Show Mobile Navigation
Facts |

10 Facts That Might Surprise You about the Māori Culture

by Jessica Fleming-Montoya
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

If New Zealand is your dream destination, knowing about the Māori people will help you greatly in understanding the country, its history, and its way of life.

Being one of the island nation’s longest inhabitants, the history of the Māori will give you a glimpse of life in New Zealand before civilization.

But, despite what the history books might have you believe, there’s more to the Māori than meets the eye. If you want to know more about the true secrets of their culture, keep reading—this guide will teach you ten obscure pieces of trivia about the Māori people of New Zealand.

Related: 10 Ancient Rituals That People May Not Know Much About

10 The Māori Weren’t the First Ones in New Zealand

The Forgotten Genocide of New Zealand | Maori Warriors, Moriori, New Zealand Wars

The Māori may be one of the oldest tribes in New Zealand, but they were not the first ones to arrive. Between 1000 and 1600, an earlier group, the Moriori, set sail from New Zealand’s South Island and inhabited the Chatham Islands.

The islands were practically uninhabitable to humans, but this didn’t stop the Moriori from living there. They tried their best to adjust and adapt to the environment—even their clothing, diets, and military practices had to be changed.

Their lives remained this way for a hundred years until the Māori arrived and changed everything. The Māori only wanted violence by killing the Moriori, taking over the territory, and even enslaving most of them.

Even more macabre, cannibalism became common practice—it was another way for the new tribe to get rid of the Moriori. They’re definitely not a group you want to mess with![1]

9 You Can’t Visit a Marae without an Invitation

Pōwhiri – Welcome ceremony at marae, Te Puia, Rotorua, New Zealand

A marae is a sacred meeting ground exclusively for the Māori people. These communal houses contain educational and religious facilities and spaces where the people of the tribe can socialize, eat, and sleep.

A marae is also a place where the Māoris can connect with their spiritual ancestors. Frequently, a carved face can be found at the front of the building. These are known as Koruru carvings, and they represent the tribe’s ancestral leaders. The ancestors’ arms are long beams with fingers or raparapa on their ends. The beams are supported by amo or legs, which support the entire building.

If you wish to enter a marae, you will need a personal invitation from a member of the tribe. A traditional powhiri ceremony must take place to be officially welcomed by the people of Māori.

The ceremony starts through wero. It’s an act by the Māori warriors that challenges the guests. Don’t be alarmed by this because it’s not a scary event. The entire ceremony usually consists of the guests singing with the Māori people. At the end of the event, accepted guests receive a token before finally entering the marae.[2]

8 The Māori Have Their Own Religion

The Māoris have historically recognized different gods and spiritual deities. But during the late 1820s, the people of the tribe began to change their religious lives, moral practices, and political thinking. It was also during this time that they began to adopt Christianity following the arrival of missionaries from Europe.

During the mid-1840s, more Māori attended missionary-led church services. And today, the Anglican Church, Te Hāhi Mihinare, has the largest Māori denomination. However, Māori Christians have their own unique ways of practicing the religion.

Some of the commonly-recognized traditional spiritual beings of the tribe are the following:

  • Lo—The supreme god
  • Papa and Rangi—The two parents
  • Haumia—God of uncultivated food
  • Rongo—God of agriculture and peace
  • Ruaumoko—God of earthquakes
  • Tawhirimatea—God of weather
  • Tane—God of forests
  • Tangaroa—God of the sea
  • Whiro—God of evil and darkness

Those might sound a bit strange to us today, but plenty of Māori still believe in spirituality today![3]

7 Warriors Colored Their Tongues Blue for Battle

Hundreds of Maori warriors in battle haka

It’s no secret that the Māori tribe was home to many great warriors who consistently engaged in battle.

If you happen to see one in one of the trending YouTube videos on your feed, you’ll notice that they routinely stick their tongues out in a frightening grimace, a traditional tactic used when facing their opponents. Māoris sticking their tongues out represents bravery and challenge.

This tactic shows their opponents they are ready to fight ruthlessly to defeat them—demonstrating ferocity in this manner is a surefire way to intimidate foes.

But why do the warriors paint their tongues blue during battle? For most, blue is a sign of peace and tranquility. Māori warriors have their own understanding of the color, painting their tongues blue to signify their longing for peace instead of countless battles.

So don’t be too scared if you’re greeted by a blue-tongued fiend these days![4]

6 Māori Isn’t Just a Single Language

Te wiki o Te Reo Māori || Comparing the Māori language🇳🇿🇨🇰

When discussing the Māori language, remember the long history of the tribe. The people of Māori did not natively inhabit New Zealand—they traveled from Polynesia during the 14th century.

And it was only during the 19th century, when the Europeans settled in New Zealand, that caused the language of the Māori people to splinter into numerous variations of the Polynesian languages.

