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Volume 41, 1908
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Art. XXIX.—A Very Rare Maori Implement—-Ahao.

[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 3rd June,1908.]

Looking through the collection of Maori curios belonging to Mr. Wilson, of Napier, I spied this whalebone implement, shaped in all respects like an English marlinspike used by our sailors. Mr. Wilson gave me this history of its discovery: A man making a drain near Taradale brought it to him, covered with moist dirt. Archdeacon Samuel Williams, who had lived amongst the Maoris from very early European times, recognised it as a genuine Maori implement, and called it an ahao. An old Rangitikei settler told me he knew it—had seen one like it many years ago. Mr. Percy Smith recognised it as a genuine Maori curio, and believed it was called a kaneha or taneha. I left it with Mr. Skinner, of New Plymouth, a great Maori expert, to show to some old Maoris. Here is his letter:—

“Yesterday I met two old Maori friends and introduced them to your whalebone implement. They recognised it, and called it a purupuru. It is a genuine old Maori tool, and was used for caulking the holes made for lashing the topsides of a canoe to one another and to the body of the canoe. When the lashing was completed the hole was packed or caulked with raupo, or the fluffy material of the flower of the raupo. Considerable force had to be used in doing this, so as to make the canoe sea-going (watertight), and for that reason the whalebone tool was much prized, wooden ones not standing so long. This particular one they said was made from the jawbone of the sperm-whale, and was a good one—so good that they advised me to keep it and not let it go back to Wellington. The elder Maori Heta te Kauri is an acknowledged expert on all canoe and fishing business, so you can rest assured you have a genuine and valuable old Maori implement.”

I showed it to Archdeacon Williams, of Gisborne, who also recognised it. He had seen one exactly like it, but made of greenstone. This particular greenstone one was greatly prized by the Maoris. It was a sacred article, used by the priests in religious ceremonies: they passed it through the gills of fish offered to the gods, with many prayers. This greenstone ahao was used only for holy purposes.

Its Rarity.

This implement was found in Hawke's Bay, and Archdeacon Williams saw one of greenstone. It was used in Rangitikei and in Taranaki, and doubtless in many other districts. No specimen exists in museums, nor is it figured in Hamilton's great work on “Maori Art.” The greenstone one passed into the hands of Europeans, but its whereabouts is not known.

Its Structure and Ancestry.

The greenstone ahao must have been a great rarity even in old Maori days. Common ones were made of hard wood, but they were not strong enough for much hard work, and were only used when they failed to get the bone of a stranded whale.

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My ahao is 14 in. long. It is beautifully cylindrical in shape, smooth, and accurately rounded. About 3 in. from one end it begins to taper to a sharp point. Mr. Percy Smith noted that when it began to taper, and for some distance on, it is quadrilateral—gradually its sides lessening towards the point. He points to this four-sidedness as being the Maori way of tapering off. Had it been made by a European it would have begun to taper in the round. The diameter of the ahao is nearly ½ in. At about one-third of the length (starting from the butt) are two parallel circular lines about ⅓ in. apart. Rising from the butt to the first of these two consecutive circles are engraved eleven straight lines, not perpendicular, but slanting—a rare form of Maori carving, its meaning unknown to us, but, like all Maori engraving, certainly very ancient.

The fact that ahaos were used in Rangitikei, Hawke's Bay, Poverty Bay, Taranaki, and doubtless in other parts would tend to show that they had been in use from very remote ages: in fact, as there is, I believe, no single Maori work of art indigenous to aborigines in New Zealand, it probably was used, like all others, in the ancient fatherland, Hawaiki—it was probably a tool used by their Aryan forefathers in India. As our own Aryan forefathers in western Asia were the forefathers of the Maoris, before our ancestors went west into Europe and their fathers invaded north-west India, and thence spread to Indonesia and the isles of the Pacific, it is perhaps a prehistoric tool: hence this Maori ahao, and its exact counterpart the English marlinspike, may have had a common Aryan ancestral marlinspike. Nor is this idea far-fetched, for when I showed my beautifully carved Maori fishing-dredge or roukakahi to Colonel Whitney, who had never seen one, he exclaimed, “An oyster - dredge from the Severn,” and declared it was the identical dredge. Like the big wooden Maori trumpet used in temples in India and old French churches, like the nasal flute, the drums, the conch-shell, pan pipes, and hosts of other articles, this ahao probably goes back to the old Aryan times.

Its Names.

Archdeacon Samuel Williams called it an ahao. A Maori spelt it for me ahau. The word does not occur either in Williams's, or Colenso's, or Tregear's, or the Hawaiian, or Niue, or Mangarewa, or other dictionaries, which shows the instrument had nearly gone out of use. Hao in Maori = to do and round, to enclose, to shut in, to encircle as a fisherman draws in a net. This ahao draws together the gills of fishes, the top of a basket, and shuts in the contents. Hao is a word used for hard substances of bone; hahao = to put up in a basket; sao = to collect food; and totao = a sharp point. In Mangarewa ahao is to put into a basket, and taotaomu is a wooden implement used to collect fish out of a pond. Among the negroes of Assam, a closely allied race, dao is a sharp-pointed substance of wood or bone. In Niue a fish-spear was taohokaika; haohao is a fish with a beak, and pulu is cocoanut-husk. The Taranaki Maori expert, Kauri, called it a purupuru—-an instrument used for caulking purposes. Puru in Maori is a plug or cork—-to plug. In Mangaia puru is the fibre of cocoanut, used in caulking canoes to make them watertight. In Samoa bula (New Zealand Maori puru) is a kind of gum used as pitch in caulking canoes. It will be noticed that Maoris used their marlinspike exactly as did the English sailors—for caulking purposes. The European used tow and the Maori cocoanut-fibre or raupo; the European sailor used pitch, the Maori sailor used gum; and centuries

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ago both sailors used a similar implement to fasten planks together with cords. European and Maori sailors alike used it with its holes for reeving purposes.

As the various tribes of Maoris used the same instrument, it is clear that the names and the implement itself were known in the ancient Hawaiki. It will also be seen that its names ahao and purupuru refer to the two main purposes to which the tool was put.

Mr. Percy Smith recognised the implement, having known similar ones years ago. He thought it was called a kaneka or taneka, words which have not been preserved in Maori dictionaries, the idea being suggestive of the word “piercer,” which would suggest one of its uses. Aneane or aneha means “sharp-pointed.” A tao or kao is a sharp-pointed spear. Thus in the various Maori dialects this instrument was called by many names.

This paper, short as it is, embodies a considerable amount of research, I having ransacked much literature and consulted many experts in Maori lore, to many of whom the implement was quite unknown. I think this embodies all that will ever be discovered about the ahao.