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Volume 30, 1897
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Art. III.—Did the Maori discover the Greenstone?

[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 24th November, 1897.]

From the geographical position, the extent, and the varied geological character of the New Zealand Archipelago we might naturally expect that the natives, who had occupied the country for about four centuries according to their own tradition, would have made some discoveries, or evolved some art, unknown to their relatives imprisoned in the little Polynesian islands; but when Captain Cook came amongst them the Maoris were dependent on wood and stone for their weapons and implements, though the islands abound in metals; they boiled water with heated stones, though clays of the very best description were procurable; and they had not made the slightest advance in the direction of spinning and weaving,

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though the climatic conditions of their new home compelled them to discard bark-cloth, and to clothe themselves with the warmer hand-made garments of Phormium and Cordyline fibre.

A close comparison of ancient New Zealand and eastern Polynesian art shows that the manufacture of greenstone articles is all that the Maori can exclusively claim. But did the modern Maori discover the greenstone and how to work it; or did they—as the Pelorus and D'Urville Island natives assert—obtain the knowledge from a people whom they found in occupation when they discovered the archipelago?

Though greenstone is not found in any of the eastern Polynesian islands or in Micronesia the inhabitants possessed a few articles made of it when Europeans first went amongst them. If the Maori came here from the Cook Islands, or the Society Group, they may have brought with them some of these articles, or a knowledge of them; but it is impossible that they could have been acquainted with the mode of working the material when they quitted Polynesia. In the manufacture of stone implements and ornaments the natives of eastern Polynesia did not excel, shell being much in use as a substitute. In Micronesia shell was exclusively used, though obsidian and other volcanic rocks were abundant. Unless Polynesian art had greatly changed between the advent of the canoe-men and the time when our knowledge of the region commences, the Maoris must have acquired their skill in working stone after they made these islands their home.

We have positive evidence of two very distinct periods in the history of New Zealand—the period of the pit-dwellers, and the modern Maori period, which virtually closed when Cook rediscovered the group. That the greenstone, and how to work it, was known to the ancient as well as the recent inhabitants is proved beyond question by numerous articles found in the Pelorus district, contiguous to pit-dwellings, and beneath the roots of large forest-trees. If the pit-dwellers, who occupied the country from the Bay of Islands to Otago, and from whose remains Judge Maning years ago concluded* that the islands had at some remote period a much larger population than Europeans found in them—if these ancient inhabitants were a distinct people, and not merely the Maori in an early stage of their history, we must accept the tradition of the Pelorus natives with regard to the greenstone.

When Cortez landed in Mexico the envoys of Montezuma, after presenting a quantity of gold and other valuables as a particular mark of their sovereign's friendship, gave him for

[Footnote] * “Old New Zealand,” by a Pakeha-Maori (Maning).

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the King of Spain four greenstones, which they informed him were worth more than as many loads of gold. These were the Chalchuites,* that could only be worn by nobles of the very highest rank. Being merely jade, they were regarded by the Spaniards as valueless.

In China jade is regarded with superstitious veneration, and commands a high price, though it is too plentiful to be considered a precious stone. Amongst the articles presented by the Emperor of China to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her jubilee was a jade ru-i, or sceptre, used by old ladies when receiving guests of ceremony. These sceptres are generally made of polished wood, inlaid with pieces of jade. In various parts of Europe jade implements have been discovered in burial-places of the Stone age. Central Asia being the only portion of the Old World where jade is known to occur, from the widely-scattered implements some archæologists have concluded it must have been an article of commerce, but to this others have objected that the transport of the stone to Europe necessitated long voyages which could not have been made by people in the rude condition the implements in question indicated. The history of the Pacific removes this difficulty. There we know that peoples unacquainted with the use of metal regularly made voyages which the Phœnicians, Greeks, and Romans would not have undertaken. How did the ancient inhabitants of New Zealand discover the jade or greenstone in the wild forest country of the South Island? Why, from amongst the countless varieties of rock the land affords, did they select it, make it a mark of rank, surround it with superstition, and take to burying it with their dead? There is but one possible explanation. A knowledge of the greenstone, the superstitions connected with it, the mode of working, and an idea of its value that made them seek it as we now seek gold, were imported from their former home.

Looking for this home, we naturally turn to the nearest place where jade is found—New Caledonia; here, as in New Zealand, when Europeans discovered the islands, the rude natives were manufacturing ornaments and implements of the venerated material. Here since have been discovered traces of a higher civilisation than existed at the time in any part of Polynesia. Evidently, then, there may have been a period in the history of the Pacific when even from Melanesia men went forth on voyages of discovery or to establish colonies.

In a note appended to my article “On the Pit-dwellings of

[Footnote] * Prescott's “Conquest of Mexico.”

[Footnote] † “The Long White Mountain,” H. E. M. James.

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the Pelorus District,” published in the “Polynesian Journal,”* the editors have pointed out that I laid too much stress on the Melanesian affinities of the Morioris. In an article on “Cremation among the Maoris,” published in the same journal, the writer, Mr. R. E. M. Campbell, makes the following remarks: “How much of the blood of the present native inhabitants of New Zealand is derived from the people who lived here before the arrival of the historical canoes, and how much from the conquering canoe-men? At present almost every Maori in New Zealand, except the Urewera Tribe, claim to have nothing but the bluest of blue blood, and quite deny any ‘tangata whenua’ admixture; but then we know that all England, so to speak, is descended from William the Conqueror—at least, so they claim. I think that probably most of the Maoris have more or less of the blood of those who came in the canoes, but that by far the greater portion is derived from those who preceded the canoes by many generations.”

If this view is correct, assuming that the ancient inhabitants of New Zealand and the Chatham Islands belonged to the same stock, between the Maoris and the Morioris there will not be a very marked difference. A comparison of the Maoris and the natives of the Cook and Society Islands would be useful. Were the Papuan characteristics more pronounced in the former? If they were there must have been a cause. Since the remote period when New Zealand was first peopled the distribution of races in the Pacific may have changed, but the physical conditions of the region are unaltered. What there is reason to believe took place here may also have taken place in New Caledonia, an art commenced by one people being continued by another.

Much is being done to determine the exact island from which the historic canoe-men set forth for New Zealand, but the more important questions—Did they on their arrival find the country already peopled? and, if so, whence came the earlier inhabitants?—have received very little consideration. It is with the hope of directing attention to this subject I have raised the question, Did the Maori discover the greenstone?

[Footnote] * “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” vol. 6, p. 53.

[Footnote] † “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” vol. 3, p. 53.