Due to centuries of geographic isolation, the people of Māori had no external influences. This was why they had a unique language with various dialects emerging between different areas in New Zealand.

While the primary language is Te Rao Māori, this tribe has three main dialects. These three dialects are:

  • North Island Eastern Dialect
  • North Island Western Dialect
  • South Island Dialect

However, only the North Island Eastern and Western dialects are alive and in use today. Also, younger Māories have found a way to combine various dialects together, especially in urbanized areas.[5]

5 Māori Tattoos Weren’t Made with Ink

Exploring New Zealand’s Ancient Tattoo Identity | Needles & Pins with Grace Neutral Episode 4

Before the European settlers arrived in New Zealand, Māori tattoos, or tā moko, were not inked. In fact, the tattoo designs were directly carved into the individuals’ skin.

This tattooing method used special broad-toothed combs with different chisel blades. Tattooing is considered sacred for the Māori tribe, especially facial tattoos. The chisel blades were dipped in a blackish pigment. Using tā or small mallets, the entire comb is struck repeatedly into the person’s skin. Pigments used were usually soot made from burning white pine or kahikatea.

Another interesting aspect of these tattoos is that no two are the same. This stems from the principle that individuals are unique in their wisdom, lineage, and stature in the tribe.

So if you ever find someone with a Māori tattoo, it pays to ask what the meaning is. You never know what you might uncover![6]

4 Māori Didn’t Originally Have a Written Language

Māori studies expert shares ‘significant’ history of how Te wiki o te reo Māori came to be

Prior to contact with European settlers, the Māori had no written language. Words about the tribe’s history were only passed down orally or in carvings.

During the first half-century of the European settlement, the best way to communicate was by using the Māori language. If the people wanted to engage in trading, they had to learn to speak it.

But as the settlers’ presence increased, written communication became a need. 1814 was the first year when Māori missionaries attempted to write the tribe’s language. 1820 was the year the language was systemized, thanks to a professor at Cambridge University.

It was also the same year when missionaries in New Zealand taught each other how to write and read in the Māori language. They would use materials like leaves, charcoal, and carved wood, and without access to paper, they would use cured skins from animals.

Of course, today, the language has been anglicized. As a result, you’ll now find Māori written in the usual ways. There’s no animal hide to worry about these days, though[7]

3 Māori Recipes Are Passed Down from Generation to Generation

Breads of the Creative Cities: Jackson’s Rewena Bread

Before the implementation of written language, the recipes of this tribe were passed down orally. What’s even more fascinating is that many of these recipes are alive today.

A perfect example of this is Rewena bread. This unique bread originated from Māori tribes and is one of their traditional recipes passed down between generations. If you love sourdough bread, you’ll also love Rewena. It’s a potato sourdough loaf that uses fermented potato rather than yeast, making the bread firmer. For the best experience, eat Rewena hot with jams or butter.

If you visit New Zealand, you can find Rewena bread in most bakeries. But, if you want the true experience, make sure to swing by Jackson’s Rewena Bread in Whanganui. This bakery serves Māori-style Rewena, using the recipe from the owner’s great-grandmother.[8]

2 Captain Cook’s First Landing Wasn’t Well-Received

Captain James Cook: The World’s Most Famous Explorer

Captain Cook’s arrival at the Māori’s settlement started off rough. In 1769, one of Cook’s men shot Te Maro, a leader of Ngāti Oneone, in an unfortunate cultural misunderstanding—what was a ceremonial challenge for the locals was thought to be an attack by the Europeans.

Luckily, this wasn’t the end of the story. Despite the rough start, the Europeans and the Māori were able to make peace. Just one day after the shooting, Captain Cook and Tupaia, a priest, conversed with the locals in a peaceful and diplomatic manner. The locals greeted Cook by giving him a hongi, a sacred rock. The greeting marks one of the most important early interactions between the Māori and the Europeans.

Although there are some political tensions between the Māori and Pakeha today, you’ll find those first peaceful beginnings have left a lasting impact on the culture.[9]

1 They Had a Unique Burial Process

The body lies in state – a traditional Maori funeral

One of the most unique things about the Māori actually has nothing to do with the people who are alive and well today. Instead, it has to do with a sacred tradition regarding the dead! Tangihanga was one of the major burial practices for the Māori.

The body of the deceased is smeared with oil and red ochre, and then it would be sat upright. The body’s arms are wrapped around the legs, while the knees are tucked beneath the chin. After being set in this position, the body is covered using cloaks and mats. It would then be placed inside the meeting house for several days, where the community can bid farewell.

After the initial ceremony, the body is buried in a shallow grave or cavern. Several days to weeks after, the body is exhumed, and the bones will undergo washing and scraping. Additional mourning ceremonies will also occur in the Marae, while the bones are buried in secluded places.

You’ll still find Māori practicing this tradition today. Although, there are also plenty of Western-style burials that go on.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen