrips supply, which has made it far more valuable than Canadian and Chinese Jade, meaning a lot of tourist souvenirs aren’t actually made from New Zealand Pounamu at all.

Traditionally, Pounamu was used for tools, as a symbol of chieftainship and also as a peacemaking agreement between tribes. Jewellery included Hei Tiki (made famous in the 90s, when Air New Zealand issued passengers Hei Tiki made out of plastic – at the time a cultural faux pas, but now considered a proud, kitsch symbol of Kiwiana).


A Pounamu Hei Tiki. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The origins of Hei Tiki aren’t really clear, but some say it is in the form of the first man, Tiki. Others say it is female or sexless. There have been a few instances where previously infertile women have given birth after being given Hei Tiki.

Today Pounamu is valued as a symbol of national identity by all New Zealanders, often worn as a pendant, like these ones of mine:Image

Kiwis around the world can be spotted wearing Pounamu, a small token to remind us of home.



The Maori version of events from the the Ngati Waewae iwi (tribe):

One day, the taniwha (supernatural being) Poutini comes to Tuhua (Mayor Island) in the Bay of Plenty. There, he sees a woman bathing – the beautiful Waitaiki. Enchanted, Poutini kidnaps her and takes her south. At various points along the way, he lights a fire to keep her warm.

When Waitaiki’s husband, Tamaahua, discovers she is missing, he pursues Poutini and Waitaiki. He is aided by a magic tekateka (dart) that shows him the way.

Wherever Poutini has lit a fire, Tamaahua finds a valuable source of stone. The journey takes him past the Arahura River on the South Island’s  West Coast as far as Piopiotahi (Milford Sound)

Finally Tamaahua retraces his journey back to the Arahura River. There, he discovers Waitaiki turned into smooth pounamu in the riverbed.

Poutini, sensing Tamaaha close behind, has transformed Waitaiki into his own essence. He has then slipped down the river and out to sea.

The Haka: Is it unfair?

Even the most humble kiwi can be reduced to a goose-bumped, watery-eyed, hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-necked patriot when watching the All Blacks doing the haka. There is something about seeing our team doing us proud with their passionate rendition of Ka Mate, which has even been known to captivate Aussies, Brits and South Africans.

Though some haka are war dances, they are more often a challenge to the opposition – a way of showing the enemy your strength and dominance. They can also be performed to honour or welcome people too, so they’re not all meant to be scary.

We can thank the All Blacks for bringing the haka to the international stage. Aside from honouring cultural tradition, there are biological reasons for performing it too. Supporters of the Wallabies and Springboks have pointed out (rather annoyingly!) that it gives the All Blacks an unfair advantage. How so?

Psychologically, it puts them in a position to intimidate the other team. They show the whites of their eyes, and make aggressive movements and stick out their tongues. Though this may sound ridiculous and not the least bit intimidating, if you had a 120kg guy built of pure muscle yelling in your face, then you would probably not be laughing.


Photo from here

This gives the All Blacks the upper hand right from kick off –  they have already told the other team who is boss, and the movement, crouching and jumping also help their muscles to warm up while the other team is obliged to stand still and watch.

Performing the haka triggers the release of the hormones testosterone and adrenaline into the blood stream, which triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. Their reactions become quicker, muscles poised to act, eyes widened to improve vision, and heart rate stepped up a notch, preparing them both psychologically and physically for the game. – Take note Lance Armstrong, no need for drugs when you can do the haka.

So yes (I can’t believe I’m saying this), the All Blacks definitely gain an advantage from it.

Some American football teams have picked up on using the haka as part of their pre-match preparation too. Though the cultural meaning of the haka surely has no significance for them whatsoever, they are obviously getting some benefit out of it. They aren’t allowed to perform it on the field (this violates field rules), so they do it in the changing rooms instead.


Photo from here

The idea of a team performing the haka on the other side of the world, with no knowledge of its cultural significance, yelling at no one but a brick wall is a bit stoopid. But obviously the biological benefits are enough to get them suitably fired up, so good for them.