Maori cannibalism was widespread throughout New Zealand until the mid 1800s but has largely been ignored in history books, says the author of a new book released this week.
Paul Moon said his new book, This Horrid Practice, looked at the Maori tradition of eating each other in what was a particularly violent society before Europeans arrived in New Zealand.
Cannibalism lasted for several hundred years until the 1830s although there were a few isolated cases after that, said Professor Moon, a Pakeha history professor at Te Ara Poutama, the Maori Development Unit at the Auckland University of Technology.
He also said infanticide was also widely practised because tribes wanted men to be warriors and mothers often killed their female daughters by smothering them or pushing a finger through the soft tissue of the skull to kill them immediately.
He said the widespread practice of cannibalism was not a food issue but people were eaten often as part of a post-battle rage. Enemies were often captured and killed later to be eaten or killed because of a minor transgression.
“Rather than disposing of the body it was prepared to be eaten,” he said.
Part of the practice was also to send a warning to other tribes.
“One of the arguments is really if you want to punish your enemy killing them is not enough. If you can chop them up and eat them and turn them into excrement that is the greatest humiliation you can impose on them.”
Prof Moon said historians often said Maori were not cannibals and based their findings on European standards.
“The amount of evidence is so overwhelming it would be unfair to pretend it didn’t happen. It is too important to ignore,” said Prof Moon.
The head of the Maori Studies Department at Auckland University, Professor Margaret Mutu, who had not read Prof Moon’s book, said cannibalism was widespread throughout New Zealand.
“It was definitely there. It’s recorded in all sorts of ways in our histories and traditions, a lot of place names refer to it.
“It was part of our culture.”
She said Maori cannibalism was not referred to by many historians because it was counter to English culture.
“You will get your English-based historians who come out of an English culture who don’t understand it and avoid it because they don’t understand it.
“If you don’t understand it you’re risking misinterpreting it badly if you try to address it.”
Prof Mutu said she knew of no Pakeha historians who knew how to balance parts of the Maori culture they could not see an equivalent to in the English culture.
“If you don’t understand the things you are talking about you take one hell of a risk.”
She said Prof Moon did not understand the history of cannibalism and it was “very, very hard for a Pakeha to get it right on these things especially when they don’t know how to interrogate it from within the culture and interrogating it from within the culture means interrogating it from within the language.
“He is braver than I would be,” she said.