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Book Chapter

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Maori, Legal History


For the first three decades of the nineteenth century New Zealand remained untouched by outside law. Foreign contacts mostly involved visits by traders, whalers, and missionaries. The latter sought to discourage the Maori practice of tattooing (ta moko), while the former quite soon began to see opportunities for trade in preserved tattooed heads. Early accounts of New Zealand described these heads and their mode of preservation. Ob-servers noted that both the heads of enemy warriors slain in battle, along with those of deceased chiefs and others of high rank, were preserved. The process involved the removal of interior soft tissue and the repeated steaming of the head in an oven. Heads, which were filled with flax, were then exposed in the sun so that they completely dried out. Sometimes the preserved heads of enemies were used in the context of peace negotiations between tribes and might, as a result, be returned to their originating people. Heads of important chiefs were sometimes preserved, kept in sacred places and brought out for ceremonial purposes, while those of enemies were often reviled.

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