Debate heats up on where tattooed heads rest

TOI MOKO: A computer generated image of the Maori head that was returned.
TOI MOKO: A computer generated image of the Maori head that was returned.

The return of sacred Maori remains is another step towards putting a barbaric colonial trade to rest, academics say.

But while they applaud the return, debate is heating up on where the tapu toi moko or sacred Maori tattooed heads will finally rest.

There are 101 preserved heads stored at Te Papa in Wellington. At least 50 are known to remain in overseas collections - though it is estimated up to 500 were traded to overseas buyers in the 19th century.

Manager of reparation Te Herekiekie Herewini said Te Papa hoped to begin the process of returning the heads and remains to hapu (tribes) over the next decade.

Herewini was part of a delegation who returned from Europe this week with three toi moko and skeletal remains or skulls from five other Maori.

Many of the toi moko, stored in non-acidic cardboard boxes at the national museum, are unidentified.

Tattoo specialists would study the distinctive moko designs to decipher which area they come from so they could eventually be returned for sacred burial, Herewini said.

DNA testing would be too invasive as a piece of the skull would have to be removed, he said.

Maori throughout New Zealand would also have to be tested due a narrow genetic gene pool. This would prove costly, he said.

However, some academics argue DNA testing would be a more effective and precise tool than relying on tattoo identification.

Waikato University Maori research professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku said the trade of Maori remains was barbaric.

The technology was now available to begin the process of laying upoko tuhi, as she refers to them, to rest with their family.

''There's people walking around the streets of Aotearoa, New Zealand, who have their blood, their genes, and that's really special.''

One of her Masters students recently completed a thesis on using tooth enamel for testing DNA.

History professor Paul Moon, from Auckland University of Technology, said using tattoos to determine the origins of toi moko can be challenging.

Entrepreneurial Maori reportedly bolstered the head trade by manufacturing heads in the 19th century.

''People were given tattoos quickly or even in some cases allegedly after they had been preserved,'' he said.

Enemy heads were also kept as war trophies and in other cases generic moko were used.

This could raise problems if trying to assign a particular design to any one tribe.

He agreed advances in DNA could  assist in identification.

The toi moko were created for three reasons: to remember a loved one; as a trophy of an enemy, or for trade.

''These heads were highly revered, they were ancestral heads. They may have been brought out on special occasion and considered very sacred,'' Moon said.

The heads were preserved by removing the brain and being stuffed with flax. It was then placed in an underground pit  similar to a hangi  to cook, before being dried.

Joseph Bank, who was travelling with Captain Cook in 1770, was believed to be the first to collect a toi moko.
However, the trade took off in the 1820s due to European interest in them as a collectors item.

By end of 1820s supply exceed demand and Europeans increasingly felt it was not right to collect human remains.

However, the toi moko remained on display in New Zealand until the 1970s when when Maui Pomare and Dalvanius Prime led a movement to remove them from sight and bringing them home from overseas collections.

Fairfax Media