The Origins of Moriori culture

The origins of moriori and the culture that they have and that they came from. Culture is everything.

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The Moriori are the indigenous people of Rēkohu (Chatham Island) and Rangiaotea (Pitt Island), the two largest islands in the Chatham group, 767 km south-east of mainland New Zealand. It was once believed that Moriori were a Melanesian people, but it is now thought that they share the same Polynesian ancestry as Maori people.

Current research also indicates that Moriori came to the Chatham Islands from New Zealand about 1500. Moriori traditions, however, hold that there were people on the island before the canoe voyagers arrived.

The Origins of Moriori, culture and moriori, the origins of moriori culture

The origins of moriori and the culture that they have and that they came from. Culture is everything.



The dawn of existence (Ko matangi-ao)


Moriori creation stories tell of how in the beginning Rangi (the heavens) and Papa (the earth) dwelt in darkness. As Rangi clung to Papa, the spirit Rangitokona arose and asked them to separate. They refused, so Rangitokona pushed them apart and propped Rangi up with 10 pillars, one above the other. This was his incantation:

Rangitokona prop up the heaven, Rangitokona prop up the morning. The pillar stands in the baldness of heaven, in the bare part of heaven. The pillar stands, the pillar – the pillar stands, the pillar of heaven.

Then for the first time there was light, and the world came into being. Rangitokona heaped up earth to make the first man, called Tū. This is part of the incantation:

… heap it in the waving of the tree, heap it in the pattern of the tree, heap it in the finishing of the tree, heap it, it grows; heap it, it lives; the heaven lives, e! Stem heaped up, stem heaped up, let the heaven stand which lives.

The descendants of Tū were numerous. The first group, called ‘heaven born’, spanned 30 generations. A group of ancestors spanning 26 generations came next. Then the ancestor Te Ao-mārama (the world of light) was born. His son was Rongomaiwhenua.


The ancestor Rongomaiwhenua

The name Rongomaiwhenua means ‘land god’ (and also ‘peace to the land’, and ‘song of the land’).

 Rongomaiwhenua had a brother, Rongomaitere (‘ocean god’), who according to tradition traveled to New Zealand, providing sailing directions for the return journey by later generations.

According to Moriori, the descendants of Rongomaiwhenua belonged to a race called Hamata.

They were described as ‘no ro hunu ake’ (sprung from the earth).

They were said to be very tall, and living on Rēkohu when the first visitor, Kahu, arrived.

In other theories they were descendants of Kahu’s crew or a previous migration.

The origins of moriori and the culture that they have and that they came from. Culture is everything.

Kahu, the first visitor

Kahu, captain of the Tāne canoe, was the first recorded arrival from Hawaiki – the homeland in Polynesia, which was also the origin of the Māori of mainland New Zealand. He found Rēkohu and its adjacent islands in an unsettled state, and is said to have joined up their disparate parts and anchored them in their permanent positions. He arrived at the south-west corner of Rēkohu, and left the canoe to travel on foot.

In some accounts Kahu met two people, Kahuti and Te Akaroroa, at Kāingaroa in the north. He planted fern root, and also kūmara (sweet potato), but found this would not grow. Disliking Rēkohu, Kahu returned to Hawaiki.

The migrations from Hawaiki

The first migration

In Hawaiki, the ancient Polynesian homeland, warfare escalated between the Wheteina and Rauru tribes. It was sparked off in part by a lovers’ spat, which ended in the death of one partner. This led to the hurried escape of the Wheteina people and their allies. The Rangimata and Rangihoua canoes were built during the fighting, but the Rangihoua was not completed before launching. Both canoes arrived at Rēkohu (Chatham Island), but the captain of the Rangihoua, along with most of the crew and their priest, died on the voyage. The canoe was wrecked on landing.

The Rangimata landed safely on the north-east coast of Rēkohu, and the crew planted kopi (karaka) berries at Wairarapa. They stopped at several points around the island and talked to the inhabitants, the Hamata people. The Hamata explained that their sealskin garments were much warmer than the migrants’ clothes. The Rangimata was finally wrecked at Te Awapātiki, but the remaining crew went to other parts of the islands and lived there peacefully.

The origins of moriori and the culture that they have and that they came from. Culture is everything.

The second migration

Moe, leader of the Rauru tribe, had been a youngster when the Rangimata and Rangihoua canoes set out. On reaching maturity (he was said to have ‘a bald patch on his head’) he captained the canoe Oropuke on a second migration from Hawaiki to Rēkohu. Before Moe left Hawaiki with his family and crew, his grandfather Horopapa told him to stop killing and live in peace.

On Rēkohu the tribes did live together for a time, but fighting broke out again and spread to Rangiaotea (Pitt Island). It is said that the conflict ended when Moe and his people were burnt in their huts at night. In other accounts Moe returned to Hawaiki, and yet another story says the Oropuke was wrecked on the cliffs of Rēkohu.

Nunuku’s Law

At this time, Nunuku-whenua, a high-ranking chief (said by Moriori to be one of the Hamata tribe and also related to Moe) forbade murder and the eating of human flesh. He proclaimed to the combatants, ‘From now and forever, never again let there be war as this day has seen!’ This covenant, known as Nunuku’s Law, was accompanied by Nunuku’s Curse: ‘May your bowels rot the day you disobey’.

The origins of moriori and the culture that they have and that they came from. Culture is everything.

After the conflict among the tribes in the Chatham Islands was resolved, Moriori lived peacefully there for over 600 years, developing a unique culture.


Rangiauria (right): Black Rock, as it is locally known is the Basalt column named after the island on which it is found. Rangiauria is the Island first settled by early Moriori.

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The origins of moriori and the culture that they have and that they came from. Culture is everything.