Before the Europeans came to New Zealand, the Maori were the only people on the islands. The pre-European Maori were warriors, and it was common to find conflicts between tribes. Projectile weapons, such as spears or arrows, were almost never used. Instead, the Maori were involved in hand-to-hand combat.
Maori warriors began training for combat at a young age. They would train for years to build up the strength and skills that were necessary to serve as a warrior for their tribe. The young males knew the importance of training specific parts of the body, too, such as the wrists. To do so, they would use tools, such as Poi, which are traditional balls on long strings, to not only strengthen the wrists, but to also give flexibility to the joints. In addition to training these areas, the young boys would play games in order to improve their physical strength and stamina. One such game, ti rakau, was a traditional stick game where a line of people would sit face to face and throw sticks to each other in time with a traditional Maori song. “E Papa Waiari” is one such song that was good for these games as it had a good beat that the players could follow.
From youth, the training of war was one of the most important things to the Maori, and the use of weapons was only one of the important skills that the young warriors were taught. For instance, one important lesson was to learn to keep the eyes from moving from strategic points when in battle, such as the shoulder or the big toe’s point. They do this as they would be able to predict where the enemy would move by seeing the clinching of the toe. Though the warriors only had a split second to react, this time was enough to move out of the way. In addition, the twitch of the shoulder muscles signalled to the warrior that the enemy was moving to attack.
After many years of training their bodies and minds, as well as learning how to use weapons, the warriors were ready to enter the fray. To the Maori, the greatest honour was to die in battle, and their worst nightmares were filled with dying in their beds, as they considered that to be weak.
Most of the time, a Maori warrior would take two weapons into battle, a short, striking one and a long weapon, which allowed him to stand further away from his enemy.
Here are some of the weapons they used:
One of the main weapons that pre-European Maori used were patu onewa, which were made from basalt, which was a local resource. This was a hand weapon that was used to attack the upper body of an enemy by using a thrusting motion. These weapons were also used to hit the head as a mortal blow to a fallen enemy. You can view the patu onewa in person at the National Army Museum in the New Zealand Wars Gallery.
The patu parāoa was a pre-European weapon made of whale bone, which again, was a local resource for the Maori. This weapon was used as a club, and the warriors would attempt to hit their opponents shoulder in hopes that it will break or dislocate, causing them to drop their weapon. At this point, a blow to the head would be unopposed. You can view the whalebone patu in the New Zealand Wars Gallery at the National Army Museum.
The taiaha is another weapon used by the pre-European Maori, and it is the equivalent of the quarter staff. This weapon was a “weapon of authority,“ which was used by chiefs in both attacks and defence. The taiaha was used to distract an opponent thanks to the tufts of features that were placed around the neck of the weapon.
Maori warfare was almost always hand-to-hand combat, and it was a major activity for the Maori. It was an emotional and strenuous activity, but it was also full of ceremony and ritual throughout the process. There were major incentives for war for the Maori, and some of them included slavery, food and land. There was also revenge, which was an incentive for many Maori. You can see traditional Maori taiaha in the upper gallery of the New Zealand Wars Gallery at the National Army Museum.
Another pre-European Maori weapon was the mere pounamu. A mere is a basic thrust weapon that was used to target the vital points of the body, especially the head and ribs. Skilled Maori warriors would give horizontal thrusts to the temple, or target the ribs with an upward thrust. The mere pounamu was the most revered of all the Maori weapons, and some were even buried with the owner. Most, however, were passed along from one generation to another, along with the prestige of owning a weapon that a great warrior once held. Many meres were named, and the Maori believed that these weapons, over time, developed certain virtues. For instance, the famous Maori chief and war leader, Te Rauparaha, had a mere named “Tuhiwai,” and it was believed to be able to tell the future by changing its colour. You can see the collection of mere at the New Zealand Wars/Colonial Gallery, which is located in the upper area of the National Army Museum.
The wahaika was a pre-European weapon that was traditionally used in hand to hand contact. Wahaika, which means “Mouth of the Fish,” was mostly made from wood or whalebone. The wooden wahaika is often carved with intricate designs. These weapons have a concave back and have a carved notch on the edge of the back of the weapon. Many also have carvings on the reke, and many have carvings of small human-looking figures near the handle. The weapons were used in battle, of course, but also used in speeches and ceremony to accentuate the delivery of a particular point where Rangitira wanted people to pay attention. As with the other Maori weapons, the wahaika were used in hand-to-hand combat. The warrior would thrust the wahaika into the body of their enemy, and since the wahaika has a sharp edge, much harm could be done. You can see examples of these weapons at the National Army Museum in the Roimata Pounamu Memorial Area.
Here are some resources for more information about pre-European Maori weapons: