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Volume 10, 1877
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Art. VII.—On a peculiar Method of Arrow Propulsion as observed amongst the Maoris.

[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 1st September, 1877.]

While lately in the Upper Thames District, at Ohinemuri, I observed some Maori boys playing with an arrow. The peculiar method of propulsion arrested my attention, never having seen or even heard of the like before. The following is a brief description of the process:—

The arrow was about nine inches in length, shaped like a mustard-spoon, and roughly carved out of a piece of white pine (kahikatea). The shaft was square and contained a small notch about two and a half inches from the point.

The bow consisted of a piece of manuka, about three feet in length and half an inch in diameter, quite straight, but elastic. The string was attached to one end of this stick, the two together forming a perfect whip. A knot was tied at the end of the string, which was merely a common piece of twine.

The mode of propulsion consisted in—1st. Holding the arrow in the left hand; 2nd. Placing the string in the notch in the arrow; and 3rd. Whipping the arrow into the air, or at any desired object. The boys at play were, apparently, not very skilful performers, although one of them managed to hit a duck at twenty yards. When sending the arrow into the air a much greater distance was easily attained.

I have since made many enquiries into the matter in order to discover the origination of this peculiar method, but I have met with little success. The plan appears to be purely a native one, although I know of none similar among the inhabitants of the South Seas, Polynesians or Melanesians. In itself it is a harmless weapon, and how it happens that the Maoris—a section of the Polynesian race—should have thus allowed so useful a weapon as the South Sea bow-and-arrow to degenerate into a mere toy is to me a curious circumstance.

In the course of my enquiries, I believe that I have discovered a reason for cutting the notch in the arrow. It is well known that in olden days the Maoris launched their spears against a hostile pa by means of a whip similar to the one above described, and they were even able to hurl stones a long distance. In these instances the projectile was laid upon the ground and the end of the whip made fast round it, by taking one turn and casting back the little knot at the extreme end of the string. This sufficiently well fastened the whip, but immediately the jerk forward was given the string

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cleared itself; the weapon retaining the full force of the original impetus. A much greater distance could, I believe, be attained by this method than by hand-throwing. I have been shown two or three different ways of fastening the whip, but in each case, even when two or three turns were taken, the projectile cleared itself more or less readily. It, therefore, appears to me that the plan of notching the arrow was devised in order to avoid the necessity of taking a turn with the whip; a method more liable to foul. I have given such an arrow into the hands of a more southern native, who took little notice of the notch, but immediately made one turn round the shaft of the arrow as above described. I should also state that many natives to whom I have shown the arrow appear to have forgotten its use, but immediately I explained the matter they readily understood it.

I have deemed the subject worthy of being brought before the notice of this society, as it is one which should not be allowed to pass unrecorded. I have often wondered how it is that the aborigines of New Zealand should have made so little use of the bow-and-arrow, this being a weapon peculiarly suited to savage tribes, and, moreover, the familiar one of their ancestors. I believe that Maori tradition points to its use, but I have been unable to discover the existence of any such weapon even in our museums. It is also peculiar that the Maoris, ignorant as they appear to be of the ordinary bow-and-arrow, should still possess the strange method of propulsion above described. Whether the whip is an adoption of the ancient sling is a question. A similar method may exist among some of the inhabitants of the South Sea Islands, but I have not met with it. If it does, I trust it will be pointed out, as the ethnological analogy will be useful.

Mr. Colenso, in his able essay on the “Maori Races of New Zealand,”* makes no reference to the bow-and-arrow. That writer speaks of “long and short spears, and especially of bird spears,” which were very long, “some being upwards of thirty feet and made of the light-wood, tawa (Nesodaphne tawa). They also made darts with heads of light combustible materials; these they used in attacking a pa or village.” No mention is made as to the manner by which these darts were projected. I imagine by one of the modes hereinbefore described.

With regard to spears, I may mention that some of them could be projected a very long distance, fully 100 to 130 yards. The end of the spear was stuck lightly in the ground, the head pointing toward the desired direction. The whip was then made fast and the spear propelled. Such a spear would be about twelve feet long, made of a hard wood, with a large head and tapering end, polished by constant rubbing in a sand or gravel bank, first one end and then the other. This method of propulsion is very

[Footnote] * “Trans. N.Z. Inst.,” I.

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similar to the one mentioned, except sticking the end of the spear in the ground. I have also seen a native stick an arrow in the ground and then whip it into the air. As to the bird spears referred to by Mr. Colenso, I am only aware of one, viz, the “pigeon spear.” This was made out of a piece of rata vine 30 to 40 feet in length, and more resembled a stiff piece of rope than a spear, it being perfectly flexible, and could be easily trailed through a thick bush—a very desirable acquirement. The head of this spear was formed out of one of the human leg bones (fibula), both sharpened and jagged. The person using this spear would slowly raise it, balancing it as it swayed about, immediately under the bough of the tree upon which the pigeon sat, until the point came within a few inches of the bird, then by an upward thrust impaling it. So stupid is the pigeon that even now it will see its mate shot within a few feet of where it is sitting, perhaps on the same branch, and in many instances never attempt to fly away. A shorter hand spear may have been used when trapping the brown parrot. All these weapons, however, fell into disuse after the introduction of fire-arms some sixty years ago, which may account for the disappearance of the bow-and-arrow. I think a more extensive paper upon this subject would be of service. I have only endeavoured to record a curious method of propulsion which arrested my attention.

[Note.—See also Sir G. Grey in “Polynesian Mythology,” p. 157; Thomson, in “Story of New Zealand,” Vol. I., ch. VII; White in “Te Rou,” p. 116. Ed.]