Land of the long, light - haired people?

Patupaiarehe were said to have lived deep in the forests on the high slopes of Taranaki and other mountains, only venturing out at night or on misty days.
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Patupaiarehe were said to have lived deep in the forests on the high slopes of Taranaki and other mountains, only venturing out at night or on misty days.

Patupaiarehe have been dismissed as simple fairy stories but, in Maoridom, they were and are, very real. Could they be the missing link in an intriguing mystery about travellers who may have stumbled on New Zealand even before the Maori?

Most cultures have myths and legends of strange, human- like beings who create mischief and mayhem for mortals. The Irish have their leprechauns, the Nordic people have their trolls and, in New Zealand Maori have Patupaiarehe.

These mysterious fair-skinned beings were known by various names, and stories about them are common in most tribal histories. They were said to have lived deep in the forests on the high slopes of Taranaki and other mountains, only venturing out at night or on misty days.

According to many traditional legends these people did not cook their food and could not tolerate sunlight. Sometimes, on still, foggy evenings, the Patupaiarehe could be heard playing their flutes and singing their strange, haunting songs.

Their language seems to have been a dialect of classical Maori and could be readily understood by speakers of Maori but people were warned not to listen or they would be spirited away.

Their songs were also very difficult for Maori people to remember but one melody has survived. It is recorded in Nga Moteatea by Aprirama Ngata and Pei Te Hurinui.

It is a sad song of farewell and includes references to people and events now long forgotten.

An example of Patupaiarehe dialect is also given.

In an early Journal of the Polynesian Society, a kaumatua, Hoani Nahe, wrote that some of the Patupaiarehe people living in the Waikato and Waipa regions were Ngati-Kura, Ngati Korakora and Ngati Turehu. Some of their leading men were named Tahurangi, Whanawhana, Nukupori and Te Rangipouri.

Hoani Nahe did not say if the names came from the Patupaiarehe themselves or if they were the names applied by the Maori people who discovered them.

He said the Patupaiarehe lived on Kakepuku Mountain near the Waipa River.

Pirongia Mountain was also a known stronghold of the Patupaiarehe in Tainui legends.

Further north, at present-day Raglan, the people still tell stories about the Maidens of the Mist, beautiful young Patupaiarehe women who would lure Maori men away to their high forest homes on Karioi Mountain, never to be seen again.

An ancient settlement also called Pirongia, in the Oakura Valley, between the Pouakai and Patuha ranges, is said to have been occupied by these mysterious people.

Patupaiarehe men were also said to have abducted unwary young Taranaki and Ngati Ruanui Maori women and those who eventually escaped back to their own people brought with them the arts of weaving and net-making.

It has been suggested that such stories may have been invented by infatuated young women or unfaithful wives on their overdue return home after an illicit passionate encounter with a lad from the next village. Be that as it may, it is interesting to note that, while most Polynesian cultures had some form of cloth-making, Maori were the only Polynesians to weave in precisely the same manner as early European cultures.

While they did not use a loom, the cords were woven together to form a fine cloth very like ancient Irish linen. This was long before any known European arrivals in New Zealand.

Captain Cook, on his first visit to New Zealand in 1769 also noted that "the natives used nets woven exactly like our own".

He had seen many other fishing nets in Polynesia but had not made such a comparison.

The children of Patupaiarehe men and Maori women, and their descendants were, and still are, known as Urukehu, which translates roughly as light-haired. They were different to Albino Maori, who were known as Korako in some regions.

Most myths and legends have some founding basis of fact and there are many theories, from the almost credible to the bizarre, about the origins of these and other early people in New Zealand.

It is only Pakeha academics, however, who worry about such detail but we can be reasonably certain that there were people here when the first Polynesians, who became today's Maori, arrived about 1000 years ago. We will probably never know who they were and there may well have been many accidental arrivals in New Zealand over hundreds of years prior to the arrival of eventual successful Polynesian settlers.

If there were, the people either did not survive or departed again, leaving only very faint clues behind. Most seem to have been earlier Polynesians who were absorbed by intermarriage or exterminated in fighting.

Others, like Patupaiarehe, seem to have been fair-skinned non- Polynesians who may have been driven into the high mountain forests by the more warlike Maori.

One of the most fascinating recent discoveries was made by palaeontologist Dr Richard Holdaway in the late 1990s, who found fossil kiore, or Polynesian rat, remains which he has aged at about 2000 years old. Kiore are poor swimmers and could only have travelled from the Pacific to New Zealand with people aboard some canoe or ship.

Beyond that, the information is tantalisingly minuscule.

Patupaiarehe have been dismissed as simple fairy stories but, in Maoridom, they were and are, very real and only disappeared after the arrival of Pakeha and the destruction of their forest homes.

It is said that, in some very remote forests, a few survivors may well still exist.

* TOM O'CONNOR is an author, journalist and historian with a special interest in New pre-European Maori and early European settlement. He retired from front line journalism in February 2008 to record the history of D Company 28 Maori Battalion, finish a series of novels on the life of Te Rauparaha and start on a new novel based on early New Zealand whalers.

Taranaki Daily News