OOS 37-4
Language patterns illuminate Maori ecological knowledge and cultural responses to the fauna

Thursday, August 14, 2014: 9:00 AM
306, Sacramento Convention Center
Priscilla Wehi, Landcare Research, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand
Hemi Whaanga, School of Maori and Pacific Development, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand
Murray P. Cox, Institute of fundamental Sciences, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Tom Roa, School of Maori and Pacific Development, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand

One of the last land masses to be settled by humans was Aotearoa/ New Zealand, when Polynesian voyaging across the Pacific resulted in Māori settlement in ca. 1250 AD. This relatively recent human history allows unprecedented opportunity to investigate how Māori ecological principles and practices have developed in response to environmental and societal challenges such as first settlement, faunal extinction events, and accelerating European colonisation after ca.1850 AD.

Māori culture has a strongly developed tradition of oral literature. Ancestral sayings (whakataukī) provide an enduring record of tribal memory and represent an important method for transmitting critical information about aspects of life and society. Nonetheless, their meanings may not be apparent without knowing the historical, cultural and linguistic context out of which they emerged. Such codified knowledge depends on language use and structure as a key mechanism for cultural transmission. We have used linguistic markers and the principles of textual historical reconstruction to derive time estimated patterns of ecological knowledge embedded in this form of oral tradition, and analyse evidence for developments in ecological knowledge and thought patterns. Our primary dataset of c.4,000 versions of ancestral sayings is drawn from collections published after European arrival ca. 200 years ago. 


Our findings provide new perspectives on ecological and archaeological data on resource use.  For example, although avian extinction risk on islands is often linked to body size (as an indicator of hunting intensity), references to large bodied birds do not occur disproportionately in the dataset. However, references to an extraordinary bird group, the moa (Dinornithiformes), occur both around time of extinction, and again after European arrival when they are used to warn of culturally significant loss. Other species disproportionately referenced after European arrival include the valuable domesticated dog or kurī, which disappeared during this period. We find that ecological observations dominate the early sayings. However both ecosystem function and social structures that can be linked to adaptive management and sustainable use are referenced more frequently in sayings from later time periods. We conclude that the ancestral sayings shed light on the connections between humans and their environment that transcend prosaic uses, and instead illuminate deeper social and behavioural engagement with their surrounding environment.