Early Rekohu

Early Rēkohu

The small group of islands some 800 kms south east of Wellington, today has a population of about 700 people, of Moriori, European and Māori descent. 

Rēkohu as it is known to the original inhabitants, the Moriori, has just two inhabited islands and a number of other smaller islands, rocks and islets. Rangihaute (Rangiauria, or Pitt Island) has just forty people living on it.

The islands are the home of the Moriori and they had lived here undisturbed for several hundred years until the accidental discovery by wayward Europeans in 1791


Historians tend to agree that the Moriori came to Rēkohu at around the  same time as the ancestors of modern Māori arrived in Aotearoa.

Most scholars and historians agree that Moriori came from the same place as Māori and that they developed their differences in language and tradition in isolation on Rēkohu.

The recorded stories claim that Moriori left their homelands of Hawaiki to escape the continual inter-tribal fighting there.

The conditions and the environment that Moriori lived in back in Hawaiki would have been much more pleasant than those they discovered on their new homeland of Rēkohu.

Speculation abounds about why they stayed in such a harsh and definitely colder setting. Rēkohu has no ‘large’ trees suitable for building ocean-going waka. Perhaps they were ‘marooned’ here and couldnt leave?

There is some evidence of a history of trade between Rēkohu and some parts of Aotearoa. (Obsidian from Mayor Island). Then again, there appears to be a definite history of isolation, and tribal lore indicates generations of isolation.

Ancient Moriori on Rēkohu killed only the old male seals and left no carcasses on the rocks, as this would deter the seals from returning.

But English sealers in the early 1800s pillaged and destroyed the island’s seal colonies, depriving Moriori of their main source of food and clothing.


At its peak, the Moriori population reached about 2000 – 2500 people.

The people belonged to nine tribes:

  • Hamata,
  • Wheteina,
  • Eitara,
  • Etiao,
  • Harua,
  • Makao,
  • Matanga,
  • Poutama and
  • Rauru.

To keep the population to a level that the environment could cope with, some male infants were castrated. To prevent the potential problems that could arise with inbreeding, marriage between first, second and third cousins was strictly forbidden.

Moriori society was egalitarian compared to that of other Polynesian peoples. Ieriki (chiefs) were chosen for their ability in a vital role, such as fishing or bird catching, rather than on the basis of heredity.

Killing was outlawed on Rēkohu and disagreements were settled with a ‘duel’ using slim staffs, but had to end immediately when the first blood was drawn. This law was known as Nunuku’s law.

This covenant of peace is central to Moriori philosopy and to break it meant loss of mana and ostracism from the tribe. That in itself meant certain death for the offender. To survive in the harsh conditions on these islands  required community co-operation.


The Moriori had weapons, such as taiha, spears and stakes and trained in the art of using them. Moriori had stone adzes, of varying shapes and sizes, some of which are as carefully crafted as any Māori greenstone adze, and many just as sharp and functional. Moriori also had lethal tools which were all used in the gathering of food.

The Moriori  had no real musical instruments, but did sing waiata, so in effect their musical instruments were their voices.

Children played games and adults gathered food, firewood and made the tools of the day.


Moriori developed a unique, but very effective method of sea transportation, by using flax and seaweed to construct their waka. There are no large, suitable trees on Rēkohu for making waka, so they used what they had at hand.

The seaweed, or bull kelp, was inflated and placed in the bottom of the framework of the waka. The framework was the wood from the harapepe, or flax. The idea was that the bladder of kelp gave buoyancy and the flax, stability. The unusual design meant that the sea washed through the craft, as it had no skin.

Some of these craft carried up to 70 people at a time.


The Moriori population decline began after contact with Europeans. When sealing gangs and whalers began to call at the Chathams, they bought with them diseases that the Moriori had never been exposed to and had no immunity for.  Simple illnesses, such as measles or chicken pox, may have killed many Moriori.

Whatever the cause, by the time Māori arrived in 1835, the Moriori population was around 1663. Check out this timeline of population here >>>

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