Trading heads for guns through the Art of Moko, the Maori Tattoo

Firstly you need to know that Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand.  They made New Zealand their home several hundred years before any Europeans landed on the shores.  The Maori culture is filled with plenty of interesting aspects, but today I will give a lesson on one fascinating area, the moko, or Maori tattoo.

Moko tattoo

Moko tattoo

Moko, the Maori Tattoo Art

This art form has some roots in Polynesia and made its way to New Zealand around 1769 where it was considered highly sacred to Maori.  In Maori culture the head is considered the most sacred part of the body so it makes sense that this sacred style of tattoo was applied to the face.  It was common for men to cover their whole face where as women would just tattoo their chin, lips and nostrils.  Moko was a rite of passage, which meant it was highly revered and ritualized.  Only those of rank or status were allowed or could afford the moko.  The tattoos showed rank, social status, power, prestige and ancestry.  One interesting thing worth mentioning is that no two tattoos are alike.  Each Maori tattoo was one of a kind.

Female moko

Female moko

How to create Maori Tattoos?

A Maori tattoo artist is called the tohunga ta moko which translates to moko specialist.  These tattooists are highly respected.  They would study the persons facial structure to decide on the most appealing design.  Moko traditionally does not involve the use of needles, instead chisels made from shark teeth, sharpened bone or sharp stones were used.  Depending on the style the artist was seeking the chisel would either be plain and smooth or serrated.  Ink was made from natural products.  Burnt wood was used to create black pigments, while lighter pigments could be composed of caterpillars infected with a certain type of fungus, or from burnt kauri gum mixed with animal fat.


The experience was very painful.  To start off with, deep cuts were incised into the skin.  Next the chisel would be dipped into the pigments and tapped into the cuts.  Other styles of tattooing involved tapping the end of the chisel with a mallet.  The whole process took a long time and because it was very painful, a few parts were tattooed at a time and then allowed to heal.

The whole process had sacred rules and regulations around it including abstaining from sexual intimacy while undergoing the rite, avoiding solid food or eating with your hands and not talking to anyone aside from the others being tattooed.  Crying in pain was considered a sign of weakness and withstanding it was very important in terms of pride among the people.

Preserving the Moko head

When someone with moko died, it was common practice to preserve the head.  The eyes and brain would be removed and all orifices sealed.  The head would then be boiled or steamed in an oven before being smoked over an open fire and then dried in the sun for several days.  It was then treated with shark oil.  These preserved heads were called mokomokai and were kept by their families in carved boxes and brought out for sacred ceremonies.

As well as this the heads of enemy chiefs killed in battle underwent the same fate, but would be on display and mocked as well as used as symbols of power, conquest and protection.  However they would be important in negotiations of peace and were often traded back between tribes in these cases.

Mokomokai head

Mokomokai head

Once Europeans arrived in the early 19th century, tribes in contact with sailors, traders and settlers had access to firearms.  This gave certain tribes a huge military advantage over others.  This was the start of the Musket Wars and soon other tribes became desperate to acquire firearms too, even if it was only to defend themselves.

During this time mokomokai (the preserved tattooed heads) became commercial trade items.  The heads fetched high prices in Europe and America, so became a high commodity and the perfect item to trade for guns and ammunition.  The demand for firearms became so great that tribes would carry out raids on their neighbors to acquire more heads to trade with.  They even began tattooing slaves and prisoners as well as heads post-mortem in order to keep up with trade demands.  The peak trading years were from 1820 to 1831; after this demand died down because of market saturation.  Small scale trading did still continue after this for a number of years though.

 Where did the heads end up?

One of the most notable collection was that of Major General Horatio Robley who was a British army officer who served time in New Zealand.  During his lifetime he acquired between 35-40 heads.  Today 30 of these can be found in the Natural History Museum of New York.  Major General Robley also published a book; entitled Moko, which gave an extensive details on the process and meaning of Maori tattoo designs.

H.G. Robley with his mokomokai collection

H.G. Robley with his mokomokai collection

More recently there has been a campaign to retrieve the hundreds of mokomokai held in museums and private collections around the world and bring them back to New Zealand.  Here they will either be reunited with relatives or stored at the Museum of New Zealand.

So what do those swirls mean?

Not only was the moko a sign of rank, it also used as a kind of identification card.  These facial tattoos showed a persons accomplishments, status, position, ancestry and marital status.

The male facial moko or tattoo is generally divided into eight sections of the face:

  • Ngakaipikirau – the centre of the forehead – designated a person’s general rank
  • Ngunga – the area under the brows – designated his position
  • Uirere -The area around his eyes and nose – designated his hapu, or sub-tribe rank
  • Uma – The area around the temples – served to detail his marital status, like the number of marriages he had
  • Raurau – The area under the nose – displayed the man’s signature that was once memorised by tribal chiefs who used it when buying property, signing deeds and officiating orders
  • Taiohou – The cheek area – showed the nature of the person’s work
  • Wairua – The chin area – showed the person’s mana or prestige
  • Lastly, the jaw area or taitoto designated a person’s birth status

The sides of the face showed the persons ancestry.  Generally the father’s side on the left and mother’s on the right.


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